For the most part, Florida State’s defense should be improved in 2018.
Depth and star players along the defensive line and in the secondary should help make the Seminoles transition to Harlon Barnett’s scheme easier.
But if there is one spot that could be labeled a weakness, it’s linebacker.
The ’Noles lost three senior starters from last year’s team - Matthew Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins and Jacob Pugh. While none of the three were star players, they combined for more than 60 starts and 300 tackles between them.
As expected, Florida State enters the 2018 season with many questions at linebacker, with very few answered during spring practice.
The most experienced returning player is junior Dontavious Jackson, a former four-star recruit that Florida State snagged from Texas.
At 6-3, 228-pounds, Jackson has the size to play either of FSU’s two traditional linebacker positions (MIKE, or middle linebacker, and WILL, or weakside linebacker). He mainly played his first two years as Thomas’ primary backup, with three starts sprinkled in.
Through his career, Jackson has totaled 37 tackles, four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He is a good run stopper, able to diagnose and shift through traffic well. However, he has not been tested in coverage much, which will be an area Barnett and new linebacker coach Raymond Woodie will try to improve.
Jackson slimmed down in the spring and has taken on a leadership role. During spring practices, he could often be seen helping other linebackers during drills. FSU will need him to keep being a leader, both on and off the field, if the Seminoles want to rebound from last season.
The only other player with returning starts is redshirt junior Adonis Thomas, a one-time Alabama signee who arrived at Florida State via junior college. He started two games last season, recording 12 tackles and one tackle for loss. But questions remain as to the degree of physicality that Thomas can bring.
Josh Brown and Emmett Rice are two juniors on FSU’s roster that have seen limited playing time so far. Rice has more experience, totaling 26 tackles and one interception. His playing time seemed to pick up last season, working primarily as a backup at the WILL position. Meanwhile, Brown has played mostly on special teams, but was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. Rice’s strengths lie primarily in his athletic potential, but some of that may have been lost as he’s battled injury.
Sophomore Leonard Warner was one of Florida State’s top-rated recruits in last year’s class and was a special teams ace as a freshman. Given his size at 6-4, 232-pounds, it would not be a surprise to see him earn playing time this season. But again, athleticism presents a question here: is Warner flexible enough to play outside?
Finally, true freshman Amari Gainer was an early enrollee this year. A Tallahassee native, Gainer was one of FSU’s most vocal recruiters and has not been quiet about his love for the Seminoles. While he might not play major snaps right away, he has a leadership mentality and could become a valuable player for Florida State down the line. But injury has stymied Gainer’s debut thus far.
Although Barnett spoke about playing a 4-3 defense (four defensive linemen, three linebackers) in his opening press conference, only two “true” linebackers (MIKE and WILL) will be on the field at a time. The third will be a hybrid safety/linebacker, otherwise known as the STAR.
The STAR linebacker replaces the SAM, or strongside, linebacker and has the same coverage responsibilities. FSU’s previous staff used the same terminology and players like Derwin James, Lamarcus Joyner and Jalen Ramsey were some of the most notable to play the position.
This year, the STAR position will likely be manned by true freshman Jaiden Woodbey and redshirt freshmen DeCalon Brooks and Zaquandre White.
Woodbey, whose journey to Tallahassee has been well chronicled, was FSU’s top rated recruit this year and early enrolled in the spring. By all accounts, he has been very impressive both on and off the field and could start from day one.
At 6-3, 215-pounds, Woodbey has the perfect size to play the STAR position. He is a great tackler and possesses the coverage abilities of a five-star safety.
Brooks is the son of FSU legend and NFL Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks. While some thought him to be a shoo-in to Florida State’s 2017 class solely due to his lineage, Brooks has impressed in practices and played well during the spring game. While he might not have the athleticism of Woodbey, Brooks showed good coverage abilities in the spring game.
White was recruited to FSU as a running back, but moved to linebacker in the spring. He’s very athletic and seems to have adapted quickly to the change. If he’s able to make a solid contribution in his first year on the defense, it will do wonders for Florida State.
If Florida State can find a solid option to play alongside Jackson, the ceiling of this year’s defense improves. With a star-studded defensive line and a lockdown secondary, the linebacking corps will, thankfully, not have to shoulder the burden. But it certainly doesn’t look like this group will be anything approaching the strength of the FSU defense.