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2021 Spring Preview: FSU’s defensive line

No other position on FSU’s roster had more turnover after the 2020 season due to graduation, leaving early for the NFL or players entering the transfer portal than the Seminoles’ defensive line. Starting defensive ends Joshua Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson declared for the 2021 NFL draft, as did starting defensive tackle Marvin Wilson (whose 2020 season ended early due to injury). Part-time starting defensive tackle Cory Durden entered the transfer portal and will play for NC State in 2021.

However, FSU returns some talented young players at defensive end and defensive tackle. Defensive tackles Robert Cooper, Dennis Briggs and Fabien Lovett combined to start 10 games in 2020.

The front four should also greatly benefit from the addition of two graduate transfers, Jermaine Johnson from Georgia and Keir Thomas from South Carolina.

There are more than a couple of questions for FSU’s front four heading into the spring. There are of course the obvious questions. Who starts and where? And how deep is FSU at each position going into fall camp? And how much can this unit improve overall heading in 2021? There is plenty of room for it against the run and the pass.

But the two biggest questions most FSU fans are asking is, can FSU find a consistent pass rush from its front four and will they hold up better against the run?

The Seminoles registered just 10 sacks in 2020, which ranked 104th out of 127 FBS teams. Only three other teams in all of college football who played at least nine games this past season had fewer sacks than the Seminoles.

Against the run last season, FSU was not able to win at the line of scrimmage. FSU finished the season ranked 97th in the country in rushing defense (199.22 yards per game). Only 13 teams who played nine or more games in 2020 allowed more rushing yards per game than FSU.

The answers of course will not come until we are well into FSU’s 2021 season but the number of sacks must go up and the average yards allowed per game on the ground must go down significantly if the Seminoles are to make the kind of progress coach Mike Norvell wants to see in the fall.

Let’s take a closer look at who will be competing for starting jobs and for playing time on FSU’s front four during spring practice.

Experienced Returners and Newcomers

DE Keir Thomas (6-foot-2, 275 pounds) – Norvell stated when the South Carolina transfer signed with FSU that he would play the weakside defensive end (FOX) position for the Seminoles. We also know that Thomas has the versatility to play at the three-technique spot, which he did a lot for South Carolina. We also know that FSU is getting a very experienced player. Thomas appeared in 47 games (32 starts) for the Gamecocks, where he totaled 142 tackles and 8.5 sacks over parts of five seasons.

DE Leonard Warner (6-4, 254) – Warner may have finally found a home at weakside defensive end under Norvell and Fuller. He began the season as the starting MLB in 2020 but eventually became the primary backup to Robinson at midseason. He finished the season with 12 tackles. Warner has added 20 pounds since last fall, which should help him hold up better against offensive tackles versus the run in 2021. He should provide experienced depth and veteran leadership to the defensive end spot.

DE Josh Griffis (6-4, 254) – Like a lot of his fellow true freshmen in 2020, Griffis saw significant playing time. He played in seven games and made four tackles. Griffis saw his playing time go down at the weakside spot once Warner made the move from linebacker at midseason. His skill set seems more suited for the strongside defensive end position and would not be surprised if he ultimately ends up developing into an interior defensive lineman.

DT Dennis Briggs (6-4, 279) – Briggs started three of the five games he played in last season after initially opting out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19 concerns. He was very impressive in his first game back in an upset win over North Carolina as he was forced into a starting role without much preparation. Briggs finished the year with six tackles and one quarterback hurry. FSU’s spring media guide list Briggs as a DE despite the fact he started at DT in 2020. He is versatile enough to play DE and could end up there before it is all said and done. It would not surprise if Briggs were to add more weight this offseason if the plan is to make DT his home.

DT Fabien Lovett (6-4, 315) – Lovett returns as one of FSU’s leaders in sacks (one) in 2021. He made two starts in eight appearances in his first season at FSU. He finished the season with 14 tackles. Lovett should battle Briggs for the starting spot at three-technique but has the size to play at the nose tackle spot if that is where he is best suited.

DT Robert Cooper (6-2, 235) – Cooper is FSU’s most experienced returning defensive lineman and has provided stability at the nose tackle spot for the Seminoles. He has made 18 starts over the last two seasons, where he has totaled 55 tackles and two sacks. Cooper projects as the starter going into spring practice.

DT Tru Thompson (6-0, 298) – Thompson has been the backup to Cooper over the last two season. He has appeared in 20 games over that time and made one start. Thompson made seven tackles in 2020. He also is one of three players returning with one sack to their credit. Thompson provides experienced depth at NT and can be used as a run stopper in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

DE Jermaine Johnson (6-5, 260) – With Thomas expected to line up on the weakside, Johnson would project to line up as the strongside defensive end. He started four games at UGA while playing in a total of 21 over two seasons, where he recorded 36 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 15 QB hurries. Five of his sacks came in 2020, where he appeared in seven games. FSU could benefit from the kind of production off the edge in 2021 and Johnson possesses the size to hold up against the run.

DE Derrick McClendon (6-4, 251) – McClendon could end up at either defensive end spot in 2021. He played in nine games last season and finished with seven tackles including 2.5 tackles for a loss.

Ready to Compete for Playing Time?

The list of guys who aren’t as established or experienced are looking to make their way into the front four rotation is about as long as the group projected to be fighting for starting spots.

Defensive tackles Malcolm Ray and Jarrett Jackson combined to appear in seven games last season. Ray totaled two tackles and at 6-2 and 283 pounds projects as a three-technique. Jackson, 6-6 and 311 pounds, recorded one tackle in 2020 and could battle for time at nose tackle in 2021.

Also returning at defensive end are Quashon Fuller, Curtis Fann and TJ Davis. Fuller, 6-3 and 260 pounds, played in four games and made three tackles in 2020. Davis, 6-3 and 287 pounds, has added substantial weight since arriving on campus and could end up at any one of three positions up front. Fann, like Davis, spent most of 2020 on the scout team.

Fresh Faces

FSU signed four defensive tackles/defensive ends in its 2021 recruiting class but only Joshua Farmer enrolled in January and will go through spring practice. Norvell announced last week that the 6-3 and 273-pound true freshman will begin his FSU career at defensive tackle. George Wilson, Shambre Jackson and Patrick Payton are all scheduled to arrive on campus in June.

Spring previews

The Osceola previously took a look at FSU’s quarterbacks and offensive line heading into the spring