The Seminoles are scheduled to fly to Pittsburgh today for their season opening matchup with the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field tomorrow night. While Florida State fans have had several seasons to get used to the offense that head coach Jimbo Fisher runs, this will be their first opportunity to get a look at new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's scheme.
Contrary to the popular party-line originating in Tallahassee, this is not Mark Stoops' defense with new terminology. As senior linebacker Telvin Smith tells it:
“As soon as everybody was saying we were going to get Coach Pruitt we knew what we were in store for, that he was going to bring that Alabama-type swag defense to [Tallahassee]," Smith said. "So we were kind of expecting that, but now that we’ve learned it and now that we’re growing into it we can really now see that this is a great defense, it’s a play-stopping defense.”
That's not to say Stoops' defense wasn't stellar in its own right, rather FSU's defense will now have the benefit of learning concepts from two different coaching philosophies that have produced some exceptional NFL athletes.
“It’s a great blessing in disguise, we had gotten Stoops’ defense and we felt like we had just started mastering it, but they tell us we’ve got to learn this new defense," admitted Smith. "But then we learned this is what a lot of NFL teams run so they could see us in [both of] these schemes and they’ll know exactly what they’re going to get, you know, fast, intelligent guys. That’s what we’re excited about.”
“Definitely, there is times where we sometimes try to apply it to Stoops’ defense just to learn it a little bit better. But I mean it’s totally different so you can’t do that," added senior safety Terrence Brooks.
This is a defense that will morph week-to-week and allow the Seminole coaching staff to attack offenses in unique ways with different packages and looks. It's now harder to distinguish which players are truly safeties and which are truly corners. Some ends may be asked to play more like linebackers, some linebackers called on to rush like ends. On back-to-back plays at any given Seminole practice you may see a player like DE Mario Edwards stunt inside on one snap and then drop into coverage the next.
Versatility is the name of the game.
Coaches may say this is the same defense as last year with a few new wrinkles, but the players are telling a much different story.
"This defense is something new to us. We’ve never run anything like this or anything close to it," said junior safety Karlos Williams. "We just take hold and grasp it and we’re going after it, installing it day by day. We’re falling in love with it, I’ll put it that way.”
Williams will line up some at safety this season, some at linebacker. Like almost every player on this defense he will have a number of different roles across a number of different packages, the aim being to put him in the best position possible - as often as possible - to make plays.
It's tough to name true starters on this defense for exactly the reason I stated, it's going to morph a lot. This first game agaisnt Pittsburgh will have Florida State going up against one of the biggest - in terms of sheer weight - offensive lines than it will square off against all year. As a result, Mario Edwards is starting at right end, but Eddie Goldman, who often plays inside, is at left end and Dan Hicks – who is typically an end - will be starting at strongside linebacker.
Dan Hicks Listed as Starting Linebacker: Click Here
On weeks where Florida State plays an offense with a smaller line that will rely on more of a spread, expect to see Hicks back at end, Goldman sliding back inside and an extra DB (possibly Williams) to find himself in the starting 11.
Fortunately, despite having lost a lot of talent to the NFL last season, the Seminole defense is loaded with talent again this season.
Grading the Florida State Seminoles: Click Here
Along the defensive line, the rotation will be stout again. It's tough to make a claim about this year's line being better than last's when there were two top-40 drafted NFL ends starting on it. But the potential is there for it to be down the road.
Dan Hicks will see some time at end, but the star of the group may be sophomore Mario Edwards, who appears to have sorted out some freshman growing pains and has had a good camp. Chris Casher is healthy again this year and should provide a solid speed-rushing presence when called on. DeMarcus Walker is a talented true freshman that enrolled early but missed the Spring for NCAA clearinghouse reasons, he has also received good reviews in camp and should be in the rotation some too.
Tim Jernigan, Demonte McAllister, Eddie Goldman, Jacobbi McDaniel and Niles Lawrence-Stample can all play the nose but are capable of lining up at other techniques as well (as will be evident all year). 3-4, 4-3, FSU has the kind of versatility inside to show a wide variety of looks and attack from them effectively.
The two linebackers that will provide the bulk of the leadership for the entire defensive unit are seniors Christian Jones and Telvin Smith. Jones is an NFL-caliber linebacker who could be taken as high as the first round of next year's draft. Smith is more of a tweener but his speed and versatility should both be be major assets in Pruitt's scheme. Both linebackers can cover and rush the passer and will be called upon to do both quite a bit this season.
Behind them a group of talented freshmen and sophomores are competing for limited reps. While it's possible one of the young players from the group can make an impact by the end of the season, early on look for the role of the third linebacker to be played by versatile guys from other position groups, like Dan Hicks will be doing in week one and Karlos Williams will likely also do throughout the course of the season.
No position group will benefit more than the defensive backs in Pruitt's new scheme. His unit will bring a lot of pressure with the secondary while also giving the DB's plenty of chances to make big plays.
“I feel like with this defense we’re around the ball all the time, I feel like. Like I don’t know how, but I mean, I feel like it’s unstoppable," said junior CB Nick Waisome. "There’s always an answer for something. I feel like if a play is made on us it’s because of a miscommunication [on our part] or something like that.”
Lamarcus Joyner will be in more of a jack-of-all-trades kind of role this year. Saying he's switched from safety back to corner full time isn't entirely correct, rather he'll be moved around quite a bit and be given chances to impact the game in a variety of ways this year. Much like defenses have to account for offensive players in some cases, offenses may have to account for Joyner this year in his own right - depending on how he is deployed.
The rest of the secondary features arguably the most talented groups to play at Florida State in years.
“A lot of guys can play a lot of different positions and [Pruitt's scheme] puts us in a spot where a lot more DB’s can get on the field," said Karlos Williams. "That’s pretty much it, the defense puts us in those positions where we can have a lot more speed on the field.”
Tyler Hunter and Terrence Brooks will be key players at safety, along with Williams.
At corner, sophomore Ronald Darby (last year's defensive ROTY) is finally healthy again and will play along with PJ Williams, talented true freshman Jalen Ramsey, Joyner and Waisome.
Method to the Madness: Chances are Seminole fans won't see this defense at its full effect for a few weeks. That's fine too, as long as it's humming on all cylinders by Clemson week. The most likely issue early on will be players thinking more than reacting as they adjust. With two defensive schemes still in their heads from the course of the last 12 months, there may be the occasional mental error or missed assignment early in the year.
"Pruitt’s whole scheme is just amazing. It puts you in position to make a lot of plays and - as long as you just apply yourself to learning it," admitted Terrence Brooks. "Because it is difficult and it’s a lot of key terms and different checks and a lot more checks than what Stoops’ was."
The Seminoles have been installing their new defense since last Spring, but the learning curve is different for everyone. Expect a little bit more of a tailored approach as Florida State eases into things the first few weeks of the season, by midseason though expect Pruitt to have his unit going full speed.
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