This is the eighth in a multi-part series covering the various position groups as Florida State begins Spring practice on Tuesday. So far we've looked at Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line, Tight End/ H-Back, Defensive End, and Defensive Tackle. There is no way to sugarcoat how bad FSU's defense was last season. Straight by the raw 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.
[Editor's Note: I know a lot of you asked about this last week, so here's an update. Everette Dawkins expressed a desire to return to defensive end in the Fall, but I have confirmed that he will stay at Tackle during Spring ball due to the lack of depth present at the position until McCray is healed up and the two freshmen recruits arrive. Even then, that situation is up in the air.]
|Linebaker Coach Greg Hudson
To me, there were two groups on FSU's defense that played at or around an average level: cornerbacks and defensive tackles. Defensive Ends, Linebackers, and Safeties played horribly. Out with the divisive, egotistical Chuck Amato, who seemed more concerned with subverting Fisher's efforts to change the program than he was with coaching his linebackers. News leaked that Amato is battling cancer and I wish him a speedy recovery. But discussing linebackers requires an honest look at many of his failures and it would be wrong to blame the players for shortcomings that should rightfully be attributed to Amato.
Enter Greg Hudson (info at link). Hudson recently spoke about what he likes in his linebackers (very big, fast, intelligent, instinctive). Hudson produced numerous All-Conference defenders at East Carolina and I think he's a bright defensive mind. Here's more Hudson video.
FSU fans hope Hudson is the anti-Amato in terms of production. Boosters were initially fired up about about Amato acting as the locker police as they were led to believe that would translate into a better disciplined team. But fans were quickly disappointed as it became apparent that there was a de-emphasis in understanding the defense, understanding the opposing offense, taking proper angles to the football, discipline, gap control, etc. Instead, what FSU got was the "freedom system" in which Amato's linebackers were told to just go make plays. That is an extremely effective strategy in Pop Warner ball when a coach has one kid with a late-July birthday who is physically superior to everyone else on the field. It's absolutely not acceptable for a college coach. Simplification is one thing, but what happened with FSU's linebackers was something altogether different. That's to say nothing of the atrocious tackling, complete inability to neutralize and fight off blockers, the poor job in pass coverage and the apparent complete lack of coordination between DE & LB.
The LB position is unique and probably the toughest on the field to play because of having both run and pass responsibilities on every play and coverage call. Players have to be smart, disciplined in reading keys, and with enough size to tackle big backs and handle linemen blockers, and still cover smaller RBs and TEs in man/zone coverage. STS.
Also, Amato was a terrible recruiter in his return trip to Tallahassee. We've profiled here that the idea of Amato dominating South Florida recruiting was complete nonsense. He recruited one South Florida player in his most recent Tallahassee stint: Maurice Harriss, who was subsequently "medically disqualified." In fact, FSU damaged it's cause with several schools solely by hiring Amato due to some Chuck's dealings at North Carolina State. I only mention recruiting because FSU has 6 linebackers available this Spring, primarily because it did not have a competent linebackers coach for whom recruits would want to play. Not to worry, as the 'Noles will have 10 linebackers this fall as 4 more recruits join the group.
This linebacker group (and likely Hudson) is in for a major culture shock similar to what I profiled in the defensive end position preview. I don't think Hudson will be a miracle worker, but I don't think he needs to be. There is good amount of talent here. He simply needs to re-emphasize understanding of the defensive scheme, understanding the opposing offense, taking proper angles to the football, discipline, gap control, tackling, fighting blocks with proper technique, pass drops, keys, etc. And he should have time to do most of that provided he doesn't waste his time worrying about locker cleanliness, chatting with the head coach, primping, and generally involving himself in matters that do not concern him. He has a lot of talent at his disposal and simply needs to avoid being Chuck Amato. The real limitation is of course time. FSU fans should expect competency from this group in 2010 before expecting proficiency in 2011. With that, let's get to the players.
|6'2" 241 lb Outsider 'Backer Nigel Bradham|
The Known Commodity
Nigel Bradham. 6'2" 241 lbs. 5* recruit. Fast. Powerful. Nigel Bradham is the only backer who should feel comfortable knowing he has a job entering Spring ball. Bradham started 12 games on the weak side last season, notching 95 tackles. He played at about 235 lbs as it became apparent that if he were to stay on the outside he would need to break down some of the high school muscle he had too swiftly packed on to his prototype frame and add it back slowly in order to increase his hip flexibility.
Of course some believe that Bradham was miscast on the weak side and should have been playing the MIKE (Middle backer) or SAM (strong side) position. That's an argument for another day and one that has been argued on every 'Nole message board over the last two years. I don't think anyone will debate that Bradham was stiff and does run a bit bow-legged. The Spring guide indicated that Bradham is at 241 lbs and I would expect him to weigh in at around 245 lbs. Perhaps more importantly than his starting weight is the new nutrition program's ability to help him maintain that functional size throughout the 20 week season.
