NoleGameday

Florida State vs. Alabama: Defense Comparison

On Tuesday, we compared the offensive attacks that will be on display in Atlanta. Now, it’s time to shift over to the other side of the ball.

Florida State and Alabama are both projected to field two of the top defensive units in the entire country during the 2017 season. In fact, many analysts expect the play of the defenses to be the talk of these two teams match up on Saturday. They are both favorites over the opponents offense and the one who makes more mistakes will put their side in jeopardy.

Defensive Ends

FSU: Josh Sweat, Brian Burns, Jalen Wilkerson, Janarius Robinson, Joshua Kaindoh, Tre Lawson

`Bama: Da’Shawn Hand, Isaiah Buggs, Raekwon Davis, Josh Frazier, Quinnen Williams

Advantage: FSU

The Seminoles return two of the top defensive ends in the nation in Josh Sweat and Brian Burns. Sweat has made 19 starts over his two years in Tallahassee. He finished his sophomore campaign with 41 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 7 sacks. All seven of his sacks came in the final eight weeks after the season which is a good sign that his health is finally on the up. Sweat missed the Louisville game in 2016 due to a meniscus surgery.

Burns was a terror of his own last year as freshman. He finished the 2016 season with 24 tackles and 9.5 sacks, the most in the country by a freshman. Burns seasons culminated with him being named a freshman All-American. Sweat and Burns have both continued to improve over the offseason and throughout Fall Camp. Expect them to be dominant off the edge.

Remember, FSU linebacker Jacob Pugh also will be in the defensive end position as the buck linebacker in some formations. Behind the experience of those three, the `Noles have prospects such as Wilkerson, Robinson, Kaindoh and Lawson. Wilkerson and Kaindoh probably have the best chances to play early as both have impressed during Fall Camp. Robinson has the potential to be a solid backup while Lawson is a redshirt candidate.

Alabama returns Da’Shawn Hand, who was a key reserve for the Crimson Tide last season. However, they lose both of their starters at defensive end in 2016 to the NFL in Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson. Hand recorded 21 tackles and two sacks last year. Allen and Tomlinson combined for 131 tackles and 13.5 sacks in 2016-17. Buggs was one of the top JUCO prospects in the nation and should be solid, but it’s clear that there will be a talent drop off, at least to begin the season.

Davis projects to be a top reserve but he’s questionable for Saturday’s game after sustaining a gunshot wound at a Tuscaloosa bar last season. We probably won’t know his status until closer to kickoff. Frazier is another solid reserve and also held that role in 2016. Williams redshirted last season and will get his shot in the rotation.

With two proven studs in Sweat and Burns, it’s hard to argue against the Seminoles defensive ends.

Defensive Tackles

FSU: Derrick Nnadi, Demarcus Christmas, Wally Aime, Fredrick Jones, Marvin Wilson, Cedric Wood, Ja’len Parks, Cory Durden

`Bama: Da’Ron Payne, Josh Frazier, Johnny Dwight, Phidarian Mathis

Advantage: FSU

Florida State also returns one of the top interior defensive line duos in the country. To keep it simple, this defensive line is stacked, and should challenge to be the top defensive front in college football. Nnadi turned down the NFL to come back and win a National Championship with the Seminoles in 2017. He recorded 49 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks last year. The stats don’t even tell the story as Nnadi was absolutely suffocating on most run plays. He routinely requires a double team, which opens more room for Christmas to create havoc.

Christmas was solid in his first year as a starter. The rising junior started all 13 games at defensive tackle last season and finished the year with 21 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. He too was impressive when clogging up gaps on run plays and should only improve in 2017. The `Noles also have talented reserves. Fredrick Jones made two starts last season at nose tackle and finished with 15 tackles. He’s been a reliable depth piece for two seasons. Aime recorded 17 tackles and blocked an extra point during his first season in Tallahassee. He is a solid option to spell either starter. Florida State also signed the #1 defensive tackle in the nation during the class of 2017 in Marvin Wilson. By all accounts he’s been impressive during practice and will probably vye for snaps at some point this season.

