With Florida State’s fall camp set to begin Tuesday, Seminoles.com is taking a position-by-position look at the 2017 FSU football team. Up next are the defensive backs.
Welcome back: Levonta Taylor (5-9, 169; So.), Derwin James (6-3, 211; RSo.), Tarvarus McFadden (6-2, 198; Jr.), Ermon Lane (6-3, 209; Sr.), Calvin Brewton (6-0, 186; Jr.), Carlos Becker III (6-2, 183; So.), A.J. Westbrook (6-0, 186; Jr.), Trey Marshall (6-0, 210; Sr.), Malique Jackson (6-0, 170; Sr.), Nate Andrews (6-0, 214; RSr.), Kyle Meyers (6-0, 168; So.)
Fresh faces: Stanford Samuels III (6-2, 170; Fr.), Cyrus Fagan (6-2, 180; Fr.), Hamsah Nasirildeen (6-4, 210; Fr.), Ontaria Wilson (6-0, 175; Fr.)
So long, farewell: Marquez White (25 tackles, 2 TFLs, two interceptions in 2016, graduated)
Since Jimbo Fisher took over at Florida State in 2010, there might not be another program in the country that has recruited defensive backs as well as the Seminoles.
There are nine former FSU defensive backs currently on NFL rosters, five of which were drafted in the first or second rounds, and likely more coming to join them in the next few years.
Tops on that list is Derwin James, the jack-of-all trades safety who Sports Illustrated last month named as the best player in college football. Never mind that he’s ahead of a reigning Heisman Trophy winner (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson) and hasn’t played since Week 2 of the 2016 season due to an injury.
James, in SI’s estimation, is the best player in the country because he’s as versatile as he is talented. From play to play, he could feasibly line up in nine of the 11 defensive positions (all but the interior line) and find a way to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
“James may be the only player in the country capable of lining up virtually everywhere on the defensive side of the ball,” SI wrote. “And (Fisher) might want to consider dialing up a running play for him or asking him to run a deep route.”
That idea may be a little far-fetched, but there’s little doubt James could handle it.
And he’s far from a one-man show. Also returning is cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, the junior who last year grabbed more interceptions – eight – than any Seminole not named Terrell Buckley. (That number tied for the national lead, as well as tied for second-most in school history during a single season.)
A finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, McFadden picked off Louisville’s Jackson, as well as three quarterbacks drafted in April: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Miami’s Brad Kaaya and Mississippi’s Chad Kelly.
“He’s one of the better corners in the nation,” former teammate Marquez White said. “And he’ll definitely be the best corner in this class coming out.”
Speaking of White, his old job opposite McFadden is one that the Seminoles will look to fill over the next few weeks.
Based on spring camp, sophomore Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers are leading the pack, and both are strong candidates for either the corner or “star” nickel back positions.
Meyers was a pleasant surprise in 2016, appearing in all 13 games and leading FSU’s freshman DBs with 17 tackles.
And Taylor, the nation’s former No. 1 cornerback recruit, was right behind him with 16 tackles in 12 appearances.
At 5-foot-9, Taylor said in the spring that he’s modeled his game after two FSU greats of similar stature: Greg Reid (2009-11) and Lamarcus Joyner (2010-13).
“He’s a very gifted corner,” Fisher said about Taylor. “He’s not a big guy, but he’s not a little guy. … I think he’s one of those little special guys that can play the game and has great instincts.”
Trey Marshall is the likely frontrunner to start opposite James at safety, although the hard-hitting senior has also played plenty at “star” and could slide down into that role as situations dictate.
Finally, the Seminoles got welcome news earlier this year when they learned that Nate Andrews had been granted a fifth-year of eligibility after missing most of last season with an injury.
Andrews, one of the few remaining contributors from FSU’s 2013 national championship team, is an option at safety, but don’t be surprised if he also locks down the “money” (sixth DB) job. FSU often uses five- and six-DB sets, and Andrews flourished in that role in 2013.
“We’re glad to have him,” Fisher said. “Because Nate has been a super player for us and, more important, a super guy.”
How quick will it click?
Florida State finished last season as one of the best pass defenses in the country, a feat made even more remarkable given the way the Seminoles started the season.
In their first eight games of 2016, a talented but young Seminole secondary, reeling from a season-ending injury to James, surrendered an average of 251.6 yards per game.
In the last five games, with the likes of McFadden, Meyers, Taylor and others getting more comfortable, that average took a dramatic dive to 168.9.
It should come as little surprise that FSU went 5-3 in those first eight games, and 5-0 in the ones that followed.
Like last year, the Seminoles are loaded in the secondary. But this year’s group has set its sights higher than last year’s achievements, and if they’re going to reach their goals, the secondary needs to meet its potential sooner rather than later.
No, none of Alabama, Miami or NC State – who FSU will play in the first month of the season – were elite passing offenses last year. But they’ll still make up what might be the toughest September of any team in the country, and a slip-up in any of those games could deal a serious blow to FSU’s College Football Playoff run before the season even heats up.
Fortunately, many of the players expected to contribute to this year’s group got their growing pains out of the way last season. And with James back in the fold, there’s plenty of reason for optimism in FSU’s DB room.