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Defensive Roster Outlook 1.0: Looking at strengths, areas to improve on FSU’s defense

Breaking down the roster by position and where FSU needs to add help from the portal

Peyton Baker/Tomahawk Nation

Yesterday, the needs of the offense were broken down.

Today, the attention turns to the opposite side of the ball.

Adam Fuller’s defense continually improved each week, culminating in a victory over Louisville when they did not give up a touchdown. However, after giving up a touchdown on eight straight drives against Georgia and subtractions along the defense, some holes need to be filled.

I defined those I wrote about as being on the Orange Bowl two deep, a blue-chip recruit, or playing meaningful snaps for the program this year.


Who’s here: Patrick Payton, Byron Turner Jr., Dante Anderson, Jaden Jones

Who’s out: Jared Verse (draft), Gilber Edmond (transfer)

Who’s in: Marvin Jones Jr. (transfer), DD Holmes (recruit)

What I like: When Patrick Payton announced his intentions to leave the program, it felt like the nail in the coffin for the worst week of Mike Norvell’s tenure. Already losing Jared Verse, the defense would not look similar if the Miami native also departed. Well, yesterday, Battle’s end, the Florida State NIL collective announced that Payton would return for another season. Payton was FSU’s most productive pass rusher and finished third on the defense in snaps played this season. Another offseason to put weight on and an increased role should allow Payton to become one of the best edge rushers in the country.

Moreover, Florida State found him the perfect running mate in Marvin Jones Jr. It’s almost impossible not to make the Jermaine Johnson references when describing the former Georgia product. He came to Tallahassee looking for a more significant role and should play immediately while bringing a championship attitude. Turner helps round out the depth of the group, and another offseason of development should lessen the blow when Payton and Jones come off the field.

What needs fixing: Mike Norvell, at the beginning of the season, said he wanted his pass rushers below 50% snap share to keep them fresh for the season. Verse and Payton smashed through those marks as Norvell and the defensive coaching staff had no choice but to play their best players. FSU should add 1-2 EDGE pieces to ensure depth and prevent its best players from wearing out. The depth will need to come from outside the program, as the inability to recruit high-end defensive end prospects out of high school continues to be a weakness of the program.

X-factor: Marvin Jones Jr.

Jones is not an X factor since he should immediately come in and play significant snaps. However, the intangibles make his addition more than just coming in and producing sacks. MJJ will be a junior next year and has been a part of a premier college program with Georgia. His leadership and work ethic will be invaluable for a young defense that has lost its heartbeat with multiple vocal leaders departing the program. He should also help ensure that no hangover is present on the team; as a veteran, he understands the importance of off-season work.

Transfer need: 8.5/10

Defensive Tackle

Who’s here: Darrell Jackson Jr., Joshua Farmer (?), Daniel Lyons, KJ Sampson, Dennis Briggs Jr.(?)

Who’s out: Fabien Lovett (eligibility), Braden Fiske (eligibility), Ayobami Tifase (transfer)

Who’s in: D’Nas White (recruit), Jamorie Flagg (recruit)

What I like: Assuming those who dressed out for the Orange Bowl play in Tallahassee next year, there is a lot to like about the unit. Darrell Jackson can finally play an entire season and flashed during practice and in the Georgia game. Farmer became FSU’s most improved player on the defensive side of the ball and became a three-down player. Daniel Lyons got extensive snaps during the Orange Bowl and bowl practice and can hopefully put it all together in year three. All the players in this group can play the run or the pass and should improve after an offseason of coaching from Odell Haggins.

What needs fixing: The question marks are next to the players for a reason. Reports surfaced originally from 247 that Joshua Farmer intended to leave the program. He disputed the reports and participated in bowl festivities, but didn’t participate in the matchup vs. Georgia — anything could happen as far as his retainment. Dennis Briggs Jr. reportedly will seek a waiver to play another year in college football, but when talking to him after the game, he seemed noncommittal and began his answer with, “We’ll see.” If Florida State can bring back the unit that dressed out or participated in activities in Miami, then the losses of Fiske and Lovett will not be as apparent. However, this could become FSU’s thinnest roster position if multiple players leave through the portal.

X-factor: KJ Sampson

KJ Sampson was the only player I was surprised did not make the two-deep for the Orange Bowl. He started practicing regularly with the second team as the season wore on and seemed to be making positive strides. He boasts all the physical traits of a college football defensive tackle, going 6’3 304, but needs some time to adjust to the college game as a freshman fully. Assuming all players in the unit come back, Sampson will receive an opportunity to round out a trio with Jackson and Farmer. Hopefully, in his second season, he can make a Farmer-like leap and provide consistent snaps for a defense that will need it. He would also be a homegrown talent along the defensive line, which would be a significant momentum for a staff that needs it regarding recruiting.

Transfer need: 7/10 with anticipated returning players, 10/10 without


Who’s here: Blake Nichelson, Justin Cryer, Omar Graham Jr.,

Who’s out: Tatum Bethune (draft), Kalen DeLoach (eligibility), DJ Lundy (transfer), Dylan Brown-Turner (transfer)

Who’s in: Timir Hickman-Collins (recruit), Jayden Parrish (recruit)

What I like: The linebackers here each developed quickly this season and should do even better as they grow into their second season. Nichelson promptly made himself a rotational piece after not playing linebacker full-time in high school. The coaching staff raves about his potential, and he should take a massive step next season after a freshman year full of potential and a chance to learn all off-season. Graham filled most of their snaps when Bethune and DeLoach were battling injuries during the season. He did not look lost in coverage and usually found himself in the right spots on run defense. Like Nichelson, an offseason to get more familiar with the position could make a Fort Lauderdale native a stand-out player next year. Cryer ended up being a sweet surprise for the staff, as he put together his physical tools with his ability to understand the game nicely towards the end of the season. He should have a chance to be a rotational piece next season.

