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What we learned on defense in FSU’s season-opening loss to Alabama

An elite performance goes wasted.

Alabama v Florida State Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It only takes one word to describe Florida State’s defensive performance against Alabama in Saturday’s season opener. Elite.

FSU’s defense was undeniably on par with the Crimson Tide’s, no small feat when you consider how well a team like Alabama recruits.

This is even amplified further when realizing the dire situations the FSU defense was thrust into constantly in the second half of the 24-7 loss.

With so much going wrong around them, FSU’s defensive players turned in an elite performance in every sense of the word.

That’s not to say it was always that way.

On the very first play from scrimmage, Alabama running back Damien Harris broke off a 34-yard run, sending nightmare-esque flashbacks to last season throughout the entire FSU fanbase. This proved incredibly premature.

Even with Harris’ opening play factored in, the FSU defense held ’Bama to an incredible respectable 4.5 yards per play over the game. Without Harris’ play? 3.98 yards per play.

A huge part of this defensive success was set up by how well the Seminoles contained a dual-threat quarterback such as Jalen Hurts, something they struggled mightily with in 2016.

A number of factors play into this improvement, but the biggest factor was also the most obvious. The return of Derwin James.

James’ return provided a multi-faceted spark for the FSU defense. Not only is it clear that he is the emotional leader of this unit, he proved to be the main player capable of running stride for stride with Hurts in the open field.

James, who saw most of his reps at star but also worked at safety and defensive end, picked up right where he left off in his first game back. His stat line (6 tackles, 3 solo, and a half sack) was not as gaudy as many he posted in 2015, but his physicality, versatility, and general freakish athleticism will go a long way towards further improving FSU’s defense in 2017.

Another player who shined on FSU’s defense was one who barely made it back on the field in senior linebacker Matthew Thomas. Thomas, who chased Hurts down from behind on multiple occasions in Saturday’s game and had a game-high 10 tackles, returned to practice just two days before the game and was able to not lose a step, a truly remarkable feat given that he had been out of practice for upwards of three weeks.

One intriguing takeaway from Saturday was Jimbo Fisher’s readiness to play the best players available regardless of experience. This was especially prevalent on defense.

True freshmen Hamsah Nasirildeen, Stanford Samuels III, and Joshua Kaindoh all got burn against Alabama in the first game of their careers.

Given, these three freshmen got reps in varying amounts and to varying levels of success, but it’s still worth pointing out.

Samuels III was largely responsible for Alabama’s biggest play of the day, a 53-yard touchdown pass, after failing to press star wide receiver Calvin Ridley at the line and mistakenly thinking he had safety help over the top.

Nasirildeen had somewhat better results. After becoming the first true freshman to enter the game for FSU, something I would not have believed in the slightest if you had told me in February, Nasirildeen was beaten for an unfortunate third-down conversion on ’Bama’s first scoring drive. However, he also made a spectacular open-field tackle later in the game to end an Alabama drive, meshing physical play with impressive size and range. Expect to see more of him as the season progresses.

There was a lot to like about FSU’s first-half performance which saw the Seminoles hold ’Bama to 10 points on 192 yards. However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the second half, which saw the return of safety Trey Marshall from his ridiculous targeting penalty in last year’s Orange Bowl, was an even more impressive showing for the Seminoles defensively, even if Alabama put up more points that half.

Over a stretch of time stretching from the middle of the third quarter well into the fourth quarter, the Florida State defense was forced to overcome a great deal of adversity that it did nothing to create. It rose to the occasion almost every time.

Over that period, the Crimson Tide started offensive possessions in FSU territory five consecutive times. On those possessions, the Seminoles held the Tide to 14 total points. Of those 14 total points, 11 came on possessions which started inside the FSU 15.

Let that sink in. Even against an above average defense, ’Bama might have dropped 40+ points in the exact same scenario. The ’Noles defense was the main thing that kept the score as respectable as it was.

The test now is to keep the confidence level surrounding the FSU defense high in spite of the major changes coming to the other side of the ball after Deondre Francois’ knee injury which will likely require a long-term recovery.

After all, FSU’s defense, which played near the best of its potential Saturday night, could be the decisive factor in a number of matchups to come over the coming weeks. Will that side of the ball be strong enough to overcome a backup quarterback against Miami? NC State? Only time will tell for sure, but if you’re using Saturday as a litmus test, you feel pretty good about it.