In 2016, Florida State lost star safety Derwin James in the season’s second game, and much was rightfully made of his absence from that point forward. It was a difficult loss to overstate, as the versatile James appears destined to be selected very high in the NFL Draft.
James, of course, is all healed up and ready to make up for lost time in the 2017 season. But he won’t have fellow starting defensive back Trey Marshall on the field with him for the first half of the Seminoles’ opener against the Alabama Crimson Tide, as Marshall will be serving a suspension after being ejected for demolishing Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis during FSU’s Orange Bowl win over the Wolverines.
It was Marshall’s second ejection of the season, the first coming in a heartbreaking home loss to the Clemson Tigers. And his absence played no small part in the Seminoles’ coming up short— or in nearly blowing a double-digit second-half lead against the Wolverines, both teams that finished in the AP Top 10, atop which Alabama will begin the 2017 campaign.
Let’s start with Clemson. After allowing the Tigers to score touchdowns on their first two possessions of the game, the Florida State defense settled in and helped the ’Noles erase a 14-0 deficit and take a 28-20 lead in the second half. After those first two successful drives, Clemson’s drives ended like this: punt, interception, punt, field goal, half, field goal, interception, punt, punt. Nine drives, six points. And then Marshall got the boot with FSU holding that eight-point lead. Already thin at safety without James and Nate Andrews, the Seminoles’ depth (or lack thereof) was exploited, and the Tigers, post-ejection, finished touchdown, field goal, touchdown, before taking a knee and emerging with a 37-34 victory.
Marshall was then suspended for the first half of the NC State game but didn’t play for the entire contest due to concussion issues. The ’Noles escaped with a 24-20 win, but they really should have lost that game, if not for a generous dropped pick by the Wolfpack. But I digress, as this piece is about the FSU defense, sans Marshall, against elite squads.
Which brings us to the Orange Bowl and Michigan. There was no slow start for the Seminole defense in this one; here’s how U of M began on offense: fumble, field goal, punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, field goal, punt, punt, punt. The ’Noles were rolling, up 27-15. The only time the Wolverines found pay dirt was on an interception returned for a TD. And then Marshall was kicked out, and Michigan quickly posted a pair of touchdowns to take the lead before FSU produced a last-minute score to regain the lead and seal the W with a pick. 33-32, Happy New Year— barely.
So against elite competition (like Alabama), this is what the Florida State defense allowed without Marshall: on seven possession, four ended in touchdowns, one on a field goal, one with an interception, and one when Clemson took a knee in victory formation.
Yes, James’ return likely lessens the severity of Marshall’s first-half suspension against the Tide. But the overriding question remains: how much can FSU trust its safety depth this time around? How much have they developed? To open the year, the performance of A.J. Westbrook, Ermon Lane, Nate Andrews, and perhaps others will speak volumes to these questions.