This is sixth in a multi-part preview series covering the position groups as Florida State starts the 2010 season. Of the 66 major conference teams, FSU was only better than Louisville, Kansas, Indiana, Duke, Stanford, Kansas State, Iowa State, Illinois, and of course, Washington State. The last ACC defenses to be this bad in league 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. Today I'll look at the defensive line.
|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 it was broken and understand why it was 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 and strength training.
With the help of finally having a quality strength and conditioning program, FSU is accomplishing this goal. For the first time in quite a while, FSU projects to have a front-7 of more than 1800 combined lbs. That is not elite size, but no longer is FSU's size up front a liability. In the coming years, it might even be an advantage.
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 is 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 in the right direction from Florida State's defensive ends. Nole fans haven't seen that in a long time. The defensive ends have experienced a huge culture shock of being coached by a qualified coach for the first time in their FSU careers.
Inside, we'll look at both the ends and the tackles.
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 were 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 through which an opposing offense could run. I expect him to have FSU's defensive ends do the same. The players have already said as much, acting shocked that they actually have an assignment on each play. 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. Early reports from the defensive ends have them being much better than awful, which they were last year. So let's talk about those ends.
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" 265 lbs. 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 was just dying to be coached. From all reports, he has taken well to the coaching. The starter at left end (typically the strong side), White worked hard in the off-season, despite battling a knee injury. While I don't think he will ever be a great pass rusher, he could be a good rusher now that he has had some coaching. If he has any shot to make the NFL, he must become a lot better against the run. As left 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.
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. Jenkins played some last season in limited duty and looked like a freshman. That is so say he had some moments in which he clearly showed his athleticism and some moments in which he looked lost. The 6'2" 250 lb Jenkins has very long arms which make him play like a taller guy.
Jenkins has created a lot of buzz with his play in Spring and Fall camp. He is the undisputed starter at right end (weak side usually). 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. Jenkins put on good weight this off-season and now checks in at 250 lbs. 240 lbs for a defensive end is simply too small. 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. Jenkins will be counted on to give 550-600 snaps this year.
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" 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? 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. Hicks is now up to 265 lbs. That's incredible work for him considering he also needed to lose bad weight and add good. Hicks is still a year away from breaking out, but he is the backup to Brandon Jenkins at right end and will be counted on to contribute 200-250 snaps this season.
Bjoern Werner is not your typical freshman. The 6'4" 276 lb freshman from Germany by way of Connecticut is 20 years old and married. Werner has been good in camp and won the #2 spot behind Markus White at left end. Werner hasn't played much organized football, but has been a quick learner and is quite physically impressive. His strength allows him to hold the edge against the offensive tackle and allow FSU to stop the run. Here was our evaluation from his recruitment:
First thing that jumps off the screen at you is his pursuit of the football. He understands pursuit angles and when he decides he is going to chase a play down he is usually successful. On contact with a ball carrier he is extremely violent. You can tell how raw he is by the way he uses his hands. His first step is not explosive but is quick, he possesses a good short\compact first step that a SDE needs. Is a very long, lean specimen-his body type reminds me of Grant Wistrom\Chris Long. Seems to be decisive, does not get stuck with his feet dead. Is a natural athlete that possesses good natural footwork. Tremendous motor that cannot be coached. He even played weakside linebacker for Salisbury. Werner has got amazing feet, from watching his tight end film. Has a violent punch that needs to be refined. Needs to work on keeping his elbows in closer to his body. He could also make an excellent offensive lineman.
Werner will be counted on to play 275-325 snaps this season behind Markus White and he has a very bright future. The coaches love this guy.
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" 234 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. 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. He is still pretty raw and is only a situational pass rusher at this point. Stevens is not regarded as a bad apple and will be given every opportunity to give his meaningful contribution to the team.
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. Jackson graduated at the end of Summer, is not being counted on in any defensive capacity, and this will probably be his last season in Tallahassee.
*Keep in mind that both of the incoming defensive end recruits are expected to see action come this Fall.
One of the more embarrassing anecdotes to come out about the old staff is that the defensive ends and defensive tackles didn't communicate. That was symptomatic of the old staff as a whole, but it is inexcusable for the defensive ends and defensive tackles not to do something that complement each other. This information helped to explain the few outrageous incidents last year in which the defensive linemen actually ran into each other. That is no more and FSU has rejoined the other 119 teams that have the defensive linemen working in tandem.
|Defensive Tackle Coach Odell Haggins
The DTs are coached by Odell Haggins. A lot of people didn't expect Coach Jimbo Fisher to retain Haggins, but he did. I think that says something about the former 'Nole great. Someone I trust told me that Haggins is a very good cook, but between 2005-2008, he wasn't the best grocery shopper. I think that's a good analysis. His recruiting in 2005-2007 absolutely left something to be desired. And he has also suffered a good bit of bad luck at the position with guys like Letroy Guion leaving early to be a late-round draft choice, Callahan Bright failing to qualify and then getting arrested before he could make it out of junior college, Justin Mincey's academic safari, Paul Griffin's torn ACL (never recovered), Emmanuel Dunbar's broken back, Budd Thacker's high drama/ low production career, the signing day switcharoo by Marvin Austin, and Moses McCray's elbow problem.
