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Florida State football: 2021 defensive line spring preview

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The Seminoles look to replace a few longtime faces

Florida State Sports Information

Let’s address it right up front — the Florida State Seminoles football’s defensive line was both the best unit on defense last season and also a major disappointment. It had the potential to be one of the best defensive lines in the country, much less the ACC. Unfortunately they were anything but as they often disappeared, even for entire games.

Per Football Outsiders, in 2019 the unit was 59th in allowing 2.48 line yards per attempt and just 2.3 yards on standard down runs on average. They were also about average rushing the passer on both standard and passing downs, getting to the quarterback about 5.9 percent of the time overall.

In 2020, they took a pretty noticeable step back. They allowed 2.7 and 2.6 yards per down and standard down runs, respectively. But it was their pass rush that really cratered, falling to an abysmal 3.7 percent, good for 113th nationally. Their pass rush on passing downs (2nd and 8 or longer and 3rd/4th and 5 or longer) was absolutely dreadful, getting to the quarterback just 2.8 percent of the time. Obviously, the injury to FSU’s best pass rusher in Joshua Kaindoh for a good chunk of the season was one they couldn’t really afford. It’s also worth noting that Florida State played a ridiculous number of mobile quarterbacks.

If you think that’s grim, let’s take stock of some of the attrition FSU lost along the defensive line from last season. Starters Marvin Wilson, Janarius Robinson, and Kaindoh all declared early for the NFL Draft despite a free year of eligibility, while key contributor Cory Durden as well as Jamarcus Chatman both transferred out. Robinson led FSU in sacks with three.

If FSU’s defensive line is to return close to the quality product we’ve all come to expect, it’s going to have to be a case of addition by addition.

Let’s look at Florida State’s group for 2021.

2021 Florida State Seminoles Defensive Line

Tomahawk Nation Projected Starters

Let’s start with defensive coordinator Adam Fuller’s Fox position. This is a stand-up edge rusher that is almost always lined up to the boundary, or short side of the field. This role also has limited coverage responsibilities in certain packages, such as covering the flat to that short side.

Last season Amari Gainer and Robinson played quite a bit of snaps here, but this coming season we think redshirt senior South Carolina transfer Keir Thomas has a great shot to take the starting nod. At 275 pounds he’s big enough to set the edge — *cough* mobile quarterbacks — and rush the passer but he’s athletic enough to slide inside on passing downs, which could be enough to allow him to occasionally leak out into coverage without exposing him too much. If you remember, the boundary was a major hole on the ’Noles’ defense last season.

Next up are the defensive tackles. Big Robert Cooper is almost certainly your starting nose tackle again at the 0 or 1 technique spot. The redshirt junior has put in a ton of effort off the field to transform his body over the last few seasons and it shows, as he continues to get better. Big Coop recorded 15 tackles last season, including two for a loss and even one pass defensed. FSU could really use Cooper taking that next step, as he’s the lone returning starter from last season’s main four. If he can effectively clog the A-gaps and eat blockers he will keep the linebackers clean while also giving the others on the defensive line more one-on-one opportunities.

The other tackle spot, often lined up at 3-tech, could go to Dennis Briggs, Jr. Briggs initially opted out last season before opting back in before the Seminoles’ win against then-No. 5 North Carolina in October. Briggs was a solid contributor both in 2019 and in 2020 where he recorded six tackles across FSU’s five remaining games.

The final nod at the other edge rusher spot is likely to go to Georgia transfer Jermaine Johnson. Johnson is a talented, explosive, plug and play rusher and should provide a considerable boost to the Seminole pass rush. He’s also versatile, something that appears to be valuable in the edge rushers Mike Norvell likes to recruit and play. It’s difficult to understate how big his commitment from the portal could be.

Returning Players

For defensive tackles, the best of the rest of the bunch is Fabian Lovett. He recorded 14 tackles last season, including 1.5 for loss and one sack. The former transfer is a solid player that’s fun to watch and he’ll be a key contributor for the ’Noles’ defensive tackle rotation this fall.

Rounding out the rest of the standard defensive tackle rotation after Lovett comes Tru Thompson and Malcolm Ray. Thompson had seven tackles and a sack in 2020 while Ray recorded two tackles. Both are former three-stars per the 247 Sports Composite, though Ray, a redshirt freshman, has exciting athleticism with high-level potential and at his size can potentially play inside or out.

The Seminoles have a ton of returning depth, talent, and experience at defensive end, but not much of it is really all that proven. On the other hand, it means there’s plenty of opportunity for someone to emerge and steal some meaningful snaps in the rotation. First up is Derrick McLendon, who played a ton and got noticeably better the more snaps he took last season. He recorded six total tackles with five of them solo stops, with two tackles for loss.

After him comes redshirt freshman Josh Griffis. Griffis came into FSU ready to play and compete at the collegiate level and it showed, as he earned early playing time and used it well with four stops, including one for loss.

After those two comes Quashon Fuller as well as former transfers Deonte Williams and Jarrett Jackson. All played sparingly in reserve roles, but have the talent to carve out larger roles for themselves. Both Williams, who is a senior, and Jackson are former transfers who brought with them plenty of experience from Baylor and Louisville, respectively.

Last but certainly not least are TJ Davis and Curtis Fann. Both were on the scout team last season, but are talented. Fann is a former blue-chip recruit.

Early enrollees

Despite a wealth of talented recruits in their most recent class, especially at edge rusher, just one enrolled early: Joshua Farmer. The composite three-star was rated a top-100 player in Florida, and any depth on the edge is a welcome sight. Farmer was one of Mike Norvell’s first commits in Tallahassee, and it’s not a surprise Norvell targeted Farmer’s versatile skill set.

Overall Thoughts

Florida State’s pass rush situation looked dire heading into the 2021 season, but it’s hard to argue with how Mike Norvell and company have handled the transfer portal this offseason. Landing the services of transfers like Thomas and Johnson have undoubtedly raised the ceiling of the defensive line for the upcoming season, though poor injury luck remains a threat to the suspect depth. Still, the coaching staff also had the foresight to be active in recruiting young pass-rushing talent to help fill out the depth chart for this season and seasons to come.

With the loss of Wilson and Durden inside, even with their overall disappointing play in 2020 it’s hard not to think FSU may be taking a step back in regards to their interior play while the edge play gets a boost. A lot hinges on Cooper. However, there’s plenty of raw talent and depth on this team and Norvell has shown he likes versatility and Fuller is not afraid to move guys inside or out, especially on passing downs.

The key will be whether or not this staff can find a way to generate a consistent pass rush. In a worst-case scenario, if the transfers disappoint or get hurt and no one else emerges, Fuller may have to get creative with stunts and blitz packages. The bottom line is if this line can stay healthy and they continue to develop, FSU should be able to show a decent rebound and improvement next season.

Stay tuned to Tomahawk Nation all week long as we preview each position unit before the start of Spring Practice on Mar. 9.