Florida State Seminoles Football Spring Preview 2011: Defensive Ends

This is the fifth in a multi-part series covering Florida State Spring football practice. Previously, we looked at quarterbackreceiverrunning back, and offensive line.  Today I'll review the defensive ends.  Florida State had more sacks than anyone last year.  No, the defensive ends were not elite, and sacks are not a perfect measure of performance, but bad defensive lines do not lead the nation in sacks.  Impressive enough as that is, you have to remember just how far FSU has come.  To do that, let's take a look at what I wrote last Spring:

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.

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.

Given that, FSU's performance was very good, and in fact almost tripled its sack production.  But it wasn't always elite.  The line struggled with a lack of experienced depth and injuries.  That lead to a group of defensive linemen who had dead legs and got pushed around in the middle part of the season.  Still, Fisher seems to have hit a home run with coach Eliot.

Junior Brandon Jenkins

Defensive Ends

The conversation about Florida State's defensive ends must begin with Brandon Jenkins.  Here is what I wrote on Jenkins last season:

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 6'3" 240 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 6'3" 250 pound junior from Tallahassee was one of the top sack artists in the country, notching 13.5 sacks in 14 games.  He should be in for Spring after having a shoulder cleanout.  Jenkins needs to work on his strength and playing the run better.  His pass rush game is already very good.  If he gets stronger his bullrush can improve.  Jenkins has his spot solidly locked down.  The question is whether he will be in Tallahassee for one or two more years.  If he does get drafted, it'll likely be as a linebacker in a 3-4 as he is currently pretty small to play end in the NFL.  

Bjoern Werner

Opposite of Jenkins' speed is the power of Bjoern Werner.  Last year on Werner I wrote:

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.

His freshman season was really everything FSU fans could have hoped it would be.  The 6'4" 275 pound sophomore needs to work on his finishing moves, but aside from that, he seems to be on the right track.  The question isn't if Werner is a good player, but how high is his ceiling?  

But as good as Werner is, he might not even have the starting spot locked down.  That's because of Cornellius Carradine, aka "Tank."  Here is what Bruce Feldman had to say about the top JUCO defensive end in the country.  

"Remember the dynamic, big-play rush ends on the great FSU teams of the 1990s? That's what this guy looks like. And, as loaded as the Seminoles' recruiting class was, this is my pick for the newcomer who will be the biggest breakout star. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Cincinnati native, by way of Butler Community College in Kansas, picked FSU over the Ohio State Buckeyes and Georgia Bulldogs. Coaches say he is a "werewolf" off the edge and is expected to come in and replace departed Markus White on a fierce D-line.

Here was my take on Carradine this Winter:

Carradine is an elite athlete and a dangerous pass rusher. His technique needs considerable work, but he has the explosion and balance needed to get after the quarterback. At 6'5" he can be a terror in FSU's zone-blitz packages on passing downs. Tank can be expected to log upwards of 400 snaps for the 'Noles next season while sharing time with junior Brandon Jenkins, who logged 12 sacks this season. There is no such thing as too many quality pass rushers and FSU's coaches have to be thrilled to have him aboard.

It's not certain which spot Carradine will play this year, but he seems to be a lock to see a lot of snaps and potentially even start.   How quickly he grasps the defensive concepts will dictate how much he plays.  

Dan Hicks

The fourth key component of the defensive ends is Dan Hicks.  The 6'4" 265 pound red-shirt sophomore from Mississippi turned in a solid year in 2010 after red-shirting in 2009. Here is what I wrote on Hicks last Spring:

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 260 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.

Hicks seems to be progressing well and only a sophomore, should see more playing time this season.  This Spring he needs to continue to improve his pass-rush moves and his fundamentals.

The final player is Toshmon Stevens.  Last Spring on Stevens I wrote:

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.

Toshmon didn't really play at all on defense last season, seeing some time on special teams.  He did battle a wrist injury, but it is hard to see much playing time for him this year either.  He'll get his degree and hopefully land a good job to support his young family.

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