2016 Season Preview: Linebackers

Photo by Logan Stanford

There’s a reason that Florida State fans often refer to the linebacker unit as the “Defense Against the Dark Arts” position on defense.

In the Harry Potter series, Hogwarts always seemed to have the worst luck with their hires at the Defense Against the Dark Arts position. One time a teacher was actually a werewolf. Another time, a teacher had the face of He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named embedded on the back of his head. At the end of every school year, Professor Dumbledore always had to search for a new DATDA teacher due to an unforeseen circumstance.

Florida State seems to be having the same problem at the linebacker position.

The problem isn’t recruiting linebackers and getting them on campus. In fact, Florida State has been one of the best teams across the nation at recruiting linebackers. Since 2012, the coaching staff has signed 16 linebackers, 12 of which were blue-chip recruits. The ‘Noles have also signed at least two linebackers in each of their classes since 2012.

Keeping linebackers eligible, on campus and healthy has been the problem for Florida State.

Since 2012, three linebackers have transferred out of the program. Another was dismissed for a violation of team rules. One suffered a severe ankle injury and is still recovery. And one more, a five-star recruit, has struggled to stay healthy and eligible.

Linebacker is the one position where there is major cause for concern on the defense. Both the defensive line and secondary are loaded with proven starters and quality backups. Linebacker, on the other hand, always seems to be the position unit that has been the weakest link.

Ever since Telvin Smith departed the program after the 2013 season, Florida State has struggled to place two quality linebackers on the field. Remember, Florida State only plays two linebackers (MIKE and WILL) at a time in their 4-2-5 system. Their two major starters over the past two seasons, Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup, were good, but not great players. Smith was a solid option, but struggled to stay healthy as a junior and senior. Northrup was a major liability in coverage but was forced to play major snaps even after suffering a torn ACL in the Rose Bowl.

Because Florida State has had such bad luck at the linebacker position over the past couple of years, Smith and Northrup were really the only two options at the position in both 2014 and 2015.

There was a time when Florida State’s linebacking corps was considered amongst the best in the nation. Even after Telvin Smith graduated and moved onto the NFL, Florida State still had names like Ukeme Eligwe, Kain Daub and E.J. Levenberry on the depth chart. All of them were blue-chip recruits and had promising futures in the garnet and gold ahead of them.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out as planned.

Ukeme Eligwe was dismissed for a violation of team rules. E.J. Levenberry, despite getting major playing time on the 2013 defense, elected to transfer. Kain Daub had major conditioning and discipline issues and transferred out. Tyrell Lyons was a solid contributor in 2014, but missed all of 2015 due to injury and transferred out. Lorenzo Phillips was a promising junior college recruit in 2015, but mysteriously ran out of eligibility after just one season. Most recently, Keion Joyner was a talented blue-chip recruit in the 2016 class, but failed to qualify academically and is heading to a junior college.

But while Florida State has had bad luck in the past, there is plenty of reason for optimism looking ahead.

For one, Florida State’s defensive system is not overly reliant on linebackers. In their 4-2-5 scheme, only two linebackers (MIKE and WILL) will see the field at any given time. Florida State will also rotate one of those linebackers out in many instances when they shift to a 4-1-6 defense (one linebacker, six defensive backs) to counter spread offenses. With many notable spread offenses such as Louisville and Clemson on Florida State’s schedule this year, the ‘Noles will play a lot of 4-1-6 in 2016.

Very rarely will Florida State display a true 3-4 look (three down linemen, four linebackers) that their “official” depth charts lists them as. Florida State will only run this defense when facing a pro-style offense with two backs or two tight end formations. South Florida and Florida are two teams that may run these concepts.

With seven scholarship linebackers on the roster, Florida State is well suited for a rotation at only two linebacker spots. Plus, the amount of time they will spend in the 4-1-6 look means that the ‘Noles will be able to rotate plenty of fresh bodies in at any time.

Another reason for optimism is that Florida State returns some pretty talented linebackers in 2016.

One starter spot is already locked down by Ro’Derrick Hoskins (18). The 6-2, 240-pound redshirt sophomore started six games last year at the MIKE position, finishing with 52 total tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. A three-star recruit out of high school, Hoskins was somewhat of an afterthought during his first two years on campus but took a major step forward when his number was called in 2015.

Because of injuries and other reasons, Hoskins was forced into starting duties last year. He handled the pressure well and played even better. He showed good coverage abilities and an even better awareness in the run game. While he isn’t an elite player by any means, Hoskins is a solid starter and should take on an even bigger role as a junior.

The other starter at linebacker will be Matthew Thomas (6).

Yes, that Matthew Thomas.

Thomas’ up-and-down career at Florida State has been well documented by both local and national media. A five-star recruit out of high school, Thomas was the No. 8 recruit in the nation in 2013 and the No. 2 outside linebacker behind only Jaylon Smith. He signed with Florida State over offers from schools such as Alabama, Florida, Miami, Auburn, USC and Georgia.

However, it didn’t take long for the controversy to begin. Shortly after National Signing Day, Thomas requested a release from his letter of intent, saying he wanted to enroll at Georgia or USC. In the end, Jimbo Fisher personally met with Thomas and his family and convinced the five-star recruit to come to Tallahassee.

