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. We already covered FSU's defensive end situation in a previous article, but today we turn to the interior, which in my view is the key to any great defense.
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.
Eddie Goldman (JR) returns for his junior year as the incumbent at the hybrid defensive tackle/end position in FSU's scheme. Goldman emerged as a disruptive force in the second half of 2014 and is a major reason FSU came out on top in the title game. At over 310 pounds with long arms and good mobility, Goldman is capable of two-gapping and controlling the lineman over him, single-handedly limiting the space available in the running game. He has also showed the capability to compress the pocket in the passing game, providing pressure in the quarterback's face. Goldman played very little in the spring game as he was held out for precautionary reasons. The coaches know what they have here, and the NFL scouts will love this guy.
Desmond Hollin (SR) arrived from JUCO at around 270 pounds in 2013 but has since gained about 20 pounds and is now slated to be Goldman's primary backup. Hollin is a long 6'3 and is a terrific athlete at that size. Several times in the spring game, Hollin flashed outstanding lateral quickness and the capacity to chase plays down from behind. Hollin's development at this position gives FSU some security at this position and may allow Goldman to slip inside to the nose tackle spot in some situations as well as getting rest in others. That will be important as FSU will face a better, more physical set of offenses in 2013, and extra snaps add up over the course of the year, affecting the effectiveness of interior linemen. Hollin's quickness and length should be especially helpful on passing downs, allowing Goldman to get a blow in these situations as needed.
Giorgio Newberry (RS-JR) has bounced around from defensive end to tight end and has now seemed to find a home at this spot. At 6'6, Newberry is very long at this position. Though he's listed at 280, I'd guess he's at least ten pounds lighter than that at present. Newberry lacked the explosion and suddenness to be effective at his previous positions, but he's actually a bit quicker than most at this spot, which gives him a chance to contribute down the road. Given his struggles as a pass rusher at the end position, his performance in the spring game was encouraging, as he displayed good instincts rushing the passer on the inside. He still has a tendency to play too high, however, and did get pushed around a few times in the running game. Newberry should provide plenty of garbage-time minutes in 2014 and is ultimately auditioning for a much bigger role in 2015.
Derrick Mitchell (RS-JR) is another big, long body at this position, but he missed the spring with an injury. The clock is ticking on him at this point, as Mitchell really needs to show something in summer camp if he's going to do much in his career at FSU. The physical talent seems to be there, but it has yet to translate on the field.
Nile Lawrence-Stample (RS-JR) was Jernigan's primary backup in 2013 and provided generally solid play, but he was nowhere near Jernigan's level of play. Lawrence-Stample played last season at about 315 pounds (at 6'1) and was carrying about 10 bad pounds late last season. I'd prefer to see him at closer to 310 in the upcoming year. It is imperative that he comes into the 2014 season in optimal shape, as I believe his performance will impact FSU's title chances as much as anyone's on the roster. The early returns from spring practice were outstanding, as Lawrence-Stample was FSU's most dominant defensive lineman in one-on-one drills, displaying improved conditioning and strength while besting even FSU's outstanding guards. Lawrence-Stample is an unusually explosive athlete for his size and does a better job as a penetrator than a two-gapping space eater; he could still stand to improve in the latter department for 2014.
Keith Bryant (RS-FR) stepped into the primary backup role in the spring and probably has the most physical talent of FSU's young NT corps. At 6'2, he carries 315 pounds quite well, though I'd like to see him recompose his body just a bit during the summer and get a little stronger through the hips while dropping just a bit of weight around the middle. Bryant has long arms for his height and is a very powerful player on the interior. He doesn't move quite as well as Lawrence-Stample, but he's more of a load in a straight line. Because he redshirted in 2013, he was a bit of a mystery coming into the spring, so I spent a good bit of time breaking down Bryant's spring game performance. I was initially nonplussed by his spring game performance, but a more thorough viewing left me pleased with Bryant's potential for 2014.
Bryant showed the ability to control a blocker in a two-gap situation, collapsing the pocket in the passing game, as demonstrated here:
Similarly, Bryant was able to get good penetration on several other plays:
Those are encouraging signs for next year, though he still must improve his ability to shed a blocker once he controls him. Essentially, Bryant has learned how to engage and control but not yet to disengage in a consistent enough manner. It's this latter element that was one of the things that made Jernigan so dominant on the inside. Regardless, Bryant showed enough in the spring game for FSU fans to be a little more optimistic about the Noles' ability to replace Jernigan.
Demarcus Christmas was the cornerstone of FSU's 2014 recruiting class. Christmas was the initial commitment of the class and stayed firm throughout the process. Because Christmas largely avoided the camp and combine circuit, he is an underrated prospect in the various recruiting rankings. Jimbo Fisher spoke extremely highly of Christmas on signing day, asserting, ""If Christmas would have gone to some [more] camps, he would have been the No. 1 or 2 player in the whole country."
Fisher's comments are a bit hyperbolic, but Christmas is indeed an elite prospect with a chance to play early. At 6'3, 300 pounds and possessing long arms, Christmas is explosive off the ball and projects at the 3/5 position, though it's possible he could play inside in a pinch. Christmas isn't a redshirt candidate and should earn reps behind Goldman and Hollin in garbage time early in the season. He may be the starter at that spot as early as 2015.
Derrick Nnadi was a signing day steal from Virginia and gives FSU another interior prospect with the potential to play right away. Nnadi is more compact at 6'1, 300 and plays with a great deal of power from a very thick base. He projects at the nose tackle spot and will push for immediate time. In my view, Nnadi may have the best opportunity of any freshman to earn his way into meaningful minutes. He is much thicker and stronger in his lower body than the usual freshman, making him more college ready than most in his spot. FSU would ideally prefer its older players to make it tough for Nnadi to see the field, but he's going to push them without a doubt.
Arthur Williams will surprise FSU fans down the line with his athleticism, as he has largely been overlooked by evaluators in part because his junior film was far less impressive than his senior tape. At 6'4, 280, he can play both interior positions and shows unusual athleticism and speed at that size. Provided he makes it to campus, Williams could also push for early time, though I suspect a redshirt year would be beneficial, especially if FSU gets good production from those in front of him. Look for Williams to contend for a starting role in 2015, however.
Adam Torres is another jumbo prospect at 6'5, 265. Torres could potentially move to the offensive side of the ball, but at present projects at the 3/5 technique slot. Torres is more of a run stuffer and plays with a surprisingly low pad level for such a tall player. I expect Torres to redshirt in 2014.
Fredrick Jones is the fifth interior prospect FSU brought in and is a legacy, as his father (Fred Jones, Sr.) and legendary uncle Marvin "Shade Tree" Jones also played for the Seminoles. Jones obviously has outstanding bloodlines but is a project at this stage. He flashes excellent power and burst at his size (6'2, 270) but is still very raw. He projects either at the nose or as an offensive guard. Jones was rated lower than the other prospects, but FSU's decision to take him was prescient as the 2015 defensive tackle class is unusually weak in the state of Florida, and Jones shows more potential than many more highly ranked prospects this year. Jones will redshirt in 2014.
This is the biggest area for concern for the Seminoles in 2014. Florida State may be able to run through ACC competition during the regular season even without a dominant presence inside, but the Noles will not repeat without the ability to control the interior against the teams it would face in the playoff. Florida State needs Lawrence-Stample to take a huge step forward, Bryant to develop, and Goldman to continue to play like a first-round prospect for this team to repeat. We won't truly know where FSU stands in this regard, until well into 2014, and that uncertainty is the biggest reason for Seminole fans to temper their enthusiasm entering the season.