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Why FSU’s linebackers have been so bad in 2019, & what can be done

Over the line, Dude.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Boise State v Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into this season, there was guarded optimism about the state of the Seminoles’ linebacking corps. While the unit hasn’t necessarily been a strong suit of the defense since FSU won it all in 2013, there was reason to believe that experience and a new scheme would foster a more productive group in 2019.

That hope has been substantially dashed so far this season. But why? Let’s look at how scheme, personnel, and coaching have played a part in this significant disappointment.

Florida State coaches introduced the 3-4 defense this season, because they correctly assumed a drop-off in pass rushing after the departure of Brian Burns, who finished his ’Nole career with 24 sacks (fifth most in program history) and 39.5 tackles for loss (eighth all-time at FSU).

If Burns had proven pass-rushers coming up behind him, this move may not have been necessary. But edge replacements Janarius Robinson and Leonard Warner III have not impressed, even if the former has been decent. Former five-star recruit Joshua Kaindoh, hampered by injuries in fall practice and unable to earn a starting job, has not looked good trying to set the edge, which is even more important for an outside backer in a 3-4.

On the inside, the 3-4 offers more flexibility in blitzing options, which was necessary after Burns went pro. Senior Dontavious Jackson and sophomore Jaiden Lars-Woodbey have gotten the starting nods thus far, but they’ve been roundly disappointing. Why?

While the increased flexibility of the 3-4 can afford more exotic blitzes, there’s also a more laborious aspect to the job that Jackson and Lars-Woodbey, along with backups DeCalon Brooks and Emmett Rice, have failed to embrace: contact. Like, even more contact than they had to endure before.

The MLB position in a 3-4 scheme means more heads-up meetings with offensive guards. If your strategy for handling those blocks is dancing around them — as this crew often does — then you’ve already lost. And it’s no secret that this is exactly what FSU’s linebackers continue to do. It’s on film, so you can see it, we can see it, and rest (however poorly) assured that opposing offensive coordinators can see it.

One Jeffrey Lebowski may not have tolerated aggression.

But the Seminole brass can no longer tolerate its linebackers’ lack of aggression.

Which brings us to coaching. Florida State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett’s seat could not be any hotter, along with that of linebackers coach Ray Woodie.

If they hope to alleviate that heat, they either need to get these guys to play the right way by taking on blocks, or they must turn to other options, however inexperienced, in hopes that they’ll buy in more than the present starters have. Because the status quo isn’t working. Not for the team, and not for their job security.

The prospective good news: there are possibilities here. True freshman LB Jaleel McRae has shown promise. Yes, he’s green, but at this point, the Seminoles have surrendered 80 points through their first two games (the only time FSU has allowed more through an opening pair of games was when the ’Noles let in 81 points in 1983).

Another option could be moving up safety Hamsah Nasirildeen, who was auditioned at the LB role during fall camp. Nas has been a bright spot of the Florida State defense this season. And while he may not always be perfect, he leads the Seminoles with 22 tackles through two games and operates continually downhill at 100 MPH. When he misses, he misses big, and like I explained last week, this defense is better off both playing for and allowing big plays than dying slow deaths. And Nasirildeen has made those big plays so far, forcing three fumbles through two games and breaking up a pass.

Believe it or not, there could be hope here. If Nas were moved up, he could be replaced by frosh Akeem Dent or redshirt-junior Carlos Becker III at safety, both of whom have flashed early. And that ’83 FSU team that started so poorly on defense? It finished 8-4 with a Peach Bowl win— in which it allowed three points.

The point is, it’s a long season. For better or worse.