After FSU's defense fell off so dramatically from the 2013 title season to last year, questions abounded coming into 2015, especially after losing starters Eddie Goldman, Mario Edwards, Jr., Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams to the NFL. We got our first look at a revamped Florida State defense tonight in the Seminoles' opener against the Texas State Bobcats, and while there's still a long season ahead, we're able to take away a few things from FSU's 59-16 win.
The secondary figured to be a strength of the defense, and it did not disappoint. Not surprisingly, cornerback Jalen Ramsey led the way-- quite literally; on FSU's first defensive snap, he channeled his inner Nick O'Leary by picking up and body slamming a reciever who caught a short ball in front of him.
Ramsey was everything Florida State fans expected. He largely shut down his side of the field, getting the 'Noles off the field on a diving pass breakup and finishing with four tackles. He even contributed an impressive hurdling 37-yard kickoff return. Marquez White played physically on the other side of the field as well, as did Lamarcus Brutus at his safety spot.
Sophomore Trey Marshall, who got the starting nod at the Star position over Tyler Hunter, registered his first career sack before limping to the sideline later. Jimbo Fisher, in his post-game remarks, said Marshall was "fine," health wise, and Marshall looked alright leaving the field after the game.
Speaking of Brutus, it's worth noting that, although highly touted safety Derwin James did see the field just before halftime, James remained on the sideline while Brutus stayed on the field quite late into this one -- until the 'Noles subbed in a number of second and third-team DBs when the game was out of hand.
The experienced starting linebacking corps of Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith looked entirely healthy, leading the FSU defensive effort with a combined 12 tackles, and converted defensive back Tyrell Lyons contributed seven more. Smith dropped an easy interception that helped facilitate the Bobcats' lone first-half touchdown, but the LBs nevertheless played with a nice blend of patience and aggression, looking like they'd bought into the system much more than going rogue in an attempt to get themselves on the highlight reel-- something current defenders cited as a flaw of the 2014 defense at this year's FSU Media Day.
The most intrigue came from the defensive line, where it appears Florida State will make it a point of tapping their impressive depth. Freshman sensation Josh Sweat is evidently every bit as healthy as the FSU coaching staff has been claiming, as he saw reps in the first series and played throughout the contest. Giorgio Newberry broke into the rotation early as well. Demarcus Christmas made his season debut on TXST's next possession, and Derrick Mitchell, Jr. got some playing time shortly thereafter, as did Fredrick Jones and Rick Leonard, who all saw the field before halftime, when this was still very much a game.
Overall, the Seminole defense played loose yet smart in this one-- an optimal combination for a unit that looks to work together quite nicely (despite being put in some less-than-optimal positions due to special teams errors). Ramsey confirmed as much when asked about this team having more fun and if they were looser than last year: "Definitely. I feel like our chemistry is very strong this year, you know, stronger than it was last year. It's Coach Kelly's second year as a defensive coordinator, so everyone's more comfortable-- our chemistry is definitely high on this team, I feel, and that's the most important thing: having fun and being loose out there."
So if this team's defense is looser -- and more united -- than that of 2014, how else is it different? Texas State is obviously a far cry from opening with Oklahoma State, yet FSU's early tackling issues from a year ago were not apparent tonight, nor were the blown coverages that plagued the Florida State defense throughout the 2014 campaign. Last year's defense also struggled to get off the field; so far, so good, as TXST went just 4-17 on third down (23.5%).
But if certain contrasts exist between this year's defense and last year's, then what Seminole defense is a fair comparison? Well it's early, but, per DeMarcus Walker, Jimbo Fisher thinks this squad can fly around and cause havoc like an FSU defense that helped the 'Noles to a national title shot: Walker says Fisher is imploring the unit to play like the 1996 Florida State defense.