ACC: Chris Casher

It's no secret that the strength of Clemson's team this season figures to be its defensive line. And, of course, there are plenty of numbers to underscore the Tigers' ferociousness up front.
  • The ACC returns 13 players who had at least 10 tackles for loss last season. Five of them play for Clemson.
  • Vic Beasley had 23 TFLs vs. teams from BCS-AQ conferences last season. No other returning ACC player had more than 12.
  • Clemson's defense recorded a tackle in the backfield once every 7.8 plays last season against AQ teams.
  • The Tigers didn't rely on the blitz either. When rushing four or fewer, Clemson recorded a sack every 11.1 passing attempts last season, the second-lowest rate in the league.

In other words, the Tigers are pretty good up front. But digging into those numbers also uncovered a few other interesting tidbits about ACC defensive fronts. Normally we like to compose a nice narrative around one or two key stats, but for the purposes of this post, we're going a little more free-flowing. Here's a bit of what we found:

• Yes, Clemson was exceptional when it came to defensive fronts in 2013, but so was the rest of the ACC. (Or, perhaps, if you're a pessimist, the O lines around the league were particularly bad.)

Of all teams to play at least eight games vs. AQ conference schools, Clemson had the best rate of TFLs, recording one every 7.8 plays. But, of the top 18 teams in plays-per-TFL last year, seven now play in the ACC. Here's the list:

1. Clemson (7.8)
3. Louisville (8.5)
4. Virginia Tech (8.7)
10. Virginia (9.5)
15. Syracuse (9.8)
17. Florida State (10.1)
18. NC State (10.4)

• Looking at that list, it's worth noting Louisville, Syracuse and Florida State all lost key players from last season's defensive lines to the NFL.

• Speaking of key defensive linemen moving on to the NFL, few teams figure to suffer quite as much from the loss of a key starter this season than Pitt.

How big was Aaron Donald's contribution to the Panthers' defense? He had 21 TFLs against AQ conference teams, which accounted for a whopping 43 percent of the team's total.

Moreover, Pitt relied more on its four-man rush, led by Donald, than any other team in the ACC. A whopping 92 percent of Pitt's sacks in 2013 came with just a four-man rush, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

• The flip side of that coin is Virginia, where the D-line figures to get plenty of credit (and should be even deeper this year), but it was the blitz that really carried the Hoos. Nearly half of all of dropbacks by Virginia's opponents last season were countered with a blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and 71 percent of the Cavaliers' sacks came when rushing five or more defenders.

• Defensive coordinators often talk about how the secondary can't flourish without a strong defensive front and vice versa, making it something of a chicken-or-egg discussion, but it's notable that of the top ACC defensive fronts (based on plays/TFL) in AQ-conference games, only Virginia Tech had a highly rated secondary. The Hokies ranked No. 2 in the ACC and No. 17 nationally in yards-per-attempt vs. AQ teams last year. The rest of the top 5 ACC lines were far worse: Clemson (38th nationally in YPA), Virginia (86th), Maryland (47th) and Syracuse (63rd).

• Don't go thinking the high amount of blitzes hurt Virginia's pass defense though. The Hoos allowed 1.6 fewer yards per attempt when blitzing than when sending four or fewer pass-rushers last season. In fact, only Virginia and Syracuse (1.4 fewer yards/attempt) were better when rushing more than four defenders last season.

• The flip side of that coin? Not surprisingly, it's Clemson, which allowed 3.2 more yards-per-attempt when blitzing last season than it did when rushing four or fewer defenders. Other big splits in that direction: Duke (2.4), Miami (1.1), UNC (1.1) and NC State (1.0).

• Pitt has the lowest percentage of its TFLs come against AQ opponents (57 percent). Syracuse had the highest (85 percent).

• Florida State's returning TFL leaders for 2014 is not surprisingly Mario Edwards Jr., with 9.5. Care to guess who's No. 2? We'll give you a minute.

Still thinking?

Give up?

That'd be Chris Casher, who had 5. Casher didn't start a game last season, and he's not exactly guaranteed a starting spot this year. Florida State's sack leader in 2013 was cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, who finished with 5.5. The last time the Seminoles' leader in sacks had so few for a season was 2006 (Buster Davis had 5).

• The only team that recorded a TFL less often (on a per-play basis) against AQ-conference teams last season than Miami was Texas A&M. The Hurricanes' leader in TFLs, Shayon Green, won't be back for 2014.

• And, of course, getting back to Clemson for a moment, there was one other stat the folks on Twitter were more than happy to mention when I talked up Beasley's season.

