TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The question irritated Jimbo Fisher. The Florida State coach usually gives an answer and moves on, but one query during the program’s media day session on Sunday rankled him. It was about defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and his 3.5 sacks last season. Fisher’s inquisitor seemed to imply Edwards was a disappointment last fall. Fisher couldn’t let that stand.
“Sacks don’t equate to greatness,” Fisher said. “You’d better go watch that film. You watch that film? That guy’s a heck of a football player. You watch when the draft comes around where he’s at.”
Fisher even suggested one particular play to watch should one want to truly understand why the Seminoles consider Edwards so important. Late in January’s BCS title game, Auburn ran a zone read. Edwards was the unblocked man on the end of the line being read by Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall.
Fisher wants us to watch. So, let’s watch. (Start clip at 8:45 mark.)
You just saw what Fisher sees: A 6-foot-3, 300-pound magic bullet who can slow down the trickiest brand of spread offense. Offenses like Auburn’s and Oregon’s don’t dominate because of their passing prowess. They dominate because they scatter players the entire width of the field -- forcing defenses to do the same -- and then run the ball between the tackles against less opposition. Even better, they outnumber their opponents in the box by subtracting one defender.
That one is the lineman who those offenses choose to read. If everyone else is blocked, he becomes the equivalent of the lone defender in a two-on-one break in basketball. The defender is helpless if the man with the ball chooses correctly when deciding to give the ball away or keep it, unless that defender is quick and agile enough to recover once the ballhandler makes his choice. A player whose weight fluctuates between 297 and 303 pounds -- Edwards said he weighed 297 or 298 that night -- should not be athletic enough to blow up the play.
Except Edwards is.
On that play, which took place with 4:31 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Seminoles leading 24-21, the Tigers use a zone-blocking scheme that takes care of most of Florida State’s front seven. Marshall places the ball in the gut of tailback Tre Mason. Marshall sees the blockers engaged and a lot of bodies in the area where Mason is headed on the right. On the left, there is only Edwards to beat.
So, Marshall yanks the ball back and moves left. Mason carries out his fake, fooling the engaged defensive linemen (and the camera operator for a moment). Meanwhile, Edwards breaks down like a gunner on a punt coverage team approaching the return man. Marshall should feel confident in this situation. He averaged 6.2 yards a carry in 2013. If receiver Marcus Davis seals off his man, Marshall is gaining at least 10 yards, and probably a lot more.
Marshall takes a stutter step at the left hash mark to freeze Edwards, but Edwards calls Marshall’s bluff and steps toward him. Marshall then tries to outrun Edwards to the corner, but it’s too late. Edwards grabs Marshall’s right hand with his own right hand. Then Edwards grabs Marshall’s right tricep with his left hand, yanking the quarterback into his grasp and riding him out of bounds for a two-yard loss.
That’s the magic of Edwards. He’s big enough to play defensive tackle, strong enough to play anywhere on the line and fast enough to hunt down a cornerback-turned-quarterback in space. “If we drop him off into coverage in some of our fire zone stuff,” defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said, “he can go and cover.”
Three-hundred pounders aren’t supposed to be able to do that, but they also aren’t supposed to be able to do what Florida State offensive tackle Cam Erving once saw Edwards do. “He can stand in a full uniform -- shoulder pads, thigh pads, knee pads, helmet -- and do a backflip,” Erving said. Though no video exists of the full-gear backflip -- Edwards said it happened near the end of his freshman season -- Edwards did show off his gymnastics skills for WFAA-TV’s cameras as a junior and senior at Ryan High in Denton, Texas, an exurb of Dallas.
His daddy can backflip, too. Mario Edwards Sr. flipped as a Florida State cornerback in the late 1990s and a Dallas Cowboys player in the early 2000s. The elder Edwards, who joined the Seminoles staff in ‘12 as the director of player development, can still flip. “He doesn’t do it much,” the younger Edwards said. “His back is not what it once was.”