Alabama only plays one nose tackle due to their defensive alignments. Payne returns to the starting spot he locked down last season. He finished 2016 with 36 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Frazier was mentioned alongside the Crimson Tide’s defensive ends but he’s also the top backup at nose tackle. Dwight has seen minimal snaps in three years on the squad. Mathis is an incoming freshman.

The Seminoles talent and overall depth trump the Crimson Tide here.

Linebackers

FSU: Matthew Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins Jacob Pugh, Adonis Thomas, Emmett Rice, Josh Brown, Leonard Warner, Dontavious Jackson, Delvin Purifoy, DeCalon Brooks, DeMario Mathis

`Bama: Rashaan Evans. Shaun Dion Hamilton, Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings, Keith Holcombe, Dylan Moses, Terrell Lewis, Jamey Mosley, Chris Allen, Mack Wilson

Advantage: FSU

Florida State returns three senior starters in Matthew Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins, and Jacob Pugh. Thomas was finally cleared after whispers that he would turn up ineligible for the season. Now, the question is if he’ll be ready to play against Alabama. The Seminoles would love to have him back after he recorded a team-leading 77 tackles and 11 tackles for loss in 2016. Perhaps Thomas’ best game of his career was the last one he played. The star linebacker finished a win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl with a career-high 15 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.

Ro’Derrick Hoskins has consistently been a solid option for the `Noles at the middle linebacker spot for the past two seasons. He’s started 18 games since 2015, including all 13 last year. Hoskins had 53 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks last season. Pugh has consistently been in the Seminoles rotation since 2014 and fills the Buck linebacker role. This means he spends a lot of time down on the line of scrimmage where FSU usually has a defensive end. Head coach Jimbo Fisher has singled Pugh out with perhaps the most praise of any Seminole since the Spring. He’s a sleeper to have a big year. Adonis Thomas actually started his career at Alabama before going the JUCO route and winding up in Tallahassee. He is a candidate to immediately compete for snaps.

Emmett Rice and Josh Brown are two rising sophomores who could play big roles as backups. Dontavious Jackson is back in the mix after returning from a knee injury, but it remains to be seen how well he’ll play against Alabama with so little time to practice. Leonard Warner might play his way onto the field as a true freshman, he’s that talented.

Alabama has to replace 3 of 4 starters at linebacker. Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson, and Tim Williams all departed for the NFL. The Crimson Tide will have to replace 270 tackles and 24 sacks worth of production. Shaun Dion Hamilton is their returning starter, but he did suffer a season ending injury in the SEC Championship game. Prior to that, Evans recorded 64 tackles and 2 sacks. Rashaan Evans, Anfernee Jennings, and Christian Miller step into the starting lineup for the Crimson Tide.

Evans was a top reserve last year and recorded 53 tackles and 4 sacks. Jennings and Miller were farther back on the depth chart and have seen less snaps than Evans. The Crimson Tide are talented but unproven at linebacker while Florida State returns a veteran-laden starting lineup and young players who earned early playing time last season.

Cornerbacks

FSU: Tarvarus McFadden, Levonta Taylor, Kyle Meyers, Carlos Becker, A.J. Westbrook, Stanford Samuels III, Ontaria Wilson

Alabama: Anthony Averett, Trevon Diggs, Tony Brown, Levi Wallace, Shyheim Carter, Nigel Knott, Jared Mayden, Kyriq McDonald, Levi Wallace

Advantage: FSU

Florida State returns a young but experienced group at cornerback in 2017. Tarvarus McFadden continues to lock down one side of the field. The rising junior recorded eight interceptions last season, tied for the most in the country. But it wasn’t just his playmaking skills that were impressive, it was the growth McFadden showed throughout the season. Early on, he was burned quite a few times but responded with big plays. Over the final half of the season, McFadden became more consistent in coverage and gave up far fewer yards. He’s a reliable cog in the secondary and his role should only increase this season.

