This is sixth in a multi-part series covering the position groups as Florida State begins Spring practice. Halfway through the Florida State Spring Position Preview Series! So far we've looked at Quarterbacks and Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Offensive Line, and Tight Ends/ H-Backs. Now we turn our eye towards the defense. There is no way to sugarcoat how bad FSU's defense was last season. Going straight by the numbers, FSU was 108th out of 120 teams nationally. Common sense, however, says that to go solely by aggregate yardage allowed is silly as it doesn't adjust for competition level. The advanced metrics account for opponent quality and they say FSU's defense was somewhere between 80th to 92nd out of 120. Of the 66 major conference teams, FSU was on the level (or worse than) only Louisville, Kansas, Indiana, Duke, Stanford, Kansas State, Iowa State, Illinois, and of course, Washington State. The last defenses to be this bad in ACC play were some of the mid-decade Duke teams. If you want more comparisons and perspective, check out Closing The Book On The 2009 FSU Defense.
|Defensive Ends Coach Darin D.J. Eliot
Don't take this analysis as a slam of the former staff or players. But to understand a fix for something, we must first realize that it is broken and understand why it is broken. And to be clear, there were many causes for the poor defensive play. One of the main causes, however, was the play of the defensive ends under the direction of former defensive ends coach Jody Allen. I've covered this at length, but suffice to say that Allen was inexperienced and under qualified to coach defensive ends at the major college level. That he's now working at West Georgia should tell you something. Additionally, there were behind the scenes issues that made players not like him, or at the least struggle to trust him.
Enter coach Darin D.J. Eliot (at right). He's 33 and as we profiled in this story, came to FSU via Rice University. He came recommended by Texas DC (and former Saban DC) Will Muschamp and FSU DC Mark Stoops. He crushed his interview and was hired on the spot.
Additionally, Eliot has produced at least one All-Conference defender at every school where he has worked. Notably at his last stop:
At Rice, Eliot had oversight of the recruiting process; a challenge given the schools' stringent academic standards. He identified and developed two true freshmen defensive ends - Scott Solomon (63 tackles) and Cheta Ozougwu (61) - who led all CUSA linemen with 124 combined tackles in 2009. They teamed for 21 tackles for loss and 11 sacks.
As I profiled in the linked article, it is incredibly tough to get quality players to Rice. I normally would not call a relatively young coach like Eliot an upgrade, but Eliot brings much more experience coaching defense than Allen had in his entire career prior to arriving in Tallahassee.
In a recent interview, Eliot gave some of his philosophies. You can tell he is pumped to be coaching the elite athletes that roam the practice fields in Tallahassee.
Chief amongst those philosophies is to get bigger at the position. As I profiled in the 2009 off-season (Size Matters on Defense (Don't go small to beat the spread): Part 1 | Part 2), FSU's front-7 (DE/ DT/ LB) was woefully small. This directive to the defense came directly from Coach Fisher as he saw this problem and sought to address it via recruiting. For the first time in quite a while, FSU projects to have a front-7 of more than 1830 combined lbs. That is a huge deal as 1830 was the number identified as a commonality among most of the elite defenses. A large part of the improved size will come from the defensive end position- not only this year but increasingly so in the coming years. I know this because FSU recruited larger ends this time (275 lb guys), and projects to have seven 300 lb defensive tackles by 2011, meaning the larger tweener players recruited this year will be playing on the outside.
That increased size will go great with the increased emphasis on leverage. Leverage in this context means engaging a blocker, controlling him, and then shedding him. It is in direct contrast to what FSU's defensive ends did under Allen, which was to try to get around the blocker. Their acts actually made them incredibly easy to block as they frequently ran themselves out of the play. Playing with leverage requires a plan and requires good technique, with angles, footwork, and handwork. It difficult to play with leverage when the only thing a player is ever taught is a speed rush. Maintaining gap and lane discipline will be a huge step int he right direction from Florida State's defensive ends. Nole fans haven't seen that in a long time. The defensive ends are in for a huge culture shock. The culture shock of being actually coached by a defensive coach.
