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FSU football spring preview: Defensive backs

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NCAA Football: Florida State Spring Game
Nate Andrews and Derwin James
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Previewing the Florida State secondary ahead of spring camp is definitely a challenging task. These are, after all, incredible, versatile athletes, and the Seminole coaches are hardly bashful about moving them around the field. Uncertainty abounds. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Frankly, it’s the product of having so much game-ready talent on the back end. After losing starting field cornerback Marquez White to the NFL, the ’Noles return their boundary corner, junior Tarvarus McFadden (6’2, 198). All he did in 2016 was to tie for the nation’s lead in interceptions, with eight. McFadden showed great man-coverage technique, consistently pressing his opponents to the sideline to use it to his advantage. Couple that with his 6’2, 198 size, and it’s beyond daunting for an offense to challenge him, especially on the short side of the field.

But what of the other CB spot, that vacated by White? There are plenty of options, beginning with the top corner from last year’s recruiting class, sophomore Levonta Taylor (5’10, 169). Taylor looked a step slow through some of the playing time he saw in 2016, but that’s what freshman seasons are for. Because Taylor isn’t actually slow— he was just a touch late picking up on assignments at times. He’ll contend for that field spot, a bit more forgiving one, due to the increased time it takes for the ball to get to the wide side of the field.

But don’t forget about Marcus Lewis (6’1, 190), a trend that became very popular as 2016 wore on. After the onset of last season witnessed the now junior celebrated by numerous outlets (including this one), Lewis struggled more than any Florida State DB last year, eventually missing PT altogether. But that’s not entirely his fault. Lewis was engaged in a battle for a starting CB spot with McFadden through much of the offseason, and switched too late to the tricky star position prior to games that actually mattered.

There’s also Stanford Samuels III (6’2, 175), a true freshman considered the fourth best corner recruit in the country. As a ’Nole legacy and early enrollee who’s already on campus, Samuels is beyond familiar with the FSU campus and its football facilities; what’s more, he can really play.

I know because I saw Samuels compete at Florida State camp, and do so against some of the best athletes in the country, including in head-to-head drills with another Seminole early enrollee who will vie for time in the FSU defensive backfield, Cyrus Fagan. The problem for the lengthy, ball-hawking Fagan (6’2, 182), however, is that he’s a safety auditioning for playing time at a deep position for the ’Noles.

For here’s another sure-fire starter for Florida State: one Derwin James (6’3, 211). Yes, despite the Griese family’s attempt to have you believe that Michigan’s Jabril Peppers was the only key member of either team’s defense absent from FSU’s triumph over Michigan in the most recent Orange Bowl, James is very much a real person, even if his talent makes him appear superhuman at times (and here’s a secret, just between us— he’s better than Peppers). Assuming James stays at the free safety spot, that’s another starting spot sewn up. I’d assume that Fagan will try for backup time there.

Next door, there are plenty of candidates for the strong safety spot. It will be interesting to see how converted receiver Ermon Lane (6’3, 209) has progressed with the benefit of a full offseason on defense under his belt, and there’s also A.J. Westbrook (6’0, 186), who struggled with angles when forced onto the field a bit early during an injury-riddled season for FSU’s safeties last year. Still, Westbrook is a phenomenal athlete who got better throughout 2016— his second half against NC State was definitely one to remember.

The hard-hitting Trey Marshall (6’0, 210) saw time at safety as well last season while Lewis’ audition at star was failing, but Marshall seems much better suited for the latter position that keeps him closer to the line of scrimmage. Heady second-year man Kyle Meyers (6’0, 168) acquitted himself very well at that spot as well, demonstrating solid technique. And fellow sophomore Carlos Becker III (6’2, 183) showed out quite well toward the end of 2016. Becker is both athletic and long, and could seriously contend at any secondary spot.

The Seminoles also have the benefit of returning Nate Andrews (6’0, 214) for another year, thanks to a medical exemption after an injury last year. Andrews brings maturity and experience back to this FSU secondary and is the only player in the group to have played on the 2013 national championship team.

This defensive backfield is rich in depth and talent— Andrews could contribute perspective as to how the group can transform that potential into yet another title.