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Derwin James leads loaded Florida State secondary

Florida State’s second-string defensive backs would start for many schools.

2015 was a very positive year for the Florida State secondary. Despite losing two corners to the NFL, FSU saw an improvement in pass defense efficiency. Superstar Jalen Ramsey made a seamless transition from the star position to boundary corner and was eventually drafted fifth, overall, by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Marquez White proved he could be a shutdown corner. Despite losing Trey Marshall and eventually Tyler Hunter to season-ending injuries, players like Lamarcus Brutus and former walk-on Javien Elliott stepped into roles in which they could be counted on to play their respective assignments.

FSU faces a majority of teams that run a one-back offense. Against one-back personnel, Charles Kelly will play a 4-2-5 scheme that puts five defensive backs on the field and allows him to effectively matchup vs. various formations with more players who can run, cover, and play in space. Kelly also recruits and develops his defensive backs to be able to play multiple positions within this scheme. This gives Kelly greater flexibility in being able to get his five best defensive backs on the field in FSU’s pattern-match defensive scheme.

Due to this, the task of projecting and previewing the FSU secondary is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Jimbo Fisher and company have recruited extremely well at the position (three former five-stars and four former four-stars), giving them plenty of options to fill these roles. So, how will Florida State make the pieces fit?

The best safety in college football?

Sophomore safety Derwin James burst onto the scene last year as a true freshman, getting his first career start vs. Louisville before starting the final eight games of the season. He finished second on the team with 91 tackles, 9.5 for loss, and 4.5 sacks. After one season, James heads into 2016 considered to best one of the best defensive players in college football. James has that rare blend of size, speed, athleticism, and power that has led some analysts to compare him to former Hurricane great Sean Taylor. One might wonder when watching James, is there anything he can’t do on a football field?

Although James’ primary position is free safety, FSU used him all over the defense: in deep coverage, as a box defender, and frequently as a blitzer or rusher on passing downs. James did occasionally struggle with his knowledge of the coverage concepts and route recognition, but there should be improvement in this area with another year in the system. Through fall camp, we’ve heard James has been a terror on defense, not only against the run but also playing the ball in the air and making a healthy share of interceptions.

FSU’s other safety would be the best at many schools

Trey Marshall, a 6’0, 210-pound junior, started the first six games of the season before a torn bicep against Louisville sidelined him for the rest of the year. Marshall is a physical presence in the secondary with elite-level acceleration and burst. This acceleration combined with his strength and power makes him a force vs. the run and weapon in certain blitz packages. He’s somewhat limited with his side-to-side movement but can make up for it in coverage with his instincts and ability to use his size and strength to disrupt wide receivers off their route. Marshall played most of his snaps in the star role in 2015, but word from fall practice is that he has spent most of his time at SS. The duo of James and Marshall at the safety spots could be a huge weapon vs. the run. There might not be a better safety duo in the nation with the ability to run the alley and close on the ball carrier.

An unsung lockdown corner

Marquez White will be the starter at one of the corner spots. White decided to give up basketball in 2014 and focus completely on football, and it has paid dividends for him. The 6’0, 181-pound senior started all 13 games at field cornerback last season, a position that sees fewer targets due to the overall quality of college quarterbacks and their inability to make longer throws. But when he was tested, White really shined. White has great length and movement skills, allowing him to effectively mirror wide receivers in man coverage and cover a lot of area in zone. White is not nearly as physical as a player like Jalen Ramsey, however, and will look to continue to improve his ability to disrupt wide receivers at the line of scrimmage as well as his tackling and destruction of blockers vs. screens. Expect White to put another great year of film together this season and make himself some money in next year’s NFL draft.

Putting the puzzle together

It has yet to be determined if Florida State will implement a field corner and a boundary corner this season, but the other corner spot, opposite White, is up for grabs. Two highly touted sophomores have been battling it out in Tarvarus McFadden and Marcus Lewis.

McFadden has great size and length at 6’2 201 pounds and was a consensus five-star recruit coming out of American Heritage. McFadden isn’t the quickest, but he has the ability to jam and disrupt at the line of scrimmage and shows great top-end speed going back to his days as a kick returner in high school. If Florida State does designate field and boundary roles, McFadden could profile more as a boundary corner. This position has a bigger responsibility vs. the run and Kelly loves to use the boundary corner to blitz in run or pass situations. Fisher has expressed his desire for McFadden to continue to be more consistent and it appears that he has taken that next step and possibly pulled ahead of Lewis in the competition for the corner spot opposite of White.

