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September 29, 2013

Column: FSU defense experiencing growing pains

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What started out as a modest concern for Florida State has turned into a giant red flag.

Saturday's shootout at Boston College proved that FSU's defense under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is still very much a work in progress. The Eagles entered Saturday's game with very little to hang their hat on offensively. Steve Addazio's team ranked near the bottom of every offensive statistical category and was completely shut down in its last game at USC. In that matchup versus the Trojans the Eagles managed just 7 points, 12 first downs and 184 total yards of offense. The same USC defense gave up 62 points and 612 yards to Arizona State this past weekend.

On Saturday against Florida State that same BC offense lit up the scoreboard for 34 points, racked up 22 first downs and finished with 397 total yards. And for the third straight game FSU's opponent dominated time of possession.

Making matters worse, the 'Noles' once again struggled coming out of the gates.

On its first three offensive drives, Boston College posted 17 points, racked up 10 first downs, converted 3-of-3 third down tries and had 150 total yards of offense (106 rushing). The Eagles' quick start put the Seminoles in an early 17-3 hole but they were again bailed out by the offense. The Jameis Winston led offense proceeded to score touchdowns on five of its next six possessions. That offensive explosion turned a two touchdown deficit into an 18-point advantage by late in the third quarter.

From there FSU coasted to the 48-34 win.

But unlike the previous three games, the defense didn't clamp down after a slow start. While not nearly as prolific at it was on its first three drives, Boston College was still able to rattle off 17 second-half points to keep the game relatively close throughout.

When FSU's defense stepped on the field Saturday it boasted seven former five-star recruits and seven others that were Rivals100 members on its two-deep depth chart. That same defense was manhandled by an offense that had just one player on its two-deep, OL Matt Patchan, that was rated higher than a three-star prospect coming out of high school.

Film Review: Addressing concerns on defense

There are plenty of factors that have contributed to FSU's defensive shortcomings, but the most obvious is that the transition to a new defensive system isn't going nearly as smoothly as we were led to believe.

Despite what we've heard from the Seminole coaches and even some of the players, it's apparent that the defense has undergone a massive overhaul and the players aren't adjusting as quickly as expected. Instead of the base four-three scheme that has been a staple at FSU for decades, Pruitt has dramatically shaken up how the front seven operates. Three, four and five-man fronts are now commonplace. And the secondary also underwent a makeover compared to prior seasons. Defensive backs frequently line up all over the field and there has been a graying of the destination between cornerbacks and safeties.

The use of defensive personnel has also undergone a significant shift. Former defensive tackles Eddie Goldman and Demonte McAllister are now listed as defensive ends. Meanwhile, defensive end turned tight end turned defensive end Dan Hicks is now lining up at linebacker. And it is not uncommon to see linebackers Ukeme Eligwe and Matthew Thomas to line up at defensive end. And on Saturday true freshman Jalen Ramsey was moved from cornerback to safety to fill in for injured starter Tyler Hunter. Sprinkle in a handful of inexperienced players still learning on the go and the end result sometimes looks like a Chinese fire drill.

Defensive Downgrade
Category 2012 (final) 2013 (4 games) Difference
Total defense 254 yds. 290 yds. 36 yds.
Rushing defense 92 yds. 154 yds. 62 yds.
Yards per rush 2.9 yds. 3.9 yds. 1 yard
3rd down defense 27% 34% 7%
First qtr. points 2.6 pts. 5.3 pts. 2.7 pts.
* While the numbers aren't dramatically different FSU hasn't faced an offense ranked higher than 66 among FBS teams.
Confused with all the changes? Apparently so is FSU's defense.

This isn't an indictment of the defensive scheme that Pruitt brought over from Alabama. Given the right personnel, this defense has proven that it can be extremely effective and should be a good fit at FSU given the immense amount of talent on that side of the ball. It issue isn't if the system will work at FSU but when.

We have to remember that Jeremy Pruitt arrived at Alabama in 2010 as a secondary coach when Nick Saban's defense was already a well-oiled machine. And while in Tuscaloosa he wasn't running the defense and has never had to piece together a defense from scratch until he arrived in Tallahassee nine months ago. Everybody, myself included, got caught up in the aura of implementing Alabama's defense at Florida State when the cupboard was filled with elite talent.

And while there is plenty of defensive talent on the roster, it was far too easy for fans and media to dismiss the loss of seven defensive players taken in last April's NFL draft. Those losses left Pruitt with just three full-time starters from a 2012 team that finished second in total defense.

Hindsight is usually 20/20 so it's easy to look back now and somewhat understand the defense's disappointing start. In retrospect it was probably unrealistic to expect the defense to come out like gangbusters considering the group's overall inexperience and a rookie coordinator trying to implement a drastically new scheme. And there's also the issue of fitting players recruited for a four-three scheme into different fronts that may not best fit their skill set.

Seminole D not happy with just good enough

While the defense's early stumbles may be explainable, it won't change the fact that the grace period for these growing pains have come to an end. No. 25 Maryland comes in this weekend boasting a potent offense that is 18th nationally and is averaging nearly 500 yards a game. Like Boston College, Maryland had a bye week before its matchup with FSU and will certainly use that time to prepare for a defense that has shown itself to be vulnerable. It goes from the frying pan to the fire as the Seminoles travel to Clemson in the next game to take on the Tigers' high flying offense in what will probably be the most important game of the season.

Unless a light bulb comes on for the defense quickly, what looked like a very promising season could evaporate as a result of these growing pains.

Special Teams Setback

With all the attention on the defense it's easy to overlook some significant issues on special teams.

The most disconcerting problem so far has been the punt game. Two of Cason Beatty's four punts on Saturday were returned for long gains. The first, a 41-yard line drive that was returned 19 yards, set up Boston College's first touchdown. All in all FSU finished with a net punting average of 27.7 yards.

After Saturday's disappointing numbers FSU dropped to 97th nationally in net punting.

The kickoff coverage was far from perfect either. The kickoff to start the second half was returned 71 yards to FSU's 25-yard line and set up a Boston College field goal that cut the score to 24-20. On the other end FSU didn't return a punt all day and only brought back one kickoff 17 yards.

On a very positive note, however, Roberto Aguayo remained perfect on both field goals and extra points. After Saturday FSU's redshirt freshman kicker holds the record for made kicks to start a career (either FGs or PATs) at 33. That breaks Derek Schmidt's 1984 record.



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