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Final thoughts: FSU DE greats share appreciation of Johnson

On Fridays in football season we take a look back at some of the key storylines of Florida State football. The Seminoles face Florida on Saturday at noon (ESPN) with a spot in a bowl on the line as well as the chance to send the opponent into a longer offseason.

Pressure the passer

Florida State’s defense struggled for the past few years and the lack of a pass rush was at the root of the troubles. The Seminoles couldn’t pressure quarterbacks, prompting them to have more time to throw and putting the secondary in a position to cover receivers longer.

What was missing in 2020 (just nine sacks) was any substantial pass rush, and it was clearly a priority of coach Mike Norvell, defensive coordinator Adam Fuller and the rest of the staff. It wasn’t long after Jermaine Johnson entered the transfer portal before FSU made contact. But Norvell made the call to Johnson and made an impression.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we were lacking here, we need you here,’ “ Johnson said in January after his arrival in Tallahassee. “It was, ‘This is the kind of person that you are, this is the kind of character that I hear that you have. And that fits well with the program. And I think we can do special things together.’ And I agree.”

Johnson and FSU indeed have done some special things. Even during FSU’s 0-4 September, Johnson’s resolve and voice were firm: Hard work in practice and continuing to push would lead to a turnaround. He was productive, yes, on Saturdays but the work ethic showed up during the week. With Johnson and Keir Thomas leading the charge, FSU has 32 sacks in 11 games this fall.

The energy is there on game days as Johnson logs a high number of snaps. He’s delivered 11 sacks and 17 tackles for loss, which leads the ACC in both categories. It’s the most tackles for a Seminole since DeMarcus Walker had 16 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2016. And his 64 tackles are the most of any Power 5 defensive lineman this season.

All of that got us looking at the record books. Johnson is up there and he has at least one more game but perhaps a bowl game if the Seminoles knock off the Gators. If he gets just a share of sack in Gainesville, Johnson will have 11.5 and will statistically be among the top 10 in FSU history. Johnson will be right there with names like Ron Simmons (12 in 1977) and Jamal Reynolds (12 in 2000).

A few of the names well ahead of him are Peter Boulware (19 in 1996), Andre Wadsworth (16 in 1997), Walker (16 in 2016) as well as Reinard Wilson (13.5 in 1996), Everette Brown (13.5 in 2008) and Brandon Jenkins (13.5 in 2010). Some of FSU’s pass rush greats have a mutual appreciation for what Johnson has done this fall.

“It’s obvious and easy to see that he has great pursuit of the ball, great pad level,” Wadsworth told the Osceola this week. “He turns the corner very well and he uses his hands well. But the thing that stands out to me is that he seems like he has a very high mental state and approach to the game. He’s not just relying on all his physical attributes.”

That’s the thing about Johnson. He’s one of the most physically imposing players on the defense, the guy you would half-jokingly say, “Let’s have him be the first off the bus.” But Johnson uses his instincts as well as conditioning to bring it play after play.

“He plays hard like me and Boulware,” Wilson told the Osceola this week. “It looks like his motor keeps going. I see him running down plays from behind. He’s all in and trying to help his team win. … He’s a great pass rusher. He has good burst off the ball and he keeps coming.”

You won’t see Johnson win many awards in December. That’s because the Bednarik, Lombardi and other awards are typically presented to the nation’s top defensive player on a playoff or top-10 team. Johnson will have to settle for leaving a legacy of helping strengthen the Seminoles’ foundation under Norvell as well as likely an ACC defensive player of the year trophy and some All-America recognition.

FSU has allowed 26.7 points per game in 2021, which is 73rd in the nation. But remember what it was in 2020? FSU gave up 36 points per game, 105th nationally. Those numbers should not be a huge source of pride, considering the high FSU standard, but they show considerable improvement, truly a touchdown and a field goal less on the scoreboard for an opponent per game. 

And FSU’s streak of seven straight games with an interception is also connected to the pass rush. As was Kalen DeLoach’s safety, which was connected to Johnson’s pressure on BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

When FSU landed this large group of transfers, there was a feeling most would start, be in the two-deep and a majority would be productive. Johnson and Thomas (6.5 sacks this season, including 5.5 in the last four games) have had the most considerable impact. Where would the Seminoles be without Johnson or Thomas? The pass rush wouldn’t be very good, the defense would have struggled and the record wouldn’t be 5-6. 

What they’ve left as a legacy in one season in Tallahassee is nothing short of impressive, especially given the 0-4 start but the chance to wrap up the regular season with three wins — and victories over Miami and (potentially) Florida. 

“We have an opportunity to make history,” Johnson said on Wednesday. “I think that motivates us all. We’re halfway there to winning the state. I’m pretty confident that we’ll do that.”

Wins over rivals. Building the culture and setting up Norvell and the staff for the future. And, yes, it doesn’t hurt that recruits, or defensive linemen in the transfer portal, see what the coaches have done with Johnson and Thomas.

Remember November

Norvell is 16-4 in November games. That includes two losses in 2020 (Pittsburgh and at NC State) and another in 2021 (NC State) but also wins over Miami and at Boston College. At Memphis, Norvell’s teams were unbeaten from 2017-19. What does Norvell’s November record mean? Some ideas: His teams fight through the end of the season, his teams at Memphis had depth to overcome injuries and maybe they feel they have plenty to play for in terms of a league title or bowl opportunities. 

Red zone success

The Seminoles have converted 29 straight red-zone trips, the longest active streak in the country. FSU ranks first in the ACC and 11th in the country with a 71.8 Red Zone touchdown percentage this season (28 of 39). 

On defense, FSU is third in the ACC and ninth in the FBS in red-zone defense by allowing a touchdown or field goal on 70 percent of drives. Fuller was asked about fourth-down defensive success earlier this week, but his answer also referenced red-zone improvement.

“You get some critical stops when you need it,” Fuller said. “We’ve been best this year when our back’s been against the wall. Whether it’s red zone, or sudden changes or critical stops in the fourth quarter. We like to operate like that for all 60 minutes. But we’re not there yet. We’re fighting to be there.”

In the fight to be there, you’d take a quick three-and-out from FSU’s defense all day long. But FSU’s fight in critical situations shows resiliency.