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2018 FSU football preview: Defensive backs

This secondary is shaping up nicely.

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Southern Mississippi vs Florida State Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida State Seminoles have had as much success as any when it comes to recruiting and developing top talent in the secondary over the history of college football. From producing one of the top cornerbacks of all-time in Deion Sanders, to recent success in the NFL with players like Jalen Ramsey and Xavier Rhodes, it’s easy to make an argument for Florida State as “DBU.” 2018 appears to be another year in which FSU will have no shortage of talent on the back end of its defense. Talent however, is not the same as experience, and the ’Noles coaching staff will be looking to see who can step up and be counted on after losing players like Derwin James, Tarvarus McFadden and Trey Marshall to the NFL and/or graduation.

Derwin James in particular is a big loss for this position group, as James ended his career as one of the best and most gifted defensive backs to ever wear the garnet and gold. As the Florida State defense worked through struggles the last few seasons, James’ greatest impact may have been felt in his ability to mask some of the underlying issues within the defense.

Florida State fans are hopeful that those issues with effort, alignment, and knowledge of the scheme are over as Harlon Barnett begins his first season as defensive coordinator for the Seminoles after being hired away from Michigan State, where he spent the last 11 seasons. Barnett has an excellent reputation as a coach of defensive backs and has had 7 of his players drafted including two first round picks in Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. The coaches have made it clear their expectations for effort and their desire to play a simplified defense that allows players to process quickly and play fast.

Barnett’s defense will base out of a quarters coverage scheme with two-high safeties and the cornerbacks in press coverage the vast majority of the time. Based on what we saw at Michigan State under Barnett, also expect FSU to mix in some single-high coverages along with some zone-pressures on late downs to get after the passer and let the coverage defenders play aggressively with their eyes on the QB.

Let’s dive into the base coverage scheme a little more to try and get an idea of what the coaches might be looking for during fall camp while the players compete for starting positions heading into the Labor Day matchup versus Virginia Tech.

In press-man coverage, proper technique in relation to the receiver is key, and we already saw some improvement from players after working under Coach Barnett in the spring. Additional pressure is put on the safeties within this scheme based on what they are asked to do. In quarters coverage and versus particular formations, the safeties will be asked to make a run/pass read and react to either come up and defend the run or get depth in coverage and continue keying the pass. Against certain route distributions versus the pass, the safeties can end up in man-to-man coverage. Here’s two examples from the spring game of what these reads can look like.

In the clip above, versus a detached tight end, Hamsah Nasirildeen (bottom of screen) reads run-to-pass, gets a run read and comes up to make the tackle.

In the clip above, versus a slot receiver, Nas (top of screen) reads pass-to-run, gets a pass read, and must cover the slot receiver man-to-man. In base quarters, the safety will be asked to cover the slot if he runs vertical. This happens to be a “check,” where the safety is asked to cover the slot if he runs vertical or to the flat.

As with any defensive scheme, reads like these can get muddied with play-action passes, RPOs, and/or tempo by the offense. And even when the correct read is made, you still have to execute your assignment. Nevertheless, this should provide some insight into some of the baseline requirements to play in the secondary in Coach Barnett’s scheme. He will expect players to be disciplined with both their technique and their reads and all secondary players must be able to run with receivers and cover man-to-man.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the players who will be trying to execute this scheme.

Levonta Taylor

A five-star recruit out of high school, Taylor started all 13 games last year as a sophomore at the field corner position and played well. The field cornerback is tested less often in college due to the wide hash marks making it often a long throw. Taylor led the ACC with a passer rating of 26.1 when targeted. Listed at 5’10, size seems to be the one thing holding Taylor back from a high draft-pick projection. He has elite quickness and fluidity, but it’s yet to be known how well he can handle bigger receivers consistently. Expect Taylor to hold on to his starting position at one of the corner spots, and we’ll see how he continues to improve his game as teams test him more during his junior season.

