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2017 FSU season preview: Linebackers

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Matthew Thomas, where art thou?

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Florida State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the Harry Potter series, the school of Hogwarts is constantly having to replace its Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers. Either due to sudden memory loss, lycanthropy, or having the antagonist of the series embedded on the back of one’s head, the school always has to find a new professor between semesters.

In a way, that feels like the same situation Florida State has been through with its linebackers.

Due to a series of unfortunate events, the linebacker position in Tallahassee has been in a state of constant flux in recent years. Injuries have occurred, academic suspensions have been handed down, and off-the-field issues have caused players to be dismissed.

Since 2010, Florida State has signed 26 linebackers. Eleven of those either transferred, were dismissed or medically disqualified, or, in one case, never made it onto campus due to academic reasons.

The good news, for now at least, is that the ’Noles are heading into the 2017 season with good depth at the position.

If he’s on the field, Matthew Thomas (6-4, 227) might be the best linebacker in the ACC. The redshirt senior showed last year his five-star ability, racking up 77 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and four quarterback hurries. He ended the season on a high note, totaling a career-high 15 tackles and three tackles for loss against Michigan in the Orange Bowl.

The problem is that Thomas hasn’t been able to stay on the field.

The former top-10 recruit redshirted as a freshman in ’13 due to injury, sat out half of the ’14 season due to suspension, and was academically ineligible in ’15. Last season, his junior year, was the first time Thomas was able to play in every game at the WILL (or weak-side) linebacker position.

And now he’s not at practice, with Alabama just 9 days away.

While Jimbo Fisher claims Thomas is just “sick,” anything keeping him off the field will raise major red flags. We’ll continue to monitor this situation, but it’s a good thing Florida State is giving reps to his backup, in the meantime.

Luckily for the ’Noles, one half of its linebacker tandem returns in the form of redshirt senior Ro’Derrick Hoskins (6-3, 240). A former three-star recruit, Hoskins started every game for the Seminoles at MIKE (or middle) linebacker last season and racked up 53 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

The pair of Thomas and Hoskins are somewhat opposites. Thomas is super athletic, but is never able to stay on the field. Meanwhile, Hoskins is limited athletically, but the coaching staff has been able to rely on him as a starter. The senior duo might be among the best in the ACC this season, should both play.

If Thomas is unable to return to practice, the first man up at WILL is sophomore Emmett Rice (6-2, 203). A native of Miami, Rice drew a lot of comparisons to a young Telvin Smith as a recruit for his sideline-to-sideline ability and his tendency to make huge hits. The step down from Thomas to Rice would be noticeable, but the sophomore has at least been taking first-team reps in his absence.

Another sophomore who should see major playing time is Dontavious Jackson (6-3, 249). The backup to Hoskins at MIKE, Jackson played in 12 games last year and made 20 tackles with three tackles for loss. The former four-star recruit was a fast learner who quickly established himself as the first man up at linebacker.

In Florida State’s 4-2-5 defense, it will play two traditional linebackers at a time at MIKE and WILL. However, the ’Noles are fortunate enough to have a few players on the roster who can play a hybrid DE/OLB position otherwise known as BUCK.

Enter Jacob Pugh.

A senior from local Godby High School, Pugh has quietly been an important contributor for the Seminoles during his time on campus. He rotates in as a pass rusher in third down packages, or enters when FSU shifts to more of a 3-4 defensive look. Pugh totaled 43 tackles, six tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks last year in his hybrid end/linebacker role.

Pugh also won Florida State’s annual Hinesman award, given to the most impressive player in spring practices. It’s fair to say coaches are expecting big things from him this year.

Backing up Pugh at the hybrid end/linebacker role is, surprise, another sophomore in Josh Brown (6-3, 216). The former four-star recruit played mostly on special teams as a freshman, but showed in the spring game that he could step in and play snaps if called upon.

The Seminoles signed several linebackers in this year’s class who could also see the field if needed. Redshirt sophomore Adonis Thomas (6-4, 228) was formerly with Alabama before transferring to junior college. True freshman Leonard Warner (6-4, 230) chose Florida State over Georgia and Stanford and will likely be a key special teams contributor. DeCalon Brooks (5-10, 195), the son of FSU legend Derrick Brooks, is another player who will contribute on special teams early in his career.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the end of the road for Delvin Purifoy (6-2, 246). A former four-star recruit, Purifoy suffered a severe ankle injury as a freshman and hasn’t been the same player since. He was seen practicing with the defensive ends in practice and might contribute along the defensive line if needed.

All in all, there is reason for optimism at linebacker. If Thomas is able to return to practice, the ’Noles might field the best tandem of ’backers in the ACC between him and Hoskins. If not, then several young players will need to step up and play.

The future of the linebacker position in Tallahassee looks bright.

Knock on wood.