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Florida State football: Linebackers preview

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

Florida State has to replace linebackers Telvin Smith and Christian Jones, and the leadership Smith provided. It has nine scholarship backers, and seven of them are former four- or five-star recruits.

But it's hard to know what to make of Florida State's linebacker position at this point in the preseason. As of this writing, Terrance Smith is the lone returning starter, and is a good player at his weak-side linebacker spot. Smith is a very athletic linebacker who has adequate, but not plus bulk. If protected by defensive linemen up front from blockers, he can roam and make a lot of tackles. Smith does appear to be a bit bulked up this year, and it'll be interesting to see how much better he is at taking on blockers.

The middle linebacker spot is still a bit up for grabs. Jimbo Fisher indicated that E.J. Levenberry was ahead during fall camp, but in Monday's presser, said that Northrup and Levenberry are both in play. Levenberry is considerably bigger, but Northrup is a big hitter and an aggressive player. Neither are considered excellent in pass coverage, and it seems likely that FSU will try to avoid them being isolated against dangerous playmakers.

FSU's starting defensive front should be very good, and the secondary is likely the nation's best yet again, so the pressure is definitely not on the linebacker position. As long as they can cover adequately, take on blocks well, and run to make tackles freed up by the line in front of them, this should again be a good group.

It's worth noting that Matthew Thomas, a player that sources have raved about previously, is not currently playing. Jimbo Fisher has attributed this to an ankle injury, but some sources question whether there is more going on, and wonder if he'll be playing at all for the Seminoles in 2014. At this point, that is all we are comfortable publishing on the matter, and will be looking for more concrete, specific information. Many believe Thomas would be competing for a starting job if he were playing.

Florida State season preview

Thomas' absence is an issue, and Ukeme Eligwe is sidelined until at least the Clemson game (September 20) as he recovers from a foot injury. Like Thomas, Eligwe could have contended for a starting role in some packages if he were healthy. FSU could be in line to play 15 games this season, so getting him back and healthy for the long haul is a priority.

Further, Delvin Purifoy was seen at Monday's practice on crutches, with a heavy wrap on his ankle/foot. His status is unknown because there was no post-practice media availability.

At least early on in the season, that may leave Florida State with just six linebackers -- adequate numerical depth, but little experience.

Of course, FSU doesn't actually project to use that many linebackers this year. In its 3-4 defense, used against two-back teams, FSU is using two linebackers and playing its defensive ends as the other two. And in its 4-2-5 set used against teams using three or more receivers, FSU is also using two linebackers. Few sets will call upon FSU to actually run three of the linebackers listed above at the same time. So the real issue is one of depth.

If FSU's linebackers stay healthy, the unit shouldn't experience too much of a dropoff. But it really cannot sustain many injuries before some really green players are thrown into the fire.