We know from past interviews that Hudson will likely line up his least experienced (read: guy who has the least understanding of the defense but who is physically capable of making plays) player in the WILL (weak side backer) position. Bradham's experience at the WILL might be of some help to him or it might not, depending on the similarities between the WILL's responsibilities and alignment in the new scheme and those same characteristics in the old scheme. There are valid arguments for Bradham to line up in every spot and valid arguments as to why he shouldn't line up in those spots. If I had to guess right now I would say that Bradham will play the SAM (strong) backer position because of his size and strength. While he's just as fast as the other backers, he has the strength to take on blockers and set the edge, an essential task of the SAM. It helps to establish the flow.
Bradham is a natural tackler with good balance. He's good in pass coverage. He needs to improve his recognition, but that is a constant throughout this preview with every linebacker having that need.
Bradham is a Junior this year and many speculate that he will go pro with a good 2010 campaign. Given his physical gifts, he would probably be foolish not to get paid. That process starts by taking advantage of the competent coaching now available to him.
Inside, I'll discuss the remaining 'backers.
Men In The Middle
Perhaps the best argument against Bradham playing middle backer is that FSU has two very large backers who are most likely limited to the MIKE as their primary position. The first is redshirt Sophomore Vince Williams, who missed the 2009 season after undergoing back surgery. Williams checks in at 6'0" 252 lbs and projects to play between 250-255 lbs. He was actually practicing in pads in the latter part of the season but smartly rejected overtures to waste a year of eligibility by playing in just a few games. Williams was ranked the 40th LB in the 2008 recruiting class by ESPN.com and the 10th overall LB by Rivals.com and was only one of three early enrollees in the 2008 class. Williams looked good in limited duty as a freshman, including work on special teams.
*Last season Kendal Smith played the MIKE. I don't expect to see him in the middle any longer because he is 15 lbs smaller than these two and looked horrible last season trying to pick his way through all the traffic.
The other is the true freshman phenom, Jeff Luc, who stands 6'0" and weighs 249 lbs. Luc was the consensus #1 Middle Linebacker in this class. Luc enrolled early so that he could play Spring ball. People around the program have raved about just how physically advanced Luc is.
Both Williams and Luc are extremely strong, thick MIKE types. Both will be limited by not having good lateral agility and quickness. Both will have an acclimation period this Spring; Williams to getting back into full-speed hitting drills, and Luc into college ball. I believe both Luc and Williams will excel at getting off blocks and tackling. This battle will most likely be decided by who can show the best mastery of the defensive scheme, who can play good zone pass coverage, and who can be more disciplined. I believe one of these two will start at the MIKE and the other will get serious time as well provided that one doesn't just obliterate the other.
Long and Athletic
The other subtitles made a lot of sense. Nigel Carr and Mister Alexander were the two left over guys. In my mind, these are two very similar players. Carr is 6'2" 231 lbs while Alexander is 6'3" 227 lbs. Carr is closer to 6'3" than 6'2" in my opinion. Both have long frames. Both are good natural pass rushers and both play with a lot of energy. Carr in particular is a guy who really loves to play the game. #12 is always going nuts on the sidelines.
Nigel Carr was a 4* recruit coming out of high school. ESPN had him as the 4th best outside linebacker while Rivals.com had him 6th. The Junior is one of the few players who has a birth date befitting his grade level (born February 1990). Carr has a larger lower body and a smaller upper body. I'm pretty high on the Jacksonville First Coast product, but I believe he was a victim of Amato. Carr looked clueless last season, but played with great effort and showed good instincts a few times (or perhaps he was guessing). He played out of control and without regard to any assignment, lane, gap responsibility, etc. With a defense as screwed up as last year's unit it is tough to apportion fault, but Carr clearly has ability. Because he doesn't seem as sharp or experienced as Bradham, and is one of three smaller backers, it would not surprise me to see Carr end up on the weak side.
RsSr Mister Alexander is another candidate to see some playing time on the weak side. Alexander is raw as a senior but had tremendous athletic ability. Alexander played safety for the 'Noles in 2007/2008, but only saw action in one game due to a knee injury. Last year he stayed fairly healthy and saw action primarily on obvious passing downs as a pass-rushing outside backer. It's all about staying healthy and mastering the mental game for Alexander. The athleticism is there, but are the football and more importantly linebacker skills?
Both need a good bit of coaching and I'll be pulling for Carr to line up along with Bradham and the winner of the Williams/Luc battle. Of course, it's possible neither Carr nor Alexander start.... Because there's still one more player on this list...
Kendall Smith is coming off a year he would probably like to forget. After having nice stints as a backup up 2007 and 2008, the 6'0" 235 (225 last year) Smith looked terrible at middle linebacker. #29 is a former 4* recruit and surprised everyone by how poorly he played. In truth, he was likely out of position. Smith needs to play in space. Taking on bigger blockers and fighting through all the traffic in the middle is simply not his game. He looked extremely hesitant and at times I was able to audibly count "one Mississippi" after the ball was snapped before he moved from his stance.
I am not ready to say Smith lacks instincts, he just lacked them in the middle. I think he can probably play outside backer. This is his Senior year and while Smith is not an NFL player he still has the potential to be a good college starter or an excellent backup. Seeing him gain 11 lbs since last August is encouraging.
I expect a ton of improvement from the linebackers this year. Expect practice reports detailing growing pains at first. The only thing we know right now is that Bradham is a virtual lock to start, Williams/ Luc can't play the outside, and at least one Spring starter will come from the Carr/ Alexander/ Smith group.