NoleGameday

2016 Season Preview: Defensive Line

Photo by Logan Stanford

Since Jimbo Fisher took over as head coach at Florida State, he has seen some great players along the defensive line.

Brandon Jenkins. Tank Carradine. Bjeorn Werner. Timmy Jerningan. Mario Edwards Jr. Eddie Goldman.

All of those players were drafted and have played in the NFL. The defensive line has been one of the biggest strengths on Florida State’s defense, especially the dominant 2013 line that limited Auburn’s rushing attack in the national championship game and helped deliver FSU its third title. Both Fisher and defensive coordinator Charles Kelly have done an amazing job at recruiting talent to Tallahassee and then developing it when it arrives on campus.

But even though Florida State has seen some great players come and go on the defensive line, the 2016 defensive line might be one of the best that Fisher has seen under his tenure as head coach.

Florida State returns nearly 100% of its production along the defensive line from last season. Of the four primary positions along the defensive line, FSU has three starters returning. Although Florida State will miss the play of graduated seniors Nile Lawrence-Stample and Giorgio Newberry, they have plenty of blue-chip players waiting in the wings to take over their roles.

In Florida State’s 4-2-5 (or nickel) defense, they will primarily play four defensive linemen on most downs. These four players are the defensive end, the defensive tackle, the nose guard/tackle, and the BUCK linebacker. Of those four positions, FSU returns starters at defensive end, nose guard and BUCK linebacker and only need to replace Nile Lawrence-Stample at defensive tackle.

The leader of Florida State’s defense (if not the team as a whole) is senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44). Walker came to Florida State as a four-star recruit and quickly worked himself into the rotation as a freshman and sophomore and even started in the Rose Bowl versus Oregon. He was named a full-time starter at defensive end prior to the 2015 season and had huge expectations to live up to with the departure of Mario Edwards Jr. to the NFL.

But boy did Walker shatter those expectations.

As a junior, the 6-4, 280-pound Walker posted one of the best seasons out of a defensive linemen under Jimbo Fisher. He started all 13 games and finished with 58 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, one interception, five pass breakups, four forced fumbles and a blocked kick.

Wow.

Walker revitalized the pass rushing situation, posting 10+ sacks for the first time since 2012. He quickly became known as a force off of the edge in the ACC, dominating offensive tackles and making tackles for loss consistently. While Walker isn’t an athletic freak by any means, he is technically sound and very strong. This makes it tough for offensive tackles to move him around. More often than not, Walker impacts the play just by holding his ground and either setting the edge on run plays or pushing the offensive tackle back into the quarterback on pass plays.

Now a senior, Walker passed up the chance for an early entree into the NFL Draft in order to return to Florida State. While Dalvin Cook might be the heart and soul of this year’s team, Walker is most certainly the vocal leader. According to practice reports, Walker is not afraid to get after his teammates if they line up wrong or run the wrong assignment.

Walker is almost certainly among the best defensive ends in the ACC, if not college football as a whole. There is a very good chance that Walker posts another 10+ sack season on his way to being an early draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Unfortunately, there is somewhat of an unknown quantity behind Walker at defensive end. Right now, Adam Torres (67) is penciled in as Walker’s backup at the position. A former defensive tackle, Torres lost weight and shifted over to end in spring practice. In the spring game, he showed flashes of potential but was overall very average. Another option is former tight end-turned-defensive end Jalen Wilkerson (84). Wilkerson was recruited to Florida State as a tight end, but rumors swirled that the coaching staff always wanted him to play defense. After a redshirt year, the rumors were confirmed when Wilkerson began practicing at defensive end over spring. However, Wilkerson is still very raw at the position and should not be counted on to make a major impact in 2016.

The most interesting name might be Keith Bryant (95). The 6-2, 274-pound redshirt junior has mostly a bust ever since arriving to Florida State as a blue-chip recruit out of the 2013 recruiting class. A former defensive tackle, Bryant switched over to end in spring practice and was having an outstanding offseason according to Fisher. Unfortunately, he broke a bone in his foot and was forced to sit out for most of spring practice. If he can return healthy, he might become Walker’s primary backup at defensive end.

Opposite of Walker is a superstar in the making.

The tale of Josh Sweat (9) is known by all Florida State fans.

The former No. 1 high school recruit in the nation, Sweat suffered a serious knee injury his senior year of high school and was not expected to make an impact during his first year on campus. Despite early enrolling, many thought that Sweat would have to redshirt. Jimbo Fisher himself even stated that he did not expect Sweat to contribute.

But Sweat isn’t human.

He returned from his knee injury at an insane rate that would have made Wolverine jealous. Sweat played from the beginning, quickly established himself as a key contributor and ended up starting 10 games at the BUCK linebacker position as a true freshman. Despite perhaps not fully recovered from the knee injury, Sweat racked up 41 total tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and three fumble recoveries.

Not bad for someone coming off of a dislocated knee and several torn ligaments.

There is major hype surrounding Josh Sweat as he enters his sophomore season. He played last year at around 230-pounds, which was reasonable seeing as he did not lift weight when recovering from his injury. This year, Florida State lists him at 250-pounds and he looks every bit of that.

When Sweat was the No. 1 recruit in the nation, several analysts threw out a comparison of Jadeveon Clowney. It is easy to see the similarities. They are both around the same height, have the same insane burst and even sport the same dread lock hairstyle.

If Sweat can regain the insane burst off the ball that made him the top recruit in the nation, then the sky is the limit for this kid. As a true freshman, he was one of Florida State’s best run stoppers, despite only being 230-pounds. With Walker commanding most of the attention on the other side, Sweat should see plenty of one-on-one pass rushing opportunities in 2016. It wouldn’t be a surprise for Sweat to rival Walker’s sack numbers in 2016.

