Florida State enters spring football with questions up and down his roster, and that includes the defensive back ranks. Gone are P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, two cornerbacks who had great careers (though underwhelming 2014 seasons, at times) and are off to the NFL draft.
Three starters return, however, and one of them is an excellent player in Jalen Ramsey. The 6'1, 205-pound cornerback was recruited at corner, started at safety on the 2013 BCS National Title team, and was very good at the "star" (nickel cornerback) position in 2014. Ramsey is a tremendous athlete and an All-American in the long jump. With both cornerbacks gone, FSU is likely to try him out at cornerback this year. If he can lock down that spot, it would be a huge advantage for the Seminoles, who seem to have more options inside than out. It seems likely this is Ramsey's last spring in Tallahassee.
The other cornerback spot, assuming Ramsey can lock one down, will be an incredibly interesting battle. 6'0, 172-pound junior Marquez White finally gave up basketball last year to focus on football, and does look bigger than a year ago. White has good athleticism, but has not had much game experience (a common theme at this position). White has the length Florida State is looking for at the position, and seems like the front runner to lock down the other corner back spot.
If that happens, then Florida State has two long, athletic corners coming out of spring. It could be a lot worse.
But other players, like Ryan Green, a 5'10, 195-pound junior who recently transferred to cornerback from running back, and sophomore Malique Jackson, a 6'1, 165-pound sophomore won't go down without a fight. Green was a pretty good cornerback in high school and has a lot of athleticism. His issues at running back were mostly related to health and the fact that Dalvin Cook is on the roster. Jackson is a fantastic athlete and a former high school QB who needed a year to learn the system.
Figure out cornerback first
Florida State has considerably more options at the two safety spots and the star position than it does at cornerback, so figuring out who will play corner is goal No. 1.
If Ramsey does move from star to cornerback, someone will need to fill that role. The prime candidate would seem to be Trey Marshall, a 6'0, 195-pound excellent athlete who played the role some as a freshman, notably when Ronald Darby went down against Georgia Tech, prompting Jalen Ramsey to move to cornerback. Marshall has the skills to cover, play the run, and be a blitzer -- all things Florida State asks its star position to do.
But Marshall might not have a lock on the job. Derwin James, the highest rated safety recruit in the history of Rivals.com, enrolled early. At 6'2 and 210 pounds, James will immediately be one of the best athletes on the team. It's conceiveable that James could play the star, but one of the safety spots seems more likely.
And that means competition, because FSU returns both starting safeties in Tyler Hunter and Nate Andrews, plus an experienced backup in Lamarcus Brutus. Hunter returned from a neck injury suffered in 2013 to have a decent, but unremarkable season for the Seminoles. The hope is that he can be more aggressive and better against the run in 2015.
Andrews excelled in the very limited money role in 2013 (sixth defensive back, replacing the mike linebacker who comes off the field in those situations), but was exposed in 2014 as lacking in range. Andrews has good instincts and is solid against the run, but he is much better suited to play in a reserve role, covering less space.
If Derwin James can put himself in position to take one of the safety spots by fall, Florida State's defense will likely show improvement at the position, and Andrews could go back to the more limited role at which he excels. But while James has great physical talents, he'll have to learn the defense. And considering that he was allowed to freelance a lot in high school, the learning curve might be steep.
Brutus also cannot be totally ruled out, as he knows the defense, but he's never been much against the run and it seems unlikely that Florida State would use two safeties who are more corner-like than true safeties.
Keelin Smith, the annually-injured Colin Blake, and the true freshman Calvin Brewton also figure to provide depth.
Florida State will be welcoming three talented defensive backs with cornerback potential in Tarvarus McFadden (five-star), Marcus Lewis (four-star) and A.J. Westbrook (three-star). All three will compete for playing time.