Florida State’s defense is talented enough to carry the load

Florida State’s chances at a national title took a big dip on a Sunday night after it was announced that sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois would be out for the season. Francois was injured late in the Seminoles contest with Alabama after being hit in the back of the legs while rolling out of the pocket. After the game, head coach Jimbo Fisher said true freshman James Blackman would take over the starting quarterback role if Francois was out for an extended period of time.

Our worst fears have been realized. FSU will now field their first true freshman quarterback in the Jimbo Fisher era. However, despite losing their star signal caller, the `Noles still have a chance to have a successful season.

This defense is legit. The Seminoles held the Crimson Tide to just 269 yards of offense on Saturday, the first time they’ve been held under 300 yards of offense since 2014. Alabama finished with just 96 passing yards with 53 yards coming on their lone touchdown pass. Last season, The Crimson Tide offense surpassed 200 rushing yards in every game where they attempted at least 40 rushes. The `Noles held `Bama to 173 rushing yards across 42 carries. Truly a memorable performance by them that was wasted by the special teams and offensive breakdowns.

With Francois out for the season, FSU has three options at quarterback. They’ll start with Blackman but could turn to fellow freshman Bailey Hockman or redshirt junior JJ Cosentino. It’s likely that the Seminoles will try to establish their running game more against UL-Monroe to try and have some kind of consistency on the ground going into the matchup with Miami.

Starter Jacques Patrick couldn’t get anything going against the quick Crimson Tide defense. He’s more of a power back and his lack of initial burst was taken advantage of. Patrick finished with just 17 yards on six carries for an average of 2.8 yards per carry. The `Noles switched to five-star freshman Cam Akers on the fourth drive of the game and he brought a few explosive runs to the offense. Akers finished his debut with ten carries for 30 yards, but his first three carries went for a combined 17 yards. The run game was mostly bottled up by a talented Alabama defensive line. The blocking was better than last season, but still inconsistent across the game.

Akers was remarkably quicker and ran with more purpose than Patrick against the Crimson Tide. It’ll be interesting to see how the number of carries each back receivers begins to transition as the season continues. It was clear that Akers has elite talent, he caught a swing pass out of the backfield and juked Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton before bursting forward past the first down marker. The moment certainly didn’t overwhelm him, as he talked trash all night. Akers never backed down.

The `Noles also have sophomore running Amir Rasul. He’s a talented receiver out of the backfield and is a speedster himself. Rasul didn’t get a carry against `Bama but expect him to make an appearance against UL-Monroe. He’s a player Fisher has consistently praised over the past year and could be on the cusp of earning carries alongside Patrick and Akers. It will be important for FSU to establish a rushing attack that can take some pressure off of their freshman quarterback.

There’s a chance this offense is going to have a tough time this season. It’s hard to project how a freshman quarterback will perform at this level and behind the two freshmen, you have Cosentino, who isn’t exactly someone you can rely on. The defense may have to spend some time carrying this team. But they are talented enough to do it.

Senior linebacker Matthew Thomas barely practiced during Fall Camp and most people thought he would wind up ineligible. Instead, he returned the week before the tilt with Alabama but still made his way into the starting lineup. Thomas’ impact didn’t go unnoticed. He finished with a team-high ten tackles and was a key part of the `Noles blitzing units. Thomas almost came up with a couple sacks but certainly forced Jalen Hurts to make earlier decisions and throw passes away. Ro’Derrick Hoskins was impressive filling the middle of the defense, he was able to fill gaps and stand up the physical Crimson Tide running backs. You could hear the pop as he filled holes to limit gains on the grounds. Hoskins had nine tackles of his own. Fellow senior linebacker Jacob Pugh finished with four tackles and was his usual solid self. Hoskins is entering his third season as the starting middle linebacker while Pugh has been a spot-starter since his freshman season in 2014.

Florida State’s defensive line consistently filled gaps and prevented Alabama from breaking multiple huge plays on offense. Derrick Nnadi missed a tackle on the Crimson Tide’s first offensive play of the game which allowed Damien Harris to get loose for a 34-yard gain. The Tide would muster just two rushes over ten yards for the rest of the game. Alabama’s longest rush would be a mere nine yards after the third drive of the night. The Seminoles entire defense did an excellent job of forcing Bama to go on long drives instead of letting them hit home run plays. Nnadi finished the game with six tackles. Demarcus Christmas was virtually unblockable all night and broke through the line to pressure Hurts on a play when he had a receiver wide open downfield. He finished with only two tackles but was key in disrupting the offense.

Junior defensive end Josh Sweat was the lone member of the defense to record a solo sack. He was solid holding the edge and finished with five tackles. Brian Burns also held his own in the run game, only finishing with two tackles, but holding his spot down on the defensive line well. The `Noles defensive front didn’t break very often on Saturday. Imagine that front against most of the teams on FSU’s schedule. This unit will feast.

Derwin James was his normal ball-hawking self during his first game action in almost a year. He recorded six tackles and half a sack but was close to intercepting a pass right in Hurts’ face. James almost recorded a couple sacks, getting to Hurts barely after he released a few throws. He was also solid in coverage and patrolled the field for the Seminoles while remaining attuned to the scheme. It was a disciplined and veteran effort from the redshirt sophomore. A.J. Westbrook started the first half in place of Trey Marshall and was picked on in coverage a few times. Marshall returned in the second half and was able to create a dynamic duo at safety with James. Those two will bring a lot of physicality and toughness to the defensive backfield. Senior Ermon Lane also brings a physicality plus swagger to the defense. The Seminoles should get back Nate Andrews and Carlos Becker to shore up the depth at defensive back soon. 

Tarvarus McFadden looked like the McFadden we saw at the beginning of last season. He was almost burned a couple times during coverage and Hurts wasn’t afraid to launch it his way. McFadden was lucky the passes were off target, one was almost a touchdown. Levonta Taylor made his first start against the Crimson Tide and didn’t disappoint. He was fluid in coverage and was able to come up in run support. Taylor only had a tackle but that’s a nod to how tight he was in coverage.

This defense has the players to be the elite and they proved that against Alabama, one of the most talented team is in the nation. Most of the teams on Florida State’s schedules don’t have playmakers that compare to the caliber of the Crimson Tide’s. The Seminoles struggles on offense should be mitigated by a defense that will challenge to be the best in the entire country.

The season isn’t over. Derwin James, Matthew Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins, Jacob Pugh, Derrick Nnadi, Josh Sweat, Brian Burns, Trey Marshall, and the rest of this defense think the doubters are insane. It’s time to rally behind Blackman and get to work. 

Dustin Lewis
Lead writer for NoleGameday. Majoring in Editing, Writing, and Media at Florida State University. Staff Writer for the FSView and contributor for Celtics Hub.

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