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Previewing Alabama vs. Florida State: The Seminole defense

They’re a mirror image of Alabama in a lot of ways, and they return a load of veteran playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Spoiler alert: this isn’t going to be easy.

Florida State v Mississippi
A healthy Derwin James is a dangerous Derwin James.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When aficionados of college football look over the sports wide-reaching landscape, only a few teams can capture the awe of a generation and claim a justifiable sense of swagger as dynastic programs. Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma…these are teams that command the respect of their peers, and even through down years, there is a lingering sense that these legendary programs will always rise back to the coveted throne of the sport.

While the aforementioned have long histories at the highest levels of collegiate football, a relative newcomer has also planted its flag on such a claim: the Florida State Seminoles. The Noles have a distinguished winning tradition that, while not spanning a century, has been rapidly built in the space of 30 years. However, the Noles have proven themselves more than a nouveau riche flavor-of-the-month. Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State is a formidable team with recent success to its credit, and they will give Alabama an early-season cage match this Saturday night.

While the Noles’ offense may once again be potent (despite losing their top receiving threat and NFL Draft pick Dalvin Cook at running back), it is the defense that will give the garnet-and-gold their best chance of wresting the top seed in college football away from Alabama. The Tide is once again projected to be a title contender, ranked number 1 in many (meaningless) preseason polls. But the Noles are right there with them at number three, and if any team can match five-star talent for five-star talent with the Tide, it just may be Florida State.

Their defense returns nine starters from a team that was a top-25 defense regarding many of the stats by which defensive units are measured. They are a dominant, physical defense, and the types of players defensive coordinator Charles Kelly employs are tailor-made for his multiple, nickel/ dime-based scheme. Not to mention, the Noles have the best safety not playing in Tuscaloosa this season in Derwin James, and after a 2016 season spent on the injury rolls, James will be healthy and full-speed once again. The Noles have a veteran linebacking corps, massive run-pluggers in the middle, and some elite pass rushing talent up front. With possibly the nation’s best tandem of corners, the Noles pair future NFL star Tavares McFadden with a rotation including Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers.

There’s no doubt the Noles are a talented squad. Though teams generally need top-10 caliber defenses to be considered title contenders, Florida State was a consistent top-25 defense last season, and that was with their best player sidelined. With James on the field and active, there’s little doubt the Noles will present a formidable challenge for a Tide offense that no one has seen yet. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

The Roster

Again, there are only a few teams in the country that routinely stock top-flite talent across the board: Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, LSU, maybe Michigan or Clemson…and Florida State. While the offensive players, such as Jameis Winston or Dalvin Cook, get the paparazzi treatment, it is the Nole defense that may be the more talented unit on the field at any given time.

Fisher and Kelly have taken a page from Nick Saban’s playbook in recruiting talent that fits specifically into the system they run defensively. Much has been made of Saban’s pivot to a lighter, more athletic defense after using a lumbering 3-4 scheme for much of his career. Kelly has done something similar, as the Noles shifted from a standard 4-3 to a multiple, nickel-based system when Saban acolyte Jeremy Pruitt rebuilt the team’s defense en route to a title run. The Noles now use a lot of defensive backs, and they have recruited an army of capable DBs to utilize the strength of Kelly’s strategy.

The secondary is built off future NFL Draft pick Derwin James (6-3, 211 pounds), an athletic freak at free safety who can (and does) play almost every position on the field for Kelly’s defense. James, a redshirt sophomore, isn’t just hype: he is the real deal. He is a devastating safety in the traditional role. He lines up at corner from time to time, since his speed allows him to keep pace with the shiftiest of receivers. He fulfills a linebacker role in run support, and he is even used as a defensive end off the edge, providing a burst of speed and playmaking ability that catches lumbering tackles off guard.

While there are lots of good players on the Nole defense, James is the octane in FSU’s defensive engine. He elevates the unit from good to great, and because of his versatility of roles, Kelly can use him to disguise coverages, hide blitzes, or create misdirection that blows up offensive timing and results in big plays. James’ impact can’t be underestimated, as so he goes, so goes the Nole defense. Subbing behind James is junior A.J. Westbrook (6-0, 186 pounds), and while there is a large drop-off from first to second string, Westbrook provides seasoned depth after accounting for 40 tackles, four passes defended, and 1.5 tackles for loss last year in James’ absence.

