Florida State Spring Football: Defensive Line

Tomahawk Nation continues its FSU spring football preview today with defensive line. If you haven't already, be sure to check out our previous coverage of Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Offensive Line, Wide Receivers and Tight Ends and Linebackers.

The Southeastern Conference has ruled college football for the better part of a decade. While this should not be breaking news to anybody that pays attention, the reasons why should also be no surprise. Sure, there's tradition, money, rabid fan bases and high school talent trees growing on every southern lawn, but none of that actually wins football games. And plenty of big time programs north of the Mason-Dixon Line can make these same claims. But, as we pointed out in 2009 and ESPN reiterated a few months ago, defensive line is the most significant on-field difference between going home with the green and just going home green. Jimbo Fisher clearly understands this concept and made no secret about his top priority upon taking over following the 2009 season. He wanted a defensive line comprised of "grown ass men".

The year before Fisher took the reigns, Florida State did not have a single defensive lineman on its roster weighing over 300 pounds. In his first season that number improved by a factor of infinity to two. The following year there were five and coming into this spring an incredible eight of nine interior lineman on the roster are over 300. The size upgrade is not relegated to the interior, however, as the ends are getting bigger and are no longer one trick pony speed rush specialists. In 2009 there was only one defensive end over 260 pounds. There were five last year and four on this year's spring roster.

FSU Defensive Line Size Trend

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What is important to add here is that it isn't simply size. It's size with athleticism. FSU is now putting a premium on both and bringing in the big blue chippers with which 3rd year (in 2012) Defensive Coordinator Mark Stoops can work. When Stoops was hired and asked about his philosophy, scheme, and style of play one word kept coming up; "multiple". As incredibly descriptive as that may seem, it surprisingly left many wondering and his first season did nothing to provide further clarity. In 2010 FSU ran a base 4-3 defense--primarily an "over" front with cover-two zone--on about 70% of plays and ran nickel on all but a handful of the rest. In the second year of Stoops' system the players got more of the picture and undoubtedly the coaches had more confidence in them to unleash the multiple. In 2011 FSU ran 63% 4-3, 23% 4-2 and introduced the 3-4, 3-3 and two variations of dime defense in 3-2 and 4-1. They also occasionally had the weak and strong side ends swap places, moved the weak side end to linebacker and even put three ends on the field at the same time. Multiple. We get it now, Mark. But all of this would be merely smoke and mirrors without a big, athletic, versatile defensive line. It was the strength of the 6th ranked defense last year and could be the best in college football this year.

Defensive Tackles

The key to FSU's solid and sustained defensive line play begins in the middle and is not built around a single dominant player. The strength is in numbers and constant rotation of quality players providing fresh legs. Last year they used a three man rotation, alternating almost every series, at nose tackle and a two man rotation at defensive tackle. Some players were better in run support than pass rush and vice versa, but there was little drop-off in overall quality of play throughout the depth chart.

FSU's multiple look defense depends on having versatile tackles. In a standard 4-3 look, the NT lines up in the weak side A gap (1-tech) and the DT lines up in the strong side B gap (3-tech). Stoops tends to leave standard four-man front personnel on the field when switching to a three-man front by moving the NT directly over center (0-tech) and sliding the DT out to DE. In a nutshell, the DTs must understand all interior gap assignments and edge containment. This may seem subtle, but there's a reason Stoops waited until his group had a full year under their belts to try it and year two to fully implement it.

Everett Dawkins

I consider Dawkins FSU's top defensive lineman, at any position, and it really is not all that close. Considering that every time he lines up there is at least one future top three rounds NFL pick lining up beside him, this is no small statement. As a primary true defensive tackle, he has no problem taking on double team blocks and routinely wins one on one match-ups inside. Even at around 300 pounds, Everett has terrific acceleration and body control making him perhaps the Noles most versatile down lineman. He lined up at each DL position in 2011 and could probably start at most ACC schools at all four spots (no, not at the same time).

