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FSU LB preview: Jackson’s return, Nasirildeen’s move strengthen group

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A change can do some good.

Putting a player in position to make plays, especially if it is where he is naturally suited, can be very good.

That was the mindset this offseason for Florida State as leading tackler Hamsah Nasirildeen will move up from safety to linebacker. It’s not all that often that a leading tackler makes a position change, but this is one that should make the player and the linebacking corps better (and Jaiden Lars-Woodbey’s shift to safety will likely do the same).

Just a few years ago, there were major concerns about the depth at linebacker. Coupled with the return of senior middle linebacker Dontavious Jackson, now there are so many options that a few will be used as stand-up edge rushers in 3-4 defensive fronts.

Let’s take a look at some key questions for FSU’s linebackers in 2019:

How critical is Jackson’s return to 2019 defense?: It can’t be understated that Jackson’s decision to return for his senior season adds stability to the linebacker unit, allowing him to communicate alignment and play calls and direct the middle of the defense.

Jackson recorded 75 tackles and added a sack and an interception last season. There were problems in a number of areas with the defense in 2018, especially in the second half of the year, but Jackson was consistently good against the run (an 88 score by Pro Football Focus). Good defenses need leaders at all three levels, and Jackson provides that as well as production.

Why move Nasirildeen up to linebacker?: Nasirildeen graded at an 88 against the run and a 60 vs. the pass by PFF as a safety last season. He can read running backs and use his instincts to fill rushing lanes. He is athletic and rangy and “fits the position perfect,” said Jackson. Nasirildeen looks better when he’s moving forward or side-to-side, so his new role as an outside linebacker makes sense.

Can Jaleel McRae carry an impressive spring over to the fall? McRae soaks up the game like a sponge, with players raving this spring about the early enrollee and his desire to listen and then take those lessons out on the field. He has “great football awareness,” coach Willie Taggart said this spring. Regardless of whether McRae slides into a starting spot, he made a case for why he should earn playing time this fall.

What can Emmett Rice offer FSU? Rice played in just four games in 2018, recording five tackles and a sack, after suffering a major knee injury in the Walk On’s Independence Bowl. He is capable of being a starter but due to depth could see playing time as a reserve. Rice was a special-teams standout in 2017 and has shown the capability to give FSU quality reps this fall.

How will all of the linebackers be used? This is really interesting. And keep in mind that down and distance is a determining factor. If FSU puts an offense in a third-and-long, for example, the answer could be as few as one (presuming a four-man front, Jackson and six defensive backs). Jackson or Nasirildeen could be the linebackers when FSU goes to a nickel (five defensive back) set. On first downs it’s likely that three or four linebackers will be on the field at the same time, including one lining up as edge an rusher.

It’s tough to picture a defensive front (whether it’s 4-3 or 3-4) without Joshua Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson. Odds are Kaindoh or Robinson would line up on an end with another linebacker on the other edge. Who could those linebackers be? Some options include Leonard Warner, Amari Gainer, Josh Brown or Adonis Thomas. Warner said in April that he had been seeing some practice time at end and felt that it wasn’t a big adjustment. DeCalon Brooks is also an option although it’s more likely that he is an in-the-box linebacker.

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