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State of the Position: FSU’s defensive backs

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Up next: the last resort.

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

Let’s move on with our Florida State postseason series reviewing the Seminoles’ tumultuous 2018 campaign, in which we’re working through each position group, taking a look back at what was as well as glancing forward to what the future may hold. Up next: the secondary.

2018’s Personnel

Florida State entered the 2018 fall camp with what appeared to be decent depth at the corner position. Levonta Taylor was the returning starter with experienced players like Kyle Meyers and Stanford Samuels III poised to compete for the position opposite Taylor. As camp progressed, Coach Harlon Barnett and his staff did all they could to get the best four players playing in the secondary together. To them, this ultimately meant playing Samuels III at safety and starting the season with Taylor and Meyers at corner.

Giving up an early touchdown the first game of the year vs. Virginia Tech was the start of a disappointing season for Taylor. Taylor did not get the luxury of only playing the field corner position in 2018 as he did in 2017 (in college, teams throw less frequently to the wide side of the field because it is a much longer throw). Taylor is short with good but not great speed and teams were not afraid to throw his way. After surrendering a long touchdown against Clemson, Taylor exited the game with a hamstring injury that ended up sidelining him for the rest of the year. With NFL aspirations, Taylor plans to return for his senior season and work a final season under Barnett to refine technique and prove that he can be a reliable coverage corner.

As we mentioned earlier, Stanford Samuels III ended up moving to the field safety position to start the season. A lot is required of that position and as Florida State’s top defensive back, this seemed like a good move for the defense at the time. Early on, Samuels struggled to adjust to the position. We’ve talked at length on how Barnett’s scheme puts a lot of stress on the safeties to provide run support while also playing off-man coverage at times vs. the pass. Samuels eventually found his way back to corner as the season went on. Corner appears to be his natural position and FSU would love to keep him there if they have can find the right players at safety.

Kyle Meyers earned the starting position at corner after a strong spring. Meyers does not have the biggest frame but had been able to hold his own through his first two seasons at Florida State with good technique. Meyers was not able to reproduce or improve on this technique much throughout the season. He had a rough games vs. Miami and Clemson and was eventually benched in favor of true freshman Asante Samuel, Jr. As of now, Meyers plans to return for his senior season. We’ll see if he can make another jump after one more off-season and, at the least, provide FSU with good depth at the position.

Asante Samuel, Jr. was a prized 4-star recruit out of south Florida who had an immediate impact, starting at nickel-back in FSU’s third down package in the first game of the season. He would eventually start three games at outside corner and for the most part, played very well. It is evident when watching Samuel that he has been comfortable playing coverage techniques for many years. He excels in press or off coverage and has a knack for playing through the hands of the receiver with his back to the ball. These traits give him the potential to be a lockdown corner despite only being 5’10. He’s also got that alpha play-personality and appears to the type of player who will give you all he has no matter the circumstance.

Two other true freshmen, AJ Lytton and Isaiah Bolden, saw time throughout the season and showed promise for the future. Bolden’s season was cut short with a shoulder injury so he is able to redshirt. He has excellent size and length (6’2) for the position with the athleticism to run with receivers. The Florida State staff will hope he can stay focused and consistent with rehab because the has the potential to be a good player for FSU. Similar to Samuel, Lytton is an undersized corner with good technique and big-time confidence and figures to also be in the mix to compete for a starting position going into his sophomore season.

The status of Carlos Becker is somewhat unknown at this point. After missing spring and the entire season with an ankle injury, he will be entering his RS Jr. season. Despite outstanding length and athleticism, Becker has not done much since he arrived on campus. Do not be surprised if he decides to look elsewhere before spring practice rolls around.

Speaking of looking elsewhere, let’s shift our attention back to the safeties. There was certainly some well-founded hope surrounding the FSU safeties entering the 2018 season, but also no shortage of demands placed upon the group in a new defensive scheme. The starters at safety this year all possessed valuable experience, led by senior A.J. Westbrook. He got the start at the strong safety spot, with the aforementioned sophomore Samuels III at the field safety position. Sophomore Hamsah Nasirildeen took over for Samuels when he was moved back to corner.

So, for the purposes of our discussion here, we’ll be discussing Samuels, Nasirildeen, and Westbrook as our look to 2018 pertains, and the former two when we look at the future, as Westbrook’s eligibility has expired. Westbrook is the only DB who has no choice but to leave FSU after this season, and that probably won’t break many Seminole fans’ hearts; although opposing offensive coordinators may miss him. Westbrook wasn’t a bad player for the ’Noles, but opponents repeatedly picked on him as a weak link of Florida State’s pass coverage. He just never developed the instincts to play DB at a high level.

Nasirildeen also found himself out of position on occasion. He’s an old-school run stopper who can deliver a solid thump, but he has to improve at thinking the game, and must make drastic strides in coverage— both of which could be aided by improved linebacker play.

We knew from before the first snap that a lot would be expected of the Florida State safeties under Barnett. His base quarters system asks safeties to not only provide aggressive run support, but also pick up slot receivers in what is basically man coverage. And, simply put, the unit struggled as a whole in both aspects, while it also warrants mentioning that learning a new system, under new coaches with different teaching styles amid an entire regime change, is a challenge unto itself, and one that affected the entire team.