As a sophomore, in 2010, Dawkins demonstrated flashes of dominance as a full time starter. The experience he gained in 2010 helped him develop a terrific understanding of the position. In 2011 he led all interior lineman in playing time, logging over 400 meaningful game time snaps (56% of the team total), and routinely diagnosed plays properly. Sound fundamentals and assignment oriented play were key to FSU's excellent line play last year and Dawkins led the way. When healthy, he is disruptive and can take over the game. The biggest question this year is how far the senior's NFL stock will rise.

Anthony (Amp) McCloud

McCloud was the first tangible evidence that Fisher was true to his promise of upgrading defensive line size, transferring from JUCO to join Moses McCray as the team's sole 300 pound club members in 2010. He provided the big body anchor to help immediately shore up a wretched run defense and he has performed that service quite well. There's an old saying that I'm about to make up right now; If nobody notices your nose tackle, he's probably doing a good job. His name doesn't get called often and you won't find many highlight reel plays where he's the center of attention, but he does his job by holding the point of attack and absorbing blockers. Amp is better in run support than pass rush and as such is often replaced in long yardage situations in favor of more athletic players. He trailed only Dawkins in 2011 interior lineman playing time, logging 306 meaningful game time snaps (43% of team total). He plays almost exclusively at nose tackle, but has been used at defensive tackle in heavy set, short yardage situations. He plays with good leverage and power and rarely gets out of position either by his own mistake or blocker influence. The term starter is somewhat irrelevant at his position. But if you insist on traditional nomenclature, consider him the starter going into his final season in garnet and gold.

Timmy Jernigan

The 2011 National Signing Day disappointment over Tony Steward's signing with Clemson turned to jubilation just a couple hours later when Jernigan signed with the Noles. Few true freshman defensive linemen--particularly interior linemen--make significant contributions, but Timmy made it clear from day one the coaches would be forced to put him on the field. He was slowly worked into the rotation at first, taking about 15% of the team's snaps at nose tackle in the first three games and became part of the regular platoon by game four. After Jacobbi McDaniel went down with a season ending injury his snap count went up and he finished the season logging 39% of all meaningful snaps.

His freakish combination of natural strength and quickness made him effective, and often disruptive, in both run support and pass rush. He tends to play with a lot of emotion, which led to some freshman moments last year. He usually had his way against the weaker OL's FSU faced. But his mistakes seemed to be most often born out of frustration when challenged by quality OL, most notably against Miami and Virginia. Which is okay....for a freshman. Controlling that emotion and learning to play with more discipline, particularly after a play is over, will be important in his continuing development. Under Odell Haggins' guidance I don't expect it to be a problem. We also noted he had difficulty, at times, handling double team blocks as a pair of quality OL could put him on skates. This is something that can be easily corrected with improved technique, though. There is no limit to how good Jernigan can be at this level and he could very well be a top ten NFL draft pick.

Jacobbi McDaniel

Hampered by multiple injuries and perhaps being forced into too much playing time, McDaniel struggled to live up to his five star recruit billing, until last year in his third season. He was having, by far, his best season and taking about 40% of the team's snaps at nose tackle before suffering a broken leg/ankle early in the Duke game. In the first five games (Div I-A competition) he logged 103 snaps and was emerging as the top nose tackle. The injury was quite serious and his future is uncertain. I'd like to see him redshirt next year and cap off his Nole career in 2013.

Demonte McCallister

McCallister has essentially been the number three DT the last two years and the number four nose tackle. He has the skill set to play either position and provided good depth toward the end of 2011, as approximately 75% of his meaningful game time snaps occurred in the last four games. The former Under-Armor All America defensive end switched to interior as a redshirt freshman (2010) and was perhaps less than thrilled about the change. Demonte was getting considerable playing time in 2010 and his play was similar to that of McCloud, just in a slightly smaller package. He is very talented and should see increased playing time this year, since the guy that took his playing time is now on offense. The number two DT spot is up for grabs this spring and he should be the one to take it.

