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2018 Florida State Spring Football Preview: Linebacker questions abound

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With senior stalwarts Matthew Thomas & Ro’Derrick Hoskins off to the NFL, a vacuum has been left at the position.

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

Let’s get right to it. New linebackers coach Raymond Woodie has his work cut out for him this spring, as Florida State has to replace 74.7% of its linebacker tackle production following the departures of senior linebackers Matthew Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins, and Jacob Pugh.

Although FSU is replacing three senior LBs, there’s a sense of out-with-the-old, in-with-the- new surrounding the program, because the position has not been very productive in Tallahassee over the last few years. Fans, players, and coaches are eager for a fresh start, and there’s no time like the present for it as FSU opens spring practice this upcoming Wednesday.

Most expect rising-junior Dontavious Jackson to step up and take a leadership role with the position group. The once highly-touted recruit has had an up-and-down career in terms of playing time and accountability but provided quality snaps in relief of Ro’Derrick Hoskins. Jackson is a downhill linebacker with 37 tackles and four tackles for loss so far in his brief career. The key questions for Jackson this spring will revolve around if he can mature off the field. Will he continue to stay in shape? He’s down to 227lbs. And can he prove that he’s more than a run-stuffer?

Next up is rising-junior Emmett Rice. A player known for his speed and hard-hitting tackles on special teams, Rice has spent most of his first two years in Tallahassee primarily on special-teams duty. Rice has 26 career tackles, with half a tackle for loss and an interception. Rice’s biggest question this spring will be how healthy he is after suffering a knee injury in the Independence Bowl, and whether he can gain enough weight to become an every down player, as he currently weights 208 lbs.

Redshirt-junior Adonis Thomas, a junior college transfer in the 2017 class, didn’t take full advantage as the next man up with early playing time last season. Thomas had 12 tackles with a tackle for loss last season. His biggest question concerns how different he’ll look now that he has a full year of being within the program.

Junior linebacker Josh Brown, a former Army All-American, has played primarily on special teams so far in his career while playing behind senior Jacob Pugh in the rarely-used SAM LB position. Brown was seen as an edge rusher with the potential to be an off-the-ball linebacker in certain situations. Brown’s biggest issue will be where he fits within the new scheme and if he can find a specific role in Harlon Barnett’s new defense.

As for the young studs, sophomore Leonard Warner, who showed the makings of a good player in limited snaps last year, will see if he can make the sophomore leap and become a potential starter. At 6’4, 233 lbs., Warner is the most physically imposing linebacker of the spring group, who, despite his size, shows nifty feet and the ability to cover well for his position. Warner’s biggest questions this spring will be how quickly he can pick up the playbook and how he capitalizes on his first full off-season as a college player.

This brings us to Amari Gainer, the true freshman early-enrollee who was the bell-cow of FSU’s 2018 recruiting class and has already made significant gains in the weight room. He’s gained 14 lbs. since his early enrolling at FSU. The local product from Chiles High School in Tallahassee, Florida played defensive end in HS and will likely play an off-the-ball role at Florida State. His biggest questions this spring involve how quickly he can acclimate to the collegiate level, to its physicality, to its time-management stresses, and how quickly he can pick up the playbook.

All that being said, there are many more questions than answers this year in Tallahassee with the linebacker position, with not a lot of bodies at the moment. But there’s still plenty of talent at Florida State. Woodie wants his linebackers to attack aggressively, attack quickly, and make a play. We’ll see how quickly FSU’s largely untested group responds to the challenge.