This season surpassed our expectations. Whether we win the bowl game or not is of no consequence to the season having exceeded expectations for three reasons
A) The average user (including Bud) predicted an 8 win regular season - We won 9.
2) The defense which rated 657th in the country last year currently sits at 40th in the country in total defense including a sparking 39th nationally in pass efficiency defense (after being TORCHED/humiliated last season)
D) We made it to the ACC Championship game in Jimbo's first year as a coach.
With all of these excellent things having happened to our team this year, I want to take a look ahead at the defense for next year. Take a look at my thoughts after the jump. Before doing so however, know that you will probably disagree with me, so don't crucify me. It's just nice that I am able to make these arguments because that means we will have a GOOD problem.
Looking at our teams defensive stats from this year, we ranked the following:
26th best rush defense
67th pass defense (this is where I will make my point)
40th total defense
25th scoring defense
39th pass efficiency defense
51st in interceptions (another point of mine)
Those numbers are DRASTIC improvements from '09. This improvement can obviously be credited to the overhauled coaching staff. It all starts with the scheme of Stoops, in which his multiple zone scheme helps to take away the deep ball (a BIG problem last year) and to make a team beat you through consistent execution. This worked for the most part, as our D often bent but did not break.
The credit then goes to the individual position coaches - specifically on the defensive line. I can recall no more than 5-6 coverage sacks this year on the top of my head, meaning the defensive line really did their job when their legs were fresh enough. I say this because if you go back to the film and watch how many time Brandon Jenkins was held per game that did not get called, you see just how well the D-line (obviously specifically Jenkins and secondarily White) did their job. I am the first person to criticize the fact that our D-line would go through long bouts late in the season where they would struggle to provide pressure, but this was due to a lack of quality depth and the even further illuminates their great success. Elliot had the ends playing far better this year, and it showed, as FSU finished 2nd in the COUNTRY in sacks per game. When you apply pressure to the QB, it makes the job of the players in coverage MUCH easier and can therefore hide youth and inability. The D-line should be even BETTER next year as the DTs get another year in the S&C (so their legs will be fresher later into the season, along with being more physically dominant throughout the season) and the D-ends get more accustomed to the new moves (and stronger too, of course). With Jenkins starting on one side, and Werner (presumably; otherwise Carradine??) on the other, we should be in great shape, especially with the guys we have coming in.
The linebackers seemed to perform about what I expected them to this year. I wasn't really wowed with them this year (save a few hits by Mister), but I wasn't sorely disappointed. It showed (in my eyes) that these guys (especially Nigel B) were landmark dropping as opposed to pattern reading, but that was expected and will get better with time (if Nigel stays and with all of the linebackers). I did like the way that the linebackers flowed to the gaps created by the defensive lineman, which is why the rushing defense was often so successful. Even if Nigel leaves, I feel very confident in the 4 man rotation of C Jones, Telvin, V Williams and Luc next year, as they will hopefully have grasped the new scheme better and they are clearly all talented. Personally, with the NFL outage looming next year, I don't see Nigel leaving.
As I said, I wanted to discuss the matter of pass efficiency defense and interceptions. Barring a pick-happy bowl game, we will likely finish this season with LESS interceptions that last season ('09-14, '10-12) ... what?! You heard me correctly. Some may wonder how that is even possible. Well, I'll tell you how. Stoops' zone friendly scheme is designed to put players in a the best position to make a play on the ball more often, and that it did. It seems counter-intuitive (given the fewer interceptions), but take into account that we have 56 passes defended (not intercepted) compared to 32 last year, and that is through the same number of games. That's an average of nearly two more passes knocked down per game and I'm sure those instances are readily available to your mind. It was evident this year, that the CORNERBACKS were frequently in a better position (in the zone as compared to the man) to knock balls down. I say this almost in a with-a-grain-of-salt type way, as the season didn't start so pretty (cough-Oklahoma-cough). But, as with the linebackers, it was apparent that the corners were spot-dropping and not pattern reading, but even so, they were STILL in a better position to knock more balls down. As the season went on, it became more and more obvious that the corners started to "get it" and were frequently in position to make interceptions and knock balls down. There were a lot of interceptions this year that either did not get caught or did not count (ridiculous helmet-to-helmet call on that nasty Greg Reid hit, negating a Mike Harris pick-6). I can readily think of two specific instances in which Greg Reid dropped sure interceptions (running before the catch?). Of the teams 12 interceptions, TEN were by the corners (3 by Reid, 3 by Harris, 3 by Rhodes, 1 by Joyner). Looking ahead to next year, obviously Rhodes should and will start, but the other side is more up for debate. Reid started the year out awfully, getting frequently beat in coverage and then not being able to wrap-up, but he got much better at both as the season progressed. As he gets more comfortable and the defense does so as a whole as well, things should improve for Reid (kind of like the whole, "you can be the best driver in the world, but all it takes is ONE bad driver for you to get in an accident" scenario - which will relate to my next paragraph directly) and I believe he is still the incumbent to start next season. Joyner showed some serious hitting ability and had some nice coverage in one of the games on a ball thrown to the back-right of the endzone that may be a sign of things to come (although he would be well served to limit the 150yard yellow flags). An injury obviously hampered LJ a bit, so I would imagine he will be a serious contender to start next year. My pick for who I would LIKE to start next year is Mike Harris. I feel like every time that guy was on the field, something good happened! I'm sure that is just the representativeness heuristic rearing its' head, but nonetheless, he played like the 2nd best corner on our team in my opinion. Rhodes/Harris give our team the best pure coverage next year as far as I'm concerned. With Waisome now committed, if he can come in (he is an EE), learn the scheme and earn the job, then kudos to him and he should start. I've heard that he is the best pure cover-corner in this class and if he can get comfy in Stoops' zone quick, (moreso than Reid/LJ/Harris) then he will start.