Darius Cummings

The former four star recruit was rated the #12 DT by ESPNU in 2010. He has battled some injuries and hasn't played more than a hand full of snaps, but is talented and athletic enough to compete and provide good depth. He recently had knee surgery and as a result will miss spring ball.

Moses McCray

For any Nole fans feeling the need to lament over OL injuries last year, what ever you do, don't tell it to Moses. He was FSU's first jumbo sized tackle at around 320 pounds and he came to FSU with considerable talent. Fortune was not on his side as he went from one injury to the next and never really became part of the regular rotation. You have to admire his determination, though, as most would likely have given up by now. But he is back for 2012 and continues to draw every ounce from the opportunity. He got injured early in the Oklahoma game and only played one other series after that; in the second quarter against Miami and he didn't play poorly. There really isn't much evaluation that can be done here with the limited reps (just 6 snaps in 2011), but let's just root for him.

Cam Erving

He logged over 240 meaningful game time snaps (33% of team total) in 2011 and showed tremendous promise at either DT or NT. He is now an offensive tackle. Traitor.

Nile Lawrence-Stample

NLS redshirted in 2011 and is one of the more intriguing defensive line prospects. His athleticism contained within a compact 300 pound frame is a little scary. Here are some excerpts from his recruitment article:

Lawrence plays a lot of linebacker for his school. He's a wide-bodied athlete with room to grow and possesses excellent quickness given his size. We like his first step, his footwork, and how he uses his hands as a linebacker. And of course, he's 299 lbs and ran a 4.90 laser-timed 40-yard dash. His 3-cone time is insane.

With McDaniel's future uncertain, the number three NT spot is open and NLS will be in the mix to take it this spring.

Derrick Mitchell

The 2011 four star recruit and 18th ranked tackle by ESPNU also redshirted last year. Here are some excerpts from his recruitment article:

He's a big, strong kid that will most likely be a defensive tackle at FSU. He's considered a very good athlete for his size. Mitchell is very raw right now and in the limited film we've seen, plays too high. FSU will need to coach him up, something DT Coach Odell Haggins has always done well. Due to his great length, he's still growing into his body and like most defensive linemen, he might not be an immediate contributor. Mitchell also has a 1993 birthdate, making him one of the youngest kids in FSU's recruiting class.

I'd expect him to get above 300 pounds by his 2nd season at FSU. He reminds me a bit of a skinnier version of former Tennessee DT John Henderson (Jacksonville Jaguars). In an odd comparison, his length reminds me of former Marlins 1B (current Cub) Derrick Lee.

Defensive Ends

The days of "On your marks, get wide, go!" are over at FSU, thankfully. That is not to criticize FSU's previous style, as it produced a long string of 1st round NFL draft picks. Instead, it is a necessary break from a style that gets torched in today's college game. Since Defensive Ends Coach DJ Eliot arrived prior to the 2010 season, no position group has produced a more dramatic turn around at FSU. Added size certainly helped, but sound fundamentals of assignment defense made the real difference. The Noles now have a group of ends that, collectively, are unrivaled in the conference and perhaps the entire country. All three top players from last season return and all three are NFL caliber.

Brandon Jenkins

Jenkins burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2010 and got everybody's attention with a team leading (#3 nationally) 13.5 sacks, earning all conference honors. As the sole consideration for post season defensive end accolades, many viewed his 8.0 sack 2011 performance as a production drop-off. This could not be further from the truth. It was quite clear FSU's opponents did their homework and offensively schemed with Jenkins in mind. Quick passing games, rolling pockets away from him and rolling protection to his side helped keep him off the QB. Stoops did counter by frequently moving him around, but Jenkins was most effective when coming off the edge.

