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Midseason report: Defense

The Osceola staff will take a position by position look at Florida State at the midpoint of the 2021 season. FSU’s bye week is well timed, allowing players to recover and recharge and coaches to recruit. The Seminoles play host to UMass on Oct. 23 (noon on ACC Network) before diving back in to ACC play at Clemson.

FSU’s scoring defense is ranked 95th at 30.3 points per game, but it’s even lower when evaluating just the Power 5 opponents (32.4). Adam Fuller’s defense has allowed 30 or more points to every P5 team with the exception of UNC (in 2020 and last Saturday) as well as the 2020 opener vs. Georgia Tech. The Seminoles have improved on third- and fourth-down defense after a shaky start, which is a main reason why FSU pulled off the upset at UNC.

Let’s take a look at each position, first with some of the key stats and then what we’ve liked, what we haven’t liked and what we’d like to see in the second half of the season.

Defensive ends

The numbers: Jermaine Johnson has 44 tackles, seven sacks and nine tackles for loss. Keir Thomas has 16 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack, Derrick McLendon II has eight tackles and two sacks, Quashon Fuller has three tackles and a sack, and Marcus Cushnie has one tackle.

Bob Ferrante: We thought Johnson would set the tone throughout the offseason for the line and he has more than delivered. Johnson has brought energy and leadership to the Seminoles, who have lacked a high-end pass rusher since Brian Burns departed early for the NFL after the 2018 season. Coaches have also praised Thomas for how he played against Syracuse and Louisville, and his ability to slide to tackle could be valuable in the second half of the year. Having veterans like Johnson and Thomas have helped the development of McLendon and Fuller. Cushnie has played very little in what has been a transition from FCS to P5 football but has another year he can play with FSU in 2022.

Pat Burnham: It is hard to believe the Seminoles lost two NFL defensive ends from last year’s defense and are actually better at those two positions than they were a year ago. Johnson and Thomas have been as good if not better than advertised heading into this season. The pair have combined for more sacks in six games than the entire defense did in 2020 and have brought some much-needed leadership to the defensive front and to the defense as a whole. Quashon Fuller has flashed at times and his continued development in the second half is crucial to the rotation at the position as well of that of Derrick McLendon. If Fuller and McLendon provide production in backup roles it will help keep Johnson and Thomas fresh as the Seminoles hit the homestretch. Marcus Cushnie was a curious take through the transfer portal late in the off-season and hasn’t been much of a factor.

Jerry Kutz: I’m with Pat. What a difference a year makes with the addition of transfers Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas, who bring both leadership and production to the position. Each day at practice we see their impact with Fuller and McLendon and promising freshmen Patrick Payton and George Wilson. Think back to when news broke that players could transfer between schools and how traditional football aficionados feared transfers as being damaged goods. Quite the contrary is evident at this position and others across the Seminoles’ lineup. Johnson and Thomas, as well as defensive tackle Fabien Lovett and safety Jammie Robinson, became the emotional leaders of this defense in preseason camp.

Defensive tackles

The numbers: Robert Cooper has 21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and .5 sacks. Fabien Lovett has 18 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Malcolm Ray has 10 tackles and a tackle for loss. Jarrett Jackson has nine tackles. Dennis Briggs Jr. had six tackles before a season-ending injury. Joshua Farmer has a tackle.

Bob Ferrante: The injury to Briggs (on a chop block) limits FSU’s capabilities up front. Lovett has made a significant step forward in year 2 at FSU. Cooper is the lightest he has been in his FSU career and is also having his best season. Jackson has missed a few games and could be a solid reserve, while Ray saw more playing time at UNC in the absence of Jackson. Odell Haggins is coaching Farmer hard, a sign of the talent he sees in the true freshman as well as the need for him to play in the second half of the season.

Pat Burnham: This inside defensive tackle positions have also performed better through the first half of the season than they did through any extended stretch of last season and that is after FSU lost two starters from those two positions from last year’s squad. Briggs was quietly having a very solid season before being injured by an illegal block against Louisville. His absence in the second half of the season will hurt the FSU defense but he certainly looks to have a bright future. Lovett has had an outstanding season despite not being totally healthy. This off week was big for him and the entire defense but a healthy Lovett has shown he has the capability of playing dominant football in stretches. Robert Cooper has been more consistent and productive then he was a season ago. Malcolm Ray has exceeded expectations and needs to continue to provide quality reps inside as his playing time should only increase without Briggs. Jackson and Farmer both figure to be bigger contributors in the second half of the season than they were the first and anything the defense gets from them would be considered a bonus.

Jerry Kutz: Lovett deserves a medal, not just for fighting through injury to play but for his influence helping younger linemen prepare to play before they are ready. We worried about depth at this position coming into the season and darned if injuries didn’t take down Lovett and Dennis Briggs, who was developing exceptionally well. Without Briggs and Lovett in the lineup at practice, FSU had to go to guys we didn’t think were ready to contribute yet, as Pat said. Give Odell Haggins and Lovett credit for helping get Jackson, Ray and Farmer ready to play and play pretty darn well. Good to have Lovett back in the lineup. NC State, Clemson and Boston College, in particular, want to wad up and run it, which will be a test of strength and endurance on the front.

Linebackers

The numbers: Amari Gainer has 35 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Kalen DeLoach has 35 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. D.J. Lundy has 30 tackles and two tackles for loss. Stephen Dix Jr. has nine tackles. Cortez Andrews has three tackles.

