Mark Stoops did the job. It took a year to go from one of the worst defenses in the ACC (thank God for Duke) to an OK unit. And with the offensive-minded head coach throwing big scholarship numbers at the defense, it was soon loaded with ridiculous talent, and he had a great two-year run of elite defense.
Stoops did it so well, in fact, that he was soon lured away to Kentucky. Defensive ends coach D.J. Eliot left with him to become his defensive coordinator. Linebackers coach Greg Hudson left for Purdue, but my sources strongly question whether he would have been retained had he not departed on his own.
FSU also lost eight defenders to the NFL, via draft or otherwise, from the 2012 defense.
It was an off-season of change for the Seminoles.
Enter Jeremy Pruitt, a first time defensive coordinator and Saban's right-hand man as defensive backs coach at Alabama. Enter Sal Sunseri, a well-respected defensive line coach who probably tried to install too much as defensive coordinator at Tennessee in 2012. Enter Charles Kelly, an excellent hire from all accounts as linebackers coach, from Georgia Tech.
Florida State is trying to sell the idea that the defense will be very similar to last year. In terms of scheme, this is totally untrue. And we'll examine that next week after being able to grab video of what Pruitt wants to do. In terms of results, indeed, it might be possible. We'll discuss why today.
Defense seems to be less susceptible to wild fluctuations in performance from year to year. That's probably because defense is more of a collective individual endeavor, while offense is more about teamwork and chemistry.
This is one area that has been a bit overblown in the offseason. Mark Stoops did not blitz much at Florida State. He didn't have to. He had dominating defensive ends in Brandon Jenkins, Bjoern Werner, and Tank Carradine. With the trio gone, Stoops would have had to blitz a lot more if he had stayed. The comparison should not be 2013 aggressiveness under Pruitt v. 2012 aggressiveness under Stoops, but rather v. how much Stoops would have blitzed in 2013 if he had remained. A hypothetical, of course.
Still, I do think Pruitt will blitz more than Stoops would have. The goal, by the way, is not to get sacks, but rather to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly.
Florida State is going to play more man when it blitzes, but when it does play zone, it will be more pattern-match zone, and less spot-drop zone. If you care about this stuff, Alan Mundy has a very solid breakdown for you here.
Formation and Hybridization
This will be another change. In 2012, Florida State kept things simple with the goal of playing fast. For the most part, they stuck with a 4-down defensive line, and usually played two backers and five defensive backs behind it. This year, they'll do that, but will also show the following looks:
- 4-2-5 with three safeties
- 4-2-5 with three corners
There is a huge luck component to turnovers. More than most want to admit. In 2011, Oklahoma State's defense was 4th nationally because it grabbed a ton of turnovers. In 2012, it dropped to 24th. Why? Turnovers. Oklahoma State didn't really play at all that different of a level. It just didn't get the bounces.
Still, FSU's defensive backs are expected to be more aggressive this year and jump more routes. The downside to this, is that it is more dangerous and leaves the defense susceptible to big plays.
You can try to force turnovers, but for the most part, turnovers come from playing good defense and playing it quickly and instinctively.
Stopping the run
One other thing that is almost assured to be different from Mark Stoops' defense to Jeremy Pruitt's is success v. the run as opposed to the pass. Under Stoops, FSU was much better against the pass. This is probably because Stoops preferred to sit back and play coverage, and not play many men in the box. FSU will crowd the box if need be. If this defense gets beat, it will be via the pass, and not the run. That's just a hallmark of a Saban defense.
Let's get to some position previews.
Florida State lost a ton along the defensive line. All four starters. They went to the league, etc.
But there is talent here. And experience. Quite a bit of it, in fact.
At end, FSU has Mario Edwards, jr., who came in overweight in 2012, sparking speculation that he would have to move to defensive tackle. But Edwards worked to lose weight, and became an effective player later in the year, particularly against Georgia Tech in the ACC Title Game. Now, Edwards has slimmed down considerably, and is in shape to play 500+ snaps for the Seminoles. Edwards is not in the league of other No. 1 recruits like Jadeveon Clowney and Robert Nkemdiche, and he was never expected to be. But he can be a very good player for FSU in 2013. And he can be a versatile player, able to play in multiple spots.
At the other end is Dan Hicks, a player we profiled here. Hicks will be used in both two and three-point stances in 2013. I expect all of FSU's ends to alternate between two and three-point stances in 2013.
Then, the experience drops off quite a bit.
The top reserves are Chris Casher, who we profiled recently, and Demarcus Walker. Neither have any real game experience, but both are athletic and promising players with great potential. They just have to learn what they are doing so that they can not think, but rather play fast.
