Sizing up the Seminoles: Depth in secondary offers options in nickel packages

Florida State’s pass defense received an infusion of talent up front with the likes of transfers Jermaine Johnson, Keir Thomas and Marcus Cushnie. That is matched with a trio of transfer defensive backs in Jammie Robinson, Brandon Moore and Jarques McClellion. Coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller made it a priority to bring in experience to shore up the front and secondary. The Seminoles were 98th in the FBS (257 pass yards allowed per game) so, similar to the run defense, there’s nowhere to go but up.

FSU’s deepest position is likely defensive back. If the Seminoles go nickel often, who should be the starting five?

Patrick Burnham: Gone from last year’s team are cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. and safety Hamsah Nasirildeen but almost everyone else returns from a defensive backfield that secondary coach Marcus Woodson said was the most talented group he had ever been around in his coaching career. And while the FSU defense struggled to defend the pass for various reasons last year — lack of a consistent pass rush, injury and Covid-related absences, which depleted depth at all four positions — the secondary did seem to get better as the season progressed from the press box (if not the stats page). With the additions of South Carolina transfer Jammie Robinson and UCF cornerback Brandon Moore, both of whom played at high levels at their previous schools, the 2021 secondary might have as much potential as the 2020 group. The FSU secondary will also be much more experienced than it was a year ago after seeing several younger players, including a couple of true freshmen, pressed into action earlier than anticipated. And while there may have been some short-term pain felt because of that there is reason to believe there may be some long-term gains made in the secondary that could make themselves evident this season.

FSU experimented with a 4-2-5 base-nickel defense in the spring and that move could eventually prove to be successful but was likely necessary because of what looks to be a surplus of depth in the backfield and a lack of it at linebacker.

Robinson will enter fall camp as the starter at the hybrid safety-linebacker nickel spot. FSU should be able to take advantage of having a faster player near the line scrimmage against the run, and Robinson will match up more favorably against slot receivers against the pass than most linebackers would. True freshman Kevin Knowles II enrolled early and looks to have nailed down the second-team spot behind Robinson. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller praised Knowles several times during spring practice and should only get better with experience.

There should be some good competition in fall camp at the two cornerback spots. Jarvis Brownlee started four of the eight games he played in last year and looks to be a rising star in the ACC. He will head into camp as the starter at the field corner spot. A host of players, including Akeem Dent, Meiko Dotson and Jarques McClellion, will compete for a spot on the two-deep behind Brownlee in camp.

Moore and Jarrian Jones split time at the boundary corner spot in the spring and will likely enter fall camp as co-starters. Jones has more experience in the FSU defense and might be a little better than Moore in run support. Moore is the more experienced of the two and made his reputation as a true lockdown man-to-man corner at UCF.

Coming out of spring ball there looks to be plenty of competition at both the strong and free safety spots. Brendan Gant and Renardo Green will likely fight it out at the strong safety spot with Jadarius Green-McKnight looking to make the two-deep. Gant has the size and is physical enough to walk down and play in the box if FSU wants to show an eight-man front. Green started his career as a corner at FSU and should match up favorably against slot receivers and running backs against the pass.

Travis Jay and Sidney Williams had a great battle in spring practice to see who will be the starter at free safety and that will continue through fall camp. Jay is a tremendous athlete who has all the physical attributes to be an impact player but his progress was slowed by injuries in 2020. Williams was forced into action as a true freshman and seemingly got better in each game. He finished the year with 22 tackles and was even more impressive in the spring. Like the strong safety spot, this could turn into a position of depth for FSU.

On paper this looks to be a talented group with tons of potential but that must be validated on Saturdays this fall. If the secondary can play like Fuller and Woodson think they can, the FSU defense could look very different than it did a year ago, which would be a welcome change to FSU fans.

Bob Ferrante: There’s little doubting the talent in the defensive back room. It’s filled with veterans who have starting experience in the SEC, some young corners and safeties who have made an early impression at FSU and also quite a few unknowns. 