At the strong safety position, the Noles field the uber-active senior Trey Marshall (6-0, 210 pounds), a heavy-hitter who is cut from the same mold as the Tide’s Ronnie Harrison in temperament. While Marshall will miss the first half of the Bama game after being ejected against Michigan to end last season, when he is in the game, he will bring the thunder, with decent speed and good instincts. Marshall was a force last season, accounting for 58 tackles, two tackles for loss, and four passes defended. Spelling Marshall (and starting in the first half) will likely be senior Nate Andrews (6-0, 214 pounds). Andrews has a role as the usual dime when the Noles go to six DBs, but given his experience (18 tackles and an interception in ’16), he will be the most viable candidate to step in at strong safety until Marshall can reenter the fray.

At corner, Florida State has a situation not terribly dissimilar from Alabama’s own roster. FSU has an all-star corner in junior Tavarus McFadden (6-2, 198 pounds), a speedy DB with elite size who has become a lock-down option in Kelly’s defense. McFadden is a second-year starter (much like Bama’s own Anthony Averett), and he had a tremendous season in ’16, leading the nation in interceptions with eight, as well as 19 tackles, three tackles for loss, and six passes defended. McFadden is the real deal, and Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts would do best to avoid the pick-pocketing corner at all times. Behind McFadden is sophomore Carlos Becker (6-2, 185 pounds), a talented reserve who has little playing time to his credit, with five tackles in 2016. Becker also sees time at safety, which provides another hint as to the versatility of the Nole secondary.

Again, as is the case with Alabama, the other corner position may well be in flux. At the moment, sophomore Levonta Taylor (5-9, 169 pounds) is penciled in, though there was an ongoing battle between Taylor and sophomore Kyle Meyers (6-0, 168 pounds) for the corner and Star positions. Both men are rather slight of frame for the position, but both are speedy and aggressive, two qualities required for defensive backs in Kelly’s scheme. Taylor recorded 16 tackles last season, while Meyers had 17. The two may switch back and forth between Star and field corner, as much is the case with Alabama, there is great fluidity in personnel, situationally speaking.

The aforementioned reserve senior safety Nate Andrews (6-0, 214 pounds) provides a physical presence when the Noles move to a dime look. Andrews provide the physicality to keep the FSU defense stiff against the run, but he likewise has the speed to help in coverage when six DBs are needed.

Like the secondary, the defensive front seven (or six) is made up of athletic playmakers who are built for the system FSU prefers to use in the modern era of football. Again, as in the secondary, the position designations are constantly in flux, with players switching roles situationally to give the Noles the best 11 defenders against a particular offense. The boundaries between linebackers and defensive linemen are sometimes blurred, as given the scheme, players may well be called upon to be a little of both.

Fortunately for FSU, the Noles have recruited well, and have the specific players they need to make their defense hit on all cylinders this season. It all starts in the trenches with the big senior nose tackle, Derrick Nandi (6-1, 312 pounds), an explosive big man who creates an immediate impediment to any team wishing to run the ball up the gut. Nandi is strong, and his low center of gravity makes him difficult to move. He is the designated pocket-smasher in the pass rush, as teams often must double him to account for his push-and-shove tactics. In the meantime, that creates match-up problems on the edges for opposing offenses, and the speedy FSU edge rushers make hay. Nandi is the key to the Nole defensive front, as evidenced by his active 2016, in which he recorded 49 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, one pass defended, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Backing up Nandi is the inheritor to his crown, junior Fredrick Jones (6-2, 298 pounds). Jones may not have Nandi’s raw physicality, but he’s proven himself capable as a reserve, with 15 tackles to his ledger last season.

Next to Nandi is another potential break-out star in redshirt junior Demarcus Christmas (6-4, 308 pounds). Christmas has the rare combination of massive size and athleticism, as a big man shouldn’t be able to move the way he does. He has good technique inside, and possess a quickness that allows him to shed blocks and make use of leverage. Together, Nandi and Christmas form a terrible tandem versus the run, and they are equally effective in pass rush. Christmas accounted for 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, five passes defended, and a fumble recovery. Behind Christmas is another massive junior in Wally Aime (6-5, 300 pounds), who could see increased time this year behind Christmas. Aime has proven himself in limited playing time, as he recorded 17 tackles as part of the DL rotation last season.

