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FSU football’s 2018 defense will showcase potential, if not experience

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After losing several starters, new defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett will have a tough task in Year 1.

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

Florida State was billed to be one of the nation’s top teams heading into 2017 before disaster struck en route to a disappointing 7-6 campaign.

The Seminoles’ defense was part of the reason why many thought that FSU could contend for a national title. Despite having several senior starters and future NFL draft picks, FSU finished 33rd defensively per Football Outsiders S&P+ rankings.

New defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett will have a tall task in replacing eight starters from last year’s defense. Not only did Florida State lose high draft picks like Derwin James and Derrick Nnadi, but the team also lost several players with many years of starting experience. With limited experience waiting in the wings, expectations might need to be lowered on defense in Barnett’s inaugural season in Tallahassee.

Defensive End

Josh Sweat’s 31 career starts is an impressive number, given that he arrived in Tallahassee fresh off a major knee injury as a high school senior. Although Sweat never blossomed into a premier pass rusher in college, his 138 total tackles and 29 tackles for loss are nothing to scoff at.

Entering his junior season, the pressure will be on Brian Burns to replace this production. Burns started all 13 games last season and could be a candidate for the 2019 NFL Draft should he continue to grow as a pass rusher.

Aside from Burns, there are bodies at defensive end, but no proven production. Walvenski Aime has played in quite a few games at defensive tackle, but switched to end in spring practice and could be a candidate to start in Sweat’s role on the strong-side. Joshua Kaindoh is a former Top-10 recruit who notched four sacks against an overmatched Delaware State. Janarius Robinson is likely the first man off the bench behind those names.

2018 FSU Defense - Defensive Ends

Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
99 Brian Burns JR 13 71 23 13 0 4 Impact FR in '16, starter '17, candidate for draft entry as junior
13 Joshua Kaindoh SO 0 17 6.5 4 0 1 Top-10 recruit, DNP in spring
94 Walvenski Aime SR 0 35 2 0 0 0 JUCO recruit, played DT, moved to DE this spring
11 Janarius Robinson rSO 0 4 1.5 1 0 0 Likely rotational player
98 Tre' Lawson rFR 0 Redshirted in '17
45 Delvin Purifoy rSR 0 Serious knee injury as FR, moved from LB to DE, non-contributor
67 Adam Torres rSR 0 Non-contributor
Xavier Peters FR
Jamarcus Chatman FR
TOTAL 13 127 33 18 0 5
Josh Sweat* 31 138 29 14.5 1 1 Fourth round pick by the Eagles
Jalen Wilkerson* 1 22 6 0.5 0 0 UDFA
*= departing players

Defensive Tackle

The loss of Derrick Nnadi cannot be understated. The Virginia native started a whopping 39 games for the Seminoles and totaled 165 total tackles and 24.5 tackles for loss during his four years in Tallahassee.

However, Florida State got a major boost when Demarcus Christmas announced he would be returning for his senior season. Christmas has been Nnadi’s running mate at defensive tackle, starting all 26 games over the past two seasons. His leadership along the defensive line will be a major key for FSU this season.

There are a plethora of options to play alongside Christmas as well.

Fred Jones is the nephew of former Florida State great Marvin Jones and has greatly outplayed his low three-star ranking coming out of high school. Marvin Wilson was the nation’s top defensive tackle recruit last season but missed spring practice due to injury. Either could start at tackle this season.

Behind those players are Arthur Williams (who might finally be finding a role as a senior) Cedric Wood, Ja’len Parks and Cory Durden.

2018 FSU Defense - Defensive Tackles

Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
90 Demarcus Christmas rSR 26 78 8.5 3.5 0 1 Starter in '16/'17, elected to forego draft
21 Marvin Wilson SO 0 7 0.5 0 0 0 Top-10 recruit, injured in spring
55 Fred Jones rSR 2 41 4 0.5 0 0 Nephew of Marvin Jones, outplayed three-star ranking, possible starter
12 Arthur Williams rSR 0 13 3 1.5 0 0 Played as JR after non-contributor first three years, likely rotational player
49 Cedric Wood rSO 0 1 0 0 0 0 Likely rotational player
53 Ja'len Parks rFR 0 Redshirted in '17
92 Cory Durden rFR 0 Redshirted in '17
Robert Cooper FR
Malcolm Lamar FR
Dennis Briggs FR
TOTAL 28 140 16 5.5 0 1
Derrick Nnadi* 39 165 24.5 12 0 3 Third round pick by the Chiefs
*= departing players

Linebacker

This is perhaps the position with the most question marks heading into 2018.

While none of Matthew Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins or Jacob Pugh were drafted, the trio combined for 66 starts during their time at Florida State. Thomas never lived up to his recruiting ranking, but he flashed at times and was an above average starter at linebacker.

