Spring Recap: Defensive Ends

The performance of the defensive line in 2014 is one of the biggest keys to Florida State's hopes of repeating as national champions. We assess how well FSU looks to reload on the defensive line based on what we saw in the spring. Today we cover the ends.

A dominant defensive line is a common component of nearly every championship team in college football. Winning in the trenches typically translates to winning period. This was true for the 2013 champs, as Florida State's defensive line, led by departed nose tackle Timmy Jernigan, dominated opponents through the season and ultimately stymied Auburn's explosive offense through the final two and a half quarters of the BCS National Championship game.

Two key components of that defensive line return in 2013, stud ends Mario Edwards, Jr., who battled probable 2013 top-5 pick Greg Robinson to no worse than a draw in the title game, and Eddie Goldman, another probable first round pick.

Florida State ran a hybrid defensive scheme in 2013, maintaining the flexibility to run even and odd fronts with the same personnel, as versatile athlete Christian Jones manned a hybrid end/linebacker spot. Jones has departed for the NFL, leaving that spot vacant as well. The hybrid nature of that position, however, makes it somewhat difficult to categorize as either a defensive line or linebacker position. For the purpose of this article, we'll consider Jones another end and look to his replacements as well, as FSU lined up in an even front more often than not as the year wore on in 2013.

Although FSU only loses two starters from its starting even front, the losses of key backups Demonte McAllister and Jacobbi McDaniel are critical. McAllister provided a disruptive presence as Goldman's backup, and McDaniel returned from injury to play at a remarkably high level in the second half of the season at the nose tackle position and as an end in the Seminoles' odd-front nickel defense. The nation saw what happened when Jernigan was not in the game against Auburn in the title game, emphasizing just how much FSU will have to replace at the nose tackle position in Jernigan and McAllister's absence.

Right End

Edwards returns for his junior year at the right end spot and with continued growth could be one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country in 2014. Edwards is still carrying about 10 pounds of bad weight, but he recognizes that and will and use the summer to get into a little better shape. Provided he does this, the sky is the limit and FSU could have another top-10 pick on its hands.

Demarcus Walker (SO) is Edwards' primary backup and should provide solid depth in 2014. Walker isn't a jumbo athlete like Edwards but still has very good size for the position and displays outstanding initial explosion and very good pop on the edge. He's still a bit of a straight-line player at this point; I'd like to see him improve a little in terms of shedding blocks and developing secondary pass rush moves, but FSU is in good hands for the future here.

Rick Leonard (FR) is one of my favorite recruits from this year and should wind up at this spot. At 6'7, 250, Leonard moves like a much smaller man and should be able to carry 280 pounds without difficulty. I think Leonard has early first round potential at this spot, and the coaching staff will have a decision on its hands when it comes to a redshirt for Leonard. On the one hand, he needs to add weight, and FSU already has two solid bodies ahead of him. On the other, if he arrives in the 265-270 range, he could immediately add even more quality depth. I'd lean toward redshirting him, but the future is very bright here.

Hybrid End/Linebacker

Chris Casher (RS-SO) is the natural replacement for Christian Jones, especially in FSU's even front looks. At 6'4, 260+, Casher is significantly bigger than Jones and should offer a stronger presence on the edge in the running game as a result. Casher is a fluid athlete with outstanding measurables, including a long wingspan, and is very quick off the edge when rushing the passer. Despite that, Casher has never really flashed much to me when I've seen him on the field, and he needs to continue to develop as a playmaker at that spot.

Markus Eligwe (SO), on the other hand, always seems to be around the football and has flashed terrific pass rush instincts in nearly every appearance he has made. I would not be surprised if Eligwe wound up getting the bulk of the snaps at this spot as the year goes on, especially when FSU is in more of an odd-front look in passing situations. At 6'2, 240, Eligwe lacks Casher's length and is closer to Jones' weight, but he's long for his height and should be able to carry another 10 pounds without losing a step. I think Eligwe is probably FSU's best chance to exceed Jones' production at this spot.

As Geoff covered in his linebackers evaluation, Roderrick Hoskins had a very strong spring game, showing great length and quickness while lining up primarily in this position. At about 220 pounds, Hoskins is still a bit light to be a major contributor at this spot, but he's sure to get plenty of garbage time snaps to gain experience for the future.

I also expect freshman Jacob Pugh to get some looks at this spot, and Matthew Thomas may line up on the edge in passing situations as well. Lorenzo Featherston projects at this spot, though he will certainly need a redshirt to mature and add weight. Featherston's unusual length and quickness should make him quite a weapon once he's able to add about 20 pounds.

Conclusion

Florida State is stocked at these positions and should get even better production this year than last from these spots. The freshmen project perfectly within FSU's defensive scheme, and there's a solid mix of veterans and young talent here.


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