Florida State has one of the best defensive lines in the nation. It operates out of a 3-4 when playing pro-style offenses and switches to a 4-man front when facing three or more receivers. Here's a look at the ends.
A returning star
The top name is Demarcus Walker, a stout defensive end who at 6’3 and 280 pounds. Walker is awesome against the run due to his power and hand use. He is a good pass rusher despite lacking length due to his relentless pursuit. And he’s also an unquestioned team leader. The media guide bio on 2015 alone is extensive so we have pared it down.
Put together his finest season as a Seminole after starting all 13 games at defensive end…established single-season career-highs for tackles (58), TFL (15.5), sacks (10.5), pass breakups (5) and forced fumbles (4)…earned All-ACC second team honors from the media and third team accolades from the coaches as a junior…his 10.5 sacks were the most for an FSU player since 2012 and tied for fifth in the ACC...his 15.5 TFLs tied for the eighth most in the league, while his four forced fumbles tied for the conference lead...finished his junior campaign on a high note posting 22 tackles in his last two games including a career-high 13 against Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl…in FSU’s 27-2 victory at Florida, tallied a then career-high nine tackles, 3.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks, while forcing a fumble and blocking a kick…the blocked kick was the first by a Seminole since 2010…was named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week twice in 2015 after pacing the Seminoles to victories over Miami and Florida…dating back to his sophomore season has made 20 consecutive starts – the longest active streak by a Seminole entering 2016…four-time game captain (Boston College, Georgia Tech, NC State and Houston)…was named the team’s Defensive MVP, along with Jalen Ramsey, at the end of the year banquet and one of four permanent captains in 2015...named Defensive MVP and Hinesman Team MVP along with fellow defensive teammate Derwin James following the 2016 spring season.
How much better Walker can get is up for discussion. He won’t be getting taller or longer and probably won’t get much faster. Some players are better college stars than pro prospects, and Walker is an awesome college player.
The former No. 1 overall recruit
Opposite Walker is the player who could vault this group into the discussion of the best in the country: Josh Sweat. Sweat shocked everyone with the speed of his rehab following gruesome September 2014 knee injury. Jimbo Fisher has stated multiple times that he did not expect Sweat to play in 2015, but Sweat ended up starting nine games and exceeded all expectations. Especially against the run where he was stout, using his length to control defenders. Sweat does need to do a better job of playing his assignment on read plays, but he had a strong freshman season.
Yes there is this feeling that more can be had. Sweat was the No. 1 recruit in the country prior to his knee injury, a 6’5, 235-pound freak of a defensive end who was the closest thing the recruiting world had seen to Jadeveon Clowney.
Sweat did not showcase the explosiveness he had in high school in his first year for FSU, but perhaps that was due to a lack of time in the off-season program as he rehabbing his knee. If Sweat can regain some (or all) of the explosiveness he had in high school, he could be the best defensive player on Florida State’s team.
The drop-off from Walker and Sweat to everyone else is steep, but that is more about the quality of the duo than their backups.
When Florida State plays its 3-4 alignment (above), Walker typically slides inside while Sweat and Jacob Pugh, a junior, plays opposite him standing up. He is 50 pounds lighter than Walker, making him better suited for pass coverage. Pugh didn’t look fully healthy at times in 2015 and more is expected of him this year as the top edge reserve. He is the primary backup behind Sweat when FSU uses its 4-2-5 alignment (below).
Who backs up Walker will be an interesting storyline to watch.
JUCO transfer Walvenski Aime has people inside the program extremely excited about his versatility at close to 300 pounds. He demonstrated better than expected athleticism in the spring and very well could play several hundred snaps on the edge and on the inside.
Fellow redshirt sophomore Keith Bryant had a great spring according to Jimbo Fisher before breaking a bone in his foot. Bryant has slimmed down a lot and is now a defensive end, moving from defensive tackle. With long-time work ethic questions seemingly answered before the foot injury, it will be interesting to watch Bryant’s transition to the position. He has always had talent but so far in his career hasn’t done anything with it. And redshirt sophomore Adam Torres checks in at 280 pounds and may play some with his hand in the dirt on the edge. To date, Torrres has produced the same amount as Bryant: zero, though he has also been injured.
Florida State also has two promising true freshmen in Brian Burns and Janarius Robinson. Burns has potential elite pass rush skills and rare burst, but is just shy of 220 pounds and at that size cannot be expected to play well on non-passing downs. Robinson has a great frame to eventually be a top strong-side end, but he’s raw as a prospect and while he enrolled early, he had shoulder surgery and missed spring ball. Robinson does have the size to hold up better against the run, though technique and experience is another matter.
Red-shirt freshman Jalen Wilkerson has moved from tight end to defensive end following shoulder surgery and will learn the position.
Under coach Brad Lawing, who has done great work with Michigan State, South Carolina (twice), Florida and now the Seminoles, FSU’s defensive ends were more aggressive in the pass rush game in 2015 than 2014, combining for 17.5 sacks. With a more experienced 2016 group, look for more games and scheming up front to get free rushers and elite defenders singled up on suspect blockers.
If Walker stays healthy and Sweat takes a big step, the pair will join the duos at Texas A&M’s, Alabama and Tennessee as the nation’s best. Teams won’t be able to double both.