Part of FSU's problem was that the ends focused so much on speed speed speed that they abandoned all technique and leverage principles. And this bled into other areas. While the run defense was abysmal, the pass defense was terrible as well. FSU registered a sack on only 3.96% of pass plays it faced in conference! The 'Noles were the only team that didn't sack the quarterback at least once out of every 25 dropbacks. That was a historically bad performance. The 'Noles ends were predictable and while it was dumb to not use specific plays that would take advantage of FSU's defensive ends in 2008, it was downright reckless in 2009. And for the most part, teams did just that; taking advantage of the defensive ends with plays they knew would capitalize on their undisciplined, sloppy, ill-planned, poorly coached style. Because they were so focused on rushing the passer as if they had a 20 point lead, the defense didn't win the crucial battles on first and second down that set up the negative leverage offensive situation: an obvious passing down!
I have been unable to watch any Rice football, but given the size of Eliot's ends at Rice (large), their accomplishments, and the unlikelihood that they are amazing athletes, I am going to assume that they played their keys, focused on pad level, leverage, hand technique, footwork, gap/lane discipline, and didn't try to do things of which they were not asked to do, thus not opening up huge gaps for through which an opposing offense could run through. I expect him to have FSU's defensive ends do the same. And under no circumstances would I expect Fisher to tolerate playing a no-talent walk on for the sole purpose of spiting the other coaches from whom a coach feels alienated. So let's talk about those ends.
FSU's lone loss at the defensive end position is Kevin McNeil. McNieil had a bunch of talent but often struggled in the areas of work ethic, effort, and academics. Many did not expect him to be eligible for the season, but he surprised and made the grade. But he couldn't hang during the Fall semester and was ineligible for the bowl game. If McNeil had played to his potential he would have been a considerable loss. He didn't, however, and I do not expect that FSU will miss him.
The Lone Senior
I really feel like Markus White (#98) was robbed of the opportunity to be great at Florida State by the lack of coaching provided to him in his first two seasons in Tallahassee. The JUCO transfer stands in at 6'4" 260 (per last season). He was a 5* recruit coming out of Butler CC (JUCO). White works hard and is a leader on the team. He's a mature guy who is just dying to be coached. The likely starter at strong-side end, White will likely continue to bulk up this off-season. He can reasonably get to 270 lbs and be the fulcrum for the 'Noles defense. While I don't think he will ever be a great pass rusher, but he could be a good rusher if he was taught some technique. If he has any shot to make the NFL, he must become a lot better against the run. As the strongside end he'll have the opportunity to do just that. I've given up on some of the defenders because I don't think they have talent, but I have not yet given up on Markus White. In addition to all the areas in which he must improve, it will also be on Markus to be a senior leader for the young defensive end group.
The Up & Comer
#49 Brandon Jenkins is a prospect for whom I have a lot of hope. He was a 4* defensive end recruit and enrolled early, meaning this will be Jenkins' second Spring practice as a 'Nole. Jenkins played some last season in limited duty and looked like a freshman. That is so say he has some moments in which he clearly showed his athleticism and some moments in which he looked lost. The 6'2" 245 lb Jenkins has very long arms which make him play like a taller guy.
With a new coaching staff and closed practices all predictions as to who will start are educated guess at this point, but Jenkins is my pick to start at the Weak-Side End position. It suits his frame better as he doesn't have to take on as many blockers and allows him to use his speed. Jenkins looks like a natural pass rusher and could be a Dwight Freeney type with his long arms and low center of gravity.
But before he can get out and rush the passer he will have to prove that he can play within the system and play the run. This analysis applies to all of the defensive players, but this Spring he needs to focus on adding good weight. 245 lbs for a defensive end is simply too small. Jenkins needs to try to be at about 255 lbs this year. That added bulk will help him against the offensive tackles who will likely outweigh him by 50-60 lbs. As with any young player, this sophomore will need to improve his recognition skills and achieve a greater understanding of the nuances of the defensive end position.
