One of the biggest questions facing the 2015 FSU football team concerns if -- and how -- the defense can improve. 2013's national championship campaign saw the 'Noles finish with the lowest points-allowed average in the country (12.1) and the nation's top pass defense (156.6 YPG), which registered a record 26 interceptions.
Needless to say, things fell off some last season. Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left for Georgia, and Charles Kelly's unit fell to 50th in scoring defense (25.6 PPG), and the passing defense came in at 60th (266.8 YPG). The 'Noles struggled to get off the field, coming in at No. 106 in opponents' third-down conversion rate (43.87%).
And yet Florida State lost four draft picks to the NFL.
So why should we believe that things will get better in 2015?
We spoke to several players and coaches, and they think selflessness -- and experience -- will play a significant role in a revamped FSU defense.
Junior safety Nate Andrews addressed just this:
"We still have a lot of talent, but the biggest thing is that we have to play together as a defense. With chemistry. We know what we've got to do; everybody's got to focus on their job. I think last year, everybody worked to make a play, but I think this year everybody wants to focus on their jobs, and that's going to help us out a lot."
Redshirt-senior defensive tackle Derrick Mitchell, Jr. echoed Andrews' sentiments:
"I think the first thing that we gotta do is make sure that everyone is unselfish, that everyone takes what the team's interest is before their own. I think that's a big thing that we had in 2013 that we might have been missing last year. I think that selfishness will be a team deflator if we let it get to us.
I think we have the guys on this team that just want to win, you know, just want to do everything for the team and just want to play their role, so I think that whatever role everyone is blessed with, they are gonna go out there and do it to the best of their ability. I think that's gonna help us a lot."
Comments like these may well reflect the disposition of a team that went on an incredible 29 straight-game win streak that included three ACC titles and a national championship, only to see it all end in January's embarrassing Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. That is, there's a certain humility present in these statements. They're also team-oriented, veteran comments, and FSU does have some nice experience returning.
Heading into 2014, the projected starting defensive depth chart featured a combined 82 career starts. This year, that number is 121, which could help Florida State improve as well.
It better, because entering the 2015 season, the 2014 defense looks like a more talented unit than the 2015 version.
Per a trio of defenders, it already has, as three projected starters spoke about how the Seminole defense is already ahead of where it found itself at this time last year. Here's fifth-year senior linebacker Terrance Smith:
"We've just got a little more experience this year. We got a couple guys who can hit . . . We have a little better grasp of the defense this year-- we can run it a little better. We're ahead of where we were last year as far as concepts and people knowing what to do."
(Editor's note: this is an interesting assertion as head coach Jimbo Fisher has maintained that the 2014 defensive scheme was fundamentally the same as the 2013 scheme)
Senior Reggie Northrup will likely start next to Smith at the second level, and his thoughts on the role of Florida State's experience contributing to an improved defense sound quite similar:
"A lot of us have been in the system, so we know how to play stuff-- and we're faster. Yeah, like training camp started off at a fast pace, you know, we can play the ball faster, we can play the whole defense faster."
Fellow upperclassman Demarcus Walker concurred-- when asked if FSU was ahead of last year's pace, the usually stoic Walker reacted in a surprised manner, insisting ""Oh, most definitely, most definitely, most definitely."
Fittingly, Kelly put it all together, along with some specifics about just how the defense hopes to improve:
"We've got some young outside linebackers I think that have a chance to make a name for themselves, we've got two veteran linebackers coming back, you know, both of them are back for fall camp. You can see a lot of carry over. They've played in a lot of big football games-- which is huge."
"I think in the secondary we've got some guys who can make plays. I think the thing that we have to do is we've got to eliminate big plays, that'd be number one, and then we've just got to be able to generate pass rush, and that all starts with being able to rush the passer with four guys (not blitzing, allowing more players to be in coverage to prevent big plays)."
"We've got to to be able to eliminate missed opportunities, whether it's dropped interceptions or missed sacks, be able to capitalize on those things, because those plays of the game, those huge plays, at the time it only seems like one thing, but in the big picture it affects a lot of things. I do see some guys that I feel like can help us in those areas."