TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With Florida State’s fall camp set to begin next week, Seminoles.com is taking a position-by-position look at the 2017 FSU football team. Up next is the defensive line.
Welcome back: DEs: Josh Sweat (6-4, 250; Jr.), Janarius Robinson (6-5, 249; RFr.), Jalen Wilkerson (6-4, 273; RSo.), Brian Burns (6-5, 218; So.), DTs: Arthur Williams (6-4, 327; RJr.), Cedric Wood (6-3, 321; RFr.), Fredrick Jones (6-3, 298; RJr.), Adam Torres (6-4, 281; RJr.), Darvin Taylor II (6-3, 304; RSo.), Demarcus Christmas (6-4, 308; RJr.), Derrick Nnadi (6-1, 312; Sr.), Walvenski Aime (6-5, 300; Jr.
Fresh faces: DEs: Joshua Kaindoh (6-6, 250; Fr.), Tre Lawson (6-6, 240; Fr.), DTs: Marvin Wilson (6-4, 329; Fr.), Cory Durden (6-4, 316; Fr.), Ja’len Parks (6-3, 288; Fr.)
So long, farewell: Keith Bryant (left team), Justin Shanks (three tackles in 2016, graduated), DeMarcus Walker (68 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 16 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one blocked PAT in 2016, graduated)
First the not-so-good news: Florida State has massive shoes to fill after losing All-America defensive end DeMarcus Walker to graduation and the NFL. But here’s the very good news: Thanks to virtually unmatched efforts on the recruiting trail over the past few years, the Seminoles have a wealth of riches on the defensive line, both at end and tackle. Expecting any player to singlehandedly replace Walker’s production may not be fair – he might have been the best pass-rusher in the country last year – but the Seminoles have so many talented players in the fold that the blow from Walker’s departure should be softened considerably. And if everyone reaches their potential, FSU could have an even better defensive front than the one that led the country in sacks per game a year ago.
That starts in the middle, where tackles Derrick Nnadi (49 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 6 sacks) and Demarcus Christmas (21 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 sacks) form one of the most formidable duos in the nation. Already a natural run-stuffer at 6-1, 312 pounds, Nnadi last year also became a force as a pass-rusher and finished with a career-best six sacks to show for his efforts. And Christmas proved an effective partner, using the wingspan that accompanies his 6-foot-4 frame to break up five passes – most among FSU’s d-linemen.
Those two are entering their second season starting next to each other.
“(Nnadi) is just now realizing how good he is,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He’s going to be a huge part of what we do.”
At defensive end, the Seminoles boast two of the most promising pass-rushers in the ACC, both of whom enjoyed strong finishes to the 2016 season. Josh Sweat (41 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 7 sacks), the former No. 1 recruit in the nation, is back for his junior year after posting 4.5 sacks in FSU’s final three games.
And sophomore Brian Burns (24 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks) will look to build on a freshman year in which he registered 9.5 sacks – second-most on the team and eighth nationally among returning players this season.
Sweat and Burns will be joined by Jalen Wilkerson (three tackles), a converted tight end who impressed during the spring, and occasionally by Jacob Pugh (43 tackles, 6 TFLs, 4 sacks), the hybrid linebacker who earned the Hinesman Award as the most dominant player of spring camp.
“He’s improving a lot,” Nnadi said about Wilkerson during the spring. “His freshman year, when he first got here, there were little ups and downs. But he’s gradually getting better every day.”
When it comes to defensive linemen, the more, the merrier. And Florida State has plenty of big bodies to bolster its rotation, especially in the middle. Juniors Fredrick Jones (15 tackles, 1 TFL) and Walvenski Aime (17 tackles) are more than capable as first-choice reserves, and each showed flashes a year ago that could lead to more playing time this fall – see Jones disruptive outburst at USF and Aime’s five-tackle performance at Louisville.
Behind those two, FSU has yet another wave in the form of redshirt sophomore Darvin Taylor and redshirt freshman Cedric Wood.
Finally, no tour of FSU’s defensive line would be complete without mentioning the incoming freshmen, a group of five blue-chip prospects pegged by many pundits as the best haul in the country.
Of the freshmen, prep All-Americans Joshua Kaindoh (41 tackles, 7.5 sacks as a high school senior) and Marvin Wilson (19 TFLs, nine sacks) seem the most likely to push for early playing time.
How do all the pieces fit together?
Florida State’s defensive linemen have an issue usually reserved for quarterbacks and running backs: They can’t all play at the same time.
Not that ends coach Brad Lawing and tackles coach Odell Haggins are going to complain.
Still, it will be interesting to see how the two coaches decide to best employ their embarrassment of riches.
For example, will Lawing play Sweat and Burns across from each other, or will the two rotate while Wilkerson or Pugh plays the other side? And how exactly does Pugh fit in? He was the most consistently praised player of spring practice, but he may be as valuable to the linebacker group as he is to defensive ends.
Things are a little clearer in the middle, but beyond Nnadi and Christmas, Haggins will have to navigate a deep group of reserves looking to see the field.
All that depth should lead to an intense competition, both in fall camp and beyond. And that can mean nothing but good things for FSU’s defense.