November 28, 2013

Versatility starting to show through for FSU defense in recent hot streak

A few times this season, Lamarcus Joyner has noticed a bit of extra size in the secondary.

"Sometimes I'm running deep thirds and I see those guys in the flats, like, 'Is that Mario Edwards in the flat?'" Joyner said. "It's fun to watch us do a lot of different things with different guys."

That kind of versatility is exactly what Florida State's defense under Jeremy Pruitt was supposed to me. And as the season has progressed, the Seminoles have more and more allowed their best players to stay on the field and do more.

"We've got a lot of great athletes that can do a lot of things," defensive back P.J. Williams said. "That can pass rush, drop into coverage, some big guys that are real athletic. And us being able to play a lot of positions, move inside and go back to the safety position. So that says a lot about our defense that we can do a lot."

Early in the season, FSU substituted liberally. Run-defense specialists like Dan Hicks started the first four games at defensive end and rotated in and out with players like Christian Jones for passing downs. FSU rotated between a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive front depending on the package.

Five games into the season, that strategy changed. Jones was moved to a hybrid defensive end/strongside linebacker position. The shift took FSU's defense to another level.

Instead of subbing in players to shift between 3-4 and 4-3, FSU could change its front without changing its players. Jimbo Fisher said it's not just Jones, but a collection of players learning all parts of the system and the different roles they could play.

"The reason is because they're learning the defense and they're learning their position," Fisher said. "So 'Ok I can learn other things.' And allow them to be much more multiple in what they're doing."

Multiple players echoed Fisher's statements, saying they've become much more comfortable with

The effects have been noticeable. Jones switched to defensive end after the Boston College game. Before the switch, FSU was allowing 3.7 yards per carry. In the seven games since, FSU is allowing 2.8 yards per carry. FSU has also almost doubled in sacks per game and interceptions per game since switching Jones to the end and leaving the best 11 players on the field, no matter the situation.

"That's what our coaches are doing with all the players," safety Terrence Brooks said. "They're making sure they're crosstraining in other positions so if something happens those guys can be plugged in. They don't have to change people too much to run a certain scheme or certain play. They can just do what they want to do. And I feel like that's why we're doing so well too."

The versatility isn't just limited to Jones, and it's made FSU's defense hard to read for opposing quarterbacks. Nobody knows that more than Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, who saw his quarterbacks throw six interceptions against FSU in a 59-3 loss.

"I think that's one thing that is probably the toughest on a quarterback," Grobe said. "On one hand you just force the ball trying to make plays, and get balls into tight spaces, but at times people just show up and you don't expect them to be there and it's usually because they're disguising coverages well."

Those types of results from the defensive side are what Pruitt's defense was billed as and what the veteran players spent all preseason raving about. They're happy to see the transition as FSU's defense is on pace to go down as one of the best in school history - the Seminoles lead the country in interceptions and defensive touchdowns and have more than 500 yards of interception returns. Pruitt, in his first year as defensive coordinator, is a nominee for the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in college football.

"It was a totally new system," Joyner said. "You have to get confidence and believe in it. We had to trust it."

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