He became a complete player in 2011, having put on some additional size, and was more than adequate in run support. I do think he lost some quickness, though, most notably when using his previously effective spin move only to get turned around, hit in the back and taken out of the play. He did come into FSU at about 235 pounds and may not have been fully adjusted last year to playing at 255.

With 558 meaningful snaps played (78% of team total), Jenkins led all defensive lineman and lined up at every position except NT, including 57 snaps at linebacker. His final season at FSU will ultimately determine whether he plays from a two or three point stance at the next level. I happen to think his prospects are better as a down lineman, but Stoops is giving him plenty of opportunity to show scouts he can do both.

Bjoern Werner

When he set foot on campus I believe he became the biggest defensive end in Florida State football history and, along with McCloud, confirmed the reality of Fisher's GAM policy. He was extremely raw as a freshman in 2010, but provided much needed immediate depth at strong side end. What he lacked in technique, he compensated for with pure power and athleticism. Despite being relatively large, he was quite a bit better in pass rush than run support as a freshman. This was entirely due to poor technique and lack of experience. He often played too high, particularly in run support, and even appeared to be off balance or on his heels at the point of attack. Under Eliot's guidance, Werner made tremendous progress between his freshman and sophomore years.

Werner played just under 500 snaps (68% of team total) last year, second only to Jenkins among DL, and all but 70 came at strong side end. He uses a powerful straight arm punch to the chest and/or incredibly quick feet to gain advantage on blockers and has learned to dip his pads, allowing him to run right through off-balanced offensive lineman. Perhaps the most impressive part of Werner's play is the mental side. He frequently appeared to bait QBs on option-reads only to collapse down on ball carriers immediately after the give. And if it was clear he couldn't pressure the QB on passing plays, he simply read the eyes, put himself in the passing lane and got his hands up. I would expect him to play his senior season (2013) in the NFL.

Cornelius (Tank) Carradine

Tank was rated the top JUCO defensive end before signing with FSU and came in with high expectations. He started the 2011 season as Werner's backup and appeared to struggle with adjusting to the speed of the game. That adjustment took approximately four games and starting with the Clemson game he was consistently good. Toward the end of the season, particularly against Florida, he really started to shine. He logged 239 meaningful snaps last year (33.5%) and the vast majority came at the strong side. The measurables (speed, size, strength, etc.) are off the charts with Tank and NFL scouts will likely be watching him closely in 2012. The only problem will be allocating playing time at two positions, between three terrific players.

Toshmon Stevens

Stevens was quite undersized, but has worked hard to bulk up and put himself in the mix for increased playing time. He only played a handful of non-mop up duty snaps in 2011, but at a reported 248 pounds he could provide good depth and get quite a bump in playing time. There have also been rumors of switching him to linebacker and he could possibly find a three-man front situational role. He is outstanding on special teams and may have replaced Telvin Smith last year as the official coverage team heat seeking missile. Even if the competition keeps Toshmon on the sidelines when the other team has the ball, expect continued great special teams contributions.

Giorgio Newberry

The former four star and ESPNU 150 recruit took a redshirt last year and should compete for backup snaps, even if only in mop up duty. Here are some thoughts from our recruitment article:

The first thing that you notice about Newberry is that he is big, really big. Going into his senior year at 6'6'' 257 shows a player who is very physically mature and close to defensive end playing weight right away. Coach Fisher has made it known that he wants big defensive ends and this is just another sign that is the case. He also shows above average upper body strength. Part of this is that at the high school level not many players have his size, but he appears to possess plus strength in the upper body.

Florida State will lose Jenkins, Dawkins, Carradine, McCloud and probably Werner after this season. Combined with losing McDaniel to injury and Erving and Hicks to the offense, it will be very important for players to emerge this spring. For 2012, the most important roles to fill are the 3rd NT and 2nd DT. For beyond 2012 benefits, finding replacements for three NFL caliber DEs will be key. Of course reinforcements will arrive in August, but FSU needs players from this group to fill immediate 2012 depth needs.

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