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Season flashback: FSU’s defensive progress

Florida State’s season ended at 5-7, short of a bowl game, but a season that showed improvement in a number of areas as well as a rivalry win over Miami. We’ll take a look at four areas of defensive progress below. Four areas of offensive progress ran on Sunday.

Affect the quarterback

It’s not just sacks, it’s making quarterbacks feel the pressure and be uncomfortable. Led by Jermaine Johnson (12 sacks) and Keir Thomas (6.5 sacks), FSU racked up 33 sacks in 2021 after recording just nine in nine games in 2020. The sack total put FSU tied for 38th in the FBS in sacks compared to tied for 104th a year ago.

The difference was dramatic compared to a year ago and, while Johnson and Thomas deserve much of the praise for the production and leadership, eight other players had at least a full sack. Among those: Derrick McLendon (3.5), Fabien Lovett (2) and Malcolm Ray (1.5). It will hurt to lose players like Johnson and Thomas, so FSU coaches will go hunting in the portal for pass rushers but young talent at end and tackle developed in 2022 and those guys are eligible to return next fall (Lovett has not yet announced his intentions).

There were also 44 quarterback hurries, including Thomas’ 15 and Johnson’s 12. A hurry is subjective and perhaps a stat that isn’t documented as well unless coaches (or media) review every play and update the numbers from what is done in real time on game days. Bottom line: Sacks are the goal but overall pressure is ideal and forces quarterbacks to make mistakes. Which brings us to takeaways.

Takeaways

The Seminoles had 14 interceptions, including a streak of eight straight games to close the season (three came in the first half at Florida). FSU’s 14 interceptions ranks tied for 21st, and the defense was one shy of joining a large group of teams at 10th (Notre Dame, NC State and Pittsburgh each had 15).

Similar to the sack totals, FSU’s defensive backs had the most interceptions but eight players had a pick. Jammie Robinson led the way with four, while Jarvis Brownlee and Omarion Cooper had two. The great news is all of the defensive backs are eligible to return in 2022.

FSU also forced eight fumbles, with six being recovered (Johnson and Robinson accounted for two apiece).

Red-zone success

Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said late in the season that the Seminoles played their best with their backs against the wall. For all of the shortcomings on third down, and sometimes on fourth down, FSU played quite well inside the 20-yard line.

The Seminoles’ opponents scored on just 24 of 34 red-zone chances (70.59 percent conversion rate), which puts them in sixth in the FBS. FSU didn’t do a good enough job of forcing field-goal attempted , with 21 of those 24 scores going for touchdowns.

But if it felt like in October and November that the defense was making big plays in the red zone, it’s indeed the case. There were memorable plays, such as Kalen DeLoach’s goal-line stop on fourth down vs. Syracuse, interceptions at North Carolina and UMass, while FSU halted a BC drive, too. (And DeLoach was recently named FSU’s most improved defensive player.)

Points per game

Florida State gave up 36 points per game in 2020. The Seminoles allowed 26.5 points in 2021, a full touchdown and a field goal better. FSU gave up 37.5 points in 2020 to the eight Power 5 opponents. This fall, the number slid to 29.5 vs. P5 teams (removing UMass and Jacksonville State).

Why? The reasons listed above — pressuring the quarterback, takeaways and red-zone success — as well as FSU having a healthier team down the stretch this fall compared to 2020. The Seminoles also benefited from being in year 2 under Fuller and their position coaches.

There’s plenty to critique with the defense. But there was fight and there was improvement: In six of FSU’s last seven games, the defense held the opponent under 30 points.