The younger Edwards’ back remains fine despite carrying about 300 pounds since his time as the nation’s top-ranked recruit. His weight has been a popular topic on message boards and in comments sections, but Fisher and Edwards insist the weight doesn’t matter as long as Edwards doesn’t lose speed. He hasn’t. During the offseason, he said GPS technology used by the Seminoles clocked him at 18.8 miles per hour. By comparison, ESPN’s “Sport Science” has clocked Adrian Peterson’s top speed at 21.6 mph. So, while Edwards won’t beat a top back or receiver in a footrace, he has a great chance of catching them if they take time to deviate from their course even a little. Edwards reminds Fisher of former LSU defensive end Marcus Spears, who played as a 4-3 defensive end at 300 pounds and sported the same kind of -- in scouting parlance -- “huge bubble” that gives Edwards so much heft and explosiveness.
One reason that press conference question so annoyed Fisher is that Florida State’s defense doesn’t always ask Edwards to act like a traditional 4-3 defensive end. He isn’t always blazing off the edge on passing downs -- though Edwards can certainly play that role. “He’ll line up in a nine [technique (outside the tight end)] and he’ll be on me in a five (the tackle’s outside eye) like this,” Erving said, before snapping his fingers.
Sometimes, however, Edwards’ role is more like a 3-4 defensive end, which is not conducive to stat padding, but is conducive to wrecking offenses. He is asked to clog the B (between tackle and guard) and C (between tackle and tight end) gaps and read the action of the play. He did this for much of the Auburn game. When he did well, he created a logjam that Auburn’s backs couldn’t navigate. When Edwards allowed offensive tackle Greg Robinson to get under him, Edwards was driven back, and the backs found room. Like most defensive ends, Edwards often must set the edge, using his strength to set a perimeter against the run game. This does not lead to many tackles for the edge setter, who typically controls the C gap while funneling the action toward waiting teammates. This might be Edwards’ most important role, because he is uniquely suited to do it. “That's why those front guys that are big and agile are so much more critical now than they’ve ever been,” Fisher said. “Everything is spread out, so they’re getting isolated.”
Even if he hadn’t wound up being such an important cog in the defense, Edwards still would have played a key role in Florida State’s current place in the college football universe. Edwards befriended Jameis Winston early in the recruiting process, and once the pair figured out they wanted to play together at Florida State, they helped recruit much of the class of 2012. The Edwards-Winston tandem assisted Florida State's coaches in landing future contributors such as defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerback Ronald Darby. “Jameis always said, ‘Dad, if you give me a defense, I’m going to win,’” said Winston’s father, Antonor. “I think they played a major part in that class.”
They also played a major part in the Seminoles’ national title. Still, while Winston’s contributions were apparent to even the least football-savvy viewer, Edwards’ were not always so obvious. As the season went on, the Auburn game proved to Edwards and his teammates that he can dominate even against a great offensive line. “He played his behind off. That was just the tip of the iceberg for him,” Erving said. “He realized his potential in that game. It was a come to Jesus for him. And this offseason, I’ve seen him work harder than I’ve ever seen him work before.”
Edwards will be the first to admit that video from that game also shows the areas in which he still must work. On occasion, Robinson or a double-team of Robinson and left guard Alex Kozan put Edwards on skates, pushing Edwards deep into the second level. However, that line was one of the best in the nation, and Robinson was the second overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. That’s why this first-quarter play in which Edwards pancakes Robinson is so impressive. (Start clip at 1:56 mark.)
The Auburn game also shows the improvement Edwards made as last season progressed. Against Miami on Nov. 2, Edwards looked tentative at times. He still made some incredible plays, none better than the one where he fought through blocks from right tackle Branden Linder and center Shane McDermott and hunted down quarterback Shane Morris. (Start clip at 2:57 mark.)
But Edwards didn’t always appear to know where he was supposed to be. The reason, according to him? Sometimes he didn’t. So, while Fisher has no problem with Edwards’ sack total from 2013, Edwards does. Based on his personal film study, Edwards believes he should have had 10 sacks last year, but he missed on 6.5 for a variety of reasons. “It was just because I didn’t know the playbook, I was out of position, I was tired, I wasn’t dominating, I wasn’t consistent,” Edwards said. “And those are things that I can control.”
If Edwards controls all those factors this fall, he’ll alter offensive gameplans during the week and alter games on Saturdays. He may not post the sack numbers he or anyone else wants, but that won’t make opposing offensive lines feel any better about facing him. “I’m dreading it for the guys who have to play him this year,” Erving said. “I’m hating it for them.”