Um, yeah. The answer to that one would be zero, which should make for a pretty good stat to build a narrative around when Clemson and FSU face off again in September.
Earlier this week, I asked you guys to weigh in on whether Florida State or Virginia Tech had the best group of defensive backs in the ACC. You responded in big-time numbers, voting for Florida State by a comfortable margin.

No surprise there. I figured I was in the minority when I gave the Hokies the slight edge. Now, here is a little of what you had to say:

Ethan in NY writes: For the ACC DBU, I have to say Virginia Tech gets the top spot, slightly over Florida State. While it's true that we lose Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum, we return Detrick Bonner, Kendall Fuller, Brandon Facyson, and Kyshoen Jarrett, the latter three should be among the best in their position in 2014. To me, it comes down to the fact that FSU is a much stronger team overall, and doesn't rely on it's secondary as much as VT. VT has been tested more and withstood more.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Facyson
AP Photo/John BazemoreBrandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller return on what should be a very good Virginia Tech secondary.
Bill in Birmingham, Alabama, writes: You have VT defensive backs ahead of FSU. Glad you did it. You all consistently short-stick FSU's defense. Last year, it was having Duke with more choices on the All-ACC team. Look what happened to Duke and all its All-ACC defenders in the ACC title game. This year, FSU defense slighted again in the All-ACC rankings. FSU defense will use these slights to perform at or better than last year's level. Let Duke, VT, Clemson get all the media publicity and underperform again. We'll take the ACC and national titles again.

Erv Blythe in Blacksburg, Virginia, writes: Thank you for your analysis, Andrea. At least a part of VT's annual good production and worth a word in the debate is the DB coach: Torrian Gray. Since 2006, he is the key player in recruiting the best, and teaching good fundamentals and toughness that the pro teams have come to love in VT defensive backs.

Jason in Harrisonburg, Virginia, writes: I agree with your pick of Virginia Tech having the best secondary. I completely understand the argument for Florida State, and I may have a different opinion after the season. As it stands now, though, I feel that VT has four starters that are proven to be game-changers. I feel like if Facyson didn't miss a few games toward the end of the season and lose time to Kyle Fuller and Exum, he would have given Kendall Fuller competition for Defensive Rookie of the Year. In my opinion, Tech just has more proven talent at the starting positions, so I feel that they need to get the nod at this point in time. FSU's recruiting of freak athletes is enough for me to believe that they are completely capable of being the best, once the season rolls around, but until each of them are thrown into starting roles, it's yet to see how great they can actually be.

Parker Joost in Athens, Georgia, writes: Va. Tech's DBs are the best.

Charles in Bradenton, Florida, writes: FSU or VTech DBs? The depth of the FSU DBs, combined with a ferocious front six (or seven), should allow FSU to have the better unit. Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman, Chris Casher, Nile Lawrence-Stample, Matthew Thomas and Terrance Smith should prove to be the difference for FSU. Jalen Ramsey, Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams all have first-round potential, and Nick Waisome (backup DB) who is a senior, started for the team his sophomore year. If Tyler Hunter can return to form, he also logged significant minutes with Waisome two years ago. True freshman Trey Marshall, who was in for spring, has played well in camp.

Yapo in San Diego writes: As an alum (93), I am impartial to and have a good resource for knowledge about our team, including elite DBs at FSU. No contest, I thought. ... What [category] could VT possibly lead FSU in as the No. 1 underperforming team last year? Then I took a moment to investigate your blog and... what whaaaat? VT has a couple of All-ACC returnees... in-game actual performance vs. potential, but untested. Ah-ha! Makes sense to even pose this question. Nope. I looked at the deets and I am so, so sorry, Hokies. ... The proof will be in the pudding at season's end. (I am a chef, so when I say pudding, it is undeniable.) At the end of the season, I say FSU has more All-ACC DBs than VT.

Michael Winter in Atlantic Beach, Florida, writes: I'm just curious how Virginia Tech can return all four of its starters and lose a first-round draft pick? (Reporter's note: "All" should be deleted from the sentence). It can be debated who is best, but I think Phil Steele is an idiot. We are not going back 10 years. You only go back one year to try to guess who is going to be better. Ten years ago has nothing to do with what is going to happen this year. Phil Steele has proven he's not very bright, in my mind, when he chose (Marcus) Mariota as the best quarterback over (Jameis) Winston. Did he watch them play? Mariota was not good when he was on the stage against Stanford. Mariota says he gets nervous. Winston showed at Clemson that he is made for the big stage. ... Maybe you need educating, too, I don't know. ... Next time Phil Steele hands out B.S., like choosing Mariota over Winston, those two plays alone are enough to make him look silly.

