After Mark Stoops left his role as Florida State's defensive coordinator to become Kentucky's head coach last November, and after seven Seminoles defenders were selected in the 2013 NFL draft, it only made sense to assume the 'Noles' defense would take a step back this season. It takes time for players and coaches to adjust to different roles and schemes, and new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who came over from Alabama, was expected to experience some growing pains with his largely inexperienced group.
Since Florida State's season opener against Pittsburgh on Sept. 2, however, in which the team forced two turnovers and held the Panthers to 16 points, the defense has flourished.
This is not the same unit as last year, but that’s precisely the point; it’s not trying to be. Teams often get lost trying to replicate a previous model rather than winning with what they’ve got. Pruitt focused on making sure this 'Noles' defense established its own identity. Coming from 'Bama, where he coached defensive backs like Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner and Mark Barron, Pruitt has allowed Florida State's players to embrace what made them such highly touted recruits in the first place.
“We have our responsibilities, but it’s not overwhelming,” said sophomore defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. “He just lets us go and be ball players.”
Through Florida State's 7-0 start, that philosophy has worked out. The Seminoles already have 14 turnovers gained (they had 21 in 14 games last year) and are limiting foes to just 13 points a game, fourth nationally. With ultra-athletic players like cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, Pruitt is able to vary his looks and blitzes to keep opposing teams off balance.
“We’re keeping great leverage on the ball,” head coach Jimbo Fisher said during this week's ACC teleconference. “We’re rallying to it and we’re not having a lot of eye violations. We’re seeing the ball when it’s thrown to make plays. We’re tackling in bunches and being able to strip the ball. We’re just playing with a lot of confidence right now. It’s critical. The more confidence you play with, the more good things happen.”
In the Seminoles' 51-14 rout of Clemson on Oct. 19, most national attention was paid to quarterback Jameis Winston, who passed for 444 yards and three touchdowns. But the defense was equally impressive: It forced Clemson to turn the ball over a season-high four times.
It might not show up in the box score, but the defense has quietly gelled from week to week. Entering this Saturday's showdown with 7-0 Miami, it's a primary reason why Florida State has looked nearly unbeatable to date.
“Each time our defense can be really good and go out there and take care of business that makes it a lot easier for [the offense],” said senior safety Terrence Brooks, who has two interceptions and two forced fumbles this season. “Any time we can get them the ball back it’s definitely a good thing. Having our defense stopping teams quickly, that gets our offense good field position and lets them score much more easily.”
Florida State will face a challenge this week slowing Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson, who rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns in last week's victory over Wake Forest. But Johnson has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry against ranked teams throughout his career, and the Seminoles' front is embracing the task at hand.
“Like any team you stop them from doing what they like to do,” Edwards said. “Miami likes to run. If we can stop the run and make them one-dimensional, it plays into our favor.”
If Florida State hopes to continue its unbeaten season and its pursuit of a national title, it will need more than Winston, backs Devonta Freeman and Karlos Williams and wide receivers Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin. It will need its defense -- which has been every bit as good as its star-studded 2012 group -- to continue playing beyond its years.
• Miami RB Dallas Crawford: Johnson is the unquestioned headliner of Miami's backfield. He has rushed for 823 yards on the season and is averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He's not going to sneak up on anybody.
That’s what makes Crawford’s role so important.
The sophomore from Fort Myers, Fla., has been extremely productive in backup duty, and he rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns -- including the game-winner -- in a come-from-behind 27-23 win over North Carolina on Oct. 17. To keep pace with Florida State, the 'Canes may need him to break a few long runs on limited carries this Saturday.
• Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey: A five-star recruit in the class of 2013, according to Rivals.com, Ramsey started Florida State’s opener at Pittsburgh at cornerback. He started at safety a few weeks later at Boston College, and he seems to be gaining confidence by the day.
“He’s been able to watch the older guys and take the mental reps and physical reps and really take advantage of those,” Brooks said. “He’s very comfortable with the defense, and he’s aligned himself to it -- he’s been coachable -- and that’s been one of the biggest reasons he’s been successful.”
The Seminoles' talented secondary allows Ramsey to take risks other freshmen typically aren't afforded. He has 29 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a sack in 2013, and he’s a player to watch if Miami quarterback Stephen Morris attempts to air it out against the ‘Noles.
• Powell Latimer, Warchant.com: “The Seminoles are back because of Jimbo Fisher's recruiting hauls, and that constant flow of talent isn't stopping any time soon. If you stock up on enough good players, you can be better even when you're replacing 11 draft picks like Florida State is this season. Top-level talent makes a program, but the Seminoles are true title contenders this season because of Jameis Winston and his mental strength. Everyone's got talent, but Winston's mental strength trickles down to the rest of the team. That's the best argument for Florida State's official return -- and the biggest reason why folks think FSU will avoid a trap loss this season. Anything less than a top-five finish would be a disappointment to the fan base and the national media at this point."
• Matt Porter, Palm Beach Post: "As it reestablishes itself as a national power, Miami will get every team’s best shot, and it certainly received that from North Carolina and Wake Forest. UNC has an excellent passing game Miami struggled to cover, and four turnovers hurt the ‘Canes. They also lost Duke Johnson and [wide receiver] Phillip Dorsett that game. Wake also has a strong air attack, and Morris struggled again. I’m not sure they have it in them to play a perfect game, which is why it’s hard to expect them to hang with the ‘Noles."
The extra point
Miami has squeaked by over the past three weeks, and it's hard to know exactly what to make of this year's Hurricanes. Are they a team worthy of a top-10 ranking? Or is their 7-0 record a mirage?
Saturday's game against Florida State should provide an answer. The Seminoles are favored by 22 points, an almost unheard of line for a game between the third- and seventh-ranked teams in the nation. That said, the line could say more about the ‘Noles' dominance than the ‘Canes' shortcomings.
Florida State is one of the most complete teams in college football, and if Wake Forest was able to move the ball on the Hurricanes, the Seminoles shouldn’t have any trouble. The 'Noles likely won’t wear down against Miami’s rushing attack like the Demon Deacons did last weekend.
Miami deserves credit for all that it's accomplished this season, but expect Florida State to roll in Tallahassee. [si_video id="video_3AE0A686-85BE-E1C8-9CD7-14F6DD41E39F" height="470"]