Take 2: Does Jernigan loss set back FSU D?

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
11:00
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Florida State opens spring practice in just two weeks, and there are plenty of big questions waiting to be answered. Before Jimbo Fisher gets his chance to weigh in on those discussions, however, we’re taking a crack at finding the answers.

So far, we’ve looked at Jameis Winston’s second act and Karlos Williams’ move to the top of the depth chart.

Next up: Does Timmy Jernigan's loss mean a big step back on D for Florida State?

Jared Shanker says there are bigger defensive issues for FSU than Jernigan’s departure.

JS: Of all the graduations, transfers and early departures Florida State endured this offseason, the loss of defensive tackle and surefire first-round pick Jernigan might worry the staff most. Despite a couple of tackles on the roster with starting experience, interior linemen who can be disruptive as a pass rusher with the athleticism to track running backs in the backfield are rare and not particularly easy to replace.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsMario Edwards Jr. is going to have to have a bigger hand in things this fall on the FSU defensive line.
Ideally, new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly would have the No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the country, according to NFL draft experts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, back for one more season to help ease his transition. The Seminoles certainly could take a statistical step back in 2014, but the blame will hardly lie with Jernigan bolting for the NFL.

Florida State finished No. 1 in scoring defense in 2013, a number inherently tough to duplicate. On top of that, the Noles’ 12.1 points allowed per game average was highest among teams to finish No. 1 in scoring defense since 2008, which means another season allowing a dozen points likely drops them from the top spot.

What could end up costing Florida State defensively this upcoming season is the loss of leaders Telvin Smith at linebacker and seniors Terrence Brooks and Lamarcus Joyner in the secondary. While there are certainly arguments -- and very good ones, too -- that all three will be replaced by players with the skill to exceed their predecessors, it could take a few games to jell. With both Oklahoma State and Clemson on the docket within the season’s first four weeks, miscommunications in the linebacker corps and secondary could lead to explosive plays and a slow defensive start to the season.

In reality, the defensive line is best suited for a changing of the guard at Florida State, which has recruited and developed the position as well as any program in the country the last five years. Eddie Goldman is a former five-star recruit and could be dominant in 2014. Former No. 1 high school prospect Mario Edwards Jr. flashed brilliance in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, and defensive end DeMarcus Walker could be the unit’s best player by November. Defensive tackles Nile Lawrence-Stample, Keith Bryant and Justin Shanks were all elite high school recruits, and Lawrence-Stample started six games in 2013.

With a new coordinator and handful of new starters in Tallahassee, growing pains could see the Noles slide down the defensive rankings -- albeit not very far. And with the new talent being infused into each level of the defense, this 2014 unit could raise the bar. Whichever way it goes, it won’t be traced back to Jernigan opting for the NFL.

David Hale says there should be concerns about life after Jernigan.

DH: There’s plenty of talent returning on Florida State’s defense in 2014, but for all the big recruits Jimbo Fisher has landed in recent years, it’s nearly impossible to replace someone like Jernigan.

Jernigan’s numbers weren’t eye-popping last season (63 tackles, 11 for a loss, 4.5 sacks) but they only begin to tell the story of his production. In a year in which Florida State completely revamped its defensive front, Jernigan was the foundation. He consistently disrupted the opposition’s backfield, opened holes for Smith up the middle and drew double teams away from Edwards and Christian Jones. For every one play he made on his own, he created three more for his teammates.

And here’s the real concern: Even with Jernigan in the lineup last season, FSU’s rushing defense dipped from third nationally in 2012 to 18th in 2013, and the line accounted for just 16 of Florida State’s 35 sacks.

Part of the struggles came early because of scheme changes from previous years, but personnel played a part, too. For a preview of life without Jernigan in the middle of the line, look no farther than the BCS title game, when a winded Jernigan was sidelined through a significant portion of the fourth quarter. A rejuvenated Auburn running game gashed FSU’s defense, culminating with Tre Mason’s 37-yard TD run that nearly secured the Tigers a national championship.

Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman were both former top-10 recruits, so the line isn’t without star power. But neither has carried the load — both in terms of production and leadership — that Jernigan did in 2013. Nile Lawrence-Stample is a veteran option to fill the starting job, but his career totals include just 25 tackles. A host of freshmen arrive in the fall, but following in Jernigan’s footsteps is a lot to ask for any new arrival.

Last season, Florida State showed a strong secondary and an inventive scheme can make up for potential shortfalls on the defensive front. But Brooks and Joyner are gone from the defensive backfield now, too, and it remains to be seen if Charles Kelly can match Pruitt’s coaching success.

But of all the departures, it’s Jernigan’s who looms the largest, and until Florida State shows it has a comparable alternative in camp, there’s reason to be concerned about how the Seminoles’ defense will maneuver a much tougher schedule in 2014.

Jared Shanker

Florida State/ACC reporter

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