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Florida State's plan to attack the quarterback in 2015: Inside the scheme

FSU Defensive Line Paradigm (Gap) Shift: Will Noles Front Change With Personnel?

In the heyday of Mickey Andrews, Florida State's defensive line was known for one thing: sacks. Churning out first round ends and tackles seemingly every year, Andrews’ defenses were known for their simple, devastating style. The front-4 would pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.

Heralded defensive line stars such as Peter Boulware and Reinard Wilson would rush at an assigned gap - each defensive front call would tell them which gap was theirs to play. The run fits of the unassigned gap were left to the linebackers. If the weak side defensive end has the C-gap and the nose tackle has the A-gap, the weakside linebacker will fill the B-gap. This simple, one-gap scheme helped the Noles win a lot of games for an extended period.

This speed rushing, attacking style of defensive play took advantage of the athleticism and size-speed combinations populating those stellar 90's defenses. Having superior athletes (with amazing speed) attack specific gaps overwhelmed even the best offenses of the era.

Tomahawk Nation wrote in 2009 that Andrews’ defenses changed the sport of college football. It did, as heralded offensive coaches such as Urban Meyer would attest. Those defenses forced offensive football minds back to the drawing board.

Much has been written about the "spread", a nebulous term describing a wide variety of football offenses. In the context of the evolution of the modern offensive game, this simply means emphasizing the use of space to strain defenses, while getting the ball to playmakers. Quick passing concepts like Stick or screens are now paired with run concepts, and even more complicated by adding reads of defensive linemen.

Spread offenses with quick passing, mobile quarterbacks, and reads/packaged plays were designed to break down defenses like the aforementioned FSU units. These "spread" concepts move the ball quickly, before even the most talented athletes can disrupt plays with their speed rushing. Spread offenses have adapted so well, even neutralizing some of the larger athleticism gaps in the sport.

Adapt Or Die (Or At Least Lose Football Games)

As offensive coaches adapted to Andrews’ defenses by incorporating spread concepts, defenses had to adapt how they address modern spread offenses. One-gap front calls are still an important part of defensive football, but it’s less common to see a team play exclusively one-gap (or two-gap) schemes.

The Jimbo Fisher Era at FSU has seen two drastically different approaches in how modern defensive coaches attack modern offenses.

While Mark Stoops’ defenses were known for the gaudy sack numbers of Brandon Jenkins, Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine, they were not simple one-gap schemes. Stoops often featured hybrid fronts where half the defensive line would one-gap, while the other half two-gapped. Frequently, the weak-side tackle and end were assigned two-gap responsibilities. This allowed Stoops to play primarily two safety defensive shells while still fitting run gaps. The talent of Jenkins/Werner/Carradine made four man rushes on passing downs effective (and very successful), generating pressure on the quarterback.

The approach of Jeremy Pruitt and Charles Kelly has been very different, with significant differences in philosophy and personnel dictating the change. Philosophically, disciples of Saban prefer to use more coverage calls featuring a single-high safety shell--allowing an additional defender in the box to help against the run. These units incorporate pattern read coverage rules to defend the vertical passing game. Pruitt and Kelly also emphasize disguised blitzes from linebackers and defensive backs with pressure from the defensive line to squeeze the pocket and contain mobile quarterbacks, rather than one-gap speed rushing off the edge.

However, these philosophical changes were not the sole reason for the sizable change in play between the Stoops and Pruitt/Kelly units. While Pruitt/Kelly/Saban defenses are often criticized by fans for lacking tangible indications of pass rush (sacks), simply accruing sacks is not their goal. In 2013 and 2014, Florida State used contained pressure because the personnel was much more suited to these gap control/two-gap principles.

Mario Edwards Jr, a phenomenal college football player in his three years at Florida State, would have his skill set misused if he were primarily in a one-gap, speed rushing system. The same goes for Eddie Goldman. Edwards and Goldman were FSU's two best defensive linemen in 2014, so Charles Kelly tailored his system to their skill sets by incorporating more two-gap play and contained rush, therefore maximizing their utility within the context of the FSU defense.

But the personnel has changed with their departure to the NFL.