Now to my main topic for discussion - the safeties. Our safeties were not good this year. I struggle to say that they were average this year. Our safeties (Parks/Moody) certainly look the role and on paper have great height/weight for safeties. Parks was one of the upperclassmen starters this year and will be a senior next year. I don't even care. He was bad this year. He was not Korey Mangum bad, but I'm not sure he was much better. Alright, on second thought, yes, he was. But Parks clearly struggled to grasp the scheme this year, as he was constantly out of position, whiffed on tackles and took bad angles to the ball. A couple of the times that Reid got burnt deep this year were not entirely his fault as Parks should have been there in coverage to help. Parks did not use leverage in the zone to help his corners in front when they would run deep with a receiver. This is why I will make the case that Karlos Williams should start from day one here. If Parks starts next year, I will seriously believe that it is ONLY due to him being a senior (although I'm skeptical this coaching staff would pull such an Amato/Andrews-esque move). Parks recorded as many interceptions and sacks this year as I did, while amassing an astounding 5 passes defended. Now, I have watched every high school film of Williams that I have been able to get my hands on and I have seen everything that I look for in a safety - elite size, strength, ball skills, the ability to run with receivers, good hips and maybe best of all, taking good angles. Karlos just has instincts, which I'm not sure Parks has. Perhaps Karlos will struggle to grasp the system right away, but can you honestly tell me with a straight fact that Karlos' raw ability won't overshadow his lack of grasp on the system more than Parks will improve in the offseason? I doubt it. Maybe Parks' will make strides. He better hope for his sake that they are great strides, because he is nowhere NEAR as talented as Williams and he played VERY poorly this year. I'm perfectly in favor of letting Williams play out of his kinks and acclimate to the new system as opposed to playing a senior who might be marginally better at best, if only because he has been in college for 3 years and the system for a year. Can Karlos really do much worse in his first year than 0 sacks and INT's and a measly 5 PD's? Some may say "God, just let him get on campus first before you make all of these claims" but I have seen enough of Parks to know that we should not be hesitant to starting an underclassmen in favor next season and Karlos, being the mega-recruit that he is, fits that billing. Karlos is an elite prospect who should be an average safety next year at worst. Will Parks be average?
Nick Moody on the other hand played about average in my eyes. Don't get me wrong, he had his fair share of whiffs, bad angles and poor coverage, but he did provide one element a strong safety should provide - fear. Moody almost killed a guy this year against Oklahoma, sending him off on a stretcher. He did this against Florida. That doesn't go overlooked. Things like that strike fear in the hearts of opposing skill players and make players think twice in the future. Couple this with the fact that Moody was but a sophomore this season and I have some faith in him improving enough to be serviceable. Once he can improve his hips and learn the zone scheme better, Moody can be a force and he flashed some nice coverage ability late in this year returning an interception 96 yards for a TD against Maryland.
If Moody cannot make the necessary improvements, then perhaps his position should be replaced as well (start the best player). Well, to be honest I don't see a better player on our roster or in the list of players committed YET (not counting Karlos, as I already mentioned I'd like to see him start at FS). As our current recruiting class sits, the only player I would like at SS right now is Tyler Hunter (as he has the size, but I don't know that he can grasp the scheme quickly enough or make up for learning with uber-elite ability). I also don't see a player on our roster being able to outplay Moody next season (Abrams maybe - probably not). That is, unless the recently reported rumors regarding Hasean Clinton-Dix are true. If they are, and he comes in with this class fitting his billing, then I honestly have no problem with Clinton-Dix and Williams starting as true freshman from day 1 (as long as Dix ability makes up for his learning curve more so than Moody improves). Let them play out of their learning and then you will have 4 years of synchrony and sheer excellence. Dix is apparently rated just as highly as Williams (higher on some sites) so I'd imagine he is top-of-the-top elite. Will Moody be better having been in the system for an extra year? This is the end of my speculation.
In terms of pass defense (where we ranked 67th), like I said, the front 9 did their jobs (most of the time) and the safety play simply must be better next year.
While a team doesn't NEED interceptions to be successful, they can certainly affect the outcome of a game and undoubtedly we should expect more of them in the future. The D-line did their job this year, the linebackers did well enough and the corners accounted for 10 interceptions. But the safeties accumulated just ONE interception, 7 passes defended and 0.5 sacks (INT and half sack recorded by Moody). This is ineffective as we should require great safety play, especially under a DB coach as great as Stoops. He can preach his scheme and teach technique all he wants, but if players can't grasp it, then new ones need to take their place. There should be no preferential treatment among older players and I hope that this doesn't take place with the elite talent that we have coming in - especially if we are to compete for BCS bowls and national championships. We won't win 11 without better safety play!