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Previewing Florida State’s linebackers for 2016

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Florida State’s linebacker situation is probably the best it’s had since 2013.

The linebacker position has been a trouble spot for Florida State over the last two years due to injuries and bad luck. The position may not be a strength in 2016, but things could be looking up if FSU gets long overdue breaks on the injury front.

This preview focuses only on true linebackers, not hybrid edge rushers. While Florida State technically does run a 3-4 defense with two linebackers inside and two outside, it only does so against pro-style offenses (two backs or two tight ends, typically) — a style of offense it faces just a fraction of the time. Inside and outside backer are far different roles in the 3-4.

4-2-5 defense

Far more often (upwards of 80 percent of the time), FSU uses just two linebackers, usually in its 4-2-5 defense (above), with four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs.

This preview focuses on the linebackers who play in both of these defenses, because they are playing a more traditional linebacker role and not splitting time at defensive end. While the two linebacker spots in focus are identified as Middle/Mike and Weak/Will, players typically practice at both and their roles are not that different.

One known

Ro’Derrick Hoskins had played a bit of a hybrid role prior to 2015, but injuries and circumstances of others prompted a move into a traditional linebacker role, where his feel for the position exceeded expectations.

Talented young linebacker started six games – two at weak side linebacker and four at middle linebacker – while making 12 overall appearances...finished sixth on the team with 52 tackles (31 solo)...ranked third on the team with 6.5 tackles for loss...wrapped up the season with two pass breakups...posted career-highs in tackles over three consecutive games early in the season (seven vs. USF and at Boston College and then eight at Wake Forest)...earned his first career start at Boston College finishing with seven tackles including six solo stops…tallied 36 tackles in his six starts… — FSU Media Guide

Hoskins played well enough to make the staff believe he can be counted on to be a good starter. He looks to have trimmed down a bit this offseason (looks lighter than the listed 240 pounds), perhaps to be better in man coverage as teams did try to isolate players on him (Hoskins’ length lends itself well to zone coverage). He should only improve as his comfort level at the position increases.

One hopefully known

This is what Florida State’s media guide says about Matthew Thomas.

2015: Did not participate during the 2015 season following a shoulder injury.

2014: Versatile, big-bodied linebacker who played in eight games and made starts against Louisville, Georgia Tech and Oregon...tallied 26 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss on the season…made his season debut against Notre Dame with a career-high six stops...made four tackles, including a TFL, at Louisville in his first career start…of his four stops against Boston College, 1.5 were for a loss…credited with five tackles in the ACC Championship Game against the Yellow Jackets...totaled four tackles versus the Ducks in the Rose Bowl.

2013: Highly-touted freshman linebacker appeared in four games as a reserve before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery...received a medical redshirt...totaled four tackles, including 2.0 TFLs and one sack in 2013...had three tackles, 2.0 TFLs and sack versus Bethune-Cookman.

What it doesn’t mention is that academic ineligibility and NCAA suspension (drug test) have cost Thomas a season and a half worth of games over the last two years.

What it doesn’t mention is the pain he went through grieving his mother after her passing.

But it does mention how good Thomas was as a recruit — one of the most talented players Florida State has ever signed.

Was one of the most sought-after prospects in the entire nation in 2013...a consensus five-star recruit who was also a consensus top 15 national prospect...ESPN had Thomas No. 6 in the ESPN150, he was 14th in the Top247 and 15th in the Rivals 100...US Army All-American...rated the fourth-best player in Florida by ESPN, 247Sports and Rivals...ESPN had Thomas listed as the No. 1 OLB prospect in the nation that year, Scout and Rivals listed him at No. 2 and 247Sports had him at No. 3...registered 102 tackles and 13 sacks in 2011...numbers dropped to 53 tackles and seven sacks during the regular season as a senior as his Booker T. Washington beat opponents by an average of nearly 42 points and starters played less throughout the regular season...won a state championship playing both LB and DE as Booker T. Washington defeated Bolles and Thomas registered nine solo tackles...named first team All-Dade...ESPN clocked him at 4.59 in the 40 with a 35.6-inch vertical and a SPARQ rating of 114.36...chose FSU over Miami, Alabama, USC, Georgia, Florida and more than 20 other offers...born July 21, 1995.

Tomahawk Nation’s David Visser wrote a great piece on Thomas about how he might be the missing piece of Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting history.

In very limited appearances, Thomas has shown flashes. He has length and the quickness should still be there along with the tenacity. The hope is that Thomas still has amazing athleticism, has absorbed the defensive concepts despite not being on the field much, stays healthy, has a dominant year, and heads to the NFL.

The worst case is that Thomas’ lack of playing time has hurt his development, and his injury-prone tag proves true with yet another physical ailment.

The temptation here is to say the most likely case is somewhere in the middle, but that might not be a safe bet with Thomas. He could join the conversation for FSU’s best player along with Derwin James and DeMarcus Walker— or he could flop.

Name Pos Ht, Wt Year Recruit GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks
Ro'Derrick Hoskins MLB 6'2, 240 RJr. 3 star 12 41.5 5.90% 6.5 0
Matthew Thomas (2014) WLB 6'3, 227 RJr. 5 star 8 23.5 3.10% 2.5 0
Jacob Pugh SLB 6'4, 229 Jr. 4 star 13 25 3.60% 3 3
Sh'Mar Kilby-Lane MLB 6'1, 219 So. 4 star 11 3.5 0.50% 0 0
Delvin Purifoy MLB 6'2, 246 RSo. 4 star
Josh Brown WLB 6'2, 216 Fr. 4 star
Dontavious Jackson LB 6'2, 249 Fr. 4 star
Emmett Rice LB 6'3, 203 Fr. 3 star
Gone
Reggie Northrup MLB 13 69.5 9.90% 1 0
Terrance Smith WLB 9 49.5 7.00% 4.5 1
Lorenzo Phillips WLB 12 9 1.30% 1.5 0
Tyrell Lyons LB 2 7 1.00% 0.5 0

Promising youth is still youth

Behind Hoskins and Thomas, there’s promise but zero experience. Sh’Mar Kilby-Lane and Josh Brown figure to be prominent backups.

Kilby-Lane was a reserve in 2015 and has the size to play the position. If he develops he could be a multi-year starter.

The staff is also extremely high on Brown, who was used mostly as a pass rusher in high school but has ably made the transition to linebacker in college. Enrolling for the spring semester has been a big help, and folks inside the program rave about his potential.

Behind them are two more promising freshmen in Dontavious Jackson and Emmett Rice. Jackson could be a run-stopping force in time and has been working on his quickness and flexibility as he trims excess, while Rice is the more athletic of the two and is working on adding muscle. Both could be excellent on special teams immediately.

The real wildcard in the group is Delvin Purifoy, who suffered a horrific lower leg/ankle injury in 2014 and was still working his way back in 2015. It’s unknown if he’ll be able to fully come back from the injury to reach the potential he once had.

If injuries were to hit especially hard, Jacob Pugh, a Jack/DE could also fill in at linebacker. At 229 pounds, Pugh is smaller than many 3-4 SAM backers, and could jump in and play one of the spots in the 4-2-5. Pugh will be discussed more in the defensive ends preview.