|Linebaker Coach Greg Hudson|
This is seventh 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 linebackers.
Florida State's linebackers were awful last year. 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 and bio 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 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.
This linebacker group had 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 a good amount of talent here. He has re-emphasized 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. Hudson is a proven linebackers coach. The real limitation here is of course time. FSU fans should expect competency from this group in 2010. Dominance will have to wait until 2011 as these 'backers have a lot to learn. 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 FSU's best linebacker. 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. But he can still be one heck of a linebacker.
We know from past interviews that Hudson will likely line up his playmaker at weak-side linebacker (the WILL) position. As the WILL he is essentially playing as a second Middle (MIKE) linebacker in FSU's scheme (not aligned on the line of scrimmage). 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 go get paid. That process starts by taking advantage of the competent coaching now available to him. By all accounts he has done this.
Inside, I'll discuss the remaining 'backers.
Men In The Middle
FSU has a lot of options at the MIKE.
Kendall Smith is coming off a year he would probably like to forget. After having nice stints as a backup in 2007 and 2008, the 6'0" 240 lb (225 last year) Smith looked terrible at middle linebacker. #29 is a former 4* recruit and surprised everyone by how poorly he played. Many felt he was out of position and that Smith needs to play in space. Taking on bigger blockers and fighting through all the traffic in the middle was 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. But then again, with poor defensive line play in front of him and awful coaching, is it really fair to judge Smith based on last season? Given that he has won the starting job over two promising younger players, I have to think that he has perhaps taken to the position now that he has some coaching. We shall see.
Close on his heels is redshirt Sophomore Vince Williams, who missed the 2009 season with a herniated disc in his back. Williams checks in at 6'0" 245 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 one of only three early enrollees in the 2008 class. Williams looked good in limited duty as a freshman, including work on special teams.
The other is the true freshman phenom, Jeff Luc, who stands 6'0" and weighs 251 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. But the mental development is still coming along and he is a year away from seriously contending for the starting spot.
Both Williams and Luc are extremely strong, thick MIKE types. Both will be limited by not having good lateral agility and quickness. Both had 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 2011 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. Both have also seen time at weak-side linebacker behind Nigel Bradham as FSU requires all 'backers to learn two spots to facilitate functional depth and conceptual learning.
Gone is Nigel Carr due to car burglary.
After a fierce battle with Nigel Carr in the Spring, Mister Alexander is now the starter at strong-side linebacker. The 6'3" 237 lb Alexander added 10 lbs this off-season and now looks more like a linebacker than a safety. 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? Reports from Spring and Fall have been good. He'll likely struggle at times against the run, but could continue to excel as a pass rusher and perhaps be average in coverage.
Another headliner of the best linebacker class in the country was Christian Jones. The 6'4" 228 lb true freshman out of Orlando is the son of 'Nole great Willie Jones. He was widely regarded as one of if not the best outside linebacker prospect in the country. Jones has been quite impressive so far. As a freshman he is still raw, but he will absolutely see some time in pressure packages (3-4 anyone?) and has all the makings of FSU's next great linebacker.
FSU beat out Georgia for Telvin Smith's services. The highly-regarded 4* linebacker out of Valdosta has been impressive so far in fall camp and some believe he will be the best linebacker to come out of the best linebacker class in the country. The 6'3" Smith is quite small right now, however, at only 207 lbs. He should excel on special teams but if he has to play meaningful snaps this year FSU could be in trouble.
FSU also brought in Nigel Terrell and Holmes Onwukaife, two highly regarded linebackers. Onwukaife plans to red-shirt this year due to a very late birthday. I haven't heard much on Terrell, but I assume he will contribute on special teams.
I expect a ton of improvement from the linebackers this year. The difference in coaching will be night and day. Having a better defensive line in front of them will make a big difference. This isn't one of the best groups in the ACC (BC and Carolina have the two best by far), but the starters aren't awful. Actually having assignments will make a big difference. Staying healthy here is key as the dropoff from the starters to the 6th, 7th, or 8th guy is quite large.