2016 Spring Preview: Defensive Ends

,Chris Casher (r-Sr),Janarius Robinson*
,DeMarcus Walker (Sr),Brian Burns
,Rick Leonard (Jr),
,Jacob Pugh (Jr),
,Lorenzo Featherston (Jr),
,Josh Sweat (So),
* = early enrollee
Bold indicates a returning starter

UPDATE: Florida State secured the commitment of four-star defensive end Brian Burns (#TBA) on National Signing Day. Burns, who is from the same high school as current sophomore defensive back Tarvarus McFadden, checks in at 6-5, 209 lbs. per 247Sports and may take a redshirt year in 2016 to add weight to his frame. However, Jimbo Fisher has shown that he is willing to play undersized guys, as seen by Lorenzo Featherston’s action in 2014, so Burns might see the field in situational passing downs where he is free to get after the quarterback.

In 2014, Florida State struggled to get to the quarterback on defense. They returned highly-touted recruit and eventual second-round draft pick Mario Edwards Jr., but the Seminoles struggled to get pressure off of the edge. In 2015, this changed. Charles Kelly’s defense was able to total 32 sacks on the year, as opposed to only 17 in 2014. Part of this was because of the increased play of the defensive ends under first-year position coach Brad Lawing. Lawing, who has coached first round picks Jadeveon Clowney, Dante Fowler Jr., Dominique Easley, and Melvin Ingram, lived up to his hype and has revamped the defensive end/outside linebacker position at Florida State.

Florida State got perhaps the best news of the offseason when DeMarcus Walker (#44) announced his return to Tallahassee for his senior season. A starter in all 13 games at defensive end, Walker had a breakout season in 2015, racking up 58 tackles, 10.5 sacks, one interception, and four forced fumbles. He became the first player since Bjeorn Werner in 2012 to total more than 10 sacks in a single season. Walker took on a leadership role in the offseason and it was clear to see the difference he made to the defense. With another offseason under the tutelage of Brad Lawing, 2016 could be a huge year for Walker as he looks to improve his NFL Draft stock.

As a freshman, Josh Sweat (#9) was not expected to make an impact. He suffered a very serious knee injury in high school and was on a scooter when he took his official visit to Florida State in November of 2014. However, Sweat defied all expectations and recovered at a freakish level. He played in all 13 games this season, starting 10 of them at BUCK linebacker (Florida State’s rush linebacker position), and totaled 41 tackles, two sacks, an interception and three fumble recoveries. For a player listed at around 235 lbs. on Florida State’s official roster, he quickly became one of the best run stoppers on the team and flashed the freakish speed that made him the No. 1 player in the nation as a recruit. The future looks bright for Josh Sweat at Florida State and fans should enjoy the next two years that he’ll be in Tallahassee.

Two key backups will also be returning to Florida State. Junior Jacob Pugh (#16) split time with Josh Sweat at the BUCK linebacker position and had 32 tackles and three sacks on the season. Pugh’s versatility as a rush linebacker who can also drop into coverage will be useful for Florida State in 2016. Fellow junior Rick Leonard (#98) ended the year as Walker’s primary backup at defensive end and flashed some potential in the Peach Bowl. Leonard has very good size at 6-7, 281 lbs. and another offseason under Brad Lawing will be key as he looks to improve on his play from 2015. Between Pugh and Leonard, the Seminoles have a very good two-man rotation at each of the defensive end positions heading into 2016.

A player that has had somewhat of a disappointing career at Florida State is redshirt senior Chris Casher (#21). Casher came to Florida State as a five-star recruit, but has failed to live up to his hype through four years on campus. He played in eight games in 2015, primarily on special teams, and had seven tackles on the year. He is not expected to make a significant impact in his last year on campus. Junior Lorenzo Featherston (#41) enjoyed a relatively successful freshman season in which he played in 11 games and totaled 19 tackles and one sack on the season at the BUCK linebacker position. But a knee injury in fall camp sidelined him for most of his sophomore season and Featherston only saw playing time in four games in 2015. At 6-7, he has good potential, but is only listed at 229 lbs. per Florida State’s official roster. One of the biggest keys for Featherston coming in as a recruit was gaining weight and, so far, he has proven unable to do so. However, as a junior he still has two years to make an impact. But with Josh Sweat and Jacob Pugh all but locking down the initial rotation at the BUCK linebacker position for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to project Featherston’s role moving forward.

Florida State currently has a single recruit committed at defensive end in Janarius Robinson (#TBA). Robinson is already enrolled on campus for the spring semester, which is huge for a player that many recruiting experts have tabbed as a very raw prospect. Robinson has elite size at 6-6, 253 lbs. and, with a full offseason under Brad Lawing, he has a good shot at becoming an impact freshman if Charles Kelly uses him in certain defensive packages. Florida State will look to sign one or two more defensive ends in this class before National Signing Day in February.

From all early assessments, 2016 could be a special year for the defensive end position at Florida State. DeMarcus Walker is perhaps the most important piece to the defense and should see an improvement on his 2015 numbers. Josh Sweat is close to two years removed from his knee injury and has flashed the elite speed that made him the No. 1 player in the nation in high school. Those two, along with Pugh and Leonard, already form a solid rotation and the addition of Janarius Robinson at defensive end is key as well. After 17 sacks in 2014, Florida State improved to 32 sacks in 2015. Could Florida State possibly improve to more than 40 sacks in 2016? Only time will tell.

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