Mitch in Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: It's still FSU. Aside from Ramsey and Nate Andrews, they also have Tyler Hunter, who missed last season with an injury. If Hunter doesn't get hurt last year, Andrews might not have seen the field. He is a physical freak who will be a menace in the same role as Joyner a year ago. Starting corners Darby and Williams are both top-10 DBs in the country, according to Mel Kiper, with a shot to both go in the first-second round.

Mike at Scott AFB, Illinois, writes: Concerning the best DBs in the ACC (and the nation), I'm just a little biased toward FSU, but I can see yours and Mr. Steele's point. VT does have more returning "starts" and does not have a change in defensive coordinators. So from a "preseason" assessment, you definitely have an argument. However, looking individually... Ramsey is going to be a beast... P.J. Williams is being considered one, if not the best in the nation. Darby is the silent killer [and] no QB will truly test him. Andrews will continue to improve on his surprise freshman season. Then there is Hunter, who was on track to dominate before his injury... That is the potential starting nickel package and all five have NFL draft potential. If they can communicate and work as a team, it is hard to argue them being the No. 1 DB unit in the nation! Go Noles!

ACC lunchtime links

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
12:15
PM ET
Happy 7/11 Day everyone (or Sem/Elem, as my friends and I call it)! Get your free slurpee!
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Up next: Defensive line.

Best of the best: Clemson

The Tigers are stacked on the defensive line, returning all four starters plus their top four backups from a season ago. Easy to see why Clemson gets the nod over the Seminoles -- sheer experience alone. Clemson has the best returning lineman in the league -- and one of the best in the nation -- in Vic Beasley, who had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a year ago. His backup, Shaq Lawson, had 10 tackles for loss. That is more than anybody Florida State returns. So not only does Clemson have a group that is active behind the line, it has good depth, too, which should keep everybody fresh and make for one of the best line rotations in the country. If this group can live up to expectations, the Tigers have a chance to be one of the best groups in the entire country.

Next up: Florida State

If there is one constant in the ACC, it is a rock solid, dominant defensive line at Florida State. Five defensive linemen have been drafted over the past two years and another, Mario Edwards Jr., is rated as a top 5 defensive end among all underclassmen. There is no doubt the Seminoles are talented once again, but they do need to rebuild some depth across the entire line and may even rely on more linebackers to help out with the pass rush in 2014. Freshmen also will factor into the mix, as the Seminoles signed seven defensive linemen to help make up for some of the losses. Players such as Edwards, Eddie Goldman and Chris Casher are set to be the standouts on this group, but the Noles will need some unproven players to step up to keep the championship-level quality of the defensive line going.

Possible sleeper: Virginia

The Hoos have to replace two starters, but there is growing expectation for the line to be improved over a year ago. Eli Harold returns at defensive end after racking up 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss a year ago, and has received early consideration as a potential All-ACC candidate. Mike Moore, slated to start at the other end position, was one of the defense's most improved players during the spring. Then, of course, there is incoming true freshman Andrew Brown, one of the top-rated players in the class of 2014 with an opportunity to make an immediate impact at tackle. Brown enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Though he battled through a bit of an injury, he is still in the mix to win a starting job.

Problem for a contender: North Carolina.

The Tar Heels have to rebuild along the front again, after losing starters Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson. Martin leaves behind the gaping hole, after racking up 11.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, along with 14 hurries a year ago. Even with Martin getting into the backfield, North Carolina ranked last in rushing defense, so there is no doubt this group has to make major improvements up front. Among the ends, only Junior Gnonkonde returns as a consistent contributor, with Jessie Rogers and redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon in the mix. There is more depth at tackle than at end, though, so North Carolina will no doubt be growing up its ends in a hurry to make up for Martin's departure.

Previous previews:

ACC's lunchtime links

May, 21, 2014
May 21
12:00
PM ET
Don't worry, everyone. The Eagle has landed.


Florida State star Jameis Winston, football teammates Chris Casher and Ronald Darby, and the woman who accused Winston of rape are expected to attend a disciplinary hearing for Casher and Darby on Tuesday, an attorney for the accuser confirmed to ESPN.com.

"My client will be present," Baine P. Kerr told ESPN.com in an email. "Winston, Casher, and Darby are listed as witnesses also and we expect they will comply."

