The Daily Nole

FSU Football: Unexpected Players Flourishing on Defense

Bill Pearce/FSU athletics

The 2018 season for Florida State was supposed to be the tale of an explosive offense paired with a progressively improving defense. It was assumed that head coach Willie Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense would be a smooth installment while Harlon Barnett’s Cover 4 scheme would take some time to get used to.

After the first four games, it’s fair to say that the roles have completely flipped. The FSU defense has been impressive when not put in bad situations by the offense — but even then, the defense has held out longer than expected. The Seminoles currently rank 17th in S&P+ defensive rankings, 17th in yards allowed per play, and 23rd in yards allowed per game. They aren’t elite yet, but they’re good enough to win games if the offense can give them the slightest amount of rest.

Even more encouraging than their general performance is the emergence of players who didn’t have high expectations for 2018. Everyone mentioned guys like defensive end Brian Burns and cornerback Levonta Taylor being the juggernauts of the defense, and they’ve had their moments throughout the season. Yet players who were more or less afterthoughts in season previews are now demanding attention thanks to their performances.

Kyle Meyers has been the most consistent cornerback on the team since Virginia Tech, and he’s now accumulating some numbers to help his case. In addition to his coverage skills, Meyers is responsible for two interceptions, one forced fumble, two sacks, and four tackles for loss. He’s becoming a playmaker that the defense sorely needed.

That’s very impressive for a cornerback who many had written off after a weak 2017 season. Meyers flashed in 2016 as a true freshman but lost his confidence somewhere along the way. Now in 2018, the coaches feel secure enough to send him all around the field.

Another surprising development has been on the defensive line. It’s surprising because the line already had a known mix of talent and depth. Any combination of Brian Burns, Demarcus Christmas, Marvin Jones, and Janarius Robinson was the expected mainstay. Then you had Wally Aime and Josh Kaindoh as the anticipated hopefuls. Behind them was a mix of freshmen and afterthoughts.

Those afterthoughts have returned as nightmares for offensive lines. Two in particular stand out when reviewing the tape: Cory Durden and Fred Jones.

There were rumblings during spring practice that Durden had turned the corner as a player. He enrolled in FSU as a high-upside, low-downside player with good length and flexibility, before ultimately redshirting the 2017 season. It wasn’t clear how many reps he would receive on a crowded line.

Defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins seems to have done it again. Durden looks like he is capitalizing on that high ceiling with better technique and explosiveness off the line. The Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois games contained multiple instances of Durden bursting through blockers and wrapping up for a loss. Durden probably isn’t ready for full-time duties, though his value as a rotational player is very high at the moment.

Fred Jones meanwhile has taken on a slightly different role. Jones is more of a run stuffer and space eater than Durden, so he’s not going to be making flashy plays. It doesn’t seem to matter to him. Jones was a force at the goal line during the Syracuse game and helped prevent the Orange from growing an early lead, and just this past week, he was a factor in holding Northern Illinois to its lowest rushing total of the season. The numbers will never do justice to defensive tackles like Jones, but the film will.

Both Jones and Durden could see their usage increase as the year progresses. Barnett has shown that he’ll use younger players if they’re ready, but typically the front seven is a hard rotation to crack for true freshmen. Jones and Durden are two players that received good reviews throughout spring practice and fall camp, so it makes sense that they’re getting the nod early on.

The 2018 season may not be playing out like everyone thought it would. Yet given what we’ve seen from known and unknown commodities alike, there is a good reason for optimism on the defensive side.

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