2016 Season Preview: Defensive Backs

Photo by Logan Stanford

Not many teams across the landscape of college football could boast about having a defensive back drafted fifth overall and say that their defensive backfield might be even better next year.

But that might be Florida State’s situation in 2016.

Despite losing superstar Jalen Ramsey to the NFL, Florida State’s defensive backfield is certainly in good shape. Jimbo Fisher and Charles Kelly have recruited defensive backs very well over the past couple of years and they will be replacing Ramsey and safety Lamarcus Brutus with blue-chip talent that have had time to sit and learn the system.

In Florida State’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the ‘Noles will usually employ five defensive backs on the field at a time. They will have two true cornerbacks (labeled either field or boundary depending on their defensive assignment) two safeties and one STAR player (a hybrid safety/linebacker). Of those five players, Florida State already has two players that are locked into starting jobs.

The first is senior cornerback Marquez White (27). White plays field cornerback, meaning he covers the receiver that is split out on the wide side of the field. A former basketball player, White earned the starting job last season and started all 13 games at the field cornerback position opposite of Ramsey. He had 25 tackles, two tackles for loss and one interception on the year.

While Ramsey got all the attention last year from national analysts and draft scouts, White was quietly one of the better cornerbacks in the nation. He is a very athletic player and had no problem covering some of the best receivers in the ACC one-on-one. He was conspicuously absent from the Thorpe award watch list, an interesting note that prompted White to lash out on Twitter.

Fortunately for White and Florida State, he should get a lot of attention from draft scouts during his senior season. It is easy to see the basketball background on his film as he is very fluid in transition and has no problem running routes with receivers. He is a luxury for Florida State’s defense and will have a great chance to improve his draft stock with a strong senior season.

The other starter is Derwin James (3).

A five-star prospect coming out of high school, James exploded onto the national stage as a true freshman in 2015 and completely obliterated the standard for all safeties at Florida State from here on out. He is the definition of a freak athlete and it seems at times like he was made in a laboratory.

James didn’t start at strong safety for FSU until halfway through the season but finished second on the team with 91 total tackles. Oh, and he also added 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles.

He did all that as a true freshman safety.

There isn’t much that can be said about James that hasn’t already been said. The 6-3, 211-pounder is Florida State’s best defender and might be the best overall defensive player in the nation. He would have been a Top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft if he were allowed to declare as a true freshman and Florida State should be thanking their lucky stars that he is required to stay on campus for two more years.

James is great at everything he does. He was Pro Football Focus’ second ranked safety in 2015, behind only Duke’s Jeremy Cash. He displayed great coverage abilities, having the physicality of a linebacker with the flexibility of a cornerback. He might already be Florida State’s best pass rusher and routinely embarrassed offensive tackles. While James did not record an interception last year, he caused two forced fumbles and recovered two more. A smart man would bet on James picking off a couple of passes in 2016 as well.

For your viewing pleasure, here is true freshman Derwin James throwing Florida redshirt senior tackle Mason Halter into the abyss (via @Cinefunk).


But enough of the Derwin James talk, let’s move onto the positions that aren’t solidified in the defensive backfield.

For one, Florida State needs to find a replacement for Ramsey at boundary cornerback. The boundary cornerback covers the receiver who is lined up on the short side of the field, or the receiver that is closer to the boundary. Typically, boundary cornerback is a harder position to play than field cornerback because offenses will scheme throws toward the receiver closer to the quarterback. Ramsey dominated this position in 2015 and will likely play for a long time in the NFL.

Currently, there are two players competing for this job in 2016: Tarvarus McFadden (4) and Marcus Lewis (24). Both sophomores, each saw limited time on the field as true freshman but were tabbed early on as competitors for the boundary cornerback job.

McFadden is a former five-star product from Florida powerhouse American Heritage and has the length and size (6-2, 198-pounds) that coaches want at the boundary position. While many recruiting analysts thought that he would have to move to safety due to his size, he has shown that he is capable of staying at cornerback due to his flexibility and coverage abilities. He was impressive throughout spring practice and in the spring game and certainly looked comfortable covering large receivers such as Auden Tate.

On the other hand, Lewis was a late addition to Florida State’s 2015 recruiting class and was somewhat forgotten as a true freshman. While many assumed that McFadden would just be handed the starting job, Lewis has put up a fair fight and actually might be the favorite to start at boundary cornerback at this point in time. The 6-1, 190-pounder showed in the spring game that is capable of matching up one-on-one with talented receivers when he blanked Travis Rudolph throughout the game.

