TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – They’ve made interceptions, delivered hard hits and surprised quarterbacks with their blitzes off the edge.
They’ve had dozens of moments that might make an observer say, “Are these guys really just freshmen?”
Through a week of fall camp, all six of Florida State’s freshman defensive backs have done things that make it hard to heed Harlon Barnett’s words of caution.
“Don’t pump them up too much,” FSU’s defensive coordinator said. “Let’s see what they do.”
Easier said than done, Coach.
Florida State this year signed a group of defensive backs that might rate as highly as any in the nation.
Six blue-chip prospects, four of them prep All-Americans and two of them early-enrollees, who represent the next wave of secondary talent at a program whose lineage of defensive backs includes the likes of Deion Sanders, Jalen Ramsey, Derwin James and a host of All-Americans, Thorpe Award winners and first-round picks in between.
And if early signs are any indication, that new wave is breaking just over the horizon.
“I love the young guys, I’ll say that,” junior corner Stanford Samuels III said. “Those guys already have the ‘dog’ mentality. … I mean, they’ve come in working, and they’re out there making plays.”
Akeem Dent, a 6-foot-1, 182-pound cornerback from Pahokee, might be the headliner of the bunch.
One of Florida State’s top-rated signees for 2019, Dent is a two-time player of the year in talent-heavy Palm Beach County, played in the Under Armour Al-America Game in January and, even better, has been with the Seminoles since January.
“He will knock your head off,” Barnett said earlier this year. “And he plays hard.”
Same goes for Raymond Woodie III – the son of FSU assistant Raymond Woodie. The 6-foot, 198-pound Woodie did a little bit of everything in high school, contributing to nearby Florida High at safety, receiver, quarterback and kick returner.
Safety, though, is where Woodie most thrives. He earned a spot in the same All-America game as Dent and joined him in Tallahassee for the spring semester.
“Smart, intelligent football player,” FSU recruiting coordinator David Kelly said about Woodie on National Signing Day in February. “Going to be an outstanding football player in our program.”
Had the Seminoles stopped with those two, they’d have had a DB group that would make most coordinators around the country jealous.
But their rich class got even richer over the summer with the additions of Travis Jay, Jarvis Brownlee, Brendan Gant and Renardo Green.
Jay, a Madison, Fla., native following the path set by the likes of Jacobbi McDaniel and Chris Thompson, played both cornerback and quarterback for the Cowboys and led his team to back-to-back state championships. (And, just for good measure, he led Madison to a basketball state title, too.)
Gant, a hard-hitting safety from Lakeland, has already shown a willingness to lower his shoulder into crossing receivers, while Brownlee comes with the pedigree that comes with rising up through the Miami-area football circuit.
And Green, while maybe a little less heralded than his cohorts, still had four interceptions as a senior and picked the Seminoles over an offer from Ohio State.
Barnett had only had his full complement of defensive backs for two days when he spoke to reporters about them and, at that point, the Seminoles had yet to put on full pads.
But even then, he had already seen a lot to like.
“What they’ve shown thus far, (they’re) talented,” he said. “Very talented group.”
Head coach Willie Taggart echoed that sentiment.
“It’s been very impressive,” he said. “And I really think it’s helping push everybody else. They say iron sharpens iron, and I think our guys are really doing that now.”
And that might turn out to be this group’s biggest contribution. At least for 2019.
Because, in reality, it’s unlikely that all six will have a major, on-field impact this season. A loaded secondary that features veterans such as Samuels, Asante Samuel Jr., Levonta Taylor, Hamsah Nasirildeen and Kyle Meyers will make that nearly impossible.
But that doesn’t mean that the freshmen can’t make a big difference on the competition in practice. They already have, and they’ve done it all over the field.
In just one week, Dent has taken reps as an extra cornerback with the first-team defense. Jay has fielded punts alongside veterans D.J. Matthews and Keyshawn Helton.
And the rest of the bunch has consistently popped up in sub packages among more experienced players in the second- and third-team units.
Whether it’s been spoken aloud or not, the message to FSU’s veterans is clear: Perform in practice, or risk losing time to a newcomer.
It’s a challenge that everyone is embracing.
“I expect the competition level to be as high as it’s ever been,” Samuels said. “…It’s no ‘I was tired’ (after losing a rep). You’ve got a backup if you’re tired. You are going to compete at the highest level the whole time you’re out there.”
Added Taylor: “Now that they’re coming in and they’re here, everybody’s taking their game to another level.”
“Nobody wants to be on the bench.”