Casher and Darby face discipline, including expulsion, for possible violations of the FSU student code of conduct related to the rape accusation against Winson, Fox Sports earlier reported.

In addition, Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, has never answered questions in the case.

To read more, click here.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- No position on the Florida State roster has taken as many losses as the defensive line over the past two seasons.

Four linemen were drafted a year ago. Another, tackle Timmy Jernigan, is projected to become the second straight Florida State defensive lineman to be drafted in the first round. The last time Florida State had at least five defensive linemen selected in consecutive drafts was 1998-99.

At many programs, losing so many players would be a major cause for concern and, as you'd expect, the defensive line has drawn some of the biggest questions this spring and last. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, however, looks at the situation differently.

Rather than lament potential depth issues, Fisher looks at the pure talent he has available for this upcoming season -- and the versatility they provide. Though only three scholarship defensive ends were available during the spring, two of them were consensus top-10 players at their position out of high school -- Mario Edwards Jr. and Chris Casher.

[+] EnlargeEddie Goldman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State coaches are expecting junior Eddie Goldman to flourish as Timmy Jernigan's replacement at defensive tackle.
Both began learning every position along the line in order to take advantage of their athleticism. Edwards moved around some last season, but expects to do much more of that in 2014, not only to help with depth but to also give Florida State key matchup advantages.

“It’s kind of fun,” Edwards said. “The offense can’t pinpoint where I will be -- right or left side, inside or out. I feel I can go and play any one of the positions the coaches put me in at and be a factor.”

For Edwards, the process of not only becoming a master at his own position, but also learning several others, has meant more time studying the playbook and game tape. That has allowed the former No. 1 high school player in the country to feel even more comfortable with the defense.

The road has not necessarily been smooth for him. He was out of shape as a freshman, and last spring he had to learn an entirely new defensive scheme while following a strict diet and weight program. Edwards ended up starting, but he did not feel comfortable until midway through the season. That is when the results started to show.

Now that more of the pressure is on him to perform, Edwards says he is ready to dominate.

“I’d like to think this is a big year for me,” Edwards said. “I watched film of last year but not only was I looking at the good things I did, I looked at how many plays I left out there, just because I wasn’t aligned right, I wasn’t doing my job, I may have forgotten what I was supposed to do. I felt like I left tons of plays out there I could have made. This year, it’s reacting more than thinking.”

To help at end, Florida State might end up using linebackers Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe, whom Fisher called “dynamic rushers.” He did something similar with Christian Jones a year ago, and Jones thrived in that role.

Tackle Eddie Goldman, slated to replace Jernigan inside, was a five-star defensive tackle out of high school. Fisher said Goldman will end up being one of the team’s spring award winners because he has made such drastic improvement. Though not as powerful as Jernigan, Goldman is more athletic and a more natural pass rusher.

“Him and Mario -- it’s hard to handle them one-on-one,” Fisher said. “Eddie, his upside is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous how good he can be.”

Will he meet that potential this year?

“The way he’s playing right now? No doubt,” Fisher said.

Fisher also will play some of his true freshmen, the way he has done with guys such as Edwards, Jernigan and Casher. The Seminoles loaded up on the defensive line to make up for the heavy losses they have taken recently. Four of the seven players Florida State signed were rated four-star prospects out of high school. Two incoming ends -- Lorenzo Featherston and Rick Leonard -- are both 6-foot-7. They will not be tied exclusively to end, either.

“We like that hybrid guy, the versatility,” Fisher said. “You can go 3-4, 4-3, and create a matchup where they get locked on a back, where a back has to block them, that kind of stuff.”

Florida State took advantage of the versatility it had last season to great success. Despite more personnel losses, Fisher expects more of the same in 2014.

ACC lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
PM ET
Lots of news out of Tallahassee ...

FSU's young defenders making noise

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
1:00
PM ET
Jalen RamseyAP Photo/Keith SrakocicFreshman cornerback Jalen Ramsey jumped right in to a starting spot, beating out veterans Nick Waisome and Ronald Darby in the process.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Throughout the 68-yard dash, Telvin Smith never looked back. Seconds earlier, he'd stepped in front of a pass from Bethune-Cookman quarterback Quentin Williams, and a path cleared ahead of him as he charged to the end zone.

It was only after Smith crossed the goal line that he realized he wasn't alone. Two steps behind him was fellow linebacker Matthew Thomas, who'd kept pace with Smith step for step throughout the return.

"I turned around and he's standing right next to me," Smith said. "That's what the coaches and myself love about him."