Bob Ferrante: DeLoach is essentially a bigger safety who is a physical run-stopper. The coaching staff seems to favor using primarily DeLoach and Lundy, while Gainer and Dix have seen less and less playing time. Lundy is maybe more of a middle linebacker but is asked to cover more of the field for FSU. There is very little depth at linebacker, so developing younger prospects in the second half of 2021 will be valuable. With the redshirt rule, a player can participate in up to four games without losing a season of eligibility and the staff may want to take a look at Andrews or Jadarius Green-McKnight .

Pat Burnham: There were questions coming into the season about every position group entering the season but one that is still looking for answers are the linebackers. DeLoach has been the best of the bunch and should only get better. He has been solid against the run but needs to get more dependable in pass coverage. Amari Gainer has been productive and plays hard but really only seems comfortable when playing at the SAM spot in FSU’s base 4-3 alignment, which it hasn’t used as much as it did last year but something you might see more of with Boston College and NC State both having strong running games. DJ Lundy has shown flashes of being a physical between-the-tackles run stuffer who will only get better with more experience. This was not a deep position group coming into the season and it is not any deeper halfway though the season.

Jerry Kutz: We’ve worried about linebacker at Florida State ever since Telvin Smith matriculated it seems. Linebacker used to be a strength of the Seminoles’ football program, going back to 1962, when Gene McDowell became FSU’s first AP All-American, but hasn’t been for years. We grew accustomed to colorful linebackers, like Mike “knock em flat” Blatt, prowling the prairie, Dale McCullers (26 tackles against UF followed the next week by 29 against TA&M), Aaron Carter, Paul Piurowski and Reggie Herring, Jesse Solomon, Paul McGowan and of course Marvin Jones, Derrick Brooks, Ken Alexander and Kirk Carruthers all on one team. How about Ernie Sims!

But that was then before offenses began to spread the field and led head coaches like Jimbo Fisher to wonder if the traditional linebacker position — the one I grew up loving — was obsolete. For a while, FSU lost its commitment to recruiting the position, recruits who frequently grew into defensive linemen. The word that comes to mind when thinking about those monsters is instinct. Each of them had “football instincts”, what we now call high football IQ. I question how instinctive our current group is or how well prepared.

Having said that, FSU’s linebackers are better than they’ve been in recent years. Agree with Pat and Bob. While Kalen DeLoach and Amari Gainer both have 35 tackles, DeLoach looks more comfortable doing it. DeLoach has the speed to cover and has the ass to make a game-saving goal-line tackle against 230-pound Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader but looks to me like he also has a linebacker IQ. Love Gainer in so many ways but, like Pat said, he and Dix just do not look as comfortable. Lundy and Cortez Andrews are run stuffers between the tackles. I’d like to see the 250-pounders drop 15 and work on getting quickness in the offseason so they can be more effective in coverage and containment. Or let nature take its course. Eat them hamburgers and move up a level on the front.

Boston College and NC State like to wad up, which plays to Lundy and Andrews’ strengths. I see FSU playing a lot of nickel or dime coverage against those teams who want to spread the field, utilizing Robinson and other defensive backs in the box with DeLoach.

Defensive backs

The numbers: Jammie Robinson has 45 tackles, four tackles for loss and three pass breakups. Sidney Williams has 32 tackles and one interception. Jarvis Brownlee has 17 tackles and a pass breakup. Travis Jay has 16 tackles and two interceptions. Jarrian Jones has 14 tackles and an interception. Renardo Green and Brendan Gant each have 13 tackles. Meiko Dotson has 12 tackles. Akeem Dent has 11 tackles. Jarques McClellion has seven tackles. Omarion Cooper and Kevin Knowles each have three tackles.

Bob Ferrante: A shaky September but now a positive turn in October. What looked like FSU’s deepest and best position group was hit by injury and has struggled. Robinson has been the group’s best player, a nickel-safety who likes to play downhill and is good at stopping the run. With Knowles’ emergence at nickel, Robinson can focus more at safety. Jones’ interception against UNC was a turning point for his season and for the defense. The cliché of defensive backs needing a short memory may be true especially for this group. Brownlee and Jones need to forget about their struggles over the course of the first half of 2021 and focus on the play ahead.

Pat Burnham: This group has played somewhat better than last year’s group although it still has a tendency to give up plays for huge chunks of yardage through the air. That being said the secondary has played its best football in a couple of seasons its last two games and more specifically its last six quarters. Syracuse had no luck in the second half trying to pass against FSU and UNC’s Sam Howell has his worst outing of the season against FSU. The secondary now must validate who it is, the unit that gave up way too many big plays in its first four and half games and the unit we saw in its last two. One area the unit has improved in compared to last year is tackling, particularly in run support, where Robinson and Brownlee have been strong. Williams looks to have the potential to grow into a very good ACC safety. The group is trending in the right direction and should be able to build on their development against UMass and Clemson, both whom aren’t very good throwing the ball.

Jerry Kutz: A secondary that looked inept early has found some footing of late. There’s some potential here too. Robinson is a baller, whether in the field or in the box supporting run. Knowles, a true freshman, has been surprisingly consistent. While Brownlee has been burnt in man coverage, the kid is a very good open-field tackler, a classic boundary corner. Redshirt freshman Travis Jay shows promise at field corner. Sidney Williams and Brendan Gant have had costly mistakes of emotion. Hopefully they learn from them. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller and defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson have a pool of talent to draw from and a very good defensive analyst in Randy Shannon to assist them in putting these young players in the right place for success in the back half of the schedule.