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State of the Position: FSU’s defensive line

2018 was a mixed bag for one of the most talented units on the team.

Florida State v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

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 the defensive line.

2018’s Personnel

The defensive line was seen by many analysts to be one of the strengths of this year’s team. In fact, one could argue that it was the most talented unit, with some consideration given to the running backs, on the entire roster. Led by Brian Burns for the defensive ends and Demarcus Christmas for the defensive tackles, this was a position group that some expected to be among the best in the country.

Behind Burns, talented sophomores Joshua Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson were expected to make an impact at DE. Additionally, Walvenski Aime was moved from the inside to the outside, which was seen as a good move due to Aime’s strengths as a player and the need for an edge-setting end. True freshmen Xavier Peters and Dennis Briggs were also candidates for situational play due to the new rules regarding redshirts.

After Christmas, all eyes were on Marvin Wilson to live up to his status as the former No. 1 rated DT recruit in the country. Fred Jones was always considered to be a fundamentally sound piece of the rotation. After Jones, there was some question of which of the trio of Cory Durden, Cedric Wood, and Ja’len Parks would become a sound contributor, although Durden was seen to have the inside track due to positive camp reports on his performance and the injury histories of both Wood and Parks. True freshman Robert Cooper was a highly-regarded prospect, but his level of projected involvement was unknown due to his weight coming in from high school.

So, did things happen like we thought they would for the DL in 2018? The answer to that question is a resounding...kinda.

The Results

Injuries derailed what many thought was perceived to be the optimal defensive line of Burns, Christmas, Wilson, and Kaindoh, as the ’Noles lined up with a starting 4 of Burns, Christmas, Jones, and Aime for their first game against Virginia Tech. The aforementioned injury issues affected the beginning of the 2018 campaign for both Kaindoh and Wilson, although both ended the year on a positive note (especially Wilson).

Aime’s transition to end was not as smooth as expected, and he rotated throughout the year with Robinson. Robinson flashed, but consistent game-to-game production was difficult to achieve. Peters and Briggs also added quality reps in their freshman seasons, while both of them maintained their redshirt status.

Christmas ended up having a solid, yet largely unspectacular season. Durden was a pleasant surprise throughout the year, as his ability to penetrate was a welcome sight for defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett. Cooper’s weight did not end up being as big of a factor as first thought, as he was a force throughout the year, particularly in run defense.

Overall, the Seminole defense ended up being ranked as the 41st-best in the country per SP+, which is a fairly disappointing result given the amount of talent. However, the deficiencies at linebacker placed a great amount of stress on the defensive line and the secondary.

In the beginning of the season, there were many instances in which the defense would hold solid, before eventually surrendering points later in the game due to being on the field so much because of FSU’s inept offense. Unfortunately, as the season continued, the teams got better and opposing coordinators started to pick on Florida State’s LBs more often. As such, total defensive performance suffered, and the blowouts piled up.

The defensive line was still Barnett’s best unit on defense, but they also didn’t fully live up to the preseason hype.

Wreaking “Havoc”

One player who did live up to the hype, though, was Burns. He led the team in sacks (10) and was voted as the only ’Nole to be first-team All-ACC. Burns also had 15.5 total tackles for loss, 3 passes defended, and was one of the main contributors to the DL’s Havoc Rate.

What is Havoc Rate? It is a stat developed that measures the percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). With a defense designed to get the opposing offense off the field quickly like Barnett’s, Havoc Rate is important, because it is a measure of negative plays and turnovers.

Overall, the FSU defense ranked 79th in the country with a Havoc Rate of 15.6%. That is bad. But, the stat is also broken down into specific rates for each defensive position group. Florida State’s defensive line had a Havoc Rate of 6.4% which was good enough to be ranked at 29th in the country. So, still not elite, but much better than the DBs and LBs, which both rated as the 96th best groups in the nation in Havoc Rate.

Outside of the aforementioned Burns, who were the other main contributors to this metric? Wilson and Kaindoh were ranked 2nd and 3rd on the team in sacks with 3.5 and 3, respectively. Durden had 6 tackles for loss, which was the 3rd highest total for the squad.

Some Head-Scratchers

Although the defensive line had the capacity to cause chaos for the offenses they faced, there were also some games in which the unit made little to no impact.

The game against NC State is one that stands out when you adopt the proper context. The Florida State defense held the Wolfpack to 183 yards on 45 total carries, which averages out to around 4.1 yards per carry. The national average last year was 5.2 YPC, so this should be taken as a positive...right?

Not quite.

NC State had a putrid rushing attack all year, as the offense was mainly bolstered by the passing game and quick release of QB Ryan Finley. The team ended up being rated out as the 80th best rushing offense in the nation, per SP+. The Wolfpack also allowed runners to be tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on 20.9% of their running plays. So, while FSU’s 4.1 YPC looks good on the surface, they should have performed much better. In addition, the Seminole D-line recorded no sacks and only 2.5 TFL. The sacks are understandable due to Finley’s quick release, but the number of TFL should be considered a disappointment, given NCSU’s propensity to allow runners to get stuffed.

If the unit’s performance in Raleigh was a disappointment, then what happened against Notre Dame was a travesty.

Notre Dame is a very good team. However, they are a very good team with an anemic rushing attack. The Fighting Irish finished the year with the country’s 73rd best rushing offense, per SP+. Additionally, ND played the game against FSU with backup quarterback Brandon Wimbush. How did the ’Noles defense respond to playing against a bad running team that was also forced to play a second-string QB?

They gave up 7.3 yards per carry.

While a lot of that was Notre Dame picking on the LBs (this goes for NC State too) the DL recorded no sacks and no TFL during the contest in South Bend. Just two absolutely head-scratching performances from a talented unit.

Who’s Leaving?

  • Brian Burns
  • Demarcus Christmas
  • Fred Jones
  • Wavlenski Aime

Who might be Leaving?

  • Janarius Robinson
  • Cedric Wood

Staying (barring transfer)

  • Marvin Wilson
  • Joshua Kaindoh
  • Cory Durden
  • Robert Cooper
  • Ja’len Parks
  • Xavier Peters
  • Dennis Briggs
  • Assorted players who redshirted last year and incoming 2019 recruits

Outlook for 2019

With your best player (Burns) leaving for the NFL Draft and a large chunk of your DT rotation graduating, it would be natural to assume worse play from the defensive line in 2019. But, I expect better LB and secondary play from Barnett’s defense in year two, due to improved personnel and a better understanding of the scheme. This will put less stress on the DL, which is definitely a positive.

The defensive ends will be a mystery, as a lot will be asked of players who are either inconsistent, very young, or have been plagued with injury issues. The talent is there, but I expect the ends’ level of play to decline from 2018. The defensive tackles are a different story, because the trio of Wilson, Cooper, and Durden will be disruptive. I think that you will see better overall DT play next season.

When taking all of the above factors into account, I expect the defensive line play to be very similar to what we saw in 2018. The loss of a player like Burns can’t be overstated, but that should be mitigated by more production from the interior of the line, better scheme familiarity, and a higher level of play from the linebackers and secondary.