FSU goes big for elite secondary
P.J. Williams summed up Florida State's defensive backfield nicely at ACC Kickoff: Bigger is better.
"That's what they want pretty much in the league and in college football," Williams said.
Lots of teams want bigger defensive backs, but Florida State has put that desire into practice, stockpiling longer, taller, rangier defensive backs and using them to build the most dominant secondary in college football.
By almost any metric, Florida State's secondary was the best in the country in 2013, and even outgoing players on that unit voiced thoughts that FSU would be even better the next year. With Williams, Ronald Darby and Jalen Ramsey in the front of the segment, FSU has three players projected as high NFL draft picks, and that doesn't even mention the safeties behind them or the depth in the rest of the unit.
It all starts with recruiting. While there is a seemingly endless supply of smaller, speedy defensive backs around the country - FSU coach Jimbo Fisher calls them "waterbugs" - the real prizes are players who have size and speed.
"Those big, physical guys, you've got to fight and claw for those," Fisher said. "But also you have to [identify] the guys who really can play, the ones who are big but also athletic. The few that are out there, you're fighting everybody for them."
Fisher has won more than his fair share of those fights and has stockpiled FSU's secondary with cornerbacks who have the size of safeties.
For example, FSU hasn't signed a defensive back shorter than 5-foot-11 in the past three years. The current starters all stand 5-foot-11 or taller.
FSU has also moved bigger athletes into the defensive backfield - Xavier Rhodes (6-2, 217 pounds) was a prototypical wide receiver before moving to cornerback. Rhodes' size and speed helped make him a first-round draft pick.
Williams and Ramsey were both safeties in high school, while Darby was a prep running back. Williams admitted the transition from safety to corner was a challenge at first, but Fisher said that once Williams found his groove, he emerged as a viable lockdown corner.
"You never know if a guy is going to continue to work and be that good, but I thought he had a chance," Fisher said. "Big, physical, long, could cover, could change direction, very good for a guy that thick. … Once he locked into it, those guys are hard to find."
That's the ideal order for defensive backs now, said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell.
"You want safety-sized kids who can play cornerback," Farrell said. "It takes a lot of coaching to get them there. You can get the guy who is 6-foot and solid and fast but you've got to teach them the position."
The increase in size is essential considering Fisher's desire to build a defense on versatility. Fisher talked openly in 2013 about his hope to build a defense from the secondary up to the front line, something that was only reiterated when Charles Kelly took over the defensive backs as part of his new defensive coordinator position in the offseason.
Bigger defensive backs can do more. Longer arms can clog passing lanes and bat balls away higher in the air. Stronger corners can more effectively jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, mucking up the timing for so many of the tempo-oriented attacks that populate college football and allowing for FSU's pass rush to be more effective.
But FSU also uses its defensive backs in a variety of settings. Williams said he frequently was the player setting the edge for run defense, taking on fullbacks, tight ends and even offensive linemen last season.
"I haven't heard of too many other teams emphasize it but our team does," Williams said. "You've got to be physical to come up and make tackles. … I have a lot of tight ends, big receivers, in the boundary, take on offensive linemen and stuff like that. We pride ourselves on that."
The roster tells the story: Williams is 6-foot-1 and 200-plus pounds. Ramsey, at 6-foot-1, is close to 206, and his dimensions aren't far off from former FSU star linebacker Telvin Smith. Fisher said he loves the versatility that size offers.
"Being able to take on blockers and set edges and how you play run support," Fisher said. "Not only coverage but run support. How you can jam, how you can get your hands on a guy, and how you can contest a Kelvin Benjamin and those big receivers or matchup against a tight end? That's one of the unique things about our secondary I like is personnel matchups; we can move guys in and out to get the matchups we want."
The results have been tangible. FSU has led the NCAA in passing defense for the past two years and led the ACC for the past three. In 2013, Florida State led the NCAA in interceptions as well, and the team's sack leader was a defensive back to boot.
It's an impressive turnaround in just a few years. In 2009, Florida State's passing defense ranked 11th in the ACC and allowed opponents to complete nearly 50 percent of their passes. The next year in 2010, FSU was only in the middle of the ACC at seventh.
The trend of bigger players in the secondary shows no signs of stopping. In the class of 2015, FSU currently has commitments from 6-foot-1 five-star DB Derwin James along with 5-11 Tyrek Cole, among others.
"I think FSU is in a position where they can be picky," Farrell said. "Everyone wants a 6-foot-1 corner with great hips who can cover. Those guys aren't out there in bulk."
Powell Latimer is a staff writer at Warchant. You can contact him at Powell@Warchant.com.