New personnel, new approach

FSU's 2014 defensive line featured few players capable of being effective one-gap, penetrating linemen. Those projected to be physically capable were either injured, too young, or not good enough to change the system away from the skill sets of Edwards and Goldman.

FSU’s 2015 defensive line looks poised to return to more one-gap principles. FSU's new DL coach, Brad Lawing, has a history of running this type of defense. The players projected to start or feature in his rotation are better suited to play attacking, penetrating gap assignment football.

Edge Players

BUCK: Jacob Pugh will likely begin the season manning the hybrid OLB/DE "Buck" position. Pugh was built to play this role--his frame in high school and his senior highlights were reminiscent of former Alabama star, Courtney Upshaw. Pugh's ability to hold up at the point of attack will offer more against the run than the smaller, pass rush focused players behind him.

Josh Sweat took the #1 overall ranking in the 2015 class as a rush end and never dropped out of the top 10 despite a devastating, season-ending leg injury. Tearing his ACL and dislocating his kneecap, Sweat was not expected to play vs. Texas State to start the season. His rapid recovery is a testament to his greatest asset: elite athleticism. Sweat is a prospect who--when healthy--was expected to come in and play a part in nearly any pass rush unit in college football. Sweat is a true one-gap monster - the type of defensive end FSU fans grew up watching. He is built to rush the passer, to bend the edge, to convert speed to power - to be a one-gap, penetrating defensive end. Lawing, when asked about why FSU’s pass rush would improve, immediately answered, "Josh Sweat".

Lorenzo Featherston flashed his pass rushing talent as a freshman, but was held back by his wiry frame. A classic hard gainer, Featherston had a good fall camp and looked poised to contend for a starting role before arthroscopic knee surgery. Featherston is built to be a one-gap pass rush end. While he’s battling injury and still likely a year away from being a consistent contributor, Featherston has a valuable role to play as a pass rushing specialist if he can stay healthy.

Chris Casher has had a disappointing career, battling injuries and not living up to his athleticism. While his play has not lived up to his recruiting hype, he’s probably the best 4th WDE on any team in college football.

SDE: Demarcus Walker is well suited to the strong-side defensive end role that splits its time between a 5 technique 3-4 DE look and a 5/7 technique, one-gap traditional 4-3 look. Walker is a versatile player who has been solid in the contained pressure, two-gap roles he has been asked to take on.

Rick Leonard has an excellent size/athleticism combination and will be very stout against the run. His 6’7, 280 pound frame would likely start for most ACC teams. Leonard, while being under the radar for the most part, seems poised to play 300-400 snaps and spell Walker. "Ricky" will play a valuable role as a rotational SDE who can play inside in the 3-4 and outside in the 4-3.

There is still a lot of football inexperience at the Buck position, which could prove to be a concern. The youth belies the talent of the group, however, and the inexperience is simply something to monitor. This core group looks poised to thrive under a return to one gap principles, and their attacking abilities should shine through in Lawing's unit.


Nile Lawrence-Stample was penciled in as a starter in 2014 and began the season strong before tearing a pec against Clemson. NLS has slimmed down noticeably, which may help him penetrate more this year.

Derrick Nnadi splashed in his role as a rotational defensive tackle in 2014, displaying a strong ability to disrupt play by getting in the backfield quickly. The Virginia player is well suited to play the 3 technique defensive tackle role in a one gap system. While Nnadi can hold the point of attack and two gap when necessary, his skill set is decidedly maximized when attacking opponent B gaps.

Derrick Mitchell is well suited to play as a penetrating defensive tackle. Entering 2014, Mitchell was widely expected to be a rotational player who could solidly operate as a second team interior player. The torn pec of Lawrence-Stample forced him into a starting role in a defense focused more on contained pressure and two gap play than he can be expected to play at a high level.

Demarcus Christmas: Jimbo Fisher said that he believed Christmas was a five star talent. Christmas is a little behind the curve developmentally, but will still be a valuable rotation player.