But things look to be getting significantly better. Under a new staff with clear direction and renewed energy, I'm told Odell is the fun, vivacious Odell Haggins again. And that is really good news for the 'Noles. The recruiting has really stepped up. FSU has qualified all 4 of its last 5 defensive tackle commitments. And those guys are not scrubs. Among them are a 5*, a 4*, and 2 3*'s (including a JUCO). In 2008 FSU signed and placed Anthony "Amp" McCloud of Thomas Co. Central HS (Thomasville, GA). Many believed he was a better player than current Clemson NG Brandon Thompson (4*). Of course, McCloud had no chance to qualify and was not reviewed by the recruiting services. But he went to JUCO and is now back. The chance that a defensive line JUCO sign-and-place recruit ever makes it to his original college of choice is very poor, and it is an encouraging sign that FSU identified the talented prospect, found a home for him, laid out a plan to get him back, and got the kid back. More on him later. FSU already has two elite defensive tackle commitments for the upcoming recruiting class, and while they might not have come from Haggins' geographically designated recruiting area, there is no doubt that the interaction between potential future position coach and recruit plays a big part in the decision. Haggins has a renewed spirit under the new staff that he hasn't had in years. Judging by the current recruits and the young talent at the position, he'll have a nice group in 2011 when the 'Noles defensive interior could be one of the best in the nation.
FSU loses three players at the defensive tackle position in Budd Thacker, Justin Mincey, and Kendrick Stewart. Each had their moments in their FSU careers and each probably had their worst year as seniors for a variety of reasons into which I don't need to delve too deeply. All three struggled with injuries and all three were ill-fitting pieces to a rather disorganized defensive puzzle. While not completely downplaying their losses, I will say that if they were theoretically allowed to come back this season, they would be second teamers at best. None were considered starters. This year, FSU doesn't have a single Senior starter on the defensive interior. If FSU can get through 2010 it should have a dominant defensive interior in 2011.
Out For The Year
Moses McCray, a 6'2" 310 lb Junior from Tampa was being counted on to be a key reserve this year. He tore his ACL and will try to return in 2011. This makes FSU extremely young along the defensive line.
Young Stud At Nose Guard
From the moment he stepped on the field at Madison County HS (FL), people knew Jacobbi McDaniel was a stud. He crushed the scouting camps before his senior year in high school, dominated as a senior, destroyed the all-star games, earned his 5* rating as the top defensive tackle in the country and played about as well as one could ask of a true freshman defensive tackle. He would have played even better if not for sustaining a knee sprain thanks to a cheap shot in the USF game.
The 6'0" 298 lb Sophomore will now be asked to take the next step. I went back and watched every snap McDaniel played last year. He was one of FSU's best defensive linemen. And that was in spite of some of the things the defense asked him to do, including a ridiculously excessive amount of stunting and twisting. Running McDaniel to the outside and bringing Craig Yarborough to the inside isn't an effective way to stop anything other than the 'Noles' chance of winning.
Defensive Tackle is probably the 2nd or 3rd toughest position to play as a freshman, behind quarterback and arguably offensive tackle. McDaniel needs to continue to get better at everything, but his low center of gravity and powerful base paired with his amazing quickness is something that few people on the planet possess. He arrived to FSU carrying a fairly large amount of bad weight and has been steadily trading the baby fat for muscle. Reports on McDaniel have been positive and I'm not aware of any lingering knee issues. McDaniel needs only to stay healthy, continue to get stronger, gain more experience, improve his recognition, and work on being more consistent with his technique to have a chance at an All-Conference selection. That might sound like a lot but it really boils down to "stay healthy and progress at a reasonable rate." McDaniel will be counted on to play 475-525 snaps this season at nose guard.