Backing up Sweat is junior Jacob Pugh (16). Despite being recruited to Florida State as a linebacker and being listed as one on Florida State’s official roster, Pugh has mostly played a pass rusher role during his first two years on campus. He had an impressive true freshman season, most notably versus Notre Dame when he nabbed a pair of interceptions, but his production somewhat declined as a sophomore. He had opportunities for sacks in key game situations, most notably versus Georgia Tech and Boston College, but missed them.

Despite Sweat firmly cemented as the starter at BUCK, Pugh should still see major snaps in 2016 as a pass rusher. He only had three sacks in 2015, but could be in line for a bigger junior season with teams focusing on Walker, Sweat and a certain safety that sometimes lines up at defensive end in passing situations.

Florida State has done a phenomenal job at recruiting pass rushers and it was no different this year. Janarius Robinson (11) was a blue-chip recruit who was in for spring practice, but was sidelined because of surgery. At 6-4, 249-pounds with room to add more weight to his frame, he could be the future heir to defensive end when Walker departs. However, he is still very raw as a pass rusher and will definitely benefit from the tutelage of Brad Lawing.

The other true freshman on the roster is Brian Burns (99). Despite being listed at 6-5, 218-pounds per Florida State’s official roster, Burns looks 15-20 pounds heavier than that in the most recent spring photographs, which is a good thing. Burns is a very good pass rusher and will most certainly see snaps this year in pass rushing situations.

But while Florida State has some great talent on the edge, the interior is where all the beef is.

It starts with junior Derrick Nnadi (91).

Pound-for-pound, Nnadi is perhaps the strongest player on Florida State’s roster at the moment. Reports coming out of spring workouts say that Nnadi is routinely embarrassing offensive and defensive linemen in the weight room. His strength also shows up on the field. Nnadi anchors the interior of the defensive line at the nose guard position, routinely eating up double-teams from centers and guards.

Nnadi finished the years with 45 tackles, two tackles for loss and a pair of sacks, but his role was so much bigger than just his stat line. Nnadi’s presence in the interior, forcing teams to double team him, opened up a lot of space for other defensive linemen and linebackers to work with. While Nnadi might not have made every play in the run game, he forced a lot running backs to change direction simply because offensive linemen couldn’t move him out of the way.

That’s who Nnadi is: a people mover.

You don’t move him, he moves you.

The other presumed starter next to Nnadi is redshirt sophomore Demarcus Christmas (90). Christmas and Nnadi were actually in the same recruiting class, but Christmas was able to take a redshirt during his first year on campus. Christmas is largely an unknown quantity at this point, but he still has played quite a bit in rotational duties.

Jimbo Fisher was not shy in his praise for Christmas on National Signing Day in 2014, calling the Bradenton product, “the best player in the country.” While we can probably take this with a grain of salt, Christmas was not a big recruiting entity like some other recruits were. Once he got his offer from Florida State, he committed to the Seminoles and shut down his recruitment. He did not attend many big camps, so he did not rise up the recruiting rankings like other prospects did. Although he did end the cycle as a four-star recruit, one has to wonder if Christmas was actually closer to a five-star talent like Fisher claimed.

Christmas is in a great situation this year. With Nnadi taking up most of the attention from interior offensive linemen, he will see a lot of one-on-one situations. The 6-4, 308-pounder has shown the ability to be a pass rusher and could be the interior pass rushing presence that Florida State has missed ever since Timmy Jernigan left.

The primary backup to both Nnadi and Christmas will be sophomore Walvenski Aime (94), whom we can just call “Wally” for short. The junior college recruit showed up on campus for spring practice and proceeded to impress both coaches and fans for his play in the spring game. Aime showed a great motor and pass rushing abilities in the spring game. It’s no wonder that teams like Alabama and Auburn desperately wanted Aime at the end of the recruiting cycle. He would be a stater for most college teams around the country, so Florida State fans should consider themselves lucky that Aime is on the roster this year.

One player that has far exceeded expectations set for him is redshirt sophomore Fred Jones (55). The nephew of Florida State legend Marvin Jones, Fred was not a highly ranked recruit in high school. In fact, his only other offers coming out of high school were Western Kentucky and FCS Fordham. But the coaching staff saw something they liked in Jones and took a chance on him.

Three years later, their gamble seems to have paid off. As a redshirt freshman, Jones was a primary rotational player at defensive tackle, ending the season with eight tackles and a tackle for loss. He is penciled in as Christmas’ backup at defensive tackle and should see major snaps in 2016. The 6-3, 298-pounder has exceeded expectations so far in his career and will continue to do so this season.

Florida State’s depth at defensive tackle is one of their biggest strengths. Even after names like Nnadi, Christmas, Aime and Jones, the Seminoles still have plenty of big bodies to take snaps. Darvin Taylor II (86) redshirted last year due to injury, but should see game time as a redshirt freshman. Local product Cedric Wood (49) enrolled for spring and showed up to fall practice in great shape. Redshirt sophomore Arthur Williams (12) is perhaps the largest player in the position group at 6-4, 327-pounds and could take some snaps as well. The final name on the list is Justin Shanks (92), a redshirt senior who has been a non-contributor during his time on campus so far.

The depth on defensive line is one reason why many analysts are picking Florida State to win the ACC and compete for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Outside of a certain college in Tuscaloosa, there are not many schools that can boast depth on the defensive line like Florida State can. Plus, having superstars such as DeMarcus Walker, Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi certainly helps as well.

When all is said and done, this defensive line might be the best that Jimbo Fisher has ever seen during his time at Florida State.

Dakota Moyer
Florida State student and writer for NoleGameday.

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