Stanford Samuels III

Another five-star recruit, Samuels made an instant impact last season appearing in all 13 games as a true freshman. Samuels (6’2, 183 lbs.) has length, athleticism, and physicality, making him a player who adds value to the entire secondary due to his ability to play corner or safety. Samuels will start, but at what position? A lot of that might depend on what other players step up. To start fall camp, Samuels is working with the first-team at the field safety position while also getting reps at cornerback.

Kyle Meyers

The 6’0, 175 lb. junior out of Louisiana has been a significant contributor his first two years on campus partly due to his ability to play coverage in the slot. Meyers has excellent coverage instincts and has good enough speed to run with receivers downfield. He had an excellent spring and appears to already be benefiting from the new coaching staff. Barnett mentioned Meyers in his press conference before the start of fall camp as someone who has really stepped up in the off-season. His continued development in the fall should have the staff feeling confident in him as a viable option at the cornerback position. If Samuels starts at safety, expect Meyers to be the first guy up at corner. This guy is a real technician.

A.J. Westbrook

Westbrook is the most experienced defensive back on the roster entering 2018. The senior started 5 games last year and was third on the team with 7 PBUs. Westbrook is not the most physically gifted player within the position group but has seemed to find his way on the field because he can be relied upon to know what to do. Unsurprisingly, he is working with the first-team early on in fall camp at the boundary safety position. He’ll have to fight hard to keep that spot, but if some of the younger, possibly more talented players struggle to pick up the scheme or produce, expect Westbrook to play often.

Hamsah Nasirildeen

Nasirildeen (6’4, 212 lbs.) enters his sophomore season as a candidate to start at the boundary safety position. He appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman and has elite length and size for the position. Nas appeared to struggle adjusting to the scheme in the spring, so this will be a very important fall camp for him if he hopes to earn the job of a starter. Physicality at the position is important, but discipline and consistency matter more. Coach Barnett alluded to this in his recent press conference: “My job is to get those guys to play with technique consistently, bent knees, looking at the right thing.”

Cyrus Fagan

Fagan (6’1, 192 lbs.) is another uber-talented sophomore in the secondary for FSU. A four-star recruit, he appeared in 7 games as a true freshman and appears to have the skill set to excel in this quarters scheme. Fagan is a physical player who can play the run but also shows technique, ball skills, and range to be an effective player in coverage. After what appeared to be a solid spring, we’ll see if he can continue to develop and secure a starting position in fall camp.

Carlos Becker

Becker came to FSU in the same class as Taylor and Meyers but has not seen the field near as much. After playing in the bowl game versus Michigan his freshman year, Becker has seen limited time on special teams and has a hard time staying healthy, most recently missing spring after getting surgery on his ankle. It seems Becker has been limited in fall camp up to this point as well. His length and athleticism have always been extremely intriguing, and if he could harness that, he still has a chance to be an excellent player.

Jaiden Woodbey

After enrolling early to Florida State, Woodbey (6’3, 215 lbs.) has only been on campus for about 8 months but has already made a huge impression with the coaching staff and people around the program. A five-star recruit out of high school, most are expecting Woodbey to make a big contribution as a freshman, possibly even start. Despite being brought in as a safety out of high school, Woodbey appears to have found a role at the Star position in this defense. This position should be considered more of a linebacker-safety hybrid and because of that, we will feature it in our linebacker preview.

Calvin Brewton

Brewton enters his senior season with the ’Noles in which he has spent most of his career as a back up or special teamer. Expect that to continue, as he does not project to contribute meaningful snaps.

The Freshmen

Florida State did bring in 3 other highly rated defensive back recruits that enrolled in June in Asante Samuel Jr., A.J. Lytton, and Isaiah Bolden. All three project as players with skills that could potentially allow them to contribute early.


Lack of experience and comfort with the new scheme are variables to be taken seriously as we project this position group into the 2018 season. Fortunately, these are variables that will, without a doubt, improve as the season progresses. The youth and talent, along with a coach with a proven track record with defensive backs, gives reason for optimism for this season and beyond. It appears DBU is not going anywhere anytime soon.