Regardless of who wins the boundary cornerback job, the other player will still see major snaps. While Florida State’s base defensive package is a 4-2-5 look, they will also run a lot of dime (4-1-6) in 2016 as well because of the amount of spread offenses on their schedule.

Backing up the cornerbacks will be a pair of true freshman. Carlos Becker III (15) and Kyle Meyers (37) were both important members of the 2016 recruiting class and will have an impact later on in their careers at Florida State. But because of the amount of talent in the defensive backfield, both will likely play backup roles as true freshman. Junior Malique Jackson (28) is another backup as well.

Florida State also needs to find another safety to start next to Derwin James. They lose Lamarcus Brutus, who was not the most athletic player on the roster but rarely made mistakes and led the team in interceptions as a senior. Luckily, there are several former blue-chip players who have a chance to make an impact.

The first name on the list is junior Trey Marshall (20). Marshall started at the STAR position in 2015, but he suffered an season-ending injury midway through the year. Listed at 6-0, 210-pounds, Marshall has the physicality that Florida State wants from its safeties and has shown flashes of good coverage abilities as well.

Two other names are Calvin Brewton (10) and A.J. Westbrook (19). While neither were highly-regarded recruits in high school, Jimbo Fisher has shown a knack for turning three-star players into multiple-year starters. Both are listed at 6-0, 186-pounds and are smaller players than perhaps some other names in contention for the free safety job. Westbrook is a name to keep an eye on, as he showed some good things in the spring game.

Finally, Nate Andrews (29) seems like he has been on Florida State’s roster forever. The former three-star recruit has shown flashes of playmaking ability and has been one of the more exciting players to watch over his collegiate career. He led Florida State in interceptions in 2013 as a true freshman and earned a starting job in 2014.

However, he lacks good coverage abilities and was benched in favor of Brutus in 2015. He was moved to more of a dime role in 2015 and excelled at times. Andrews is at his best when his eyes are on the quarterback and he is allowed to make a play on the ball in the air. He struggles when he is matched up one-on-one against receivers and routinely gave up big plays because of this when he was a starter.

While Andrews is the most experienced player of the bunch, it is likely that one of Marshall, Brewton or Westbrook will be lining up next to Derwin James when Florida State plays against Ole Miss. Another interesting option is the loser of the boundary cornerback job (either McFadden or Lewis). Because Florida State relies on their safeties matching up in man coverage against receivers at times, McFadden or Lewis’ coverage abilities might be beneficial to their play at safety.

Last, but not least, Florida State needs to find a new starter at the STAR position. Perhaps the most important position on the defense, the STAR position is a hybrid linebacker/safety role that also incorporates elements of a nickel cornerback. The STAR covers slot receivers, plays the run, and blitzes off of the edge among other duties. Both Lamarcus Joyner and Jalen Ramsey excelled at this role and set the standard for what it should be played at.

Trey Marshall started at STAR to open 2015, but lacked some of the coverage abilities that allowed it to be played at its highest potential. But the most interesting name for this position might be true freshman Levonta Taylor (1), a player who many have labeled the next superstar defensive back at Florida State.

Listed at 5-10, 169-pounds per Florida State’s official roster, Taylor has drawn many comparisons to Lamarcus Joyner (now with the Los Angeles Rams) both for his size and the way he plays the game. Despite being a shorter player, Taylor plays like he is five inches taller. He showed in the all-star circuit that he is capable of matching up against both shifty slot receivers and attacking the ball against taller receivers.

Taylor might not start from day one at the STAR position, but it is likely that he will see major snaps at the position as a true freshman. Much like Ramsey and James before him, Taylor is just too talented to keep on the bench. The coaching staff will find a place for him to start sooner rather than later.

Despite losing Jalen Ramsey to the NFL, Florida State should field an excellent defensive secondary in 2016. They return Derwin James, perhaps the best overall defensive player in college football, and a stud cornerback in Marquez White. As for the positions that need new starters, blue-chip players will be competing to fill those roles. After fielding one of the top secondaries in college football in 2015, Florida State might be in line to be the best in 2016.

Dakota Moyer

Florida State student and writer for NoleGameday.

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