'Nole Your Enemy: Scouting South Florida's Defense

With only 40 days until the 2009 season starts, it's time to learn about the teams on Florida State's schedule.  We'll start with the teams Florida State did not play last year, leading off with in-state foe South Florida.  Yesterday we looked at USF's offense (not impressive), and today we'll look at their better half and the Bulls' special teams.

Strategy:  The Bulls are a 4-3 base team and they do not hesitate to bring an 8th defender into the box to help with run support.  They aren't blitz crazy nor are they uber-conservative.

Coach:  The Bulls' Defensive Coordinator is Joe Tresey who took over for Wally Burnham after Burnham took the Iowa State job.  Tresey was at Cincinatti before this and is highly thought of in some coaching circles and he can be very aggressive.  Additionally, HC Jim Leavitt is a defensive minded coach and has a lot of input with his favored unit. 

2008

Bulls' Defense Overall Run Defense Pass Defense
Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI)  Per Drive, better explanation at link.
39th
S&P+ Defense (National)  Per play, better explanation at link. 38th 10th 78th
S&P+ Defense Conference Games Only 3rd 2nd 6th

If you are curious as to what these numbers mean, click on the links.  Just know that they are widely accepted by professional gamblers and other people who study the game for their living as the best and most consistent measures of performance. 

 

Front 7

USF's defensive line is the best in the Big East.  Phil Steele calls them the 6th best defensive line in the nation.  Simply put, they are loaded.

USF loses Defensive End Jarriett Buie and his 5 sacks (all in Big East play).  He was a solid contributor and started all 13 games for the Bulls.  The only other loss is Sampson Genus, a defensive tackle who is now competing for a spot at center.

At right end is Super Senior George Selvie, a 6'4" 250lb terror who passed up the NFL draft to return to the Bulls.  He's a two-time All-American and a favorite to win multiple national awards.  As a three year starter (37 games) he has 186 tackles, 60 for loss, and over 20 sacks.  He was hampered by injury last year, but when healthy, he's easily in the conversation for the best defensive end in America.  Selvie is just one of the elite pass rushers Florida State Freshman All America Offensive Tackle Andrew Datko will face this year as the 'Noles confront America's toughest schedule.

At the other end position (replacing Buie) are senior Aaron Harris and junior Craig Marshall, along with Jason Pierre-Paul.  Harris is a tweener at 6'4" 265lbs and has played defensive tackle for some of his career.  He's a more natural end and everyone in USFs program raves about him.  He had an excellent sophomore season and is considered the front runner to man the strongside end position by many.  Craig Marshall is more of a pass rushing specialist at 6'5 260 and needs to refine his game, particularly by getting in the weight room.  He did play in every game last season and had 4.5 tackles for loss.  If he makes improvements this offseason, he could overtake Harris.  Even if he doesn't start, he will play a lot of snaps for the Bulls.    The real wild card here is Paul-Pierre, a stud JUCO transfer (top JUCO defensive lineman in the country).  Pierre-Paul stands 6' 5" 265 and some believe he will take the starting spot, mostly based off his impressive film, frame, and recruiting profile.  David Bedford had a nice spring game and should also contend for playing time.  

At Nose Guard the Bulls have juniorTerrell McClain.  At 6'3" and 306lbs, he earned playing time as a freshman and continues to dominate for USF.  Both strong and quick, FSU fans should compare him to Moses McCray.  McClain should expect to be 1st team Big East in his second season as a starter. 

At the other tackle is Rs.Fr. Cory Grissom (6'2" 289lbs), who hurt his ankle early in the season and missed the rest of the season.  He has great quickness and athleticism, but is obviously quite raw.  Backing him up is 5' 11" 267lb Sophomore Keith McCaskill.  He has a good wingspan and is very quick.  

NOTE:  There is a chance Harris will play tackle not end, so keep that in mind.  The coaches are hoping that Grissom can get the job done at tackle, but if he can't or if some of the other ends blow up, Harris could end up back at tackle.

All in all, this is an excellent defensive line with multiple players who will eventually play in the NFL.  

