A year ago, I wrote this about Florida State’s linebackers heading into the 2018 season:
If Florida State can find a solid option to play alongside [Dontavious] 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.
Looking back, the final sentence in this paragraph really rings true.
Linebacker has been a point of weakness for the Seminoles for quite some time. Ever since the departure of Telvin Smith following the 2013 season, FSU has struggled to find consistent playmakers at the position.
The Seminoles have experience at linebacker this season, but not all of that is good experience. We saw last year how defenses picked on FSU’s linebackers, especially in the passing game.
Will things change this year as FSU shifts to a 3-4 defense? Perhaps, but that shift also comes with its share of questions. Florida State has plenty of players capable of playing the outside linebacker position, but not many who are proven at inside linebacker.
The Seminoles will also play a fair amount of nickel defense, or 4-2-5 looks, given many spread-offense teams on the schedule. Pass coverage will be a critical area for this defense and opposing offenses will be eager to capitalize on FSU’s weakness.
For the purposes of this preview, we’ll be looking at the linebackers as defined by FSU’s official roster.
The Returning Senior
Dontavious Jackson was one of Florida State’s biggest prizes in the 2016 signing class. The Seminoles snatched him out of Texas, and the senior has been one of FSU’s most consistent contributors on defense throughout his career.
Jackson racked up 74 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss last season and elected to return for his senior season rather than take a chance with the NFL Draft.
Dontavious Jackson was a rock in run-defense for FSU last year. pic.twitter.com/PoDXy9gk30— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 18, 2019
While he is far from a perfect NFL product, Jackson is a hard-nosed linebacker willing to get into the thick of the action and lay a hit on someone. At 6-3, 229-pounds, he is a great inside linebacker prospect for FSU’s defense.
FSU blitzed Jackson a bit last year and look for that trend to continue this season as the staff continues to find ways to replace Brian Burns’ production.
The Burden of the Last Name
The son of FSU legend Derrick Brooks, DeCalon Brooks arrived to FSU as an undersized defensive back recruit.
Just one year into his college career, he was starting at linebacker.
Brooks went through his fair share of struggles in 2018. He was not efficient in pass defense and his size left him grasping for air against offensive blockers. At 5-10, 209-pounds, Brooks is far from the ideal size that you’d like for an inside linebacker.
He finished last season with 46 tackles and three tackles for loss.
Brooks played because he was the best out of FSU’s inside linebacker prospects last season. With more bodies in the room this year, perhaps he can be moved to a more favorable role. After all, it’s hard to fault the kid for giving his best effort out there in a difficult situation.
The Pass Rushers
Leonard Warner arrived at Florida State as a linebacker recruit, but has evolved into a defensive end/linebacker hybrid.
He finished last season with 38 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss while working as primarily an edge rusher.
Warner flashed his pass rushing potential last season and will be given more opportunities this year. At 6-4, 241-pounds, Warner is the perfect size for one of FSU’s outside linebacker positions.
Another name in contention is Amari Gainer, who is a Tallahassee native. Gainer redshirted last year and is a slimmer player than Warner at 6-3, 215-pounds.
While Warner is the stronger player, Gainer is faster. If the pair form a 1-2 rotation at linebacker, that will give FSU a nice combo coming off the edge.
Linebackers Leonard Warner (35) and Amari Gainer (33) dropping into coverage pic.twitter.com/atzyJO5ZGl— Brendan Sonnone (@BSonnone) August 9, 2019
The Promising Youngsters
Florida State signed a trio of linebackers in the 2019 recruiting class who have the potential to be difference makers down the line.
Jaleel McRae enrolled earlier this year and racked up 11 tackles the spring game. He showcased explosiveness at the position and an uncanny ability in pass coverage as well.
McRae likely won’t start game one for FSU this season, but the four-star recruit will work himself into the rotation before the season is over.
I believe Jaleel McRae goingnto fillnin nicely for Djack when he leaves. pic.twitter.com/PfGhxovrEy— Jaguar Paw (@sirdibbydukes) April 7, 2019
Kalen DeLoach and Kevon Glenn were both highly regarded recruits as well. While neither will start immediately, they’ll be valuable special teams players while they work to gain reps throughout the season.
With Jackson exhausting his eligibility after this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of these first-year players push for a starting job in 2020.
Florida State has a handful of other linebackers on the roster who will be special team players and rotational backups.
Adonis Thomas originally enrolled at Alabama out of high school, but went to junior college before landing at Florida State. He’s played sparingly for FSU and finished last season with 16 tackles.
Emmett Rice and Josh Brown are a pair of fourth-year players who have never been able to crack the starting rotation. Expect to see both of them work on special teams and in backup roles this year.
If anything, the floor for this position group is fairly high.
Jackson is entering his fourth year in the program and Brooks has experience as well. Warner has flashed potential as a pass rusher, and Gainer could be a promising prospect at outside linebacker as well.
The real ceiling of FSU’s linebackers might depend on the play of the freshmen, especially McRae. Getting solid play out of them this season would be very beneficial for the Seminoles.
So while this might not be the year where linebacker turns into a true strength of the defense, it probably won’t be a season where linebacker is a weakness.