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Sizing up the Seminoles: Is it fair to expect a step forward in run defense?

Florida State had its worst run defense in more than a decade as the Seminoles allowed 199.2 yards per game, ranking 97th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Not since 2009, when the Seminoles were ranked 108thagainst the run, have they ranked that low.

FSU couldn’t stop the run last year. Will it be better or is there simply nowhere to go but up?

Bob Ferrante: There are reasons to think FSU will improve here but it definitely remains to be seen how dramatic the improvement will be. It is cliché to state that great defenses focus on stopping the run first and making teams one dimensional. But there is truth in the numbers as Mark Stoops’ FSU defenses in 2010 (ranked 29th vs. run), 2011 (second vs. run) and 2012 (third vs. run) put the Seminoles in position to win games as well as an ACC title in 2013. FSU’s 2013 national title team under Jeremy Pruitt was 18th vs. run. FSU has been up and down as a run defense since then, including 48th in 2018 and 54th in 2019 with Harlon Barnett as coordinator.

Why will FSU be better against the run in 2021? Some factors include the return of linebacker Emmett Rice, who seemed to play better with each week. Rice was exhibit A of how a player grasped Adam Fuller’s defensive schemes but also how it took time to do so. Now given a full spring as well as a full year in the strength and conditioning program, players should be more comfortable and understand gap assignments and responsibilities. 

An influx of transfers — from Jermaine Johnson to Keir Thomas and Marcus Cushnie — are viewed as helping re-energize the pass rush. But the trio as well as returning linemen like Fabien Lovett and Robert Cooper will also be looked at to stuff the run. The potential combination of Rice and Amari Gainer offers athleticism and toughness, while Jammie Robinson could be a thumper over the middle as either a safety or nickel.

With FSU’s defense in 2021, the expectations must be realistic. This won’t be a top-25 run defense. The ACC features 13 returning quarterbacks, but FSU will face teams like Notre Dame, North Carolina, NC State and Boston College who seek to achieve a run-pass balance. FSU can measure its improvement not just in rushing yards allowed over 60 minutes but in producing stops on third-and-short. 

Pat Burnham: Last year the defensive front was supposed to the strength of the FSU defense. It wasn’t. Marvin Wilson and Cory Durden were supposed to be dominant inside players in what was each players “money” year. They weren’t. Both were thought to be leaders of not only the defense but the entire football team only to see them opt out before the season was over. And honestly the defense might have been better served if they had not played at all because when they were on the field they weren’t productive. Both have moved on — Wilson to the NFL and Durden to NC State — along with last year’s starting defensive ends, Josh Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson, who were both taken in the NFL draft.

So what can we expect from the FSU run defense in head coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller’s second season? I think the Seminoles will see improvement and not just because they couldn’t get any worse than they were in 2020.

First, the defensive front seven is still very young and, just like the team as a whole, should be better in its second season under this staff that also included an entire off-season conditioning program (winter and summer) along with a full complement of 15 spring practices. Because of this we should see signs of improvement early. Last season you saw the defense struggle to play like the defense was, well, coordinated. Too many times it seemed that players weren’t in the right gap, didn’t play the run inside-out, didn’t come to balance when attempting to tackle, didn’t keep the ball carrier in front of them while waiting for the cavalry to arrive and didn’t seem to understand where their help was coming from (the inside or the outside) when trying to keep ball carriers in front of them. All of those things should improve with time on the practice field and less of a rotating roster due to players missing games or practices (and of course players opting out).

On the defensive line, FSU should get some much needed leadership and production from UGA transfer Jermaine Johnson. He was dominant in spring practice and his size and length should benefit against the run. Keir Thomas was a very productive player for South Carolina, playing at either tackle or end for the Gamecocks. He missed spring practice because of injury but a healthy Thomas joining Johnson is an upgrade personnel-wise on the front four. Defensive tackle Fabien Lovett had the best spring of any of FSU’s interior linemen and needs to carry and sustain that momentum this fall. Nose tackle Robert Cooper has proven himself at times to be a very good player against the run on first and second down. The staff would like to see him be more dynamic (make a play after taking care of his gap responsibility) and coming off an entire off-season program he may be ready to take the next step. Another thing that could make the run defense better is depth. For all of the aforementioned reasons last year, including the roster being very young at every position, there was none. Can Derrick McLendon, Dennis Briggs Jr., Quashon Fuller, Josh Farmer or Tru Thompson take the next step in their development? If a couple of these guys step it could help the front four create a seven- or eight-man rotation up front, which should help keep players fresh and ready to go.

The real questions are at linebacker. Will Emmett Rice return from a knee injury? He consistently got better with each game last year and seemed to get more comfortable with Fuller’s scheme. Having him healthy and line up at the middle linebacker spot will be a huge plus for the defense. How do Amari Gainer and Stephen Dix develop from one year to the next? At times this spring both players looked uncomfortable and out of place in Fuller’s new 4-2-5 alignment. Gainer, at least in the spring, was being asked to be a downhill, in-the-box, linebacker against certain formations with Dix being bumped out to line up to cover a slot receiver. Gainer had mostly lined up on the perimeter of the defense as an outside linebacker until this spring and Dix as the downhill middle linebacker. Do they have the versatility to be effective inside and outside the box? If the answer is yes, the run defense will better. If not the front four better be dominant and the secondary full of sure tacklers. Kalen DeLoach, Jaleel McRae, DJ Lundy and Jayion McCluster all came into the program highly regarded and now need to be able to at least provide reliable depth to this position group.

South Carolina transfer Jammie Robinson will play the Nickel-Sam position (a defensive back lined up where the SAM linebacker would otherwise be in a 4-3 defense) and should add more speed to the defense in the box, which could help against today’s spread, run-pass option offenses. He looked good in the spring and proved himself as a sure-tackler with the Gamecocks. The defensive backfield in general needs to improve on the angles they take getting to the ball carrier and understanding whether they have help coming from the inside or outside. They got better in both areas as the 2020 season progressed and there are several players in the secondary that have chances to be really good all-around football players — Jarvis Brownlee, Brendan Gant, Travis Jay, Sidney Williams and others — not just pass defenders.

Improvement is a must for a number of reasons, for both the team and individuals, and statistically speaking I think we will see it. And hopefully one of the statistics that will benefit from that in a positive way is in the win column.

Jerry Kutz: I couldn’t agree with Bob and Pat more but rather than rehash what they said about the past, the transfers and another year to soak in Adam Fuller’s scheme, here’s my two cents, paraphrasing Mickey Andrews’ most frequent sayings: “Football is about want to. It is a battle of wills. They can score if you won’t let them. You can’t be blocked if you won’t let them. The only important defensive adjustment is right there on your chinstrap.”

Buckle up, butter cup.

It is not trite to say, we’ve lacked “want to.” With the exception of the North Carolina game, we’ve capitulated to the stronger will too often.

I’m hopeful we’ll see improvement in this area and have reason to believe we will.

Why? Because sometimes you get addition by subtraction and as much as I liked some of the guys who left for the NFL or greener pastures as people, Adam Fuller may now have a more receptive audience from these transfers and signees who have chosen to play for him and who say they see themselves fitting into his scheme.

One more cornerstone of defensive philosophy Pat and Bob mentioned is the extra year for Fuller to vet his players and for the players to learn his scheme. Andrews’ assistant Jim Gladden used to call it “paralysis by analysis.” You can’t turn yourself loose and play with reckless abandon until you know the scheme and, as Pat said, where your help is coming from. It will take a minute for all these transfers and newcomers to merge with the returning veterans but it’s likely to happen quickly as they all appear bought in.