The trio of aforementioned safety starters were three of FSU’s leading five tacklers in 2018, with Nasirildeen first at 91 tackles, Westbrook third at 65, and Samuels tied for fourth at 58. On its surface, that may sound like a good thing, but having your last line of defense making that many stops is quite the opposite. Ideally, your front seven should be making the lion’s share of the stops, but this is where it’s necessary to mention that no position group operates in a vacuum. It bears repeating: playing behind Florida State’s linebackers this year was like playing from behind the 8 ball.

Mastering the Details

As we look at the state of the position heading into 2019, it’s important to understand some of the specifics of the scheme and what FSU asks of its DBs. This is a technical and aggressive position within the scheme that, like most, requires attention to detail and a mastery of the fundamentals.

We know that when in base coverage, FSU will press the corners on the outside receivers and play man-to-man. This means the corners will be in the face of the receiver at the line of scrimmage, reacting to the receiver at the snap, and running step-for-step with the receiver on deeps routes (often times with their back to the football). Proper and consistent execution of press-man coverage requires excellent technique and is aided by specific athletic traits like speed, quickness, and length. Coach Barnett has earned a reputation throughout his coaching career as an excellent teacher of this technique. Not all coaches teach “press” the same, and Barnett emphasizes footwork and proper eye discipline to disrupt the receiver by staying square and forcing the receiver to declare his direction by running around the cornerback. As he puts it, he wants receivers to “run around the T.” We saw flashes of this technique in action but there is still a lot of room for growth among the cornerbacks currently on campus.

With man coverage, both cornerbacks and safeties (the latter often wind up covering receivers lined up in the slot, a matchup opposing offenses picked on time and again vs. the FSU backend) also need to understand how to play the receiver when “in-phase” or “out-of-phase”. “In-phase” refers to being in proper position (even or slightly below his hip) down the field with the receiver. If “in-phase,” the defensive back can look back and find the football to break up the pass or intercept the ball. “Out-of-phase,” means the DB is in a trail position and must play through the hands of the receiver as the ball arrives without looking back to the ball. Playing the proper technique in either of these positions requires the defender to play with poise and to trust his eyes. It’s also magnified in the red-zone, where the quarterback is getting the ball out much quicker. Florida State corners and safeties struggled in this area during the 2018 season and this led to them giving up some passes where they appeared to be in good position.

Another area of note in which we can look for tangible improvement will be run support from the corner position. Yes, Florida State plays man most of the time with their corners but this does not mean they are free of providing support vs. the run. Teams take advantage of Florida State’s aggressive safeties by often crack-blocking them with the receiver in hopes of hitting some runs on the edge. In these cases, it’s the responsibility of the corner to recognize the crack release of the receiver and come off their man to replace the safety vs. the run. FSU cornerbacks struggled mightily with this. It takes a lot of repetition to get cornerbacks to recognize the crack quickly and we should expect growth from them in year two under Barnett.

The Florida State safeties had to step up time and again in support behind a poor linebacking corps, and that’s not ideal, nor was the way they typically made run fits, even under the most optimal of circumstances. All too often, the FSU safeties seemed to be guessing, crashing recklessly toward a gap, perhaps in an attempts to make plays for a unit that seemed time and again to be called upon to pick up the slack for a flailing offense, far too frequently deep in its own territory. And frankly, these tackle numbers could have been even higher has a number not been missed; across the Seminole secondary, defenders routinely went too high when attempting to bring down ballcarriers, tackling around the shoulder and neck instead of executing proper form.

Was frustration at poor turnover luck and facing free runners an issue? Probably. But defensive backs, while typically brash and verbose, cannot resort to emotion as their primary motivation. They need a certain stoic, business-like approach to the game, the mentality of a mercenary, not a scorned lover. As was the case across much of the defense for FSU in 2018, the DBs lacked mental discipline.

Who’s Next

As you would expect, this scheme is at it’s best when it has athletes at corners who can run and hold their own with elite wide receivers. Speed, change of direction and length are premium traits for this position and Florida State has a few players committed who have just that.

Akeem Dent and Travis Jay are currently committed to Florida State and are considered two of the best cornerback prospects in the country. Both are long, rangy athletes that figure to come in and compete for starting positions right away (possibly even at safety).

Renardo Green is the third cornerback committed out of Wekiva, FL. He doesn’t have the size of Dent and Jay but he’s a very competitive player who plays with very good technique.

Florida State also continues to pursue other cornerbacks and a few more additions should expect to be made before spring practice rolls around.

Now Juniors, Samuels and Nasirildeen are not yet eligible for the draft, so they should be back for 2019. It seems quite possible, even likely, that the former could remain at corner, but that may depend on who can step up to play safety, assuming that Nas remains a starter.

The most known successor to the position appears to be now-junior Cyrus Fagan. But despite being a touted recruit known for his ball skills, Fagan has simply seemed a step behind when he’s seen the field thus far, and he’s come off as soft as well. He really needs to show something in 2019, or he’s on the verge of becoming a bust.

As far as incoming talent goes, the future looks bright. Two of Florida State’s top five 2019 commitments, presently, are safeties. Both four-star prospects, Nick Cross (6’1, 207) is the nation’s No. 5 safety, and Brendan Gant (6’1, 192) is considered the 11th best safety prospect in the country.

Overview

This unit is far from without hope. The physical tools and measurables are there, for the most part, and reinforcements are on the way. They just really need solid off-season development, mostly in the film room, and an accompanying dose of confidence. But that has to be earned.