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2023 Position Previews: Linebackers

Can the Seminoles’ linebacker corps take another step forward in 2023?

Charles Mays/Tomahawk Nation

From a hindrance to an asset.

That’s been the story for more than a few positions on the 2023 Florida State Seminoles football roster, a testament to the work that head coach Mike Norvell and his staff have heading into their fourth year in Tallahassee.

FSU’s linebacking woes have been arguably a decade-plus long, with the Seminoles struggling to find and secure consistent talent in the high school ranks across two coaching staffs. From 2010 to 2017, FSU signed 26 linebackers and of them, only 15 didn’t transfer or weren’t dismissed, medically or academically disqualified and that inability to build depth began to fully rear its head in the Willie Taggart era — in 2018, just three linebackers (out of nine available scholarship players) appeared in all 12 games.

After an increase in efficiency in 2021, the Florida State linebacker corps took another step forward last season, coinciding with the addition of transfer Tatum Bethune and the continued emergence of Kalen DeLoach.

Those two names are key to FSU’s success in the second level in 2023, but they won’t be alone in holding down the fort.

Florida State Seminoles football: Linebackers

PFF Grades

(only available for the following)

DJ Lundy: overall grade (74.6) overall snaps (383)

  • Rush defense grade: 76.5 (217 snaps)
  • Pass rush grade: 70.3 (21 snaps)
  • Coverage grade: 64.5 (145 snaps)

Tatum Bethune: overall grade (70.6) overall snaps (502)

  • Rush defense grade: 72.4 (275 snaps)
  • Pass rush grade: 72.1 (30 snaps)
  • Coverage grade: 60.1 (197 snaps)

Kalen DeLoach: overall grade (59.9) overall snaps (598)

  • Rush defense grade: 48.1 (300 snaps)
  • Pass rush grade: 77.4 (37 snaps)
  • Coverage grade: 66.9 (261 snaps)

Main name to know

Kalen DeLoach, redshirt senior

If not for Jordan Travis’ breakout year, Kalen DeLoach might have had claim to the most impressive season-to-season turnaround for a Seminoles’ player in 2022. Previously a depth piece, DeLoach emerged as an essential part of Florida State’s defense — on the year, he logged 57 tackles (30 solo, 27 assists), 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

That’s not to say he was irrelevant prior to last year — the first glimpses of his potential came throughout 2021 as he started to find his way on the field more frequently, going from 86 snaps in 2020 to 685 in 2021. In 2022, only now-Carolina Panthers safety Jammie Robinson appeared on the field more frequently than the Savannah, Georgia product.

Where he really excels is in the pass game, consistently grading out as one of the country’s best linebackers when rushing the passer as well as in coverage. While there’s work to be done in his production when defending the run, he’ll continue to be the key to the Seminoles’ defense finding success in 2023.

Returning players

  • Tatum Bethune, redshirt senior

The UCF transfer made an instant impact in his first year in Tallahassee, helping elevate the play of a linebacker room that had been a thorn in FSU’s side for multiple years. Recording solid numbers, he registered 84 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks in 2022, as well as a fumble recovery. Bethune’s steady contribution is perhaps best illustrated by his 2022 PFF grades — 72.1 in rush defense, 72.1 in pass rush, 60.1 in pass coverage

  • DJ Lundy, redshirt junior

In a blink of an eye, DJ Lundy is suddenly a redshirt junior. After earning play time right off the bat for a depth-starved Seminoles squad in 2020, he’s had an opportunity to gain experience and time in a system that is sure to lean on his talents more in 2023.

  • Omar Graham Jr., redshirt freshman

The former three-star signee redshirted in 2022 after playing three games, with Graham Jr. recording eight tackles on the year. He’s a player the staff is aware is essential to the depth of the linebacker room, and the work Graham Jr. put in during spring was a reflection of that increased confidence and responsibility.

New faces

  • Brian Courtney, redshirt freshman

Technically not a newbie, but 2023 will serve as the former tight end’s first season at linebacker. In high school Nichelson also moonlighted at defensive end, so it’s not a foreign concept to him to tackle and his athletic insticts bode well for his transition to the position. It’ll be a longer road to on-field action for him, given the switch, but the staff has confidence in shaping him into a contributor.

  • Justin “Juice” Cryer, freshman

FSU’s most recent addition, the true freshman transferred into Tallahassee as a result of the revelation of a hazing culture at Northwestern that resulted in the firing of head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Cryer, who enrolled at Northwestern this summer, was a three-star prospect out of high school, considered the No. 79 linebacker in the 2023 class by the 247Sports Composite rankings. He had 95 tackles (20 for loss) and six sacks during his junior year. With it being his first year of collegiate football and a lack of a full offseason program under his belt, it’s not likely that he’ll see extended action this season but as the year goes on and he becomes more acclimated, it’ll be interesting to see what the Texas product can do.

  • Demarco Ward, freshman

A 2023 signee, it’s likely that the three-star out of Duluth, Georgia will get some burn this season, considering both his performance in the spring and the depth in the room. With the linebacker position solid at the top, maintaining a defensive presence throughout the season will boil down to players like Ward taking a step up.

  • Dylan Brown-Turner, freshman

A three-star prospect, Brown-Turner was one of the final signees of the 2023 class, committing to the Seminoles in late January after flipping from North Texas. As a senior, he registered 120 tackles (3 for loss), one sack, one interception and one forced fumble as part of a South Oak Cliff Bears team that won back-to-back 5A Texas state championships.

  • Blake Nichelson, freshman

The highest-rated linebacker to sign and enroll with Florida State since Dontavius Jackson in 2016 and first since 2018 (Xavier Peters, who later switched to defensive end then transferred after one season), expectations are high for the California prospect who was considered the No. 17 linebacker in the 2023 class by the 247Sports Composite. During his senior year, he had 44 tackles (6.5 for loss), 4.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble — as a two-way athlete, he also rushed for 1,719 yards and 27 touchdowns.