There will be a clear dropoff from the defensive end position this year. It's practically unavoidable, with the loss of Carradine and Werner. If this group can be solid against the run, be gap sound, and provide some pass rush, that will be a win. Edwards staying healthy is vital to this process.
On the defensive interior, the prognosis is better. Florida State has a whole bunch of experience, and talent, inside.
In addition to those four, Florida State has former five-star defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, now in his second year. There wasn't a whole lot of buzz about Goldman in camp, particularly compared to the expectation that he would quickly play to the level of fellow former five-star Timmy Jernigan. However, it is worth noting that Goldman was listed as a starter in FSU's 5-2 style package, as a five-technique end, for the Pitt game (FSU claims this is a 4-3 alignment, but Goldman is no 4-3 end).
As mentioned above, a good number of these players can play inside and out.
The talent and experience at the top cannot be matched. Christian Jones and Telvin Smith are probably the finest linebacker duo in the conference, and one in the country. Jones is big, can cover tight ends and rush the passer, and do it all. Smith is incredibly quick and fast, and has bulked up a good bit this year, to better take on blocks.
The depth here, however, is not very good -- scratch that, the talent is good, but the experience is not. Other than Jones and Smith, no other linebacker has started a game for Florida State. The top reserves are almost all underclassmen (Terrell is not expected to play, and Terrance Smith is the only other linebacker who has been in the program for three years).
If Jones or Smith go down, Florida State could be in trouble. FSU's new defense is complicated, and takes time. Having to put an inexperienced backer in could be problematic.
And then there is the question of just how many sets FSU will play using three linebackers. Safety/linebacker Karlos Williams is actually bigger than Terrance Smith by about 10 pounds, and is more experienced. FSU may very well elect to use more defensive backs and fewer linebackers.
Speaking of defensive backs...
This group is incredibly loaded. I mean, I don't think any secondary in the dynasty years had more talent as a whole than this group. More than a third of these guys will go on to play in the NFL. Maybe as many as half.
And when breaking in a new, very complicated defense, it surely does help to have talent and experience. There are eight defensive backs with at least three years in the program. And the best talent might be the youngest.
At corner, FSU has Lamarcus Joyner, a former all-conference safety; P.J. Williams, one of the most talented corners in the league; Ronald Darby, the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, Nick Waisome, a very productive player in 2012, Jalen Ramsey, a former five-star recruit, and others as well.
And at safety, it has a trio of upperclassmen that I'd put against any in the country in Terrence Brooks, Tyler Hunter and Karlos Williams. Each have their own unique skill-set. Brooks is very dependable against the run and the pass. Hunter is a former corner who is very good in coverage and can play all over the field. And Williams is a physical freak with great straight-line speed and hitting ability. He has not been good in coverage to this point in his career, and against the run, he has struggled with being too aggressive and not breaking down to a good, football position to make a sound tackle.
Florida State is going to play a lot of five and six-defensive back looks this year. There is too much talent in the secondary, and too much inexperience at linebacker, not to do so. Within this, I am extremely interested to see how many looks FSU plays with three safeties, three corners, or both.
This is a new defensive scheme, and it is not easy to learn. As I said above, it is not taking Mark Stoops' old scheme and tweaking it a bit. It is brand new. There's an entirely new defensive coaching staff, and a defensive coordinator who has never had to coordinate a defense, call a defense, manage a defensive staff, make in-game adjustments, etc., at the major college level.
If Florida State didn't have so much talent and experience in the back seven, I'd be worried. Playing the odds, however, gives me confidence that enough guys will eventually get it in Year 1. And those odds also say that the guys who do get it, will have talent.
There are trouble spots, of course. Linebacker and end do not have quality depth, particularly in terms of experience. Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Mario Edwards, Jr. really need to stay healthy.
And more big plays are going to be surrendered, because FSU is going to be taking more risks. That's the tradeoff.
But in theory, there are answers for almost every look. Big? Sure, FSU has its 5-2/3-4 look. Small? See above about the defensive backs.
I'm petty confident that this unit can be a top-10 defense for the third year in a row. The major test comes in week seven, at Clemson. Until then, the Seminoles defense can work on the kinks. That's not to say that Pitt and Maryland are not losable games, but they don't present the offensive challenge of a Clemson. If FSU had to play Clemson in Week 1, I'd be quite worried.
Other predictions: the sack rate for the defense will go down, and the interception rate will increase. That doesn't necessarily mean that FSU will have more turnovers. Why? Fumbles. Recovering them is almost entirely luck due to the odd shape of the ball used in the game we all love. But, if asked to hazard a guess, I would predict more turnovers generated for FSU this year.