FSU linebackers coach Chris Marve wasn’t using it as an excuse for his unit or the defense’s play last season but he knows that not having a full complement of 15 practices last spring certainly hampered the development of his group of very young linebackers moving into a new defensive system under a new staff. And despite returning starters Emmett Rice (out indefinitely after being injured two weeks ago) and Amari Gainer from last season, Marve understands the importance of having an entire spring to work with what is still a relatively inexperienced group of linebackers as defensive coordinator Adam Fuller transitions to a 4-2-5 base defense.
“I think when it comes to any sport, particularly football, you get a gauge of who your players are in offseason workouts,” said Marve of having a full off-season including spring practice. “Who they are from a character standpoint, their work ethic, how they respond to adversity. But one thing that’s unique about this game, particularly in our position, is that when you put the pads on, it’s a completely different ball game. Guys who are football players really show up and guys who aren’t, they have room to grow. Having the spring this year has been phenomenal, especially when you juxtapose it to not having one last year. It’s been fun. Last year having an eight month window where you don’t get on the football field and you don’t get on the grass and get the opportunity to teach, compared to two and a half, three-month period this year, it’s not comparable.”
Marve also believes the move to the 4-2-5 should benefit a group that features two redshirt sophomores, Jaleel McRae and Kalen DeLoach, along with two redshirt freshmen, D.J. Lundy and Stephen Dix Jr.
“It’s Coach Fuller’s vision and, with the personnel that we have, we feel it suits us the best,” Marve said of the 4-2-5 alignment. “It’s been really fun to watch these guys fly around because more than anything the players that we have are students of the game. So whatever we give them, whatever we try to teach or we try to implement, they absorb it. It’s been fun to watch.”
And while the scheme may be different than it was a year ago the responsibilities for his linebackers largely remain the same.
“Without giving too much away, I think that our system, or a defensive system for that matter, requires and demands a lot from linebackers,” said Marve. “The communication element, seeing the big picture, processing information pre-snap and being able to communicate to the front and to the back end. That hasn’t changed at all. That’s the expectation and that will continue to be the expectation moving forward.”
With Rice out, Dix has moved into a role with the first-team defense and Lundy has been asked to slide over from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker.
“One thing I think that’s really unique about the linebackers is that just like the rest of the team our standard is excellent,” said Marve of the four underclassmen. “These guys, they work incessantly to improve. You talked about youth, but most of the guys in that room played last year and so they have game experience. I think from an age standpoint, yes, that’s true, but these guys have played in ACC football games. So they’re not young anymore. It’s really fun to watch them play and connect with chemistry, they really love each other. They compete with one another and I think that’s really good and healthy for a linebacker room.”
When asked about the development of Dix, Marve seemed genuinely excited.
“Stephen, he’s one of those young men that I was saying that played in games last year a significant amount,” said Marve. “So even though he may be young from an age standpoint, from a playing standpoint, he has grown tremendously. One thing that I’ve noticed about him this spring is that you can tell that the game is slowing down a little bit. When you’re in high school and you’re the best player on your team, you’re usually moving faster and more physical and just more explosive than everybody else on the field. When you get to Florida State, you’re just one of everybody else that’s on the team who’s equally the athlete that you are, if not better. So what he learned, especially as an early enrollee, is that he has room to grow. The thing that I’ve been really impressed and pleased with from last year to now is that he’s put in the work. One thing that’s impressive about him, he works extremely hard. He’s a student of the game, he’s passionate about doing the little things right. And if you ask any one of his teammates or any of the coaches, he has the respect of absolutely everybody because of how he goes about his business. He’s fun to coach.”
Gainer, who is now the leader of the group on the field in the absence of Rice, has also continued to improve this spring.
“He has had a really good spring,” said Marve. “He’s improving significantly in the fundamentals. He’s a tremendous athlete and I think that he knows he can improve in the fundamental areas of his game. He has a tremendous amount of potential but he doesn’t live in that, he lives in the work. He grinds extremely hard, his work ethic is really high and he’s a guy when you see him at practice, you can tell that he’s giving his best. Guys like that are fun to coach and it’s been a joy to just be around him.”