The Daily Nole

FSU Football: Pass Rush Returns to Form Under New Staff

Bill Pearce/FSU athletics

One of the most poignant complaints about last year’s Florida State football team was the inability to get to the quarterback. Despite having a starting defensive line consisting of Brian Burns, Josh Sweat, Derrick Nnadi, and Demarcus Christmas, the Seminoles were unable to find consistent pressure in the backfield.

That needed to change for 2018. If defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett wanted his system to succeed early on, he would need a pass rush to take the burden off his secondary. Florida State has already surrendered plenty of explosive passing plays — imagine what it would be like if the defensive line did not hold up its end of the bargain.

The Seminoles had a pretty good idea of what they were bringing back for this season. Brian Burns was the obvious standout at defensive end, and Demarcus Christmas was a reliable interior option. Behind them were talented players that each had a shot at contributing early. Guys like Janarius Robinson, Wally Aime, Josh Kaindoh, Marvin Wilson, Fred Jones, and Cory Durden were all expected to see the field early.

Some of those guys have begun standing out from the rest. Yet the group as a whole is performing very well in the first half of 2018, even if a couple of names have not lived up to their ceilings. Florida State’s pass rush has reclaimed its former reputation and begun posing serious problems for opposing offenses.

The numbers are clear. FSU had 10 sacks through six games in 2017. Through six games in 2018, it has recorded 19 sacks. Of those 19 sacks, 15.5 of them are from defensive linemen.

What changed? Surprisingly, not much.

Obviously the coaching changes happened. Former defensive ends coach Brad Lawing checked out sometime in 2017 and appears to have left the coaching ranks altogether after not being retained by first-year head coach Willie Taggart. Defensive ends coach Mark Snyder arrived from Michigan State with Harlon Barnett and reinvigorated a defensive line that lost its way as the 2017 season went on.

But they aren’t doing anything radically different when it comes to technique, at least from an outsider’s perspective. Burns has instead polished his already existing repertoire of moves — enough to probably get him selected in the early rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft. The play from his backups hasn’t been stellar, but it’s not completely necessary when your interior can help out.

Speaking of interior, Odell Haggins has once again impressed in 2018. Wilson, Durden, and Jones have all recorded multiple sacks, and are all vying for more playing time. Wilson has been the most electrifying with 3.5 sacks, including a dominant performance against Miami where he flexed his power and athleticism. All three players look explosive off the line, and fans should be excited to know that the former two aren’t even juniors. They’ll be quite the duo over the next few seasons.

More than anything, the current 2018 defensive line is showing how much talent Florida State had in its arsenal. A huge scheme shift or entirely different approach wasn’t needed for the Seminoles to maximize it. Instead, having a new staff fully dedicated to their job is enough to let that talent shine. The defensive line is also largely responsible for FSU giving up the fewest rushing yards per game in the ACC.

Neither the 2017 or 2018 team has lived up to expectations, but keep in mind that the 2017 squad was 2-5 through seven games. FSU is 3-3 through six and is favored to win Saturday’s Wake Forest contest. The upgraded pass rush isn’t the only reason for the difference, but there’s a good argument that FSU would have lost at least one more game if it hadn’t been able to get to the quarterback.

There’s been too much focus on lost potential and under-performing players during the past couple of seasons. Through the first half of 2018, it looks like that’s not a concern for the FSU defensive line, which has returned to being a menacing unit in the college football world.

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