Levonta Taylor is penciled in as the starting cornerback opposite McFadden. The spot was up for grabs after Marquez White’s graduation and departure to the NFL. Taylor, Kyle Meyers, and Carlos Becker each fought for the spot, but Taylor won out. Taylor was inconsistent as a freshman but worked hard over the offseason to become more physical and better in coverage. Those improvements have been on display throughout Fall Camp. Meyers will transition into the starting spot at Star while Becker will be the top reserve defensive back. Both showed off potential last year and Becker came down with the game-ended interception against Michigan. Becker will be out of the Alabama game with an injury. A.J. Westbrook is a rising junior who will provide depth at multiple positions in the defensive backfield. He’ll start the first half of the game on Saturday at safety with Trey Marshall suspended.

Alabama returns one starter at cornerback as well in Anthony Averett. He finished 2016 with 48 tackles and 8 pass breakups. Averett is fast and good in coverage, he’s definitely someone Deondre Francois will have to be aware of when he’s throwing the ball. Trevon Diggs moves into the starting lineup as a sophomore. He was mostly a special teams star last season but did get some snaps as a reserve defensive back. Tony Brown will start at Star after also playing in mostly a reserve role and on special teams last season. Remember, the Crimson Tide lost Marlon Humphrey to the NFL while former starting cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick has switched to safety.

The Tide are talented, but unproven at cornerback while the Seminoles boast rising starters and experienced depth.

Safeties

FSU: Derwin James, Trey Marshall, Nate Andrews, Ermon Lane, A.J. Westbrook, Hamsah Nasirildeen, Cyrus Fagan, Calvin Brewton

Alabama: Ronnie Harrison, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Hootie Jones, Deionte Thompson, Tony Brown, Daniel Wright, Xavier McKinney

Advantage: `Bama

This one was tough. Derwin James is one of the top returning players in the country and he’ll be fully healthy after recovering from meniscus surgery last season. James finished his freshman season in 2015 with 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 5 pass breaks up. James has earned consistent praise from Fisher and his teammates since the Spring. Many college football analysts and talking heads are projecting James to be the top defensive back in the nation as well as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He’s in for quite the challenge during his first game back in almost a year.

Trey Marshall will start opposite of James, well, except against Alabama. Marshall was hit with a targeting call during the second half of Florida State’s Orange Bowl win over Michigan and will have to miss the first half of Saturday’s game. He’ll be available after the first 30 minutes. Marshall, Ermon Lane and Nate Andrews provide valuable depth and leadership as the only seniors that are in the defensive backfield. Andrews was with the Seminoles when they won a national championship in 2013. He’s played in a big games but will be looking to prove he’s healthy after only playing in four games last season. Andrews will miss the game against Alabama with an injury. Lane converted to defensive back from wide receiver and played well last season. He started five games and finished with 49 tackles and an interception. FSU has to be happy with their mix of talent and experience at safety, and on the defense as a whole. It’s clear they have a chance to be elite at all three phases of the game. Defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backfield. 

However, Alabama might return the best safety duo in college football. Ronnie Harrison and Fitzpatrick are both studs who will challenge for spots on the All-American team. Harrison recorded 82 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 2 fumble recoveries in 2016 for the Crimson Tide. He’s an athletic defensive back with a knack for making plays. Harrison is good in coverage and is a big hitter. Fitzpatrick is a renowned talent of his own. He recorded 66 tackles and 6 interceptions last year, returning two for scores. These two should make it tough on the Florida State offense. Harrison is better in run support than Fitzpatrick, but both can fly all over the field, ala Derwin James. Hootie Jones and Deionte Thompson will be the top reserves. Jones has consistently been in the rotation for a few seasons while Thompson looks to earn snaps after seeing a lot of time on special teams last year.

It was close. But Alabama has two All-Americans and potential first-round NFL Draft picks locking down their starting safety spots. Derwin James may be the top player in college football, but this will be his first football game in almost a year. Marshall also has to miss the first half.

Dustin Lewis
Lead writer for NoleGameday. Majoring in English Editing, Writing, and Media at Florida State University. Writer for FSView Sports and Hashtag Basketball.

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