The edge rusher situation for FSU is…well…complicated. Like Alabama, they utilize hybrid linebacker/ ends as pass rushers a lot of the time. Whereas Alabama designates such a hybrid a Jack linebacker, Florida State calls that player the Buck. And it isn’t always a linebacker that fulfills the Buck role for FSU. While Bama typically sticks with the same oversized linebacker personnel at the Jack, Florida State’s Buck role is more fluid: sometimes it’s a linebacker, sometimes it’s a pure defensive end, and sometimes it’s Derwin James. The Nole defense is very situational and very multiple, and the Buck personnel reflects that. Also, it’s not just the personnel that can vary, but the spot where the Buck lines up may differ. FSU uses a 4-2-5 on about 80% of snaps, and that alignment could include three down linemen and a Buck on the strong side, three downs and a Buck on the weak side, or two tackles and two Bucks on either edge.

At strong side end (and sometimes Buck), the Noles have junior phenom Josh Sweat (6-5, 250 pounds). While he is technically a defensive end, he is the most likely player on the field to get the call at Buck, because he has the size of a traditional defensive end, but the athleticism of a linebacker. Sweat was incredible in 2016, recording 41 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, a pass defended, and a forced fumble. Alabama’s tackles will have their hands full with Sweat’s first step and his aggressive technique. He has the speed to get the edge, and with his height, he has arm length and lean to his advantage. Spelling Sweat will be sophomore Jalen Wilkinson (6-5, 273 pounds) and redshirt freshman Janarious Robinson (6-5, 249 pounds). Neither man has had much playing time, though Wilkinson does have three tackles to his credit.

At the weakside defensive end position (and sometimes Buck) is sophomore Brian Burns (6-5, 218 pounds). Burns is small even for a linebacker when it comes to his bulk, but like Sweat, he has incredible length and athleticism for the position. He brings all the attributes of a good Buck to the table in that he is extremely athletic, quick off the end, with great speed and a sneaky first step. Behind Burns is freshman Joshua Kaindoh (6-7, 250 pounds), who has impressed in his scant time on the FSU campus with his work ethic and physical measurables.

If there is a weak link anywhere on the FSU defense, it must be the linebackers. That said, the Noles return three seniors who have been steady contributors of late. They aren’t super flashy. They aren’t the biggest or fastest or most athletic linebackers in the country. But they are steady, and in the FSU defense, steady is good enough to allow the other playmakers on the roster to prosper.

Though the projected depth charts list three linebackers, four-fifths of the time the Noles will only have two linebackers on the field at a given time. There may be three linebackers on the field at times, but chances are, that third ‘backer will be taking on the Buck role as a pass rusher and edge-setter, with only two true linebackers backing up the front.

At the Mike position, the Noles return the lumbering Ro’Derrick Hoskins (6-3, 240 pounds), a rumbling linebacker who is adept at fitting the run and making backs pay for their trips in the middle. Hoskins recorded 53 tackles in 2016, along with 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and two passes defended. Behind him is sophomore Dontavious Jackson, who played a good bit last season and recorded 20 tackles and three tackles for loss. That said, Jackson has missed practice this week, and appears to be out of the line-up for the Bama game. That’s a loss for the Noles, as the journeyman ‘backer Jackson could fill in at multiple positions and provide much needed veteran depth.

At Sam, FSU has Jacob Pugh (6-4, 229 pounds), who is one of the linebackers that is sometimes used as a Buck situationally. Pugh is a steady contributor to the FSU defense, as he accounted for 43 tackles, six tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Behind Pugh is sophomore Josh Brown (6-3, 216 pounds), who hasn’t seen the field much in his time in Tallahassee.

Matthew Thomas, the Noles’ leading tackler in 2016, holds down the Will linebacker spot. Thomas (6-4, 227 pounds) is as solid as they come at the position and he is intuitive, which gives him the advantage of being in the right place at the right time often. Thomas accounted for 77 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, a sack, and two passes defended in 2016. Earlier this week, Thomas was thought to be a scratch for the Noles due to an unspecified eligibility issue that has kept him from practicing for the last three weeks. However, the senior has been cleared as of Wednesday to play against Alabama. That would have been a tremendous loss for FSU, as Thomas is easily their best linebacker. With Jackson also likely out due to injury, the Noles will look to a largely untested sophomore, Emmett Rice (6-2, 202 pounds) to spell Thomas. Rice has seen limited playing time and has accrued 12 tackles.

How the Seminole defense will try to stop the Alabama offense

While no one knows exactly what Alabama’s offense will do under new coordinator Brian Daboll, it’s safe to say that the Tide’s offense will not be a horse of an entirely different color. After all, the same talent exists at the skill positions, and let’s face it: the Tide never deviates much from its run-heavy offense, even when the play-calling reflects balance. The Tide’s running game is, and will remain, the big stick with which it bludgeons opponents, and it doesn’t matter if that ground attack comes behind power or zone blocking, or if the quarterback is as likely a ball carrier as the running backs. With Alabama, everything builds out from the run, and there’s no reason to expect that to change.

