TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There will be no easing into the season for the Florida State offensive line.
When the Seminoles’ front five takes the field against Alabama at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, they’ll line up across from a Crimson Tide defensive front that checked in at No. 3 on Athlon Sports’ rankings of the best defensive lines in college football.
They’ll also face that same list’s No. 5 (Miami) and No. 6 (NC State) units before the calendar even hits October, with games against Nos. 1 (Clemson) and 11 (Florida) coming later in the year.
By the end of the season, there likely won’t be a more battle-hardened offensive line in the country.
Fortunately for the Seminoles, the defensive line they match up with in practice every day can make a case to be the nation’s best, too.
Athlon rates FSU as its No. 4 defensive line, while ESPN placed the Seminoles behind only Clemson in its ACC rankings.
The Seminoles boast no less than four All-America candidates on the defensive line – Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas in the middle, and Brian Burns and Josh Sweat on the outside – and they also have a wave of talented reserves plenty capable of making an impact.
If they can hang with those guys in practice, then FSU’s linemen feel that they can hang with just about anyone.
“We’ve just been putting in the work, so we’ve got a lot of belief in ourselves,” senior right tackle Rick Leonard said. “Everyone’s grown. At every single position.”
That’s not to say it will be easy.
Despite losing both a defensive end and defensive tackle in the first 55 picks of the NFL draft, the Crimson Tide still presents a massive challenge.
Senior Da’Shawn Hand (6-4, 280) and junior Da’Ron Payne (6-2, 319) are expected to anchor the Tide’s front, but everyone on Alabama’s defensive line two-deep was a former four- or five-star recruit.
Then again, so were the likes of Nnadi, Christmas, Sweat and Burns.
So it’s not like the Seminoles will be in awe come Saturday.
“I think we might have a little more speed,” Leonard said. “But they’ve got (their version of) Nnadis and Christmases. But it’s the same all around, really. Everyone they recruited, we recruited. Everyone looks good.”
Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that some of the biggest endorsements of FSU’s offensive line has come from some of those defensive linemen.
Sweat, who finished with seven sacks a year ago, recently shared the two FSU linemen who have given him the most trouble during his time in Tallahassee.
The first, Roderick Johnson, is an obvious choice. Johnson was a multi-year All-American, two-time winner of the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy and is now in training camp with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
The second is Derrick Kelly.
Kelly, a former guard, is expected to start at left tackle on Saturday after being hampered by injuries for much of last season.
“He made a big return,” Sweat said. “Derrick, he’s definitely getting better. He looks pretty healthy to me. We battle at practice and I know he’s giving me his all.”
The Seminoles have other reasons for optimism.
Center Alec Eberle and guard Landon Dickerson are both back after injuries that either cost them most of the season (Dickerson, knee) or limited their effectiveness (Eberle, hips).
Those injuries, however, afforded the two more time to study and come to a fresh perspective they might not have gained otherwise.
“I think that, in a disguise, (the injury) was almost a blessing,” Eberle said. “Because I learned so much about football, I learned so much about my coaches and my team and what I needed to do to be the best player possible I can be. And Landon as well. We both grew up so much throughout this whole process.”
And the line has enjoyed some rare continuity over the last few weeks.
The Seminoles were forced into seven different line combinations last season, which made it difficult to develop much chemistry or cohesion.
And while there’s no way to predict injuries, the Seminoles seem to have stuck with the same group of five since trying Kelly at left tackle midway through camp.
According to Leonard, it’s making a difference.
“It helps a lot,” he said. “It helps a lot playing next to the same person and having the same center.
“We’re all on the same page. I’ve been working next to Cole (Minshew), and, working next to him all summer long, I know where he’s going to be. I know he’s going to be there when I need him. And that’s all the way down the line.”