Three personnel changes Florida State should explore on defense

Florida State’s defense garnered a massive amount of hype throughout the offseason with new DC Adam Fuller taking over a unit that returned eight starters and multiple depth pieces. Through the first four games of 2020, that hype has clearly not translated to production on the field. The Seminoles defense allowed a program-worst 31.5 points per game in 2018 under Willie Taggart and Harlon Barnett. Somehow, that number is even worse so far this season, with the defense giving up 33.5 points per contest. Things could certainly change as the year goes on but they look bleak right now.

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While we can give them somewhat of a pass against Georgia Tech due to the interceptions and blocked fields that were forced (even if they missed a ton of tackles). 52 points to Miami, 42 to Notre Dame, and 24 to Jacksonville State is unacceptable from a unit that supposedly has NFL talent on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield. The defense has totaled just 17 tackles for loss and three sacks on the season (10 of the TFL’s and all three sacks came against GT and JSU) and simply needs to find a way to be more productive so they don’t continue to be dominated every game. That leads us to position changes to try and shake things up.

Here are three personnel changes I think FSU should explore on defense.

1. Amari Gainer to Fox Defensive End

It’s obvious that Florida State’s lack of ability to rush the passer this season is negating the talent in the defensive backfield. Why not move an athletic and speedy rusher in redshirt sophomore Amari Gainer from linebacker down to Fox defensive end to see if it can provide a boost? He’s been arguably the ‘Noles best overall defender, making a team-high four tackles for loss, to this point of the season and his skillset might be even better served off the edge.

Current Fox Janarius Robinson hasn’t been very productive through four games, totaling just nine tackles and zero sacks. Multiple times against Notre Dame, he was in position to take on a blocker or force a tackle for loss but just didn’t make the play. It’s disappointing to see the same mistakes over and over again from a redshirt senior. If he can’t contain or make tackles, there’s no point in him continuing to be out there.

On the other hand, you know what you have in Gainer. An athletic, talented, and high-intensity player who is improving every game and who spent time on the edge in 2019, where he recorded seven TFLs and 3.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman. At a minimum, it can’t be any worse than what we’re already seeing. At a maximum, the pass-rush finally begins to show signs of life and you have a strong presence to hold the edge on outside runs, something that has killed this team so far.

2. Jaiden Lars-Woodbey to Stud Linebacker

One player who has received a ton of criticism, some warranted and some not, is redshirt sophomore defensive back Jaiden Lars-Woodbey. The California native started the first sixteen games of his career before suffering a season-ending injury in 2019. Following his recovery, we’ve seen Lars-Woodbey slot in at the Buck Safety spot in Adam Fuller’s defense to start the year, which requires the player to have the flexibility to work in pass-coverage and aid with stopping the run.

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Unfortunately, his athleticism and confidence haven’t yet returned to his pre-injury levels as the former five-star prospect gets back into game action. Sometimes following a serious knee injury, it can take a year to be fully recovered, especially mentally. That’s a year too long for Florida State fans. Like most of the defense, Lars-Woodbey was caught out of position and took poor angles on tackles in the loss to the Fighting Irish.

It’s possible that moving him back down to linebacker, where he’s spent some time in his career, could better suit his play-style at the moment. One criticism of Lars-Woodbey’s play in the middle in the past was his lack of ability to shed blocks and overall size. He added weight and muscle over the offseason and is up to over 225 pounds. Current Stud Amari Gainer is only a couple pounds heavier at 231 lbs.

The only real issue with moving Lars-Woodbey down is the current lack of depth at the safety position. Star DB Hamsah Nasirildeen and Travis Jay are both out with injuries. Nasirildeen has yet to take the field this season and it’s unknown if he will. Sophomore Renardo Green is a capable player but Raymond Woodie III and Sidney Williams aren’t ready to step into the starting action quite yet. If Jay returns to the lineup soon, this is a move I can see the staff considering. The starting unit in this scenario would be Gainer (Fox), Wilson, Cooper, Kaindoh, Lars-Woodbey (Stud), Dix, Rice, Samuel, Jones, Green, Jay (Buck).

3. Stephen Dix Jr. to starting Middle Linebacker

I think it’s clear to every Seminole fan that middle linebacker Leonard Warner simply doesn’t have the talent or athleticism necessary to be competent at this level. He’s extremely stiff in the hips, which makes him a constant liability against the pass, and isn’t much better as a run-stopper. Warner arguably had the worst game of his career against Notre Dame, racking up a PFF Grade of 29.7, the lowest by an FSU starter since the grades began in 2013. Yikes.

Linebackers are usually the players on defenses that you see rack up the most stops. True freshman middle linebacker Stephen Dix Jr. has 13 total tackles in backup duty. The redshirt senior starter in Warner has EIGHT tackles in FOUR games. It’s honestly impressive to be that invisible in the middle of the defense over the course of a third of the season.

While you get a “higher” floor with Warner on the field, Dix has more upside and has consistently been one of the players on the defense giving the most effort. He’s not afraid to go out and be physical as we’ve seen with some of his hits. I don’t doubt that he’ll make some frustrating mistakes and surrender big plays due to poor angles or missed assignments as he continues to grow but Warner is already doing that, and he’s had five years.

No matter the moves you make at the position throughout this season, you aren’t going to get the play you typically expect from a Florida State linebacker. There are going to be a lot of growing pains in 2020, it makes more sense to develop the guy who’s actually going to be in Tallahassee next season. Dix has been eased into the lineup over the first four games, it’s time to give him a bigger role.

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