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Analysis: FSU’s defense post-spring

The future of Florida State’s defense was on display early in the spring: In the first practice, the Seminoles lined up in the nickel 4-2-5 alignment. It showed the necessity of getting the best 11 on the field and matching up against spread or pass-first offenses. But it also showed the questions of depth at linebacker while accentuating the variety of options in the secondary.

We won’t rehash the numbers: FSU’s defense struggled about everywhere in 2020, from the lack of a pass rush to poor tackling and missed assignments at all three levels to coverage breakdowns. The benefit of 15 spring practices is significant for defensive coordinator Adam Fuller in helping evaluate the players and how much they grasp the scheme. 

“Just more general communication, I thought was better from practice 1-15,” Fuller said. “It wasn’t always clean, but the importance of the communication, there’s always a speaker and there always has to be a listener, too. It’s one thing to have somebody talking, it’s another to have somebody listening. To be on one accord. I thought that improved as the spring went on. Just significantly, getting the guys the reps. The reps. That happened at linebacker, it happened up front and it happened in the secondary, especially with Kevin (Knowles) and Jammie (Robinson) and Bam (Brandon Moore). I thought it was a really successful spring from that standpoint.”

FSU coach Mike Norvell offered the media a look at five practices plus three scrimmages (including Saturday’s Garnet and Gold game). Upon reflection, here’s our viewpoint of FSU’s defense after the spring. We took a look at the offense on Monday.

Defensive end

What we like: Jermaine Johnson looks and plays like the edge rusher Florida State needs and has been missing in past years. The Georgia transfer may be the defense’s most consistent player, a leader and tone-setter for the line. South Carolina transfer Keir Thomas missed the spring due to injury but should line up at the other end. With Thomas on the sideline, Derrick McClendon saw increased reps in practices and was praised for his improved technique and work in the weight room.

Areas of improvement: The Seminoles have numbers here but do they have depth they can count on? Norvell said Leonard Warner will be out for an “extended period” so it remains to be seen if he will be available in August. If Warner is back he will add depth at the weakside spot behind Thomas — if not win the job outright after moving to end from linebacker in the middle of last season. Josh Griffis got a ton of reps this spring due to the aforementioned injuries and should provide depth behind Thomas and Warner. FSU will be looking toward a large group of redshirt freshmen (Quashon Fuller, T.J. Davis and Griffis) and true freshmen (Patrick Payton and George Wilson) to take on increased roles in the defensive end rotation.

Defensive tackle

What we like: Dennis Briggs continues to improve and has positioned himself well for a starting job. Fabien Lovett showed quickness, athleticism and more comfort in the defensive scheme in his second season in Tallahassee. Lovett was dominant at times this spring. Robert Cooper is limited as a pass rusher but strengthens the interior at stopping the run. Coaches praised Joshua Farmer for adding about 15 pounds after he enrolled in January and it appeared to give him good weight as well as a push for playing time in the fall. At times the performance in spring exceeded expectation for an early enrollee but will need to be more consistent in the fall (and he should be). There appears to be the making of a good four-man rotation at tackle, even if tackle lacks a high-end player like Johnson. Thomas saw action as a three-technique at South Carolina as well as end and could be used similarly by Fuller.

Areas of improvement: Odell Haggins must continue to develop some of the true and redshirt freshmen, including Malcolm Ray and Shambre Jackson. How much can Tru Thompson and Jarrett Jackson contribute? Neither appear to be ready to offer consistent reps but Jackson did get a significant number of reps with the second-team defense over the last two weeks of spring practice after being limited early. Building quality depth here is essential.

Linebacker

What we like: Fuller said Kalen DeLoach was FSU’s “most impactful” linebacker from about the fourth or fifth practice, jumping in and seeing more reps after Emmett Rice’s injury. Amari Gainer slid inside, again showing his versatility, although we feel he may be more effective on the outside. While Stephen Dix Jr. still seems a step slow or tentative the improvement from the 2020 season to the spring is evident. Getting Rice back in time for the 2021 season opener could help this unit significantly. He got better with each game last season and his physical style of play would be of great benefit after his move back to middle linebacker this spring.

Areas of improvement: There are plenty of question marks with this group, with Rice’s injury and availability at the top of the list. FSU appears committed to a 4-2-5 alignment to counter an ACC that features spread offenses or pass-first teams. If Rice returns in August, a combination of he and Gainer would make you feel better about the second level of the defense. Gainer and Dix still look to be finding their way in a new roles. Gainer is being asked, depending on the offensive formation, to take more responsibility as a downhill inside linebacker but seems more comfortable on the edge. Dix, again depending on formation, is being asked to play outside the box and lined up in coverage against a tight end or slot receiver and has struggled in those situations. D.J. Lundy has lined up at both linebacker spots and finding a permanent home for him may be difficult given the lack of numbers at linebacker. Can Jaleel McRae become consistent enough to play a major role in 2021? Both will be counted on to provide depth in the fall.

Defensive back

What we like: Toward the end of the 2020 season, there weren’t enough healthy defensive backs. Now there are so many corners, safeties and nickel options that the staff can implement the move to a 4-2-5, which appears to be the base defense (situations will of course call for a third linebacker or other alignments). The corner options are plentiful: Jarvis Brownlee, Jarrian Jones, Brandon Moore, Jarques McClellion, Akeem Dent and Meiko Dotson are in the mix. It’s the same at safety with Jammie Robinson, who appeared to be a plug-and-play option at nickel, as well as Renardo Green, Travis Jay, Sidney Williams and Brendan Gant. Early enrollee Kevin Knowles looked good as a smaller nickel who could make tackles in space. Fuller praised Williams, who suffered an injury in his senior year of high school, for his play toward the latter part of 2020 and this spring. Robinson and Knowles were very impressive in the spring game and Fuller seemingly has identified his top two nickel-corners. Brownlee looks to have locked up one of the starting positions at corner, and Dent showed improvement over the course of the spring and could provide quality depth behind Brownlee. Jones and Moore have had a spring-long battle at the other corner spot, one that looks like it will carry over into fall camp. Williams was pushing Jay for reps with the first-team defense towards the end of spring practice and the players’ best football is still ahead of them.

Areas of improvement: It’s tough to fully evaluate what FSU has and how it can shake out in the fall when there were so many injuries this spring. Jarques McClellion and Meiko Dotson are two corners who missed the spring or practiced in limited amounts, and both of the transfers are starting options.

The Osceola’s Patrick Burnham and Jerry Kutz contributed