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Florida State football spring preview: Linebackers

Who steps up in a linebacker unit which returns everyone from last season?

Florida State’s linebackers corps sits in an interesting situation heading into 2017.

While the defensive line returns a number of contributors from last season, it must replace DeMarcus Walker. On another hand, the secondary enters spring practice healthier than it was for nearly the entire 2016 season.

Meanwhile, FSU returns all of its linebackers from a season ago, the only defensive position group which can boast this. Still, there remain questions on which players will enter the 2017 season as starters, particularly due to a defensive scheme which normally utilizes only two inside linebackers at any one time. As spring practice unravels and the Spring Game nears, this blurry picture may begin to clear.

Matthew Thomas, entering his redshirt senior season at FSU, finally put together his first complete season in 2016. A player who was oft suspended or injured in the early portion of his career, Thomas looked the part early last season, often struggling to find his place, leaving holes in the middle of the defense, or, on one significant occasion, loafing.

That all shifted down the stretch of the season. Thomas’ comfort level visibly grew as the season wore on and by Florida State’s Orange Bowl victory over Michigan, Thomas was looking more the part of the five-star recruit he was when he enrolled at Florida State in 2013. His role seems safe entering his final spring practice at FSU.

Ro’Derrick Hoskins, also coming into his final year at FSU, is the Seminoles’ other returning starter at inside linebacker. He has made emerged as sure tackler over the last two seasons, amassing over 50 tackles in each of the last two seasons. That being said, he has also proven to be a liability in pass coverage at times and he lacks the athleticism some of Florida State’s younger LBs possess. He may have to battle to keep his starting spot by the time spring practice is wrapped up.

Dontavious Jackson, the No. 4 inside linebacker in the 2016 recruiting class, arrived at FSU over the summer after picking the Seminoles on National Signing Day. It quickly became clear that it would be difficult to keep a player with his skill set off the field for long. He possesses quite possibly the best linebacker instincts and football IQ of anyone in Florida State’s linebacker corps and has the physical attributes to back it up. He accumulated 20 tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss, and a half sack as a true freshman and seems poised to take the next step in his progression entering his first spring at Florida State.

Some other linebackers to keep an eye as spring practice gets underway are sophomores Josh Brown, Emmett Rice, and Sh’Mar Kilby-Lane. Brown, an early enrollee in January of 2016, was given high praise by teammates and coaches alike heading into the season, but was unable to rise above special teams duty as a true freshman. Rice, another member of FSU’s stacked 2016 linebacker class, saw limited playing time at linebacker last year and looks to take the next step forward in 2017. Kilby-Lane saw some reps on defense in 2015 thanks to injuries to starters, but he was academically ineligible last season, casting his future at FSU into some doubt.

The newest member of Florida State’s linebacker group is 2017 signee Adonis Thomas. Thomas, a JUCO signee originally out of Atlanta, Georgia, was the No. 2 rated inside linebacker in the 247Sports 2017 junior college composite rankings. He enters Florida State as a redshirt sophomore after spending two years at Alabama and could contend for early playing time even with the stiff competition.

The bottom line for Florida State’s linebackers entering spring practice is that the Seminoles have plentiful options, each of whom bring a different strength to the table. Spring will become about analyzing their play and beginning to narrow down which of them will begin the 2017 season as the starters in the middle of the defense.