There was plenty of offseason speculation about FSU’s need for a linebacker via the transfer portal, but two developments should alleviate some of those concerns: FSU often showed a 4-2-5 alignment in the spring and also welcomed in Maryland transfer linebacker Cortez Andrews (a Tallahassee Godby graduate who is 6-foot-1, 244 pounds and played 10 games over two seasons for the Terrapins). We have also seen linebacker Emmett Rice work a recruiting camp without a knee brace, an encouraging sign for him going into the preseason practice. In a two-linebacker alignment, it’s fair to expect Rice and Amari Gainer to start.

If FSU indeed goes nickel in a number of first downs as well as other situations, it’s a great debate as to who starts where. A few players could be penciled in as first-teamers heading into camp, notably Jarvis Brownlee at corner and Jammie Robinson at nickel. 

Jarrian Jones battled injuries throughout 2020 and appears ready to fight for a starting job at the other corner, although transfers like Brandon Moore and Meiko Dotson are coming off injuries and should challenge for playing time. If competition fuels excellence at a position, and great FSU teams of years past did, there is plenty to like about Brownlee, Jones, Moore and Dotson. And those veterans should help push Akeem Dent, a five-star who is now in year three at FSU. 

Safety should be a fun competition and hopefully some of the top players in the group are healthy after missing time last season, in the spring or both. Travis Jay’s speed and athleticism has been fun watch on the field. Renardo Green has five starts under his belt from 2020 and was often quite productive (nine tackles vs. Georgia Tech). Jay and Green are my early picks to start at safety, although Sidney Williams is a second-year player to watch.

Among freshmen, it’s tough to evaluate how they fit until we see them in camp. Kevin Knowles has an edge as an early enrollee, showing he could move up and aggressively make tackles on short pass plays or in run support. Knowles may be a backup to Robinson in the fall but should see playing time this fall and is a long-term option at nickel.

Jerry Kutz: When a team struggles on defense, including in the secondary, it’s hard to imagine there is talent and depth in the secondary. But I agree with Bob and Pat, FSU has enough talent and depth to be better than they were last year. Four things have to happen for the secondary to reach its potential.

  • They needed time to learn Adam Fuller’s scheme and commit to the technique their secondary coach Marcus Woodson is teaching, which must fit the skill sets of these players. Having a full spring went a long way to that end, for the veteran players transfers alike. Little to no spring with the new coaching staff made 2020 worse than it otherwise would have been.
  • The second big key to improved play, as Pat and Bob noted, is the development of a pass rush. Its critical. Give the coaches credit for emphasizing that need in the portal and with freshmen edge rushers.
  • The third key is linebacker play. I like what I saw in the spring with safety/nickel Jammie Robinson slipping down in the box. If Emmet Rice can play at full speed this fall alongside Amari Gainer and Robinson, the ‘Noles could be considerably more versatile than they were a year ago, which could add to the pass rush too. As noted, Rice participated in the summer camps and looked to be further along in his rehab than expected.
  • The fourth area is morale. Depth is great if your players have the right attitude. Not as great if they don’t. Was just talking with Mickey Andrews about the magic sauce of the Dynasty Era and he pointed to practice competition. The players brought competitive juice to Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices, competitive juice that usually is reserved for Saturday. Andrews emphasized that it was the players who made practice fun by challenging each other every day. If you didn’t bring your A game, someone would take your job. Every day the players raised the bar and they got better in the process. I was on the practice field most days and can tell you Tuesday was more enjoyable to watch than Saturday because there was more talent and competition on the practice field than all but a few opponents could line up on the game field. While Andrews is correct, it was the players who brought the juice, give the Bowden era coaching staff credit for nurturing the atmosphere and allowing it to grow. That’s coaching.

One way or the other, these questions will be answered in 2021 and they will be answered by the morale of the troops.

Norvell took a huge step forward in that regard by flipping the roster, bringing in guys with the skill sets needed and who are committed to playing for this coaching staff. Nearly half of next year’s two-deep roster will be transfers, many of whom have shown a propensity to lead. The remaining question is: Will they come together? That’s the magic sauce, and the unknown, and what makes team sports so fun to watch.

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