Sizing up the Seminoles: Will transfer DEs spark improved pass rush?

Florida State fans don’t need to know the numbers: The Seminoles couldn’t put pressure on the quarterback let alone record sacks (just nine in nine games in 2020). That’s why it was just as important that they picked up Jermaine Johnson in the transfer portal as landing quarterback McKenzie Milton.

With Jermaine Johnson leading the effort, will FSU’s pass rush be better and why?

Patrick Burnham: The quick answer is yes based off what we saw from Johnson in spring practice alone. He was simply more dominant rushing the passer in spring practice than we have seen from an FSU defensive lineman in the last three years. Secondly, the Seminoles would have to be better at both pressuring and sacking the quarterback because they are in the second year of defensive coordinator Adam Fuller’s system and have had both a full spring practice period and off-season to learn the nuances of rushing the passer and the system itself. They have had more physical and mental reps heading into the 2021 season than they did entering 2020. Thirdly, they would simply have to be better because it would be hard to be worse than they were a year ago when the Seminoles ranked 104th in sacks with just nine on the season. Of course, in today’s spread and RPO-heavy offenses that tend to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker this stat can be misleading. Because of this getting pressure on the passer and forcing quarterbacks to either hurry throws or force them out of the pocket and into making bad decisions can be just as effective, if not more so, than a sack.

Either way, I think FSU will be better at both in 2021. If Johnson is as good against opponents as he was against the FSU offensive line this spring, he will draw some occasional double-teams which will, at times, require help from a running back or tight end. That takes an eligible receiver away from the quarterback and helps lessen the pressure on the secondary leading to tighter coverage. It will also help FSU’s other pass rushers who are now being blocked one-on-one.

Defensive tackle Fabien Lovett showed flashes of being a much more productive and active player in spring practice than he was a season ago and getting a better push from him on the inside of the defense should lead to more pressures and sacks than last season, where FSU had very inconsistent play from the interior spots on the defensive line. A healthy Keir Thomas should also help matters, whether he lines up at DE or DT. He is a proven playmaker having totaled 32 starts and appearing in 47 games at South Carolina (he totaled 19.5 sacks). We haven’t seen him on the field yet but his track record says he will help the defense’s ability to get to the passer. You also have to think that at least one, if not more than one, of FSU’s young defensive lineman — a group that includes Dennis Briggs, Derrick McLendon II, Leonard Warner III or Quashon Fuller — will take the next step in their development and be more productive than they were a season ago.

Bob Ferrante: What do you expect from Jermaine Johnson? Set the edge, set the tone, put pressure on the quarterback. Not much, right? It remains to be seen how many of the transfers will play at the caliber of an All-ACC first-, second- or third-team selection in December. What I’m looking for is transfers like Johnson to set a standard for work ethic in the offseason, lead in the position group on the practice field and game days.

If Johnson can do some or all of those, it will be more effective than what is an overhyped stat of individual sack totals. To Pat’s point, the game is evolving. Quarterbacks aren’t holding on to the ball very long, which minimizes the effectiveness of a pass rush. Or quarterbacks are on the move, which makes a pass rusher’s responsibilities more challenging.

The goal is to make the quarterback uncomfortable and force him into early throws or mistakes. He needs to feel the pressure early and often enough, as well as on third downs, to force opponents into punts or turnovers. Where pass rush will help is on third-and-long, obvious passing situations, as defensive coordinator Adam Fuller can tell Johnson and Co. to get to the quarterback with little worry of a run. FSU has been dreadful on third-and-short or third-and-long, so any improvement will make the job easier for linebackers and defensive backs.

As we watched FSU’s practices this spring, there was curiosity of who else would emerge as a pass rusher. It’s not hard to see what Johnson can do. We had hoped to get a long look at Keir Thomas but he did not practice this spring. I’m curious what Marcus Cushnie can bring and if he can transfer speed and work ethic from the FCS level and leap past G5 level to P5 level. The prospect of a Florida native returning to his home state for two years in Tallahassee is encouraging, especially given the jump in talent, compared to seeing him as a one-year player.

The most impressive defensive tackle in the spring may have been Fabien Lovett, who looks lighter and shows the range as well as desire to get to the sideline in pursuit. Dennis Briggs was a spark in October when he returned to the Seminoles, with little practice time with the team, so allow us to be very curious what he can do given a full offseason strength and conditioning program as well as preseason camp.

There are still plenty of question marks on the defensive front. And it’s worth reminding we have focused our attention on transfers and less on those recruited and developed by the FSU coaches. There remain many questions about the group in the short and long term, how much pressure they could apply. To that end, I’m curious about what Amari Gainer can do rushing the quarterback as well as other safeties. But to the original question of improvement with the pass rush and why: There are reasons to be optimistic, even beyond Johnson, while also admitting to uncertainty about how some younger players fit into the mix in 2021 and beyond.

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