Improved Tempo—Even on Offense
After seeing the ‘Noles in the spring, I expected major improvement on defense; that was visible from the start against Samford. But I must admit that I was surprised by the improvement of tempo and crispness on both sides of the ball. The defense was obviously crisper and played with a quicker tempo than expected, but the offense—which was already under Jimbo Fisher's tutelage last year and returned most of its starters—also played with a significantly faster tempo than last year.
They took less time between plays and showed the kind of crisp, cold-blooded efficiency usually seen when recent powers like Texas or next week's opponent, Oklahoma, abuse their non-conference patsies. As any Seminole fan knows after watching the last few years, that kind of efficiency against pushovers cannot be taken for granted. Yes, we'll receive a much more accurate assessment with this week's game, but it is encouraging through week one to see improvement on more than just one side of the ball.
Differences on Defense
One thing was evident from the opening snap on: this does not resemble any Seminole defense of the past. A few things stayed consistent with hallmarks of FSU defenses of the past: high intensity, players flying to the football, gang tackling, pressure on the quarterback. But gone are the days of players simply told to go out and "whip your man," leading to aggressive freelancing, penalties, and big plays (in both directions). But FSU finished the game with a grand total of four penalties, including two marginal personal foul calls (well, one marginal and one absolutely horrible call), providing a first indication of the kind of discipline this ‘Noles defense will exhibit under Mark Stoops (and the team under Jimbo Fisher).
The first notable difference was one educated Seminole fans expected: lots of zone defense with significantly more safety help than in years past. In charting the coverages through the first three quarters (well, as much as ESPN's camera angles would allow), I counted a total of three plays in man/free coverage, which is what FSU ran around 80% of the time under legendary coordinator Mickey Andrews. One of these led to a deep route being completed against Xavier Rhodes (who actually had good coverage on the play)—and even that play displayed a difference, as Terrance Parks immediately knocked the receiver out of bounds, providing more safety help than tended to be displayed last year.
But the ‘Noles didn't simply run vanilla zone defenses; they showed some exotic looks I've never seen from any Florida State team (clearly giving OU some things to think about for next week). One package involved the team going to a "speed-nickel," with Jajuan Harley at one linebacker (he was a bit uneven in this role, but certainly flashed some speed); Telvin Smith (who runs like a safety) was often the other ‘backer, providing even more coverage range.
But that package was only the beginning; the coverage looks they showed included some zone blitzes and man/zone combo coverages, showing a preference for quarters against a basic spread look but moving the slot corner to press man in some situations or putting Rhodes in man on the boundary with the rest of the team zone drops against trips to the wide side. In terms of blitzes, look for Stoops to "overload" blitz a lot this year—coming with too many from one side while dropping linemen into coverage on the other side.
Stoops also showed willingness to use both "cloud" (free safety near the line of scrimmage with strong safety playing center field) and "sky" looks against similar formations; the safeties looked decent in coverage overall and took better angles than in the past.
But coverage and package looks aside, the biggest change was how much better the defense looked in terms of their run "fits" (players taking proper angles and maintaining gap integrity against the run). They were still flying towards the ball, but the angles were much better, leaving much smaller "seams" for big plays and better contain against outside runs and misdirection.
The payoff: many plays that went for long touchdowns last year will likely be 10–15 yard plays this year. The linebackers looked especially improved in this area, as there were significantly fewer false steps and overrun plays, though they still need to work on their tackling as a unit. Kendall Smith in particular looked like a completely different player from last year (and it's highly unlikely we'll ask him to single-cover a RB from a cornerback position this year).
The other major difference that jumped out in this game is the confidence displayed by the defense. This is a defense that has bought into what they're doing—and that in itself puts them ahead of the curve of most teams with a new coordinator. They truly believe they can be outstanding. The biggest position group where this change in attitude is visible is with the defensive backs, who no longer look hesitant and terrified of getting beaten (and subsequently chewed out). Rather, they were aggressive and confident, reading routes and jumping passes.
Talent was not really the issue with FSU's secondary last year, and this year's top four corners could all likely start for a number of top-25 programs. The safeties are still a bit of a concern (especially depth-wise), but at least the starters there look solid and confident.
Although Ponder's interception was on a tipped ball, it was the result of Ponder having stared his primary receiver down, giving the defensive lineman an excellent opportunity to get his hand into the passing lane. This is still an area Ponder can (and should) improve over the course of the year.
Still on Ponder, even though he only had two incompletions (including the pick), he was still not as sharp with some of his throws as I'd like to see (or as precise as he was last year). A few throws were off target by a few feet, forcing receivers to stop running or turn around for the ball. My guess is that one big reason for this is that he seemed a bit "amped up" for this game; his accuracy should improve as he settles into the season. One possible concern, however, is that these few loose passes could crop up early in big games, where he is likely to be especially pumped up.
Rodney Smith has a lot of room for improvement as a receiver, but he was a force blocking on the edge. He'll continue to earn his playing time if he continues to engulf defenders and give other receivers and running backs room downfield. Easterling's downfield blocking was also worth a mention in this game.
At this moment, Easterling is the team's best receiver and seems to be the one guy Ponder trusts the most. He's a very valuable target in that short-to-intermediate area and a reliable, physical presence.
Demonte McAllister is a developing force at the defensive tackle spot. He is green but very quick and explosive. He'll push for more time quickly. The four main DTs all looked decent, though not great—one positive is that at least with their size, the DTs will not be pushed around all year as they were last year. I'm still concerned that they're not quite where they'll need to be in some of the bigger games and that the defense will still have some trouble stopping the run against bigger, more physical teams like Miami and Boston College.
E. J. Manuel's release showed major improvement from last year; the big positive is that he is right about where Fisher had told me he hoped he'd be mechanically coming into this year. His left hip is no longer flying open at the start of the release, allowing him to more naturally drive his weight through the ball. He still has one more tweak to make between this season and next (getting the elbow to a more neutral position, bringing the ball more "over the top" from the tricep), but he's on pace to be mechanically sound by the time he's set to be the starter.
Ty Jones and Chris Thompson looked the best of the backs, but all five primary ball carriers looked excellent. The backs are definitely running with a better pad level and footwork than last year, and it looks like they're more comfortable cutting back off the zone scheme than before.
Dan Hicks and Björn Werner are outstanding prospects and will continue to push the starters. Werner is probably the best DE prospect Florida State has signed in four or five years. Hicks doesn't have the closing speed of some past FSU DE's, but he has excellent size and "pop," as well as a lot of explosiveness over a short area.