The Daily Nole

Grading FSU Defensive Position Groups Through Six Games

Damon Herota/FSU athletics

The Florida State defense has been the surprise of 2018. While many expected the offense to carry the load, it turns out that the defense is Florida State’s best hope at reaching a bowl game. It has turned in some masterful performances and are finally getting some help from the offense.

Now, the Seminoles have the bye week to try and recover from Saturday’s loss to Miami —both physically and mentally. The Seminoles have improved over the past few games, but their record still stands at 3-3 with difficult opponents ahead. If they want to make a bowl game, they’ll need to iron out the remaining deficiencies and play with the same effort they did against Miami.

Since the bye week falls on a nice midway point of the season, we’re going to be examining and grading each position group on both sides of the ball. On Tuesday, we looked at the offense. Now, we’ll be looking at the defense.

We will try to point out which players from each position group have succeeded and which have struggled. A position’s grade should not be used as an assessment of individual play.

Defensive Line (A)

Florida State couldn’t ask for much more from the defensive line. As a whole, the group has been the strongest on the entire team. More interestingly however, the dominance has been propelled by players who were initially overlooked.

The most obvious star has been defensive end Brian Burns, who’s become an absolute menace as a pass rusher. He’s somehow even quicker off the snap and perfected many of his moves. He’s produced seven sacks and three forced fumbles already — best in the ACC in both categories.

But the interior is where Florida State’s defense has genuinely dominated. Demarcus Christmas got off to a slow start but returned to form against Miami, once again filling the role as a needed run-stuffer. Marvin Wilson is living up to his 5-star billing and becomes better with each rep as both a pass rusher and lane-clogger. Wilson is second on the team with 3.5 sacks and will probably be starting the rest of the year.

Along with those two, redshirt senior Fred Jones is having a breakout season and has already matched his career high in tackles. Redshirt freshman Cory Durden also deserves praise after strong outings against Virginia Tech and Louisville, where he showed off his quickness as a pass-rushing option.

There’s really nothing that the defensive tackles can’t accomplish. They have a quality mix of players who can either shut down the run game, harass opposing quarterbacks, or do a little bit of both.

Perhaps the only weak spot on the line is the strongside defensive end spot. Janarius Robinson and Wally Aime were considered promising before the season started, and 5-star Josh Kaindoh was expected to eventually rotate in after his injury cleared up.

Robinson played well initially, but since then he’s reverted to just another body on the line. Aime has been a major disappointment, as well as Kaindoh. None of them have been especially weak, but they simply aren’t the difference makers which could take the line to its full potential. They still have six games to turn it around.

Linebacker (C-)

Nothing has been surprising about the linebacker position. Most observers expected Dontavious Jackson to be the lone standout, and perhaps some surprising performances by Jaiden Woodbey at the STAR position. Beyond that there wasn’t much to be excited about.

That’s more or less how it has played out so far. The only surprise would be DeCalon Brooks, who provides a nice boost to blitz calls when he gets on the field. Other than him, no one else has stepped up in a way that would give them confidence for the future.

Jackson came as advertised with his physicality. He’s a powerful run-stuffer who gives ball carriers a pop whenever he can. Defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett can’t put him in to pass coverage all that often, but they’ll accept that with how talented he is at sniffing out the run.

It’s the same story with Jaiden Woodbey, who fits the STAR position perfectly, although he is better in coverage than Jackson.

Everyone else is a weakness. Sophomore Leonard Warner has had some nice reps but that’s about the extent of his impact. This unit is still suffering from a lack of depth that leaves them vulnerable against teams who threaten the middle of the field.

There’s really no way to correct it at the moment. Getting Amari Gainer back from injury might help but he’s a true freshman. This will remain a weak point of the defense.

Defensive Back (B-)

No other position group has the wild variation in play that the secondary does. We’ve mentioned plenty of times that Barnett’s system is vulnerable to big plays, but Florida State is still giving up long passing touchdowns at an abnormal rate.

Cornerback play has been erratic. For the first few games, Levonta Taylor was a massive disappointment and gave up as many touchdowns as he had in his FSU career up to that point. His size was used against him frequently. Starting with Louisville however, he’s been playing lights out. He was almost completely avoided by the Cardinals and Miami.

For a while, Kyle Meyers was the stunning development. He mans the opposite corner spot and assumed the shutdown role that Taylor possessed last season. He also forced multiple turnovers and overall looked very capable. Against the Hurricanes however, Meyers had his worst showing of the year, getting called for three pass interference penalties — some questionable — and generally getting beat by Miami’s receivers.

Freshman A.J. Lytton and Asante Samuel Jr. have produced mixed results. They’re true freshmen, so that’s somewhat expected. For whatever reason, Barnett feels comfortable lining them up in the red zone. It hasn’t worked out yet, as both were scored on against Miami. They are still on their way to productive seasons and will likely play even more down the stretch.

The safeties are where much of the weaknesses lie. While the cornerbacks get beat more than you’d like to see, the safeties arguably share more responsibility for the scoring. It became an extremely noticeable problem against Samford and Louisville, when both offenses realized that the safeties were easily confused on their coverage duties. More specifically, they were caught playing too close to the line and not dropping back to help when needed.

Stanford Samuels III is the most consistent of the bunch. Yet the rationale for moving him to field safety was that he would be given a chance to make plays. That simply hasn’t happened yet, as Samuels’ only interception was near the end of the game against Louisville on a fourth down prayer.

Hamsah Nasirildeen provides a lot in run defense, but in pass defense, he seems too slow to really disrupt any receiver. A.J. Westbrook is a bit better in the latter, but he’s maxed out his development at this point.

Cyrus Fagan is the main disappointment — he simply gets lost in coverage way too often. He’s seen his reps reduced as result.

The secondary still has enough time to correct many of their issues. Any system will take time to get used to, and Barnett mentioned that he would simplify some of the concepts. Overall they’ve played well enough to win games, but not as well as they could be playing.

Special Teams (D)

D.J. Matthews might be the only reason that special teams doesn’t get an F. He’s an absolutely electric returner, and opposing teams hold their breath whenever he decides to take a kick and attempt to run it back.

Everyone else is just not good. Punter Logan Tyler is a junior that has never really lived up to his high school All-American hype, and Ricky Aguayo has already missed more field goals than all of last season. The former has contributed to some of the worst starting field position averages in the country, while the latter has left 12 points on the board.

Yet the most frustrating part has to be the coverage teams. To this point, FSU has given up a blocked punt for a touchdown, allowed at least two long returns, and fumbled twice on punt returns. It also don’t do very well at blocking during punt returns, which makes Matthews’ ACC Specialist of the Week performance against Miami all the more incredible. Special teams coach Alonzo Hampton hasn’t done a good job coaching the unit.

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