The problem exists when looking at what the Seminoles return in 2018. Luckily, there will only be two linebackers on the field, given that Florida State will primarily play a 4-2-5 defense.

Dontavious Jackson is the most experienced player in this group, having started a handful of games over the past two seasons. A former blue-chip recruit, Jackson has played well when called upon and will probably start at middle linebacker, or MIKE, this coming season.

Adonis Thomas, a former junior college recruit, is the only other player with starting experience. Emmett Rice and Josh Brown are entering their third seasons in Tallahassee, but neither has proven anything outside special teams. The two young guns, Leonard Warner and early enrollee Amari Gainer, are unknowns as well. Check out how many zeroes dot the resumes of the LB corps:

2018 FSU Defense - Linebackers

Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
16 Dontavious Jackson JR 3 37 4 1.5 0 0 Spot starter in '16/'17, likely starter at MIKE in '18
22 Adonis Thomas rJR 2 12 1 0 0 0 JUCO transfer (Alabama), spot starter in '17
56 Emmett Rice JR 0 26 0.5 0 1 0 Snaps picked up as SO
51 Josh Brown JR 0 5 0 0 0 0 Special teams
35 Leonard Warner SO 0 5 0 0 0 0 Special teams as FR
33 Amari Gainer FR
TOTAL 5 85 5.5 1.5 1 0
Matthew Thomas* 27 191 25 4 1 1 UDFA
Ro'Derrick Hoskins* 28 159 13.5 2.5 0 1 UDFA
Jacob Pugh* 11 108 12 7.5 2 1 UDFA
*= departing players

Cornerback

The loss of former All-ACC cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is somewhat lessened by the fact that the former five-star recruit struggled mightily as a junior. After recording eight interceptions in 2016, McFadden failed to snag one in 2017. His 26 starts are significant, but the Seminoles have recruited cornerback as well as anyone in the country.

Rising junior Levonta Taylor is a former Top-10 recruit who enjoyed a breakout season in 2016. Taylor started all 13 games at field cornerback, snagged two interceptions, and finished as one of Pro Football Focus’ highest rated college cornerbacks.

Kyle Meyers is another junior who has played quite a few snaps for Florida State. He is sometimes the forgotten man but has performed well when called upon. Stanford Samuels III needs no introduction, and the sophomore is a leading candidate to start in 2018 after an impressive freshman season. Finally, Carlos Becker is a former blue-chip recruit, but he has struggled with injury during his career.

2018 FSU Defense - Cornerbacks

Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
28 Levonta Taylor JR 13 34 2 0 2 0 Starter in '17 at FCB, possible PR/KR as well
14 Kyle Meyers JR 2 43 1 0 1 1 Key role player as FR and SO, FCB or nickel
18 Stanford Samuels III SO 1 27 3 1 2 1 Son of FSU star Stanford Samuels, likely starter at BCB
15 Carlos Becker JR 0 12 0 0 1 0 Injuries have prevented PT
Anthony Lytton FR
Asante Samuel Jr. FR
Isaiah Bolden FR
TOTAL 16 116 6 1 6 2
Tarvarus McFadden* 26 53 3 0 8 0 UDFA
*= departing players

Safety

The loss of Derwin James cannot be overstated. He was by far the team’s most talented player last season and often times made up for his teammates’ mistakes. The Seminoles also lost seniors Trey Marshall and Nate Andrews, both of whom had up-and-down careers but were solid starters.

Luckily, Florida State returns at least one player with starting experience in A.J. Westbrook. The former three-star recruit has started 13 games for FSU, mostly when James was injured in 2016.

Sophomores Hamsah Nasirildeen and Cyrus Fagan each got increased playing time as the season went on with the former earning two starts. Early enrollee Jaiden Woodbey has also turned heads and is a leading candidate to start at the STAR position in 2018.

2018 FSU Defense - Safeties

Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
Name Year Starts TKL TFL SACK INT FF Notes
19 A.J. Westbrook SR 13 82 2 1 0 0 Spot starter in '16/'17
23 Hamsah Nasirildeen SO 2 28 0 0 0 0 Key role player as FR, played in first game vs Alabama
24 Cyrus Fagan SO 0 6 1 0 0 0 Snaps picked as FR as season went on
10 Calvin Brewton SR 0 6 0 0 0 0 Special teams
26 DeCalon Brooks rFR 0 Son of FSU star Derrick Brooks, played STAR in spring
20 Jaiden Woodbey FR Practicing at STAR
TOTAL 15 122 3 1 0 0
Derwin James* 22 186 15 5.5 3 2 First round pick by the Chargers
Trey Marshall* 24 135 6 1 0 0 UDFA
Nate Andrews* 20 189 4.5 2 8 5 UDFA
*= departing players

There’s certainly talent across the Seminole defense. However, it remains largely unproven. Let’s see how this unit adapts to a new scheme, how well its players perform together, and the level of effort put forth.