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Florida State football preview: Defensive Line

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The Seminoles had one of the best defensive fronts in the country last year and have the talent to remain near the top this year.

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State
FSU defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to dispute the fact that Florida State’s defensive line group was the team’s strongest from top to bottom last season.

FSU’s 3.92 sacks per game were the most nationally and their 51 sacks was second most behind only Alabama, a team that played in two games more than the Seminoles.

Of those 51 sacks, 41.5 came from defensive linemen. The linemen responsible for 25.5 of those sacks are back on this year’s team.

Yes, the loss of DeMarcus Walker, second-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos in the 2017 NFL Draft, will hurt. Walker’s 16 sacks were second most by a player nationally and the leadership he took on was evident not just to the defensive line, but to the defense as a whole.

That being said, if ever there was a season where exceptional depth is able to make up for a player of Walker’s caliber, this would be that year.

Leading the post-Walker charge for the Seminoles will be junior defensive end Josh Sweat.

Sweat, the No. 1 player in the 2015 recruiting class before he suffered a catastrophic knee injury, is an athletic freak. Measuring 6’5, 250 pounds, Sweat’s mix of speed, strength and, agility is formidable. He has not always been a player that made a big impact in the stat sheet despite his impact on the game. However, that changed over the final three games of the 2016 season which saw him rack up 1.5 sacks each game against Syracuse, Florida, and Michigan. Those 4.5 sacks over a three-game span match the number he had over his first 22 games, showing how dangerous he can be when he is fully healthy and committed to the cause. Entering his money year, it’s hard to believe he won’t be as committed as just about any player on the field.

With Sweat filling in at Walker’s vacated defensive end spot, sophomore Brian Burns has stepped into the buck linebacker role Sweat previously held. Burns is coming off one of the best freshman seasons by a defensive player in program history. In 2016, Burns racked up nine sacks, the most nationally among freshmen and the most by a FSU freshman since Ron Simmons, whose number is now in the rafters of Doak Campbell Stadium, had 12 in 1977. That’s some elite company for Burns.

Burns, a bit under the usual defensive end weight at 6’5, 218 pounds, more than makes for that with his speed. His offseason has been spent working on his run defense skills as he aims to become a more complete, three-down player entering his second season.

Behind those two, expected to be the starters, the Seminoles have a number of players who could emerge as FSU’s third pass rush option at end. That list is highlighted by true freshman Joshua Kaindoh, a late addition to FSU’s most recent recruiting class. Kaindoh, who enrolled in January, was the No. 10 overall player and the No. 3 weak-side defensive end in the 2017 recruiting class. Explosive and physical with an impressive 6’7, 250-pound frame, Kaindoh is likely to follow in Burns’ footsteps and contribute as a first-year player in a moderately important way in 2017.

In addition to Kaindoh, two more established defensive ends may be ready to break into the starting lineup in redshirt freshman Janarius Robinson and redshirt sophomore Jalen Wilkerson. Robinson, at 6’5, 249 pounds, learned under defensive ends coach Brad Lawing’s tutelage last year and has made strides in his game which he displays at practice.

Wilkerson, who just switched positions from tight end to defensive end last year, has impressed Lawing, working as Walker’s backup in 2016. Now 6’5, 273 pounds, Wilkerson used that year well, hitting the weight room to shift his body type closer to that of the prototypical defensive end.

Further down the defensive end depth chart are FSU’s other freshman signee Tre Lawson, who projects as more of a long-term project, and Delvin Purifoy, the former four-star linebacker recruit who has been working some with the ends this fall.

Shifting towards the interior of the defensive front, FSU’s defensive tackle situation is intriguing. There is so much quality depth at tackle that there may not be enough playing time to go around.

Derrick Nnadi, FSU’s returning starter at nose guard, elected to return for his senior season despite an impressive junior season. Nnadi (6’1, 312 pounds) may be one of the most balanced defensive tackles in the country. His six sacks in 2016 were the most by an interior lineman in the Jimbo Fisher era at FSU. He backs that up with solid rush defense skills which round him out nicely.

At defensive tackle, junior Demarcus Christmas also returns as the starter. Christmas, who stands 6’4, 308 pounds, grew substantially in his level of play last season as you could almost see the game slowing down for him. His 1-2 pairing with Nnadi last season will carry into this season’s starting lineup and should lead the way for the interior of FSU’s defensive line.

Behind Christmas and Nnadi are a staggering number of players who would have a chance to be the starters at any number of other schools.

Wally Aime, standing 6’5 and weighing 300 pounds, is coming into his second season at FSU after transferring from Fort Scott Community College in Kansas. He made the most of his time on the field a season ago and is poised to be a major part of the defensive tackle rotation this season.

Also in the picture is junior Fredrick Jones. Jones, a FSU legacy, has far exceeded the expectations placed upon him when he was a three-star signee in 2014. Appearing in all 13 games last season and recording two starts, Jones (6’2, 298 pounds) has proven to be a versatile tackle capable of playing both nose guard and defensive tackle.

The major new face in the picture is Marvin Wilson, the defensive bell cow of FSU’s 2017 recruiting class. Ranked the No. 1 defensive tackle and No. 6 overall player in the 2017 recruiting class, Wilson, a native of Bellaire, Texas, will play in some capacity this season. At 6’5, 329 pounds, Wilson already looks the part of a veteran defensive tackle in body size and backs it up with the work ethic he displays in practice and, from reports, as a player already stepping into a leadership role in his first year.

Behind those three is the next crop of players, who may be at least a year away from being regular contributors at tackle. Included on that list are redshirt freshman Cedric Wood, redshirt junior Arthur Williams, who got some work in garbage-time situations last year, Darvin Taylor II, who has dealt with injuries but is now as healthy as he has ever been at FSU, and junior Adam Torres, who has proven unable to stay healthy for an extended period of time of late.

FSU’s two other defensive tackle signees in its most recent recruiting class, Ja’len Parks and Cory Durden, could emerge as exceptional defensive tackles down the line but are thoroughly buried this season by the Seminoles’ depth and should redshirt.

At both defensive end and tackle, FSU’s depth affords the units a few luxuries. In fact, the depth across the defensive line should make the rotation big enough to keep all players rested both on an individual game basis and over the course of the team’s grueling season. There are a number of exceptional defensive lines across the country, but FSU’s has a strong case to once again be near the top.