.

Linebacker

The departed:  USF lost First Team all-Big East Strongside 'backer Tyrone McKenzie, who led the team in tackles (116) and tackles for loss (14.5), to go with a sack, a pick, and eight pass breakups.  He is the only significant loss.  

USF will still have a strong linebacker corps, and is starts with Senior middle linebacker Kion Wilson, an 11 game starter as a junior at 6'2" 235. He is the big hitter who started 11 games a year ago.  His backup will be Michael Lanaris, 6'1" 230 and one of the better linebackers in Florida coming from 2007.

Senior Chris Robinson is currently projected to replace the departed McKenzie on the strong side.  At 6'3" 240lbs, he is an decent force player who had a good spring.  Some USF fans aren't pleased with him, however, and wonder if he will ever put it all together.  A former defensive end, he's an excellent blitzer but also has limited range and is the guy the Bulls pull when facing a 3, 4, or 5 wideout set.  Also competing for the job is JUCO stud JaQuan Williams.  Phil Steele projects Williams to start at one of the outside backer spots, but I'm not sure on that.  Needless to say, he is talented.  Sam Barrington and Armando Sanchez also factor in here, but their roles are undetermined right now.

At weakside linebacker, the Bulls will plug in 6' 0" 230lb junior Sabbath Joseph, who played in ever game last season, but not as a starter.  He's excellent in coverage but is a bit on the small side and can struggle getting off blocks.  Backing him up will be 6' 3", 222lb Senior Donte Spires.  He was an excellent JUCO recruit who played well in 2007 and was ineligible last year (academics- redshirt).  Don't be surprised if he starts.  

Overall this is a decent linebacker corps.  None would start for Florida State, Miami, or UF, but they are good.

Lack of Sacks

One thing that was really puzzling to me was USF's lack of sacks.  The disparity in their run and pass defense was huge, as they were 10th against the run and 78th against the pass.  The Bulls had only 23 sacks in 401 passing plays (sack rate of 6.1%).  Part of the reason was Selvie being banged up, but other players also must step up.  If they don't, look for the Bulls to blitz more.  

Front 7 Size

If you've been following the 'Noles and reading our site closely, you'd know about the correlation between front 7 size and defensive success.  In three of FSU's 4 loses in 2008, they faced monstrous front 7 defenses that were amongst the best in the nation:  UF (1845lbs), Wake Forest (1875lbs), and Boston College (1902lbs).  As the linked article explains, a stout front 7 affords a defense many benefits.  A front 7 of 1830lbs or more really begins to help a defense.  FSU gashed most teams under 1830lbs last year.

USF's defense weighs in at 1810lbs, which is good but not great.  When a team is not big enough to stop the run with their front 7, they have to devote an extra defender (defensive back) to the run, creating an 8-man front.  USF does just that.  Of course, that creates a disadvantage for the secondary and limits the possible coverages, but it's a tradeoff that USF makes.  They absolutely sell out for the run.

This is an interesting case, because size wise, USF's front 7 is above average, but they are 35+ lbs smaller (and definitely less talented) than the 2008 defenses which shut down FSU's run game.  I assume USF will try to stop the run without the extra defender, at least initially, and then will bring the 8th man down into the box.  that presents an interesting quandary for the Bulls:  

  • If USF plays 8 in the box and accounts for the deep ball, FSU will bubble screen them to death. (Like Miami, NC State for a bit, and MD did some in 2008)
  • If USF plays 8 in the box and tries to account for the bubble screen, FSU will go deep.  (like Va Tech forced FSU to do)
  • If USF plays honest defense (7 in the box), stays in 2-deep coverage, the 'Noles will run the ball.

Most likely, USF will go with the 2nd option and force FSU to beat them deep as Virginia Tech did (and FSU did beat them deep), because it's a high risk but potentially high reward strategy, and as the inferior team, USF will need to take risks.  The Bulls will do everything in their power to stop the run and have done so for years.