The Unknown Legacy
FSU fans will likely remember Dan Footman who played 6 seasons in the NFL and was a very good pro before blowing his knees. Now meet his son. Dan Hicks was a very unheralded recruit out of Mississippi for a number of factors, including playing for a low-profile school and breaking his foot during his senior year. But the 6'4" 250 lb Hicks is a very good athlete with the frame to add a ton of good weight. Did I mention he was a good athlete? How about winning the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 15.19? And he had a great ACT score if I remember correctly. Hicks was very raw coming in and has a late birthday (2 current FSU 2011 commitments are older than him). Because he was physically and a bit emotionally immature he redshirted last season. That's not a bad thing. Hicks was just young. At least he didn't waste a year of eligibility under coach Allen.
People who have seen Hicks workout rave about the progress he's made. I have no idea if he can play ball, but he is that piece of fine clay just waiting to be molded. If everything goes according to plan, Hicks turns into a multi-year starter as a 280 lb strongside defensive end. if he can be 260 lbs of mostly good weight this year that would be a major accomplishment considering how young his body was when he arrives last year. I don't expect much from Hicks this season, but if he makes good progress this Spring learning how to play the game and continuing to bulk up, he could give 10-20 meaningful snaps per game come fall. Who knows, maybe this quiet kid can make a lot of noise come Fall. It wouldn't shock me, but it would surprise me given how raw Hicks was both as a player and as an athlete just 7 months ago.
Working His Way Back From An Injury (Still?)
Up next is Jamar Jackson. Jackson is a member of the abysmal 2007 recruiting class. Rivals had him as a four star weakside defensive end (6th best WDE in the country). Jackson tore his ACL in 2007 and missed the entire season. By all accounts, he has not regained the quickness that he had coming out of high school. At 6'4" 245 lbs, he doesn't have the same wide-potential frame of a Dan Hicks or incoming freshmen like Bjoern Werner and Darious Cummings.
I'm not questioning Jackson's work ethic and have never heard anything to make me believe he gives less than 100%. But if he's not quick enough to play on the weak side and not strong/ bulky enough to play on the strong side, what role does he have on the team? There is little to no place on a team for upperclassmen who don't make significant contributions. And as a 4th year Junior that is exactly what Jackson is. Jackson's continued progress (or lack thereof) will be a major point of interest for myself. While Jackson probably has three years of eligibility left given the overwhelming likelihood that he would win his medical redshirt request, I'm not sure the final year or two will be spent at Florida State. Here's hoping he proves me wrong and shows that he is just a very slow healer.
If you're sensing that FSU has a lot of young, raw talent at the defensive end position, you're correct. Redshirt Sophomore Toshmon Stevens is no exception. The 6'5" 230 lb weak side end is incredibly skinny but is also a natural pass rusher. Stevens redshirted as a freshman and then played some last season while battling injury. The major issue for Stevens is that he is incredible scrawny. His lengthy frame is just begging for some added muscle. At his weight he is a liability against the run and is useless except on obvious passing downs.
He needs to work on all of the things I previously listed for Brandon Jenkins. But because he is about 15 lbs behind Jenkins, I see him as more of a situational player this fall. If he can improve his run defense enough to not be a complete liability, he could find himself in on a few passing downs. Stevens needs to improve his consistency and most of that should come with increased reps (experience) and added strength. As it stands right now, his game is all speed and guessing. He is still pretty raw and if it becomes clear that he won't win the starting job, I would like to see the coaches come up with a specific situational plan for him to see how he handles it. If he does, maybe he can work his way into a major role by the 2011 season and really help Florida State. Stevens is not regarded as a bad apple and will be given every opportunity to give his meaningful contribution to the team.
This Spring will be a time of enormous learning and culture shock for the entire defensive end unit. Perhaps no position was as poorly coached as the defensive ends were. Getting rid of Allen was one of the most important steps that needed to be taken; not only from a X&O's standpoint, but also for team chemistry. I'm excited to see what a real defensive end coach can do with this crop of players.
*Keep in mind that both of the incoming defensive end recruits are expected to see action come this Fall.