After the 2020 football season, defensive coordinator Adam Fuller knew something had to change.
As long as the school has been a national name on the football field, defense has been a fixture of the Florida State Seminoles program. While there had been some single-game falters over the seasons, defense was still lauded as a strength of the team, especially heading into Fuller and head coach Mike Norvell’s debut season in Tallahassee.
The result? One of the three worst defensive units at FSU in the modern era — a topic covered ad nauseam in the aftermath, especially here at Tomahawk:
The 2020 team gave up an average of 6.46 yards per play per game on defense. This was definitely a step back from a relatively consistent 2019 defense that gave up 5.37 yards per play on average. Compared to the 2018 team (SD = 1.38 YPP), they were more consistent game to game (SD = 1.23 YPP), but gave up more yards.
This makes it the second-worst defense since 1987 with only the 2009 team (6.81 yards per play) performing worse. The 2020 defense was more consistent, but that could mean consistently poor.
Through the transfer portal, Fuller and his staff began to overhaul the roster, bringing in 3 key names that would play a part in elevating his defense’s success — defensive back Jammie Robinson, defensive end Jermaine Johnson and defensive tackle Keir Thomas.
Alongside the infusion of talent there, progression from several experienced Seminoles, notably linebacker Kalen DeLoach, helped place FSU’s defense amongst the best in the ACC.
Overhauling a flawed defense is a task that Fuller has been assigned from Norvell before — when the former Sacred Heart University linebacker was brought aboard at Memphis to help fix a porous Tigers’ defense. Fixing team’s leaky defenses had become Fuller’s calling card at that point in his career — at Chattanooga, an FCS program, he took the Mocs from No. 111 in total defense to No. 28. At Marshall, he took the Thundering Herd from No. 103 in the country in total defense to No. 35. In his six years there, the team finished outside the top 35 just once.
So it’s not outside of the norm that FSU took a major leap in Fuller’s second year. Just on the surface level, the team went from No. 107 to No. 66 in total defense. Diving deeper into the stats, run defense had the biggest jump in execution. According to PFF, the unit went from No. 89 to No. 10, giving up 54.6 fewer yards per game compared to 2020.
Thanks to the addition of Johnson, Florida State’s pass rush also took a leap. After logging just nine sacks in 2020, the Seminoles put up 33 in 2021.
On its face, the turnaround is impressive — when you consider the fact that four games into the 2021 season, FSU was 106th nationally in points per game allowed (31.8) and 99th in yards per pass attempt allowed (7.9).
“We go over our objective board every week in the order of things that we deem really important, see if we’ve achieved any of those,” Fuller said during the 2021 season. “When we don’t, this is why. When we did, this is why. We show them basically a short version of the game. We show them there’s some real positives and there’s some that aren’t good and we just go through them. I usually go through them chronologically as the game would have gone on.
“Sometimes I cut it up a little bit differently. We’re not afraid to show any clips, good or bad, because the game rides with emotion so we try to be as honest and transparent when we watch it. Call out what was really good and call out what wasn’t good.”
In 2022, the defense will look to take a leap forward despite losing a major piece in Johnson, a first-round NFL Draft pick. On the line, defensive end Jared Verse, the prize of Florida State’s 2022 transfer class, is the heir apparent to Johnson’s backfield mayhem, while defensive tackle Fabien Lovett opted to return to school to build up his own draft stock after an impressive year.
“We’ll be significantly better inside,” Fuller said before spring camp. “There’s no question about that because everybody’s back and everybody’s better. That’s going to happen.”
Fuller also has confidence in the linebacking corps, which has been one of the weaker points of the defense over Norvell’s tenure.
“We’re better than we’ve ever been here,” he said before spring camp. “From Kalen DeLoach to Stephen Dix to Amari Gainer to D.J. Lundy, three years ago they were all playing. Now, they’re still playing. And they’ve gotten better. So, we’re seeing that growth from that group. That’s been really exciting.
“I think obviously Kalen DeLoach has probably come the furthest. Amari is getting better. D.J. Lundy showed significant improvement. And I thought Stephen Dix, probably the last three or four practices, started to play a lot faster.”
Heading into 2022, ESPN’s S&P+ rankings have FSU’s defense as No. 3 in the ACC and No. 15 in the country — high expectations after a year in which the Seminoles took a major step forward.
After bringing FSU’s defense back to the baseline in 2021, this season is a chance for the Seminoles to truly establish consistent success on the defensive front.