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State of the Position: FSU’s linebackers

The lack of tackles went beyond the offensive side of the ball.

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

Welcome back to our Florida State postseason series reviewing the Seminoles’ tumultuous 2018 campaign, in which we’ll work through each position group, taking a look back at what was as well as glancing forward to what the future may hold. Next on our list is linebackers.

2018’s Personnel

Heading into 2018 fans knew that the linebackers would be a problem, and sure enough they were. Dontavious Jackson was the head of the class as he was the only linebacker to consistently see the field. However, he was not without his faults, as Jackson struggled to consistently fill the right gap and often times got lost in coverage. When he was right, Jackson showed why he was so highly coveted as a recruit, delivering punishing blows to running backs and generally doing a good job of wrapping up in the hole.

Jaiden Woodbey moved from safety to linebacker almost immediately after setting foot on campus, but that’s not as stark of a move as it might seem on first blush. Woodbey played the star role on the defense, which acts somewhere between a safety and linebacker but plays closer to the line. Woodbey started off the year well but struggled after suffering a shoulder injury.

Unfortunately, the unit falls off a cliff at this point. DeCalon Brooks saw plenty of time on the field, but he has neither the athleticism nor size to compete at a FBS level. Zaquandre White also saw some playing time, but the recent convert from running back struggled with his understanding of the defense and too often cost his team yards with bad penalties. At one point he was sent off the field by Willie Taggart for throwing a punch.

Both Amari Gainer and Emmett Rice suffered injuries limiting their time on the field to the point that they are eligible for red shirts. Leonard Warner was fine but best fits at the same position Jackson plays so available time was limited for him. Finally, neither Josh Brown nor Adonis Thomas found any meaningful playing time.

A Sad State of Affairs

Any way you slice it, the linebackers stunk in 2018. DC Harlon Barnett did a good job of scheming around the deficiencies of the unit, but as the offensive level of play increased, the linebackers became more and more of a sore spot. Not all the problems the defense faced were the fault of the linebackers. The entire defensive backfield struggled with assignments, so it’s possible that some of the linebackers were playing outside their role in an attempt to help out other positions, but that’s still no excuse.

Unfortunately too often linebackers looked to be guessing which gap to fill and were such a liability in coverage that Barnett often times used them as blitzers, where they could screw up less. Oh, they weren’t good at blitzing either. Ultimately the biggest issue on this unit is the lack of an outside linebacker as FSU was forced to consistently play an undersized linebacker or a fifth defensive back in that position.

Making matters worse was the lack of depth. Since 2013, the linebacker position has seemed to have been snake bit whether it’s been injuries, off the field issues, or just a lack of development, the unit has been average at best the last few years. While the 2018 unit had depth, it surely did not have functional depth, and that’s not likely to change for at least another year.

Who’s Next?

Both Jackson and Woodbey will return and can be penciled in as immediate starters. Both players, really the entire unit, needs to focus on playing their responsibilities, as too often the cause of a long run play or a 3-yard gain turning into a 5-yard gain was linebackers either filling the wrong hole or being slow to fill their hole. Barnett’s defense depends on safeties to make more complicated reads while allowing the linebackers room to attack downhill so reads should be relatively easy for this unit.

As far as starters go, the unit could receive a big shot in the arm if Rice or Gainer could lock down the OLB spot. It does not look like there is anybody else on the roster that has the attributes required to do so, but if they can’t, maybe a new-comer can.

Currently FSU has two linebackers committed in the class of 2019 and will likely look to take one or two more, but how quickly those recruits can acclimate and provide playing time could determine the fortunes of this unit in 2019. Of the two currently committed, Kalen Deloach is the most likely to contribute early, but OLB Jaleel McRae is no slouch himself.

As bad as this unit was in 2018, there is some hope. Woodbey shows signs of being a very good fit for the star position, while Jackson is more than capable in run support but is limited in coverage. The outlook for 2019 will likely depend on the coaching staff’s ability to find an OLB at least from a starter perspective. Depth? That might have to wait for another year.