- David M. Hale, College football
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The goals are posted right there in the defensive meeting room in big, bold letters.
It's a chart that hangs on the wall, where coaches track the biggest plays made on the practice field. It runs the gamut of accomplishments, from batted balls and interceptions to forced fumbles and sacks, and it has sparked a competition between linebackers Telvin Smith and Christian Jones this fall to see their names listed beneath each category.
"Telvin came close a few times," Jones said. "It keeps everybody competing and playing hard out there."
It's a nearly impossible task, but the mere fact that Jones and Smith are working to do it anyway underscores the impact new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has had on the veterans of Florida State's defense.
In April, the Seminoles had two defenders taken in the first round of the NFL draft and seven players selected overall, but this year's upperclassmen are starting from scratch with a new scheme and a new playbook. After two consecutive seasons in which the unit has ranked among the best in the country, the dramatic changes Pruitt has installed this offseason might have ruffled a few feathers among the leaders in the locker room.
Instead, Pruitt's aggressive style and willingness to let his best athletes strut their stuff has made him an instant favorite, and Florida State's veterans have embraced the opportunity to expand their repertoire under their new coach.
"I feel like Pruitt couldn't have come in at a better time," senior safety Terrence Brooks said. "I feel like it's just up from here."
The optimism seems universal in Florida State's locker room this fall, even if the reality of Pruitt's scheme has left even the most accomplished members of the defense baffled at times.
The lingo is different, the keys are different and the responsibilities are vast. The beauty of Mark Stoops' defense the past few seasons was its simplicity. Pruitt's defense is an entirely different animal.
"The thing with his defense is, you need to learn every part and every role," Brooks said. "The offense, the way they line up is going to change your assignments. So that means you have to learn everything on the defense."
It's not just a matter of changing assignments. For a number of Florida State's defenders, they're learning entirely new jobs.
Jones led the Seminoles in tackles last season, working primarily as the weakside linebacker. This year, he has played on the inside, outside and moved up to defensive end. On the line, senior Demonte McAllister is getting work at both tackle and end. Two-hundred-eighty pound end Mario Edwards Jr. is learning to drop back into coverage. In the secondary, virtually everyone is cross-training at nickel, corner, safety and the hybrid "star" and "money" positions Pruitt brought over from Alabama's defensive scheme.
"Once everything is just good and we know it like the back of our hands," Edwards said, "it's going to be real fun for the defense."
That's the mantra that has been repeated again and again since Pruitt first showed his new team highlights of the defense he helped coach at Alabama.
The difference, of course, is that the Crimson Tide have been running this scheme for years. At Florida State, it's all new. But what excites the Seminoles' defenders is the belief that, from an athleticism standpoint, they're every bit as good as Alabama, and Pruitt's scheme gives them a chance to prove it.
"This defense is an attack-style defense," Edwards said. "We're no longer just keying this and then going there. We have keys, but it's you see it, you go. No more reading."
Edwards may be simplifying things a bit. Pruitt's approach might free up his athletes to make plays, but it's still a thinking-man's game.
"It is difficult, it is a lot of key terms and different checks and a lot more checks than what Stoops' defense was," Brooks said. "But it's a really good defense, and if you apply yourself to learning it, you can make a lot of plays."
And that has been the key this offseason. Learning the ropes is an uphill battle, but the extra work comes easier, because the players are so uniformly excited about mastering it.
Chalk that up largely to Pruitt's own enthusiasm. Thanks to the fistful of championship rings he brings from Alabama, Pruitt has the gravitas to make an instant impression. But as his new team gets to know him, players are increasingly drawn to his down-to-earth approach. Pruitt is, after all, just six years removed from coaching in high school, and that's a mentality Florida State's players relate to.
"Coach Pruitt still has that young fire in him, and that's what our players have," Smith said.
Pruitt certainly has lit a fire under this defense, but the truth, he said, is that the changes he has made aren't all that immense. They'll run blitz drills in practice, but he insists he won't be blitz-happy on game days. He's working players in new roles, but there are no guarantees they'll all stick. And while he has thrown all he can at his players during fall camp, once the season starts, he'll be pairing back what he asks them to do on the field.
"We're putting in some things that are different for these guys, but when it comes to game week, we're only going to call what they know," Pruitt said. "You throw a lot of stuff at them, hope part holds, and as the season progresses, you pull out what you need each week."
Still, the number of tools at Pruitt's disposal figure to be vast, and Florida State's players are eager to show off what they've learned. And that's exactly what Jimbo Fisher hoped for when he made the somewhat surprising decision to hire Pruitt last December.
There's ample optimism that this year's defense can be every bit as good as last year's unit, but there's also a definite understanding that success will come in a much different way. The first step in getting there was getting the players to buy in, and as it turned out, that was the easiest part.
"I felt the kids wanted to play for him, and that's a great sign," Fisher said. "That's one of the things I felt during the interview process, and that's one of the key things -- they've got to want to play for him."
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The goals are posted right there in the defensive meeting room in big, bold letters.It's a chart that hangs on the wall, where coaches track the biggest plays made on the practice field.