2016 Spring Preview: Linebackers

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* = early enrollee Bold indicates a returning starter

UPDATE: Florida State secured the commitment of four-star inside linebacker Dontavious Jackson (#TBA) on National Signing Day. A native of Texas, Jackson should compete for playing time right away and has a realistic chance at starting at either of the linebacker positions in FSU’s 4-2-5 defense come September.

UPDATE: Florida State has released the official 2016-17 roster and confirmed that Lorenzo Phillips is no longer a member of the team. He was listed as a junior on last year’s roster, but it seems as if he has exhausted his college eligibility.

The Seminoles will enter 2016 with big question marks at the linebacker position, one of the most polarizing positions on Florida State’s roster. With the departures of seniors Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup, Florida State will have to rely on underclassmen and players returning from injury to step up and fill the void left by those two players. While the Seminoles have a lot of recruiting talent on the roster at linebacker, very few have seen meaningful playing time and fewer have been asked to start for Florida State.

Luckily, Florida State will return one starter in 2016. Redshirt junior Ro’Derrick Hoskins (#18) saw major playing time last year and even started a couple of games for the Seminoles before injuries sidelined his season. Next year, Hoskins will be asked to become a major contributor for the defense and the leader of the linebacker corps. Also returning will be fellow redshirt junior Tyrell Lyons (#22). Lyons, who sat out last season after suffering a torn ACL in fall camp, is listed on Florida State’s roster as a defensive back, but has primarily played linebacker in his two years on the field.

Florida State will also return Matthew Thomas (#6), who sat out last season due to a violation of NCAA rules. Thomas’ career in Tallahassee has been an up-and-down affair. After initially signing with the ‘Noles in 2013 as a five-star recruit, he changed his mind and wanted to sign elsewhere before Jimbo Fisher and the coaching staff convinced him to stay. He had a good start to his true freshman campaign in 2013 before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. In 2014, an NCAA suspension due to a failed drug test kept him out until mid-season, but he returned to become a key contributor at linebacker. Thomas made three starts in 2014 once he returned, but ankle and shoulder injuries severely limited him and he needed to have shoulder surgery following the season. Florida State wasn’t really counting on him returning healthy in 2015, but he was ruled ineligible per the NCAA anyways.

Thomas is the big X-factor going into 2016 at the linebacker corps. If he’s healthy and eligible, Thomas is the best linebacker on Florida State’s roster. He’s big, physical, and has flashed some playmaking ability in the limited snaps that he’s had when 100% healthy. So far, Thomas has not lived up to his five-star billing but 2016 is likely a year where Florida State will rely on him being a playmaker at linebacker.

Also returning are sophomores Delvin Purifoy (#45) and Sh’Mar Kilby-Lane (#30). Purifoy was a member of the highly-touted 2014 linebacker class, but suffered a serious ankle injury in his first year on campus and has since been recovering from it. If healthy, 2016 would be the first time he has seen the field since high school. Kilby-Lane, a true sophomore, was primarily a special teams contributor in 2015 but should push for playing time at either of the two linebacker positions.

Another factor that has to be considered heading into 2016 is moving Jacob Pugh (#16) back to linebacker. Pugh, a junior, has primarily played the BUCK position, essentially a rush linebacker, in his two years on campus, but has also shown the ability to drop back into coverage if needed. Florida State fans will remember the Notre Dame game in 2014 when Pugh snagged two interceptions after dropping back into coverage. With sophomore sensation Josh Sweat all but locking down the BUCK position moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Charles Kelly and the defensive coaching staff move Pugh back to a more traditional linebacker role in 2016.

Florida State currently has three linebacker recruits committed for the 2016 class. Josh Brown (#TBA) is an early enrollee and a player that could possibly play either the BUCK position or true linebacker. He is listed at 6-3, 215 lbs. per Florida State’s updated roster so getting him in early and started on a college weight program is a bonus for his development. Also committed are Keion Joyner (#TBA) and Emmett Rice (#TBA), who will both enroll in the summer. Joyner has the best size out of the three commits (6-4, 220 lbs.) but has also expressed his desire to rush the passer in college, so he’ll also get a look at the BUCK position as well. Rice is the lowest ranked recruit, currently a three-star recruit per the 247 Composite, but has drawn many Telvin Smith-comparisons for his physicality and the huge tackles that show up on his highlight film. With the news that Lorenzo Phillips is no longer eligible, Florida State will likely look to get one or two more linebacker commits in this class.

If Thomas can stay healthy and other players return from injury, there’s a lot to like about this linebacker group. Hoskins is likely a starter at one of the two positions and Thomas has the inside track at the other. Perhaps the best factor about this group is the depth heading into 2016. Lyons, Purifoy, Kilby-Lane all have at least one year in the program and Florida State will likely bring in a good freshmen class as well. While there might not be any superstars in this group like in year’s past, there’s a lot to like about them going forward.

Dakota Moyer

Florida State student and writer for NoleGameday.

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