Lewis, a 6’1, 196-pound sophomore, is a player who had a great spring game and we continued to hear good things about him from players on the team all through the offseason. Lewis plays with a level of confidence you like to see in defensive backs and displays an aggressive style of play.  He’s got the quick-twitch ability to cover smaller, shifty wide receivers and can really accelerate when breaking on the ball. At times, he can be a little too aggressive and give up the big play, lacking discipline and not playing his assignment. He also must work on not being too handsy, which is unnecessary because Lewis has the feet to play the position cleanly.

Whoever is to win the competition at corner will most likely be the player who is the most consistent and does not give up the big play.

If Lewis can’t beat out McFadden, expect him to still find his way onto the field. His skill set allows him also to play the star position, and we’ve heard he’s been getting plenty of reps there with the ones in fall practice.

Speaking of star, true freshman Levonta Taylor joined the team this summer and has been drawing rave reviews from coaches and teammates. Derwin James was recently asked about Taylor and said, "Just from me watching… he reminds me a lot of how I was coming in my freshman year. Just coming in with that dog mentality. He’s just a natural football player."

Coming out of high school, Taylor was ranked the top corner in the country and the No. 7 player overall, according to the 247 composite rankings. Listed at just 5’11 and 169 lbs., Taylor does not fit the typical size that FSU covets in its defensive backs. Florida State tends to only make exceptions for taking a smaller defensive back if they possess elite-level speed, quickness, and play-making ability. Taylor is that exception. He is a natural cover corner with explosive acceleration, change of direction, and elite ball skills.  Taylor has been getting the majority of his reps at the star position in the summer and into fall camp, often with the first defense. If he can pick up the scheme quickly, expect him to play there early and often for Florida State.

You pick (this may not work on mobile devices)

Thanks to our HTML wizkid Evan, we have an interactive table that allows you to choose from 20 combinations for the starting five. Simply click on the player’s name to lock him into that spot.

Key Reserves

Nate Andrews is a name with which many Florida State fans are familiar. A three-star recruit brought in by former FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Andrews has appeared in all 41 games since he arrived on campus. Andrews has made his share of plays for FSU, but also has a limited skill set for all the responsibilities expected of a safety in this defense. He doesn’t quite have the range to cover a deep half or the middle of the field. Andrews has been most effective in the money position. This is the sixth defensive back brought in on passing downs, in place of a linebacker, and allows Andrews to play in the box and cover running backs and tight ends.  Andrews has missed the majority of fall camp with a calf injury, and it remains unknown when he will return, or how effective he can be when he does return.

Another defensive back expected to contribute is 6’0, 182-pound sophomore A.J. Westbrook. A former three-star out of Daytona Mainland High School, Westbrook has had a great offseason and fall camp. Fisher has singled out Westbrook for his intelligence and his strength, benching over 400 pounds this offseason. Westbrook is not known for elite speed or size, but if he has a firm knowledge of the defense and plays his assignments well, then he’s someone that FSU can rely on to backup players like James and Marshall at safety. Word from practice is that he has also been playing the money position with the first defense with Andrews out.

Florida State has an extremely promising freshman corner in Carlos Becker III, who also excels at the long jump (reminiscent of Ramsey). Becker is a former four-star recruit, and at 6’2, 183, has the ability to play corner or safety and has worked at both roles in practice. It’s likely he’ll avoid a red-shirt and could be the No. 5 corner and No. 3 reserve safety.

Finding a role?

Junior corner Malique Jackson and sophomore safety Calvin Brewton don’t appear to be all that close to receiving major playing time this year. It’s also unknown if true freshman corner Kyle Meyers will avoid a redshirt, although Fisher likes finding special teams roles for young skill-position players.

Final thought

Florida State’s secondary depth is tremendous. The Seminoles have four corners who would start for the majority of teams in the country and three safeties who would, too. It’s ability to match up to the various attacks it will see in 2016 is excellent. Losing Jalen Ramsey is a blow, but the group is deeper than in 2015. FSU’s secondary can improve by having better communication with its adjustments and switches, further reducing the number of busts — an area that was already much improved in 2015. Not allowing big plays makes teams execute in the red zone against the length and athleticism. This also might be the best secondary against the run nationally with power.