That was hardly the only highlight of the game for Thomas, who dropped Bethune's quarterback in the backfield twice in a span of five plays in the third quarter. In a game in which Jimbo Fisher criticized his defense for ceding too much ground to an overmatched opponent, Thomas stood out.

That's been a theme of the early season for Florida State's defense. It's a unit in transition, having lost a bevy of veterans to the NFL draft and its coordinator to Kentucky. Changes have come at nearly every turn, and the youngest Seminoles are taking advantage.

"They're stepping up," Smith said. "The best man is going to play, and right now, they're proving themselves to be the best man. The young guys are coming. They're on our toes."

It's not just Thomas making an impact.

Jalen Ramsey become the first FSU cornerback to start as a true freshman since Deion Sanders, then delivered the Seminoles' first interception of the season against Pittsburgh. He's sixth on the team so far with 12 tackles, including one sack.

Demarcus Walker got a start in the opener, too, and he's seen consistent work on the defensive line ever since. Chris Casher, a redshirt freshman, racked up 10 tackles -- including two for a loss -- against Bethune-Cookman and was named FSU's defensive player of the week. Second-year players P.J. Williams and Mario Edwards Jr. are now established starters, and a handful of other youngsters are getting regular reps on defense, too.

Fisher was so pleased with the work of his young defensive backs that he felt comfortable flipping veteran Karlos Williams from safety to tailback. Casher, Thomas and sophomore Eddie Goldman have helped pick up the slack for FSU's pass rush after its top three defensive ends all left for the NFL. Overall, nearly half of Florida State's tackles this season have come from defenders with zero previous starting experience.

"The platform is even because new [defensive coordinator], new philosophy, and you have to learn it," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "Experience on the football field, those young guys haven't had it, but with their talent level and where they're coming in, it's good to see them playing and be able to play fast."

Of course, it's easy enough to chalk up the early success for the freshmen and sophomores to the lack of quality competition on the field, but Fisher said this isn't a passing fad. Florida State's schedule gets markedly tougher in October, and rather than shuffling the young defenders to the sidelines for the big games, he wants to ensure they're ready to play when it counts.

"Ability is never the issue," Fisher said. "It's about technique and assignments and getting playing time to be able to relax on the field and do what you do, taking it from the practice field to the game field. You see that more and more, you feel more comfortable. We're going to keep developing all those guys."

Ramsey already appears to have a starting job locked up moving forward, beating out junior Nick Waisome, who started all 14 games last season, and Ronald Darby, a freshman All-American in 2012. Fisher raved about Ramsey's combination of speed and physicality, but said it's the freshman's football acumen that has set him apart.

Thomas is a bit more of a work in progress. He's flashed potential, but he's spent much of his first few months on campus simply soaking in all he can about how to do his job.

"He's observing a lot of stuff," Smith said. "He's taking it in, and he's going to erupt when he gets the chance."

Fisher sees it coming, too.

Since arriving on campus in June, Thomas has already packed on nearly 25 pounds to his frame, but it hasn't slowed him down.

"He's gotten faster," Fisher gushed.

Walker and Casher are following a similar path, too, though they've had longer to learn the ropes.

Casher has been sidelined for the better part of the past two years -- first because of an eligibility issue his senior year in high school, then because of a knee injury that cost him nearly all of 2012. Walker arrived this spring to get a jump start on his college career, but an issue with the NCAA Clearinghouse meant he didn't practice with the team at all.

The down time might have been a blessing, however, as both were eager to learn.

"They came in with their eyes open and their notepad ready, listening to the older guys," Smith said.

That's been a trademark of the Class of 2013 in particular. When Joyner arrived in 2010, Florida State was in the midst of a culture change in the locker room that took a while to take hold. The latest batch of freshmen, however, look right at home from Day 1.

"Those guys are coming in here with the same talent level that guys took two to three years to develop," Joyner said.

That's exactly what Fisher wants to see. He doesn't promise playing time to his recruits, he said, but he offers opportunity. This latest crop of Seminoles was prepared when that opportunity arrived.

"When you get here, you get an opportunity, and if you're the best player, you're going to play," Fisher said. "A play don't care who makes it, and there isn't an age limit on being a good player."
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The experiment was effectively over before the game even started.

It's not that Nevada posed much of a threat to begin with. Florida State entered Saturday's game as a five-touchdown favorite. But there was some intrigue, thanks to the Wolfpacks' up-tempo, pistol offense that promised to give an untested FSU defense a taste of what might be waiting on that crucial Oct. 19 showdown with Clemson.