So, while FSU may be in the dark on some particulars, they know they will have to first and foremost stop the run if they have any chance of keeping the Tide offense in check. If Alabama runs rampant, it doesn’t matter how many All-American defensive backs the Noles are sporting, they’re going to come up on the wrong end of the equation.

Since the Tide’s current defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt rebuilt the Seminole defense during the 2013 season, FSU has moved further and further away from the traditional 4-3 scheme it once employed towards a hybrid 4-2-5 nickel look. The reason for this was simple: the nickel defense gives coaches their best chance of negating the advantages created by increasingly-utilized spread offenses. Briefly, this rendition of the nickel uses four down linemen (one of which is a Buck, hybrid linebacker/ end), two linebackers, and five defensive backs (two safeties, a field corner, a boundary corner, and a Star.) This defense allows for more speedy, athletic players on the field at a given time, something which can help defenses manage the space that allows offensive skill players to gain an athleticism advantage over bigger, stronger players.

But to say the FSU defense is a straight nickel D is misleading. Sure, they spend 80 percent of their time in a 4-2-5. But their personnel groupings within that 4-2-5 can be myriad. And they also utize some other rather exotic looks, such as a 3-1-7 Dime with James playing up in the box; a “dime rabbits” package with two defensive tackles, two true defensive ends, and six defensive backs; a 3-2-6 Dime look; and in goal line situations, their old familiar 4-3.

The base 4-2-5 requires some specific personnel, and the Noles are fortunate enough to have it. They need two 300-plus pound tackles (check), one big defensive end (check), an athletic Buck (check) with his hand in the dirt, a Mike and a Will for the middle (check), two elite safeties up top (check), one lock-down corner (check), one workmanlike corner (check), and a Star who can do safety/ corner/ linebacker type things (and check).

The strength of the FSU defensive scheme is that while it was built to stop the spread, if populated with elite athletes, it’s a sufficient defense to deal with any offensive threat. The style of defense limits offenses without having to take game-breaking risks or selling out. The massive defensive tackles plug the run and make attempts to ford the middle less than savory. The Buck gives the coordinator tremendous versatility in blitzes and coverages, and it helps him conceal his hand because the Buck can have any one of myriad responsibilities. The Star gives the defense a player who has the speed to be a viable option in coverages, but who also has the size to contribute in run support.

The big wildcard for the FSU defense is James. James can do it all, and the Nole coaching staff isn’t afraid to let him try. He is good enough as a safety that offenses must game plan around him. But that is complicated when he goes from safety to linebacker, or from safety to edge rusher. He may line up as an edge rusher to confuse a quarterback, then drop into coverage. He gives the Noles the element of subterfuge, and along with the Buck role, it creates an awful lot for a quarterback to process when he steps to the line of scrimmage.

Kelly likes to throw James into the box, where the defense morphs into something that looks like a 3-1-7, but functions more like a 4-1-6 (if James lines up on the LOS) or a 3-2-6 (if James backs the line). He can blitz from the box, contribute in run support with his athleticism, drop back into coverage of a tight end in the middle, or spy the quarterback. Expect to see a healthy helping of the latter, given the propensity of Alabama’s quarterback Jalen hurts to destroy teams with his legs. If Hurts strings together a few healthy runs, James may draw the responsibility of isolating Hurts and keeping him in check. James will complicate things for Alabama’s offense, and the Nole coaches will move him around all over the field to find ways to allow his ability to come full circle.

When Alabama is in obvious passing situations (third and long, for example), the Seminoles like to go to the “dime rabbits package.” This grouping is similar to Bama’s “nickel rabbits” package in name only. Whereas the nickel rabbits personnel involved two tackles and two pass rushing linebackers, the dime version goes heavy with two tackles and two true ends to get the most pocket crush up front. The linemen can sell out without worrying about the run to create max pressure, and they have the comfort of knowing they have six defensive backs behind them (an extra safety replaces one of the linebackers) to clutter up the passing lanes and cause quarterback hesitation.

Versus the run, Florida State seeks to set the edge with the ends, forcing the run into the behemoths in the middle will linebackers providing fill. Even when in a nickel or dime look, the FSU safeties are physical enough to crash the line and clean up anything that gets through the front, and they are also agile and speedy enough to catch anything that leaks around the edges. This comparison doesn’t hold true on all fronts, but the way FSU defends the run from the nickel/ dime is not totally unlike what Ole Miss did in the two years it beat Alabama: clog the middle with girth, seal the run inside from the outside in, and let the athletic, speedy DBs swarm to and tee off on anyone who broke through to the second level.

