Florida State returns most of what was already a dominating defense last season, but with Mike Harris graduated and presently preparing for the draft, somebody is going to have to emerge at nickel back.
Not technically listed as a starter in the Seminoles' traditional 4-3 defensive scheme, the nickel back is that fifth member of the secondary replacing the strong-side linebacker in obvious passing situations. It's a hybrid position that requires a player strong enough to help support the run -- a nickel defender will oftentimes line up in the box -- but also fast enough to cover speedy slot receivers down the field. Part corner, part safety and part linebacker, the nickel is crucial to the sophisticated system employed by coordinator Mark Stoops.
While Harris probably isn't gifted enough athletically to succeed as an every-down cornerback in the pros, his proven ability to hold down the nickel back spot will likely earn him a job on an NFL roster before long.
"It's hard guarding little guys in the slot," sophomore safety Tyler Hunter, who is currently the leading candidate to take over at nickel this season for FSU, said before Wednesday's spring practice. "You have to be at the top of your game every play. You have to come in ready at all times."
Hunter was little more than a special teamer as a freshman and only recorded three tackles, but he isn't learning this specialty position for the first time.
"I backed up Mike last year [at nickel], so I really knew that was going to be my role this year," he said. "I was really looking forward to it."
Hunter's primary competition at nickel this spring has come in the form of sophomore cornerback Nick Waisome, but because Hunter is two inches taller and 18 pounds heavier than Waisome, he fits the prototype better from a physical perspective.
Jones a fan of Moody at linebacker
With three-time leading tackler Nigel Bradham now out of eligibility and looking like a second-round pick in next month's NFL Draft, the coaching staff for the Seminoles needs to replace his playmaking ability at the weak-side linebacker position.
Before the start of spring drills, it was announced that junior Christian Jones would be making the move from strong-side linebacker to the weak side in an effort to take better advantage of his enviable size-and-speed combination. The two-man rotation of senior Vince Williams and junior Telvin Smith remained in the middle, but the garnet and gold still had to figure out who was the best option to take over for Jones on the strong side. Eventually it was decided that another position switch was in order, with senior Nick Moody now lining up at linebacker after three years as a safety -- he has already put on 13 pounds of muscle to prepare for his new assignment, too.
Nicknamed the "Hit Stick" for his reputation as a punishing tackler, Moody has already won over Jones.
"It's great," said the always-smiling Jones. "You all have seen Nick. He's a physical guy. It's good to have that extra guy come down there. He's going to hit somebody. I thought it was a great move, moving him down there."
As for Jones, not only is he expected to wreak havoc from sideline to sideline now that the shackles have been taken off, but he must learn to put on the leadership cap Bradham wore so comfortably in 2011.
"Right now, since I'm going to be an upperclassman, my role is to be more of a vocal leader," he said. "And I've been trying to work on that when we get in the huddle, to say something and get the guys going."
Jones admitted that he finally feels like "a true linebacker" again playing the weak-side position, as a strong-side defender can sometimes seem more like a corner or safety due to all the coverage responsibilities.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
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