Only the test never materialized. About an hour before kickoff, Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo tweeted the news that he'd miss the game, and the Wolfpack offense that took the field didn't look anything like the frenetic, fast-paced unit that had averaged 84 plays per game since the start of the 2012 season.

Instead, Florida State's defense was subjected to slogging, methodical snooze. Nevada ran 26 fewer plays than its season average, in spite of a sizable edge in time of possession. The Wolfpack usually ran a play every 21 seconds of possession time, but against FSU, they averaged a snap every 32 seconds. In the end, the Nevada offense looked baffled, and the FSU defense remained something of a mystery.

"They were trying to shorten the game a little bit, try not to get as many at-bats and eat the clock," Jimbo Fisher said. "But I thought the defense did a really nice job and made some nice adjustments. The defense has played very solidly."

[+] EnlargeJoyner
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesLamarcus Joyner gets a sack, which has been a rarity so far this season for Florida State.
It's tough to nitpick a defense that allowed just 511 yards and 20 points in its first two games, both against FBS opponents. And yet, questions linger.

Through two games, Florida State's supposedly aggressive new attack under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has amassed just three sacks, two of which came from cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. Despite bringing the blitz on half of Nevada's passing plays Saturday -- against two backup quarterbacks, to boot -- the Seminoles didn't record a sack. (In fairness, one potential sack was overturned because Timmy Jernigan continued pursuit after his helmet came off.)

More often, Florida State has been burned on the blitz. When rushing five or more defenders this year, FSU has allowed the opposition to complete 64 percent of its passes. Both of the touchdowns FSU has allowed came vs. the blitz. When just four defenders rush, however, the opposition completes just 47 percent of its passes and has thrown two interceptions, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Florida State has mustered just 10 tackles for loss thus far, a number bettered by 93 other FBS teams. Of the four TFLs the Seminoles managed against Nevada, two came late in a blowout game from backup defenders.

In both of its games, Florida State's defense has finished strong. But it's still tough to ignore that two supposedly overmatched offenses marched down the field for extended early drives. On the first four drives of the game, Pittsburgh and Nevada averaged 5.7 yards per play. Throughout the remainder of the game, that average dipped to just 3.1 yards per play.

"We've got to come out a little faster," corner P.J. Williams said. "We're letting teams [move], especially in the running. … We know the defense, but we've got to execute it better. It's different going against them in practice than when you go into the game."

That the FSU defense remains a work in progress at this point isn't really a surprise. A half-dozen regulars missed spring practice, and the shakeups on the depth chart have continued since then. Fisher announced Monday that defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. would likely miss this week's game against Bethune-Cookman after surgery on his hand, leaving a trio of freshmen -- Chris Casher, DeMarcus Walker and Ukeme Eligwe -- to pick up the slack.

Edwards' absence may not last beyond this week, Fisher said, and Bethune-Cookman doesn't figure to provide much of a challenge for the defense anyway. But therein lies the problem.

That Oct. 19 date still lingers on the horizon, a game that is likely to define Florida State's season. Between now and then, Florida State plays an FCS opponent, a Boston College team that ranks 121st nationally in plays per game this year, and resurgent Maryland, the final tune-up before high-flying Clemson.

After Nevada downshifted its up-tempo attack, the Terrapins likely represent the only opportunity Florida State's defense will have to test its mettle against an offense with a modicum of the firepower Clemson possesses. That certainly figures to add some intrigue to the game, but it isn't likely to have too many Florida State fans feeling entirely comfortable in the interim.

"These last couple games, coming in with this new defense and just learning, we can do better," Williams said. "It has a lot to do with the new defense."

Video: DE a key battle at Florida State

July, 11, 2013
7/11/13
7:00
PM ET

"College Football Live" breaks down some of the key position battles across the nation, including the defensive end battle at Florida State.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State defensive end Giorgio Newberry walked into the room, cradling his black playbook, and sat down on a folding chair.

By the looks of it, the book should have made a monstrous thud when he went to put it down. Newberry placed the book gently on the floor, though, and laughed when he was innocuously asked, "So that playbook is bigger than your old one, huh?"

The new book, a huge three-ringed binder stuffed full, features more blitzes, and some new assignments for players used to the old way of doing things. While the Seminoles will remain a 4-3 base defense, they are going to be using all of their players in different ways.

That means a guy like Newberry -- all 6-foot-6 inches and 273 pounds of him -- will be dropping back into pass coverage on occasion as he transitions to play the jack position, an end/linebacker mashup.

And no, Newberry has never actually covered anybody in the pass game before.