Beyond the main 4, there are an additional five interior players that give the Noles nine options - giving FSU an enormous amount of DT depth. Keith Bryant has lost weight, and with his new trim figure should be able to give some snaps without hurting the team. Arthur Williams is still quite raw, but may have the most upside of any interior player. Giorgio Newberry is a glue player whose experience will be useful. Darvin Taylor is considerably ahead of where a freshman DT would be expected to be, and could surprise some folks towards the end of the season. And Fred Jones has been surprisingly decent relative to his recruiting rankings.

While there’s no clear cut star and lesser size than previous years in the interior group, there is a bevy of bodies which will allow FSU to play attacking, penetrating football and wear down opposing defensive lines.

Lawing’s Stunts & Twists: Playing Games To Get Pressure With 4

Brad Lawing’s previous defensive line units have featured some of the better one gap, penetrating players to grace college football in recent years: Jadeveon Clowney, Dante Fowler, Dominique Easley, and Melvin Ingram among them. Some may remember how Clowney’s senior year featured many teams focus on taking him out of games through double teams, traps, and other blocking techniques. To let talent shine through when opponents focus on neutralizing them, Lawing has historically incorporated defensive line "games".

These games include various twists and stunts, where defensive linemen exchange gaps to confuse opponents. A stunt as simple as a defensive end attacking an interior gap while a tackle loops around can muddle the opponent’s pass protection and cause crucial mistakes, creating pressure without committing additional players in a blitz.

Being able to maintain gap integrity while generating additional pressure with 4 through confusion and 2 on 1 matchups: the Brad Lawing way.

Some examples of more complex games from 3 down looks are incorporated in this video, which is a good primer on Lawing's core philosophies:

At 2:52 begins a segment on something FSU fans will likely see a lot of: tackle twists. The 3 tech identifies that the back’s positioning means the center will work away from his side, so the 3 tech crosses the face of the center, pulling the backside guard with him, allowing the twisting nose tackle to go one on one with a back. That’s an excellently scouted and schemed high percentage matchup. The nose pushes back the blocking back, forcing the QB into a poor decision resulting in a pick.

This is where Lawing is at his best - he’s widely considered an excellent teaching coach who does a good job focusing on the fundamentals of pass rushing, and is able to identify and exploit potential matchup issues through thorough film review and scheming.

Many speculate Sal Sunseri underperformed in his time at FSU and had difficulty connecting with many of the younger players. Widely successful in the pros, Sunseri’s sarcastic attitude didn’t necessarily resonate at times with FSU’s players. It’s likely no coincidence his longest stays at any jobs were in the pro ranks. Sunseri was widely considered an excellent DL coach, but perhaps his style contributed to the underperformance of his unit at Florida State in 2014.

Conversely, Lawing has been an effective teacher in the college ranks because he’s more encouraging, offering positive reinforcement. He may be able to get more out of this unit simply because of a better teaching style fit.

Stop The Run Or Get Run Over

Lawing emphasizes these games to be able to get pressure with 4, allowing an additional 1 (or more) players to be in coverage and making life difficult for opponents. There are potential downsides to this approach, however. Opponents who do a good job recognizing and picking up twists and stunts can exploit gaps created, allowing them to get numbers in their favor for run blocking or pass protection.

Aside from the potential for these games to be exploited when poorly executed, their utility and upside will be very limited if FSU can't be good at one basic job: stopping the run. A defensive line and front 6 (FSU is now a base 4-2-5 out of necessity due to linebacker health and practicality due to the number of spread teams it faces) that isn't effective holding up at the point of attack on standard downs will not find itself in the longer passing downs it needs to take advantage of Lawing's scheming. With a likely starting front 4 of Pugh, NLS, Nnadi and Walker, FSU should do quite well stopping the run, but getting teams into clear throwing situations is a key to making this plan of attack work, and that is something FSU did not do well last year.

Fortunately, FSU also plays a schedule featuring several inexperienced offensive lines. The Noles face 4 of the 5 least experienced lines in major college football. Not only will this help control opposing run games, but young, inexperienced OL units often do poorly in pass protection. This will only help Lawing's games succeed in garnering favorable matchups.

If Lawing can add these games and stunts effectively, FSU's front-4 should generate more pressure with than it has in the last two years. Along with the personnel shift, a return to one-gapping principles should see FSU a little more like the attacking defensive lines Noles fans are used to from the Andrews days.