Nov. 8, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — There are many reasons why Florida State was able to turn a three-game losing streak into a four-game run that has the Seminoles aiming for their fifth victory in a row this Saturday when Miami comes to town.
A now-healthy EJ Manuel, improved running game and string of subpar opponents (Duke, Maryland, NC State and Boston College are a combined 5-17 in Atlantic Coast Conference games this season) are all catalysts for four consecutive wins.
But against a not-to-be-overlooked and athletic Miami team, the Seminoles will have to rely on arguably the biggest spark in their dash to bowl-game eligibility: the defensive line.
Seminoles.com Senior Writer
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Manuel may have bounced back from his shoulder injury, Devonta Freeman and a re-tooled offensive line may have spearheaded the rejuvenated ground-game and this year’s league bottom-dwellers may have coincidentally played against FSU in consecutive weeks but in each of the four wins the defensive line has brought pressure and punishment to opposing backfields.
“That’s probably one of the strongest parts of our team,” Manuel said. “They have done a great job.”
Particularly in the last four games.
After giving up an average total of 381.3 yards per game in losses to Oklahoma, Clemson and Wake Forest, the FSU defense has allowed just 248.3 yards per game during the winning streak. Credit the linebackers — led by stellar play from senior Nigel Bradham — and the secondary with doing their respective jobs but it has been the big men up front that have made their defensive teammates’ responsibilities that much easier.
If a defense is only as good as its front line, looking at the ‘Noles’ ability to stuff the run proves that point. FSU allowed an average of 112.7 yards rushing during its three-game skid but has given up just 63.0 on the ground since.
“I think it’s just over the years developing and getting better and better,” said starting defensive tackle Everett Dawkins, when asked about his position group’s ever-improving play. “Definitely the size helps. You can look at it and every defensive tackle is about 300 pounds. We are just playing more physical.”
The physicality with which the Seminoles boast in the defensive trenches coincides with successful recruiting. Over the last two years, FSU’s coaches have signed Anthony McCloud, Bjoern Werner, Cornelius Carradine and Timmy Jernigan — each of whom are either starters or what could — for the sake of argument — be considered as “1B” on the defensive-line depth chart.
McCloud and Jernigan have captured ACC Defensive Linemen of the Week honors in consecutive weeks and Werner has seen his reputation and statistical output skyrocket as a sophomore. That list of student-athletes doesn’t even contain All-American Brandon Jenkins, who was brought in with the 2009 signing class.
“We hit the sleds so much it’s ridiculous and now you can see it paying off with double teams and stopping the run.” Dawkins said.
For as good as the entire defensive line has been over the past four games, Werner and Jernigan have demanded the spotlight.
Werner’s “instinctive” (as coach Jimbo Fisher called it this week) interception during the Boston College game last Thursday only added to his growing legend and further exemplified the burgeoning all-around talent that the Berlin-born German possesses.
And as for Jernigan — as ESPN’s commentators already mentioned during the national broadcast of FSU’s game against the Eagles — the true freshman is already being talked about as an NFL-bound prospect and he hasn’t even played 10 games of college football yet.
Like Werner, Jernigan has a habit of making even the most difficult of plays look routine thanks to a motor that never quits.
“Since camp started he has just progressed a lot,” Dawkins said. “He’s just an athlete all the way around. He’s not your typical freshman. He’s big, he’s strong and fast already.”
Jernigan’s emergence and the overall play of the line has FSU ranked No. 3 nationally in run defense and No. 4 in total defense.
Asked last week if he thought that the defensive line could be this good this year, Fisher didn’t hesitate with his one-word answer. “Yes,” Fisher simply stated, before elaborating on his response.
“You have the ability. You have size, speed, power and athleticism and now you’ve got some experience. That’s why they were recruited. There are guys up there that will have a shot to make some money and have a career and keep playing well. But I did think that we would be pretty good up front and with some depth.”