"It’s pretty fun actually, getting an opportunity to run in space, show my athleticism off," Newberry said recently. "I have the speed for a big guy. I have a lot of range. I’m pretty long and tall so that should help me, too. I’ll still be rushing sometimes but it’s almost like I’ll be rushing, dropping, rushing dropping even though I’ll be rushing still."

Newberry is not the only defensive lineman in the spotlight this spring. They all are, as questions persist about how the Seminoles are going to look up front with starters Bjoern Werner, Tank Carradine, Everett Dawkins and Anthony McCloud gone. The good news is a wealth of experienced players return.

Coach Jimbo Fisher consulted his stat sheet to prove it. He starts with tackles Timmy Jernigan and Demonte McAllister, who were more productive than Dawkins and McCloud. End Mario Edwards Jr. started at the end of the season; Newberry has game experience; Jacobbi McDaniel is back; Eddie Goldman has been "coming on like wildfire"; and expectations are high for Chris Casher.

"They still have to prove it, but from we still feel very comfortable that we can be very physical and very dominating up front. Very strong," Fisher said.

To that end, players like Newberry and Jernigan are preparing themselves for breakout seasons in this new defensive style that first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought with him from Alabama.

"This," Newberry says, "is a killer defense."

How good can it be once everybody learns the entire system?

"Our defense is going to be just as good as last year, if not better," Newberry said. "Because we have a new system, people are younger and we have more people."

Jernigan chimed in later with his own take: "As far as stats go, I feel like this will be my biggest year. I feel like I’m going to have a very good year this year.

"I’ve been preparing, I’ve been working very hard in the weight room, in the classroom making sure I have no extra stress. Then the style of the defense, we’re a little more aggressive up front and that’s the way I like to play. I like the physicality, I like to get off the ball, hurry up and get my hands on the blockers. I think that’s going to help, we’re going to be attacking a lot more."

Attacking from all over the field, in fact. Florida State has a deep history and tradition to uphold defensively, especially after ranking No. 2 in the nation in defense last year. The only team ahead was Alabama, and now the Noles have the Tide's former defensive coordinator.

Fisher, however, wanted to be sure to emphasize the Noles are keeping much of what they did in the past in place, even though it seems they may be radically changing. Alabama does run a 3-4 base. Florida State will not. Simply put: There will be a few new twists -- OK a lot more twists -- in the playbook, sorta like sprucing up the garden for spring.

"We're a 4-3 team," he said. "If you go back and look last year, we were about 25 percent 3-4 last year. If you go back and watch Alabama’s film, there’s only about 8-to-10 3-4 snaps a game. They might not have been as much 3-4 as we were a year ago. Believe that or not. You may stand a guy up to create a mismatch, we did that with Bjoern and Tank and Brandon (Jenkins) all the time. We were a bunch of 3-4. Perception’s not always reality."

That may end up being the perfect description for this defensive line in 2013.
Editor’s note: Each day until the start of spring practice, we’ll pose a question facing Florida State's football team as it moves toward the 2013 season. Today’s question: How will the defensive front look after a wave of departures from last year's group?

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- By the time next year's NFL draft is complete, five former Florida State defensive linemen figure to hear their names called. That's an impressive indication of just how much talent was on this unit for the past two seasons, but it also underscores one of the biggest questions of this spring: How can Jimbo Fisher replace so many departing stars in one group?

In 2012, FSU finished in the top three in the country in rush defense (91.9 yards per game) for the second year in a row, and for the third straight year, the Seminoles led the ACC in sacks (36). As far as pass rushers go, Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine were the most prolific defensive end tandem in the nation. But aside from quarterback, no area of the roster figures to get as big a facelift for 2013.

Under-the-radar players to watch

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
2:00
PM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With spring practice less than a week away, the fervor surrounding some of the most-hyped storylines of 2013 has already been raging for months. The three-way battle at quarterback, the return of Bobby Hart to the limelight, Lamarcus Joyner's move to cornerback -- Jimbo Fisher already has plenty to keep his eye on.

But while those stories will continue to headline Florida State's preparations for the 2013 season, there are a handful of other intriguing players to watch this spring. They might not be in the running for a starting job, but they should offer plenty of reasons to watch as they look to impress a new group of coaches and find their own niche for the upcoming season.

Mario Pender (RB/RFr.)

