Florida State’s Defense in 2017

We’ve reviewed what Florida State’s offense will look like in 2017, so it’s time to move onto the defensive side of the ball. Seniors DeMarcus Walker and Marquez White are moving on to the NFL and the Seminoles will need to replace their production at defensive end and cornerback respectively. Luckily, Jimbo Fisher and company have recruited elite defensive talent to fill the void.

Even though Walker departs, the defensive line remains relatively in tact. Florida State received great news when Derrick Nnadi announced his return for his senior season and he will anchor the Seminoles’ stout defensive line along with Demarcus Christmas. At defensive end, Josh Sweat looks to have a breakout season in his money year and freshman phenom Brian Burns has the potential to be an elite pass rusher for the Seminoles.

The linebacker position has been an up-and-down affair ever since the departure of Telvin Smith, but the Seminoles have some good options back there. Senior Matthew Thomas showed flashes of his five-star recruiting ranking and Ro’Derrick Hoskins has been stout for FSU as well. But sophomores Dontavious Jackson and Emmett Rice will look to challenge for playing time.

In the secondary, there are a plethora of options to choose from and Charles Kelly will have his work cut out for him in figuring it all out. The return of Derwin James might be the most highly anticipated storyline of 2017. In his absence, players like Tarvarus McFadden, Ermon Lane and Levonta Taylor showed that they could be dependable playmakers as well.

So what could this defense look like in 2017?

The likely first-team defense heading into spring practice.

This is likely the first-team defense on the first day of spring practice. Much of this lineup is the same from last season. Josh Sweat kicks over to defensive end and Brian Burns takes his spot at BUCK linebacker. Derwin James returns and steps into his position at free safety. With the STAR position up in the air, Trey Marshall fills the void because of his prior experience at the position. Finally, Levonta Taylor earns the job at field cornerback after showcasing his ability at the position as a true freshman.

But this is by no means the absolute certain defense that Florida State will employ when they line up against Alabama. For one, Marshall is will have to sit out the first half due to the targeting call in the Orange Bowl versus Michigan. That means Florida State will have to figure out what to do in his absence.

Luckily for the Seminoles, Alabama will likely run the ball with some power. This means that the Seminoles can employ their 3-4 defense, a formation that is rarely seen due to their love of the nickel package. We saw it last year versus Florida and Michigan.

Florida State’s 3-4 defense.

In their 3-4 defense, the STAR position comes off the field and is replaced by the SAM linebacker. The coverage responsibilities are the same (STAR = SAM, notice the similar terminology?). Jacob Pugh has been Florida State’s third linebacker and primary SAM option for two years now and the senior linebacker is more than capable of stepping onto the field to fill this void.

In order to get more beef along the defensive line, we may see Sweat kick back outside to BUCK linebacker and a big body like Keith Bryant sub in at defensive end. Bryant sat out last year due an injury, but was having a great spring according to Fisher before the injury. In a similar role that Giorgio Newberry filled in 2015, Bryant is a bigger body at 280+ pounds that can anchor against the run from defensive end if the opponent utilizes the power run game.

Expect to see more of Dontavious Jackson at MIKE, or middle, linebacker as well. The sophomore has good size at 6-2, 250-pounds and showed as a freshman that he can diagnose and shut down the run game. He made a great stop against North Carolina on fourth down that showcased his ability to weave through traffic to make a play.

But what happens when Florida State gets into an obvious passing situation where they need to get pressure on the opposing quarterback?

Florida State’s pass rush package.

On third down or other obvious passing situations, the MIKE linebacker comes off the field and is replaced by the MONEY back. The coverage responsibilities are the same for the two roles (MIKE = MONEY, similar terminology). AJ Westbrook is likely the primary option there and played well to end last season as the fifth defensive back on the field.

When they need to get pressure on the quarterback, there is no better pass rusher on the team than Derwin James. As a true freshman, he had an insane ability to beat offensive tackles as a 6-3, 211-pound safety. Just as Florida’s right tackle that Derwin literally bench pressed. Brian Burns, who had 9.5 sacks as a freshman, is also a great option and the pair of Burns and James is guaranteed to get to the quarterback. Wally Aime also checks in for Demarcus Christmas in this situation.

Finally, last year we saw Kyle Meyers check into STAR in third down situations. The coaching staff valued his coverage abilities from the slot and we should see Meyers in a similar role next year. With James at pass rusher, Marshall and Lane are the two safeties back deep.

What are some other lineups that we could see from Florida State? Are there some position battles that could swing different ways?

Could Marcus Lewis make a return at cornerback?

Perhaps the most polarizing player on last year’s defense was Marcus Lewis. The junior struggled in coverage from the STAR position before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. If he comes back healthy, he could challenge for the job at field cornerback. If you remember, he and McFadden were neck and neck last year for the boundary job. Lewis showed in the 2016 spring game that he has the ability to be a good cover corner.

Sophomore Levonta Taylor could offer the combination of physicality and coverage abilities that the staff values from the STAR position. Many thought that Taylor, a former five-star recruit, would challenge for the spot right away, but he played more of an outside role last year.

Finally, Wally Aime is a name that has been floated around at defensive end. The 6-5, 300-pounder played a bit of end last spring, but primarily played defensive tackle during the season. If the coaching staff wants to keep a bigger body at defensive end, he may be an option that they explore. He certainly has the athleticism to play strong-side end in this defense.

Another possible lineup?

In another possible lineup, early enrollee Joshua Kaindoh cracks the starting eleven at defensive end. A five-star and Top-10 recruit, Kaindoh is one of the best pass rushers in the country coming out of high school. At 6-6, 250-pounds, he has the size to play end but has the frame to add an additional 10-15 pounds. You better believe Vic Valoria can’t wait to get Kaindoh into the weight room.

Carlos Becker is another name that hasn’t been mentioned a lot lately. The former four-star recruit drew some comparisons to Jalen Ramsey out of high school for his size and athleticism. He played safety last year but the coaching staff will most certainly explore his potential at cornerback this offseason. McFadden and Becker would give Florida State a pair of 6-2 cornerbacks to work with. Try throwing against that.

Finally, I asked Twitter to vote for their ideal lineup on defense and this is what you guys came up with.

Twitter’s ideal starting eleven.

To be honest, the voting results from Twitter don’t look that much different than what I suggested at the start of this article. The only difference is swapping Jackson for Hoskins at MIKE linebacker.

In conclusion, this defense has a ton of pieces to work with. We didn’t even explore all of the possible pass rushing options, such as utilizing Matthew Thomas, Jacob Pugh or Janarius Robinson as pass rushers off of the edge. The true freshman early enrollees like Stanford Samuels and Cyrus Fagan will almost certainly make an impact this season as well, whether that he in a starting role or rotational player.

Charles Kelly has his work cut out for him. The challenge for the coaching staff this offseason won’t be to develop talent, but to figure out how to put it all together. If they can do so, this defense has the potential to be national championship-caliber next season.

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