The New Guy At Nose
Welcome Anthony "Amp" McCloud to the picture. As discussed above, McCloud was one of the best players in Georgia in 2008 but had no chance of getting into college, so he went the JUCO route. If he had the grades he would have been a high 4* type recruit. Thankfully, he graduated with his AA in 3 semesters and enrolled in FSU this Spring. He showed up at around 315 lbs but is now down to 6'2" 305 lbs. While the kid is undeniably a talent, he has not played a down of football since November 2008. McCloud sat out the 2009 season to focus solely on his academics so that he could graduate early and enroll at FSU this January. It was expected that he would show up out of shape considering that he wasn't playing ball and didn't have a college-level weight facility available to him.
McCloud worked on getting in better shape as he becomes re-acclimated to working out in a college weight program. It should be noted that McCloud is a red-shirt Sophomore and not a Junior, by virtue of his academics-only year in 2009. We've seen some of his film from high school and it was undoubtedly impressive. McCloud had worked on everything from adjusting to major college life, to film study, to workouts, to technique, and probably to strapping up his pads. He is still a bit raw, but guys with his frame and athleticism do not grow on trees. 'Nole fans should be very pleased if McCloud can play 225-275 snaps this year. My guess is that he makes his transformative leap next off-season. As a final note, Amp had an unspecified blood pressure issue in 2008 that was monitored but did not cause him to miss any games. FSU fans hope that doesn't flare up.
Now we turn to the guys at the 3-technique position (the quicker tackle aligning between the guard and tackle). Red-shirt sophomore Everette Dawkins checks in at 6'2" 284 lbs and red-shirt freshman Demonte McAllister stands in at 6'3" 280. Both were highly regarded 4* recruits and there had been a large amount of speculation about one or both players moving to defensive end. But under the amazing new strength & conditioning program, both players added 20 lbs this off-season and are now well positioned to contribute at defensive tackle. The improved size in the front seven is one of the most important things going into this season.
Dawkins played very well considering he was a red-shirt freshman last season. He has a nice first step, plays with good leverage most of the time, and you can tell he is well coached. Dawkins is the starter at the 3-technique spot and is a guy who could end up as a 3-year starter when all is said and done. Dawkins will be counted on for 475-525 snaps this year.
McAllister is a very polarizing player and his case is especially interesting considering that he has yet to play a snap for Florida State. A lot of people were concerned that Demonte hasn't put on much weight, if any, since he arrived on campus. He did get injured (leg) and then got down on himself. His medical issues are now cleared up and his 22-lb gain this off-season is tremendous. Demonte is a phenomenal athlete and has the frame to be an excellent 3-technique tackle in time. Demonte will be counted on for 225-275 snaps this year.
The Young Guys
Because Florida State is very young and thin at the position, FSU will need some form of contribution from true freshmen Darious Cummings and Cameron Erving.
Cummings is the more likely of the two to make a meaningful contribution. The 6'2" 288 lb freshmen from Titusville has seen time at both defensive tackle and nose. He has excellent quickness and at times plays with excellent leverage. Cummings is by far the more polished of the two freshmen.
Erving on the other hand is extremely raw. He hasn't played much football, but the 6'5" 298 lb freshman has surprised some people (probably because the prevailing thought was that he would have no choice but to redshirt). Erving should see some time during blowouts.
This defensive line looks great for 2011 and 2012. But for this season, it projects as average or perhaps slightly above average. Look how young this group is!
|Left End||Markus White Rs-Sr. 6'4" 266||Bjoern Werner Fr. 6'4" 273|
|Right End||Brandon Jenkins So. 6'3" 250||Dan Hicks Rs-Fr. 6'4" 264||Toshmon Stevens R-So 6'5" 233 (situational pass rusher)|
|Tackle||Everett Dawkins Rs-So. 6'2" 283||Demonte McAllister Rs-Fr. 6'2" 280||Darious Cummings Fr. 6'3" 288 or Cameron Erving Fr. 6'5" 298|
|Nose Guard||Jacobbi McDaniel So. 6'0" 298||Anthony McCloud "Amp" Rs-So. 6'2 302||Darious Cummings Fr. 6'3" 288 or Cameron Erving Fr. 6'5" 298|
3 red-shirt sophomores
2 red-shirt freshmen
3 true freshmen
Expecting great or even very good things from this group this season is silly. These guys are in their first year of competent coaching at end and are not physically mature like they will be in 2011 and 2012. But it's not silly to think the defensive line will play much better than last year's abomination. And it's not silly to see this group lay the foundation for a dominant unit in 2011. It's not silly to think they will be more disciplined and play with better technique. With the lack of quality depth here, health will be key. Losing Moses McCray for the year already hurt. Another injury like that could mean the difference between another 6-6 record and potentially going 9-3. FSU must avoid injury if it is to have above average play here.
If I had to rank this group, I would say that there is an enormous difference between FSU and the defensive lines of Clemson, Miami, and North Carolina. Huge difference.