Last season, Florida State had a defense that many teams would have coveted. However, by the Seminoles’ lofty standards, something was amiss. It wasn’t just the loss of James…though that hurt them incalculably. There was also confusion in the way the players responded to the nickel/ dime heavy system. Linebackers and defensive backs seemed confused about the responsibilities. The defensive backs missed coverages they should have locked down. The linebackers didn’t fit the run game and fill their gaps. The line didn’t do a good job of setting the edge.

As a result, later in the season, Kelly and his staff untangled the game plan somewhat to make things simpler and more fluid. However, doing so robbed the defensive scheme of its aggressiveness. The defense was more consistent, but less explosive. One of the strengths of the nickel every-down defense is that it allows a unit to play with more abandon, it mitigates risks in the passing game so that the fronts can play more aggressively. However, when the complexity of the FSU was whittled down, that air of aggressiveness was shaved off with it.

Whether the Seminole D will regain its swagger and its mean streak this season remains to be seen. With James back in the line-up, and nine returning starters, one must expect that the level of familiarity has increased ten-fold. If that’s the case, don’t expect to see the FSU defense that struggled to hold a pedestrian Michigan defense in check. They will be able to attack Bama from many vectors with effective aggressiveness, and despite all of Alabama’s offensive firepower, that is the kind of thing that has given the Tide trouble in the past (ala Ole Miss and Clemson).

The Result

Again, since no one has seen Alabama’s offense under Daboll, no one can accurately predict the tendencies the Tide will display in the season opener. But one can imagine the kind of attack that will make sense given the Tide’s strengths, and those of the Florida State defense.

Lots of teams try to stop Alabama from running the ball, and almost as many fail miserably. The Tide will once again have a stable of backs that would be coveted by any coach in America, and this year, it looks like there is also a cohesive, experienced offensive line to pave the way for them. While in theory Florida State will attempt to force the run inside while clogging the middle, doing so is easier said than done…especially if the Tide’s line is as effective as they can be.

Also, while a strength in the pass rush, the lighter ends/ Buck could be a liability against an Alabama team that can run to the edges from both the tailback and quarterback positions. Alabama’s bruising back, Bo Scarbrough, can match physicality with the Nole ends regarding size, and he is guaranteed to have a few steps more speed. There’s no telling whether Josh Jacobs will be available, but if he is, he possesses the kind of electric, jitter-bug quickness to take advantage of the lumbering big men in the middle, or hit the edges with his speed.

James, again, could be a huge piece of the FSU puzzle, as he has the athleticism to equal the scales for the Noles in particular match-ups. Given Hurts’ ability as a runner, one can expect to see James lurking with the linebackers a good bit of the time, spying the fleet-footed quarterback to prevent the big plays that have been the difference between victory and defeat in the sophomore’s brief tenure under center. Kelly will move James around the field, and it will be up to the Tide to locate him, and account for his ability, on every single play.

One way Alabama can loosen the inside running lanes is a hold-over from the Lane Kiffin era. Kiffin was adept at spreading defenses sideline to sideline to create space, forcing them to pursue receivers on short, high-percentage, low-risk passes to the edge…then gashing them with the running game inside. While Florida State is built to manage the spread and probably has a tactic to limit such approaches, Alabama has dynamic athletes at key positions, something which could tip the advantage in the favor of those in crimson.

Alabama can negate the major advantage that FSU would seemingly have in the passing game by reining in Hurts’ passing attempts. The secondary for Florida State is elite, and if given the opportunity, they can completely alter the tone and timbre of the game in favor of the garnet-and-gold. But if Hurts takes the safe throws, if the Tide can lull the Noles with running attempts and short passes, then it may open opportunities in the vertical passing game in the second half. After all, for as good as the Nole defensive backs are, the Tide has a stable of equally talented wide receivers who will win at least as many match-ups as they lose…and those wins will often come with scoring opportunities.

The game plan for both teams appears simple. For the Noles, they must stop the run, force Bama out of their comfort zone, let Derwin James do Derwin James things, and make big plays when Hurts puts the ball in the air. For Alabama, it’s equally simple: ground and pound, work the lesser defensive backs in the middle of the field with the tight end and slot receivers, throw to the edges to loosen the interior logjam, and take vertical shots when they present themselves. The team that accomplishes its goal will be the victor.