Thomas had a promising start to his career, notching couple of tackles for loss in backup duty, but was sidelined for the rest of the 2013 season after shoulder surgery and was granted a redshirt. After missing several weeks of practice at the beginning of 2014 for what Jimbo Fisher called an “ankle injury,” Florida State finally announced that Thomas would be suspended by the NCAA for the first half of the season. Several media outlets reported that his suspension stemmed from a failed drug test at the national championship game.

Thomas ended up playing in eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2014, starting three of them. But he was never fully healthy due to a shoulder injury he suffered. He needed total reconstructive shoulder surgery following the season and was expected to miss most, if not all, of the 2015 season. Ultimately, it did not matter because Thomas was ruled academically ineligible for the 2015 season anyways.

So now, as a redshirt junior and four years after he originally enrolled at Florida State, Matthew Thomas is finally ready to make an impact for the Seminoles.

If he is healthy and eligible, there is no question that Thomas is Florida State’s most athletic linebacker. As a recruit, he was praised for his sideline-to-sideline play as well as his ability to rush the passer. He has displayed both of those traits, albeit in a small sample size, during his limited time on the field. At times he looked like the best linebacker on the field in 2014 and showed flashes of an elite level of play.

Matthew Thomas, or the “Unicorn” as fans have been calling him, could be the X-factor in Florida State’s pursuit of a national championship. While Hoskins and the rest of the linebackers on Florida State’s roster are good players in their own right, they do not have the elite athletic ability that Thomas possesses. He has the potential to transform this Florida State defense, that finished amongst the best in the country last season, to the best overall defense in the nation in 2016.

In the end, Thomas needs to stay on the field first and foremost. He is a year removed from major shoulder surgery and did not show any signs of the injury during the spring game. Even though Thomas was suspended for the season, it seems as if he did not forget to put in time in the weight room and looks to be in great shape as well. He is also, at the moment, academically eligible for the season, which is a huge accomplishment for a person who has had many major life events occur off-the-field as well.

There are plenty of people that will be rooting for Matthew Thomas to succeed, from fans to coaches to his family back in Miami. He is penciled in as the starter at the WILL linebacker position and looked great in the spring game. With a solid bounce-back season, Thomas could certainly declare for the 2017 NFL Draft and begin his professional football career as well.

Matthew Thomas has all the talent in the world, but will this be the season he could put it all together?

So while Hoskins and Thomas have the starter spots locked down, Florida State still returns plenty of talented linebacker to back them up.

The first name on the list is Jacob Pugh (16). Pugh was recruited to Florida State as an outside linebacker, but has played primarily the BUCK position (hybrid defensive end/linebacker role) during his first two years on campus. He spent 2015 as Josh Sweat’s backup at BUCK and is penciled in there again in 2016. However, the junior has shown the ability to play standup linebacker in the past, most notably in 2014 versus Notre Dame when he grabbed two interceptions, and could play some there in 2016 if necessary.

A player who might be flying under the radar is true sophomore Sh’Mar Kilby-Lane (30). The 6-2, 219-pound former blue-chip recruit played primarily on special teams last year but will likely have a bigger role in the defense this season. He will be the primary backup to Hoskins at the MIKE position and, like Brown, will see major snaps in 2016. The former blue-chip recruit is a hard-hitter and should be dependable in coverage as well.

The next name is Josh Brown (51), a talented true freshman who enrolled early for spring practice. He was very impressive in spring practice and showed a lot of versatility as well after being primarily a pass rusher in high school. Listed at 6-3, 216-pounds per Florida State’s official roster, Brown played very well in the spring game and showed that he is capable of playing either the MIKE or WILL positions. Brown will play major snaps in 2016 and will definitely be a huge contributor for the defense, despite being a true freshman.

Two more true freshman are Dontavius Jackson (5) and Emmett Rice (56). Jackson was a major recruiting win for Florida State out of Texas and is a classic middle linebacker at 6-2, 259-pounds. He is a down-hill thumper first and foremost and should be a primary special teams contributor in 2016. Rice is a smaller player at 6-2, 203-pounds but has drawn comparisons to Telvin Smith in his limited time on campus. Like Jackson, Rice should see time on special teams as a true freshman. Both have bright futures, but will likely be rotational players in 2016.

The last scholarship linebacker on Florida State’s roster is Delvin Purifoy (46). A former blue-chip recruit, many had high hopes for him coming out of high school. Unfortunately, Purifoy suffered a serious ankle injury before his true freshman season, similar to Jacobbi McDaniel’s ankle injury, and has not played so far in his two years on campus. For reference McDaniel’s injury took two years to heal and he was never the same player afterwards. There is hope that Purifoy could recover from his injury, but he is not expected to contribute much in 2016.

So while Florida State’s linebacking corps have experienced back luck in the past, there is plenty of reason for optimism moving forward. Ro’Derrick Hoskins is a solid starter, Matthew Thomas has the potential to be an elite playmaker and Florida State has quite a few capable backups as well.

For the longest time, linebacker has been a weakness on Florida State’s defense.

Now, for once, it might be a strength.

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