What needs fixing: Perhaps no unit across the team is losing more from the portal and the draft. Bethune and DeLoach were the emotional leaders of the defense for the last two years and developed their game to be one of the best linebacker duos in the country. Their stabilizing presence and experience will be difficult for FSU to replace next season. DJ Lundy leaving in the portal is another loss the Seminoles will feel. He was projected to be an every-down player for the ‘Noles, and now he takes his talents to Boulder. Losing the top three snap leaders for a position group makes the linebacker position challenging to project out next season. FSU realistically needs two players from the portal to offset the losses, even with the potential shown by Nichelson and Graham.

X-factor: Blake Nichelson

With only three returning players from Randy Shannon’s unit, projecting an X-factor is hard. Nichelson finds himself here because he looks to be the player with the most potential. The highly touted prospect came to Tallahassee in the summer but quickly made up ground on those who were part of the team for spring camp. Depending on how fast the coaching staff trusts him to lead the defense, it will indicate how much of a gap Bethune and DeLoach leave behind.

Transfer need: 10/10


Who’s here: Kevin Knowles, Greedy Vance, Azareye’h Thomas, Jabril Rawls, Quindarrius Jones, Edwin Joseph, Fentrell Cypress(?)

Who’s out: Jarrian Jones (eligibility), Renardo Green (eligibility)

Who’s in: Cai Bates (recruit), Charles Lester (recruit), Jamari Howard (recruit), Ricky Knight (recruit)

What I like: Young talent. No position group on the roster has more potential than the corners. Azareye’h Thomas should take another step in year three and play outside full-time as his length and ball skills project out as a high-level corner. Jones and Rawls seemed more comfortable as the season went on and were shouted out by the older players as a few of the young guys who impressed during bowl workouts. Knowles and Vance are veterans and should provide a stabilizing presence in the room. Regarding the recruits, Lester and Bates participated in bowl practices and should be enrolling in the spring. Enrolling early is the fastest way to receive playing time in the fall, and they should be able to compete for snaps early on. If Fentrell Cypress returns, the room will have an experienced leader who can follow any team’s best WR.

What needs work: Losing Jarrian Jones and Renardo Green will be difficult. Green finished second on the team and snaps and Jones became an emotional leader for the team who epitomized what Mike Norvell’s program is about. If Cypress were to leave, FSU would lack a proven shutdown corner and throw Thomas into a role he may not be prepared for. Patrick Surtain has proven his pedigree as a secondary coach after one season, but if the young talent develops slower than the staff likes, they will be short on productive players.

X-factor: Quindarrius Jones

“Q,” as the players call him, came in as a freshman this year and epitomized what FSU wants out of its players. He finished the season as part of the two deep in the Orange Bowl and played with the second team during ACC championship game practice. Standing 6’2, he has the physical traits to become a shutdown corner. Going into next season, Jones will be competing for the second or third spot on the cornerback depth chart, depending on if Cypress returns. His ability to play right away will be the difference in whether the DB room is a strength or a weakness next season.

Transfer need: With Cypress 4.5/10, without 7/10


Who’s here: Shyheim Brown, Conrad Hussey, KJ Kirkland, Ashlynd Barker, Kevin Knowles

Who’s out: Akeem Dent (eligibility)

Who’s in: See corners. The FSU staff usually makes their DB recruits play safety or develops a few.

What I like: Shyheim Brown and Conrad Hussey make for a powerful duo in the backend of the defense. Brown, in particular, should be the coach on and off the field for the defense. He improved communication as the season progressed and became a team leader this year. He led the Seminole defense in snaps by almost 100 more than the next player, and I expect a similar statistic next season. Bringing him back for 2024 was crucial for the coaching staff, and he should be in the All-American conversation next season. Conrad Hussey was a surprise to the coaching staff for how quickly he could play meaningful snaps. After not enrolling in the spring, Hussey made himself right at home during fall camp and became a critical piece when Akeem Dent got hurt early on in the season. He should be next in line to fill the role filled by the aforementioned Dent and will be expected to play the majority of snaps next year.

What needs fixing: Losing Akeem Dent will produce losses similar to ‘Jones and Green's. He did much for FSU as a blitzer, run game, and communication. His feel for the defense made him a second coach on the field, and his chemistry with Brown helped fuel the defensive turnaround this season. A true professional, the Seminoles will miss out on his intangibles and how hard he practiced each day.

X-factor: KJ Kirkland

Kirkland received a high grade out of high school and has the physical tools to play college football. He battled through injuries during the year, stumping some of his progress. Going into next season, the #3 safety spot opens up with the departure of Dent, and Kirkland needs to fill that role. The safety position oversees all communication for the defense and factors in the run-and-pass game. If FSU cannot trust Kirkland, it must hit the portal to promote depth and competition within the unit.

Transfer need: 5/10