Fifth-year seniors leading the charge for Florida State's defense

Lamarcus Brutus is one of four fifth-year seniors getting regular reps on FSU's resurgent defense in 2015. Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

Lamarcus Brutus is eager to reminisce. It’s leadership that creates a great defense, he says, and he’s worked with so many great leaders.

It was Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith that led the charge to a national title in 2013, and before that, there was Vince Williams and before that ...

He pauses to reflect.

"Well," Brutus says, "I’ve been here a while."

Brutus is one of four fifth-year seniors getting regular reps on Florida State’s suddenly resurgent defense in 2015, and all those seasons spent largely in obscurity are finally paying off. This season is a chance to finally prove the doubters wrong, but for the Seminoles, the wealth of experience brings a much-needed change in leadership with players taking nothing for granted.

"The reason we lost [to Oregon last season] was there were a lot of people out the door," defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample said of Florida State’s season-ending defeat at the hands of the Ducks in the College Football Playoff. "When we got into the spring, we all sat down and said, we’re not going to think about leaving or any of that stuff. We’re thinking about what we’re doing right now."

Right now, Lawrence-Stample is pivot point for a defensive line that held Miami to just 20 yards rushing in last week’s win, Brutus is coming into his own at safety, and Giorgio Newberry is leading the charge off the edge -- including a crucial pass-breakup in the fourth quarter against the Hurricanes.

The road to get here, however, was a long one.

Injuries, position switches and toiling in obscurity

Lawrence-Stample already knew the news was bad. He’d injured his pectoral muscle during Florida State’s overtime win against Clemson last season, and now head coach Jimbo Fisher wanted to see him.

"As soon as he told me," Lawrence-Stample said of the diagnosis that his season was over, "I started crying."

Newberry’s trip to Fisher’s office was different. This was in 2013, and Newberry had already spent two seasons failing to meet expectations at defensive end. Now a run of attrition at tight end had left Florida State vulnerable, and Fisher hoped Newberry could help.

"It was a last-minute thing, two or three days before fall camp started," said Newberry, who helped FSU win a title as a backup tight end before asking to switch back.

Brutus’ path to a starting job might have been the longest. The bulk of his first three seasons at FSU were spent toiling in obscurity, a mainstay on the scout team.

"I think if people got praise for being on scout team, I don’t think it’d be such a bad thing," Brutus said. "But you play every game in high school and then you come to college and you’re on the scout team. It’s a letdown. ... I took pride in it. It’s unbelievable how much our scout team has an impact on the success of our team."

That's not to say the obscurity didn't take its toll. Newberry admits, he even thought of himself as a bust at times. Brutus said friends and family implored him to transfer to find playing time elsewhere. Lawrence-Stample watched players he arrived with in 2011 head off to NFL glory without him.

Inside the locker room, however, teammates offered support that outweighed what was said on the message boards and in the stands.

"I just knew my time was going to come," he said. "I was real with myself. I always felt like I had room to improve, and once I focused on the little things and started hitting the weight room a little harder, studying film more, I realized I could play here."

Providing leadership

Last season’s defense included four players who would be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. The younger players on the team had arrived for a national championship season and won 27 straight games before the implosion against Oregon in last season’s Rose Bowl. What it lacked were leaders who had been through the fire. That is what made the emergence of this season's fifth-year seniors so important.

Lawrence-Stample watched last season unfold from the sidelines or from his couch, and he was determined to make up for lost time.

For Brutus, a run of injuries this spring gave him a chance to practice with the first-team defense, and he instantly thrived.

For Newberry, who’s had four different position coaches in his time at Florida State, the arrival of defensive ends coach Brad Lawing this spring has changed everything.

"It’s not all peaches and cream, it’s not all roses," Fisher said. "You’ve got to work for things, and there’s adversity that happens and you keep fighting. And it’s a great example that they can keep reminding guys."

Lawrence-Stample remembers leaving Fisher’s office after he had learned of his season-ending injury. He sat in the car with assistant coach Odell Haggins, and the two just talked. Haggins promised there were better days ahead, reminding Lawrence-Stample that the strength is forged through adversity.

It’s a reminder Lawrence-Stample has tried to pass along this season.

"We’ve had losses, all of us," Lawrence-Stample said. "That’s really important for us to have the younger guys look and see and know we’ve been there, so they trust us."

After years in the shadows, Fisher thinks every member of this group of fifth-year players actually has a shot to play at the next level, too. But if there’s anything their struggles have taught them, it’s not to look too far ahead.

"Leave it all out on the line," Newberry said, "because this is the last year."