When it comes to sheer intrigue, the entirety of Florida State's returning redshirts could probably make the list -- with Jameis Winston probably atop it. But while there will be genuine interest in Justin Shanks' weight or Marvin Bracy's speed, it's Pender who likely leads the pack in non-QB buzz from fans. The highly touted tailback missed all of 2012 with a groin injury and is just now getting back into full swing. His workouts during fourth-quarter drills earned raves from Fisher, who compared his burst and home-run ability to Chris Thompson -- only Pender is a bit bigger and stronger. Does that mean a job awaits this fall? Not exactly, but he'll definitely have his coaches' attention.

(Read full post)

Friday mailblog

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
4:00
PM ET
Miami or UNC? Who ya got? Virginia Tech, anyone? Buehler?

J in Florida writes: Not so fast with that Miami will win the coastal statement. UNC will have something to say about that. Yes UNC lost Giovanni and Cooper, hard shoes to fill. However Heather the offense will be in their second explosive year with fully capable RBs. The defensive secondary will be better and letsbnot forget UNC lost in the last seconds to Duke and Wake and handled Miami at the U last year. So let's look a little closer at the team that finished, ineligable aside, first in the coastal last year.

HD: Who's going to block for those RBs? It all starts up front, and if you ask me, Miami has the edge there this year.




Rob Beyma in Pocomoke, Md., writes: Heather,Read your article about Miami being favored for the Coastal division this year. And that the schedule was one of the reasons why. For some strange reason, Miami gets Va. Tech at home for the 2ND straight year. They should be playing the game this year in BLACKSBURG! No wonder Miami has a scheduling advantage. How about the Hurricanes in Blacksburg on a Thursday night!

HD: The last time I saw Miami play at Virginia Tech, it was one of the muddiest games I can remember. And Miami flopped. That tends to happen to the Canes in Blacksburg. No doubt it's an edge this year to have that as a home game again.




Michael Walker in Charlotte, N.C., writes: I'm a die-hard Canes fan even though I live in Charlotte. My question is this, even though we only had 13 sacks last year and one of the worse defenses in the entire nation, do you really think we've improved that much to win the ACC Coastal. We had trouble stopping the run and the pass, though we had 34 freshmen and sophomores on our roster. The offense is stacked and the receivers are going to be one of the best groups in the nation. I'm still a little concerned with our defense. Virginia, BC, Duke and the Wolf Pack picked us apart passing the ball last year.

HD: You should be concerned about the defense. So should Al Golden. Until proven otherwise, it's the weak link and the biggest reason they won't win the Coastal Division. Miami returns all four starters on the defensive line, though. That experience is a plus, and after last season, you'd think it could only get better. Time will tell.




Danny Schmal in Winston Salem, N.C., writes: Your thoughts on Wake's chances of winning the ACC. Doesn't seem like anyone is giving Wake a chance against Clemson.

HD: I never count out Jim Grobe. The Deacs gave the entire Atlantic Division a scare two years ago, but they lost to Clemson by a field goal and missed their shot at playing in the ACC title game again. In order to get back to contender status, they have GOT to get healthy up front on the offensive line. That is their biggest issue right now. The other thing is they need another receiver besides Michael Campanaro to step up. Having Tanner Price return at quarterback is a huge plus for the offense, but he needs somebody to divert attention away from "Camp."




Jayson Shaffer in Crestview, Florida writes: Hey Heather, I was just curious on who you think will step up to replace the losses at the defensive end position at FSU?

HD: You have to start with Mario Edwards Jr., who is the front-runner because he played in 11 games as a true freshman and started the final two games of the year in place of Tank Carradine. There is also Giorgio Newberry and Chris Casher, who is now healthy after a knee injury. Casher will start spring ball on the two-deep depth chart. Dan Hicks, who was Brandon Jenkins’ backup two years ago, had a knee injury and missed all of last season. He had moved to tight end, but was in the rotation at defensive end earlier in his career and could come back.




Scott in Durham, N.C., writes: Have you heard of any updates on Kelby Brown, LB from Duke? If/When he is at 100%, will he every get back to the tackling machine like he was his freshman year?

HD: Yup, got an update for you. Brown is fully participating in spring practiaces, but only time will tell if he returns to 100 percent. It's important to remember that he’s been banged-up his entire career, playing in just nine games as a true freshman in 2010 (63 tackles, 5.5 TFL, four fumble recoveries) and in 10 games his sophomore season (65 tackles, 7.0 TFL, three PBU). He's fortunate that he did play as a true freshman and had a redshirt year to use last season following his second knee surgery. The Duke coaches are hopeful that he’ll make a complete recovery after missing all of 2012, but how the surgically repaired knee will hold up in full contact drills and games remains to be seen.

SPONSORED HEADLINES