Spring Camp Preview: 5 Things to Watch on Defense

Logan Stanford

It’s officially the first day of Spring. Florida State and first-year head coach Willie Taggart will begin practice bright and early on Wednesday morning. The first practice of the Taggart era is officially scheduled to start at 9 a.m. and it’ll be open to the public.

Open practices and more access to the program are certainly a breath of fresh air after the iron fist of Jimbo Fisher. The proclaimed savior of Texas A&M football closed off his practices from the media, not to mention public, entirely as his tenure went on.

Taggart has without a doubt already won over the fanbase and some of the media. He’s a characteristic coach who’s already bringing back some old traditions. Seminole legends are making their ways back to Tallahassee, the endzones will have retro paint, and the spirit spear is making its return.

There’s a lot to be excited about with this new coaching staff in place. Only time will tell if the results on the football field will come. But this young group of coaches has already turned up the intensity and energy around this program again.

Here are five things to watch for Harlon Barnett’s new group.

1. Who will step up in the trenches?

Derrick Nnadi and Josh Sweat, both three-year starters at their respective positions, are moving on to the NFL. That leaves two huge gaps in the defensive line that will have Odell Haggins and Mark Snyder with their hands full.

The likely choices for successors to Nnadi and Sweat are Marvin Wilson and Joshua Kaindoh. The rising sophomore duo contributed in reserve roles last season. Wilson finished with 7 tackles and one quarterback hurry while Kaindoh had 17 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and a forced fumble.

Rising redshirt sophomore Janarius Robinson and senior Wally Aime are two more players to keep your eyes on across the defensive front.

2. Youth at linebacker

Matthew Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins, and Jacob Pugh all graduated after the season. That means we’ll see a youth movement at linebacker in 2018. Familiar faces like Dontavious Jackson, Emmett Rice, Adonis Thomas, and Josh Brown all return, among others.

Freshmen Amari Gainer and Xavier Peters will be the only newcomers in this group. Jackson, Rice, and Thomas all saw extensive time as backups last year. Jackson started against Wake Forest and Louisville. Look for him to step up and start making his presence more known on this defense. Rice and Thomas also both started games last season.

The linebackers unit should look more traditional under the leadership of Barnett and Raymond Woodie. Expect to see the normal trio of linebackers rather than just two.

3. Holes in the secondary

It always hurts to lose elite talent in the back end. Especially when it’s a player like Derwin James.

James finished 2017 with 84 tackles, 1 sacks, and 2 interceptions. Tarvarus McFadden, Nate Andrews, Trey Marshall, and Ermon Lane are also all moving on. That leaves a wake of inexperienced but talented players to rise into the holes that have been left by their departures.

Rising sophomore cornerback Stanford Samuels III is expected to fill the cornerback slot opposite of Levonta Taylor. Fellow rising sophomore Hamsah Nasirildeen is the early favorite for the open free safety spot while senior A.J. Westbrook will likely start at strong safety. Samuels, who forced a fumble in the bowl game, and Nasirildeen really began to come on towards the end of the last season.

Westbrook has the most collegiate playing experience of Florida State’s DB group but watch for talented true freshman Jaiden Woodbey to start pushing for his spot. Kyle Meyers and Carlos Becker could also push for more playing time after spending their first two seasons in backup roles.

4. New leaders on defense

Harlon Barnett inherits a defense that is ripe with young talent but boasts few leaders after the departure of 8 starters. Derwin James is gone. Derrick Nnadi is gone. Heck, even Matthew Thomas is gone, if you considered him a leader.

Someone is going to have to step up and take command of this unit. DeMarcus Walker and Jalen Ramsey were the last true leaders of the FSU defense. Barnett needs his most physical, nasty, and energetic players to take a step forward and boost this until as a whole.

Early indications out of winter workouts were that Dontavious Jackson and Brian Burns had begun to separate themselves as the leaders of the defense.

5. Adjusting to a new scheme

Florida State’s defense is in for an adjustment. They’ve spent the last four years playing in the 4-2-5 instituted by the ousted Charles Kelly. The Seminoles will likely switch back to the 4-3 multiple defense that we’re used to seeing under new defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett.

At Michigan State, Barnett’s defenses were typically a lot of man coverage and a lot of pressure. I expect to see fewer zone breakdowns on the outside in passing situations in this defense. Also, look for the `Noles to be consistently bringing different looks of pressure. It’s going to confuse a lot of teams and hopefully cause a lot of havoc on the football field in 2018.

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