If USF is somehow able to stop the 'Nole running game with only 7 men, however, they have a serious shot to pull the upset.  It truly is an interesting case and will test the "rule of 1830lbs."

 

Secondary

Having that extreme dedication to stopping the run does cost USF, however, as their 78th ranked pass defense indicates.  USF asks a lot of it's defensive backs (probably too much).  That approach could prove interesting this year.  

The Departed:  USF loses strong safety Carlton Williams, who was their defensive player of the year with his 56 tackles and 3 interceptions.  Williams played well for the Bulls, but he wasn't an elite talent and will not be playing pro ball.  They also lost one-year starter Tyller Roberts at cornerback, and underrated safety Louis Gachette.

What they're working with:  

At boundary corner, USF returns Senior Jerome Murphy.  The 6'1" 190lb Murply had an amazing 67 tackles from his corner position to go with his 7 pass breakups and 2 interceptions.  He is lightning quick and a coach favorite and should compete for 1st, 2nd, or 3rd team all-conference honors.   His backup is redshirt freshman George Baker.  

At field corner will probably be sophomores Quenton Washington and Tyson Butler.  Both are average talents who will be tested early and often.  They have potential but must work on their consistency.  

USF played over half their 2008 snaps in a Nickel formation (5 defensive backs), so the nickel corner position is vital to their defense (or it was last year).  The loser of the Washington/ Butler competition will square off against redshirt freshman Jon Lejiste.  The field and nickel corner spots are big unknowns for the bulls team and depth could be an issue (though not against FSU, because USF shouldn't suffer much attrition prior to the 'Nole game due to their pathetic opening schedule).  

The bulls have a stud in Free safety Nate Allen.  He's 6' 2" 205lbs and a serious NFL prospect.  Allen will be counted on to be the leader of this group.  He had 53 tackles last year, but the bulls would like to be able to use him in more of a centerfield role.  Of course, that will depend on their ability to stop the run without over-committing their defensive backs to the run game, similar to how FSU wasn't able to showcase Myron Rolle because the 'Noles needed him to help with their run defense.  Allen is a candidate for the Thorpe award.    

After starting South Florida's bowl game in December, the sophomore Jerrell Young will take on the starting job at strong safety.  Like Allen, he's also 6'2" 205lbs and is a huge hitter.  Young has a lot of talent but must put it together quickly.  USF wants to have allen focus more on the pass and use Young as their 8th defender against the run.  

Consistency is really the name of the game for the Bulls secondary.  The new defensive coordinator likes to be very aggressive, and that should work because this secondary is already hyper-aggressive.  It could hurt the Bulls, however, when teams hit them deep with double moves. 

 

Can the Bulls improve on their 2008 defense?  It really depends.  Most likely USF will take a step back in run defense and improve somewhat in pass defense.  Their 2008 disparity (10th and 78th) was silly.  They will be better if their front 7 can stop the run without much help and their front 4 can generate a solid pass rush.  If they continue to throw everything at the run and hang their defensive backs out to dry, however, they could have a rough year, depending on whether the corners can handle their responsibilities.  I look for USF's defense to again be top 40 nationally (39th last year), with a run defense in the top 25 and a pass defense that climbs back into the top half nationally.  They should have a top 4 defense in the Big East.  If the Bulls are to have a shot at winning in Tallahassee, they must have a great defensive performance, selling out for the run grabbing a few turnovers.  

 

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1 Florida State 0.107
2 Syracuse 0.086
5 UCLA 0.052
8 Miami 0.045
10 Wisconsin 0.038
11 LSU 0.037
16 North Carolina State 0.021
23 Texas 0.016
29 Pittsburgh 0.012
37 Duke 0.008
44 Florida 0.004
48 Clemson 0.001
51 Virginia Tech 0
52 Vanderbilt -0.002
53 Maryland -0.002
56 BYU -0.004
57 North Carolina -0.005
61 USC -0.006
70 Georgia Tech -0.012
71 South Florida -0.012
83 Rutgers -0.021
93 Virginia -0.029
94 Wake Forest -0.029
106 Boston College -0.044
120 Auburn -0.093

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