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Opponent Breakdown: Florida State Defense

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Louisville fans aren’t the only people unhappy with their team’s defensive coordinator.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Kickoff-Alabama vs Florida State John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The last two weeks have been really interesting to me because no fan base has been very happy with at least one coach on all three staffs. Steve Addazio has more than worn out his welcome at Boston College while Peter Sirmon has drawn the ire of Cards fans. Charles Kelly is in the same boat for Nole fans. Kelly only had a six game interim stint as a defensive coordinator at a FBS school before Jimbo Fisher promoted him. Fans were very underwhelmed with the hire and that’s continued for 4 years. He’s had a lot of talent at his disposal and hasn’t really done too great with it over his tenure.

One of the areas that has really struggled under Kelly is the defensive line. 2016 was a great year for the group with DeMarcus Walker racking up awards and accolades. Brian Burns and Josh Sweat also had very good years rushing the passer. Throw in Derrick Nnadi’s strong play at defensive tackle and most expected the line to absorb the loss of Walker and still be a strong points. That hasn’t happened at all. FSU has almost no pass rush halfway through the season.

Burns and Sweat combined for 16.5 sacks last year so everyone assumed that the two former five stars would put up big numbers this year. It just hasn’t happened. Burns has had some success getting around the edge, but he seems to always be a step late. Sweat has always been an up and down player and he looks to have regressed back to some issues he had in his first year. He just kind of disappears at times. Sweat doesn’t bend around the edge like most guys and he’s also not a guy that can overpower a tackle like others. These two guys are what you dream for if you’re a coach but they just haven’t delivered as expected so far.

Tackle has been a bright spot for the Noles. Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas are veteran guys that know how to eat up blocks and make plays. Half of their tackles this year have been credited as “stuffs” (Run plays stopped for zero or negative yards). These guys are hard to move and they get off blocks pretty well on interior runs. Nnadi is also very good at making those impact plays behind the line. Those plays get offenses off schedule and put the defense at an advantage. This will be another test for Robbie Bell and the guards for Louisville. They had some rough patches against BC so it’ll be something to keep an eye on.

Florida State is playing solid defense this year. I’d imagine plenty of fans of middle of the pack teams would kill for this level of play but those teams don’t have the talent that FSU has. When you’re three starting linebackers have combined for 5 total negative plays it actually makes you wonder how they’re playing solid football. You just expect more and it’s hard to tell if it’s more on the scheme or if guys just aren’t getting it done.

Ro’Derrick Hoskins is a veteran in the middle for the Noles and he’s bracketed by two very fast and athletic guys in Matthew Thomas and Jacob Pugh. Thomas runs like a safety and can really chase down plays from the weak side. Hoskins is a big guy and a solid player. He doesn’t really do anything that wows you but I think that leadership is important at that spot. Pugh is the most interesting player to me. Last year they would move DeMarcus Walker down to tackle in passing situations and bring in Burns at end. I think they could look to do that with Sweat and Pugh, respectively this year. Pugh has played as a rush end and Sweat is big enough to play inside. Throw in the fact that UofL throws the ball so much and it makes sense to get your best pass rushers on the field.

The secondary has been somewhat of a letdown this season. The defense as a whole has not made early enough big plays but the other units are at least stopping the run well. FSU’s pass defense has left a lot to be desired but a good amount of their issues have to do with the scheme. There are times where they are playing with a lot of cushion on third and medium. They press at times but they don’t bring enough pressure and the quarterback has time to make an accurate throw. Sound familiar? FSU hasn’t been beaten on deep throws as much as Louisville but they’ve had some similar issues.

Tarvarus McFadden and Levonta Taylor are listed as the starters at corner but they will also play true freshmen Stanford Samuels opposite McFadden. McFadden led the country in interceptions last year but he hasn’t had the same success this year. Teams went to the other side some early this year with Samuels being so green but as the year has progressed, McFadden has been thrown at more and more. He’s also been beaten a few times. Taylor is a former five star that waited his time to get on the field. I personally like the way he plays but he seems to be the third option at times.

FSU is big in the secondary with Taylor being the only corner under 6-2 and the only player at all under 6-0. Kyle Meyers mans the Star position for the Noles and he’s been super impressive. Meyers is a high energy guy that always seems to be around the ball. He can tackle and he’s solid in coverage. UofL loves the middle of the field so he will be key in taking away those crossing routes they run. Trey Marshall is back at strong safety. He’s the enforcer of the group. He’s the most likely guy to make a huge hit and force a fumble or make a huge hit and get kicked out of the game.

The best defensive player in the country will line up at free safety in Derwin James. James is a freakishly athletic player that blends size, quickness, and short area speed to be somewhat of a “defensive weapon”. Think Jaylen Samuels from NC State just on defense. Charles Kelly will line him up as a deep safety. He will cover the slot. He will line up at middle linebacker. He’ll rush off the edge. He will even be returning kicks. He does it all.

I think Kelly will utilize James to do exactly what FSU couldn’t do last year. Containing Lamar Jackson. James can spy Lamar or he can be used as a rush end on the left side of the defense. That would allow him to keep Lamar from running or at least running for long runs as a spy. It would also put him rushing into Lamar’s right side in hopes that he would have to bail left which is harder to do. FSU has the luxury of having Ermon Lane and AJ Westbrook at safety also. Both of those guys have a ton of game experience which allows James to truly move down to linebacker and there be a much smaller drop off than most teams would have.

Louisville can’t rely on their defense like they could in last year’s game. They dominated in all three phases and Lamar had a monster game. The offense is too pass heavy this year and that allows a team like FSU to play in their nickel or dime sets more. That means they have way more speed on the field. Kelly should look to bring pressure to get Lamar uncomfortable and utilize the speed he has to contain him. Louisville looked like a completely different team in the FSU game last year. The energy level was through the roof. They haven’t been able to replicate that since. They’ll need to figure out how to get that back if they plan on hitting 63 points again.