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Tuesday, February 19, 2013
State of the Noles: Linebackers

By David M. Hale & Corey Dowlar

NoleNation writers David Hale and Corey Dowlar are going position by position, looking at what FSU has on its roster now, and who might provide reinforcements down the line, projecting starters and evaluating the depth through 2015.

Up next, a position where the scheme might be as much in question as the personnel: Linebacker.

Current scholarship linebackers (11): Reggie Northrup (So.), Terrance Smith (RSSo.), Nigel Terrell (RSJr.), Christian Jones (Sr.), Markus Uligwe (RFr.), Telvin Smith (Sr.), Matthew Thomas (Fr.), Freddie Stevenson (Fr.), Tyrell Lyons (Fr.), E.J. Levenberry (Fr.), Ro'Derrick Hoskins (Fr.)

Potential early departures: FSU brings a talented group of five freshmen into the fold this season, and several -- Thomas in particular -- have NFL potential, but at this point, none of the younger players have enough experience to appear likely to leave early.

Christian Jones
Christian Jones' experience will help FSU as it brings in a crop of new linebackers.
Predicted starters (Hale's picks/Dowlar's picks)
2013: Jones, Smith, Thomas/Jones, Smith, Northrup
2014: Thomas, Northrup, Stevenson/Thomas, Northrup, Eligwe
2015: Thomas, Northrup, Stevenson/Thomas, Northrup, Eligwe

Why they'll start: Florida State caught a break when Christian Jones decided to return for his senior season, providing a significant measure of stability to a unit thin on experience. There's every reason to believe he could be an anchor for the Seminoles' defense in 2013, blossoming into an NFL first-rounder in the process.

Senior Telvin Smith already had a reputation as one of FSU's biggest hitters, but he made strides in 2012 to become more consistent in all aspects of his game, too, and now with Vince Williams gone, he'll be a full-time starter at middle linebacker.

Smith and Jones account for the entirety of FSU's experienced linebackers though, which means there are some major questions at the position looking forward.

The five-member class of 2013 Jimbo Fisher hauled in on national signing day was a huge boon to a position where recruiting busts had left the depth chart particularly thin. Thomas is perhaps FSU's most talented new addition. Stevenson is an early enrollee, and both he and Thomas figure to contend for regular reps immediately.

Northrup got a taste of action in 2013 and performed well, though even his teammates were quick to acknowledge there were plenty of wrinkles in the defensive scheme Northrup still needed to grasp. Still, he could step into the role vacated by Williams in 2013 and take over as the starting middle linebacker by 2014.

Eligwe missed much of 2012 with an injury, and Smith and Terrell saw only limited snaps. They'll be in the mix for playing time, too, though none has dramatically more reps under their belt than the group of freshmen set to arrive this summer.

Besides identifying starters is the looming question of what the linebacker position will look like over the next few years. Already, the extensive amount of spread offenses FSU faces has limited the role of the strongside linebacker, with the Seminoles often employing nickel and dime sets, getting extra defensive backs on the field. That opened a job for potential superstar Karlos Williams, who excelled at linebacker in the ACC title game against Georgia Tech, but still fits better as a safety.

Beyond that, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt comes from a system at Alabama that employed a 3-4 base defense, and while that's not the direction Fisher wants to take immediately, it remains a long-term possibility as Pruitt is able to bring in more of his own personnel.

Who might FSU add: Florida State added some badly-needed numbers to the linebacker spot in the Class of 2013. Highlighted by Thomas (Miami/Booker T. Washington), the nation's No. 1 outside linebacker, the group will add depth to new LBs coach Charles Kelly's group in a hurry, but they'll also need time to develop.

The fast-starting 2014 class already has a linebacker committed in Delvin Purifoy (Pensacola, Fla./Catholic). He's an ESPN Watch List inside linebacker that Florida State identified early in the process and secured a commitment from. Though not as big of a need as the 2013 class, look for the Seminoles to bring in some more linebackers from this junior class.

Long-term grade: B-minus, though there's a chance this grade could rise quickly. The problem for FSU is that the past few linebacker recruiting classes simply didn't pan out, so the current group is high on potential but light on experience. If Thomas, Levenberry, Northrup and Co. develop the way Fisher hopes, linebacker could be a strength over the next three to four years, but if the Class of 2013 has several prospects flame out the way others have in the past few seasons, there could be some significant problems in 2014 and beyond.