TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The recent script for the Florida State secondary has gone something like this: Lose a top defensive back to the NFL draft, then somehow come back with an even better pass defense than the year before.
Since coach Jimbo Fisher took over in 2010, the Seminoles have sent six defensive backs into the NFL draft, and have had at least one DB picked in every year since 2012.
That group includes one first-round pick (Xavier Rhodes, 2012), two second-rounders (Lamarcus Joyner, 2014; Ronald Darby, 2015) and two third-rounders (Terrence Brooks, 2014; P.J. Williams, 2015).
And in every year but 2014, the Seminoles plugged those holes and went on to allow fewer passing yards per game than the season before.
With former cornerback Jalen Ramsey a virtual lock to continue that trend in a few weeks, this year’s Seminoles are confident that they can hold up their end of the bargain.
“I feel like we’re still the most talented secondary in the country,” senior cornerback Marquez White said.
White may be right.
Even without Ramsey, perhaps FSU’s most NFL-ready defensive prospect in recent memory, the Seminoles are still loaded both at cornerback and safety.
That’s of course thanks to recruiting, where the Seminoles have signed at least one elite defensive back prospect in each of the last six years.
Some of those players, like Joyner and Darby, are now plying their trade in the NFL. Others, like sophomore Derwin James and junior Trey Marshall, look primed to be FSU’s next breakout stars.
And still more, like sophomores Tarvarus McFadden and Marcus Lewis, are waiting to make names for themselves after excelling at the high school level.
McFadden, a former five-star recruit from Fort Lauderdale, and Lewis are considered the frontrunners to fill Ramsey’s shoes at cornerback.
“Both of them, they’re dogs. They really want it,” James said. “The best man is going to win. I like what they’re doing, though. They’re not selfish with it. They’re helping each other with it.”
Mixed in with that young talent is plenty of experience in key spots, as well.
Senior safety Nate Andrews has appeared in all 41 games since his freshman year, and he’s one of a handful of remaining Seminoles to have played a key role on FSU’s 2013 national championship team.
And White brings 13 starts from last season, in which he allowed completions on only 32.1 percent of the passes thrown his way.
Even James, only a sophomore, played with the skill of a veteran a year ago and enters 2016 as FSU’s top returning tackler – to say nothing of the highlight-reel hits he laid on opponents throughout the year.
The freshman All-American is perhaps the secondary’s biggest reason for optimism, but Fisher said he’s looking for James to evolve from first-year role player to team leader this spring.
“He did a lot of things, but being a leader and playing, now that takes a burden on you,” Fisher said. “You’ve got to get used to that. That’s a heck of a role, but he’s done a great job in the offseason.”
Added James: “I’ve learned a lot. I’m actually helping other guys in the secondary. Like (defensive coordinator Charles) Kelly says, if you can teach it, you know it. It’s helping me a lot. The game is slowing down for me a lot.”
All of that is not to say that Ramsey won’t be missed.
He earned consensus All-America honors as a junior and there’s a growing buzz that he could be the first defensive back drafted No. 1 overall since 1956.
So replacing a player like Ramsey won’t be easy. If anything, practices may be a bit quieter with the infamous trash-talker no longer around.
“He’s one of those guys that lets you know he’s there,” Andrews said. “And now we may have ‘DJ’ (James) back there talking, but we don’t have that Jalen.
“But we’re fine. New guys have to come in and take on new roles. … Jalen was a great player, but we have new guys now that can play just as good as him.”
Whether FSU’s new-look secondary can reach that level remains to be seen. But history is on its side.
FSU’s Passing Yards Allowed Per Game (National Rank)/Drafted DBs
2010: 225.0 YPG, 71st/ none
2011: 192.31 YPG, 20th/ Mike Harris, sixth round in 2012
2012: 161.86, 1st/ Xavier Rhodes, first round in 2013
2013: 156.6, 1st/ Lamarcus Joyner, second round; Terrence Brooks, third round in 2014
2014: 226.8, 59th/ Ronald Darby, second round; P.J. Williams third round in 2015
2015: 191.6, 21st/ Jalen Ramsey, projected first round in 2016