Rating the Room: Linebackers poised to emerge as team strength for FSU
With the spring semester having come to a close and the Florida State football team preparing for the start of summer workouts, it's time to take stock of each position on the Seminoles' offense and defense.
What are the position strengths and weaknesses? How is the depth? Is additional help needed through the transfer portal?
We'll answer each of those questions and more, continuing today with the linebackers. And don't miss the earlier previews: Running Back | Quarterback | Tight ends | Offensive line | Wide Receiver | Defensive end | Defensive Tackle |
Projected Depth Chart
After several disappointing seasons for this position group, Florida State's linebackers showed real signs of improvement during the 2021 season. They were more often in proper position to make plays, and they did a much better job of finishing the plays that were there to make.
A big reason for that development was the emergence of young linebackers Kalen DeLoach and D.J. Lundy, both of whom showed promise during their first full seasons as starters. The good news for FSU is that all of the Seminoles' top players at this position return in 2022, and they also added a major newcomer in the form of UCF transfer Tatum Bethune.
FSU's growth at linebacker was a major factor in the defense's overall improvement from Adam Fuller's first to second seasons as defensive coordinator, and based on what we saw in the spring, that group should be primed to take another significant step forward this fall.
The Top Two: Tatum Bethune, Kalen DeLoach
Even before he first stepped foot on the FSU practice fields, Bethune's production at UCF was an attention-getter. He followed up a 57-tackle sophomore season in 2020 with a 108-tackle performance last fall, and the Miami native was even more impressive once he arrived in person. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Bethune is not necessarily the most dynamic linebacker FSU has had in terms of running sideline to sideline, but he appears to be very adept at diagnosing plays, taking proper angles and delivering a powerful punch at the point of attack. Bethune also is a very vocal communicator on the field, which appeared to be contagious for other linebackers this spring. And he simply plays inside linebacker they way it's supposed to be played.
Just one year ago, DeLoach provided a similar boost to the Seminoles' linebacker corps. After playing sparingly during his first two years on campus, DeLoach blossomed during the spring of 2021 and then turned in an impressive season last fall; he recorded 69 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, and was named most improved player on defense. He not only showed the ability to make big plays, but the former four-star recruit also proved to be an excellent communication and leader, which was one of several areas where the Seminoles were lacking in recent years.
The Next Two: Amari Gainer, D.J. Lundy
Gainer returns as one of the most experienced linebackers in the country, having already played in 38 games and serving as a part-time starter since 2019. The 6-3, 233-pounder has all of the measurables one would want in a college linebacker, but it has taken him some time to find his footing in Fuller's defense. With the Seminoles often using just two linebackers on the field, and Gainer showing the most comfort as an outside 'backer, he was on the field for 404 snaps last season (compared to 571 as a redshirt freshman). Having said that, Gainer appeared to show real improvement in the spring and could be poised for a strong senior season under new position coach Randy Shannon. He will rotate in with the top group in Fuller's 4-2-5 defense, and he also will start out at outside linebacker when the 'Noles are in a 4-3.
The fact that we expect Lundy to move into a backup role behind Bethume says much more about the UCF transfer than it does Lundy. As a redshirt freshman last season, Lundy showed real promise, particularly as a run-stuffer. He got picked on at times in coverage, but that likely was more a result of inexperience than a lack of ability. He didn't play linebacker in high school, so there were times when he appeared to be thinking and reacting, as opposed to relying on his instincts. The 6-1, 239-pounder will still be a major part of the rotation this fall, and he is another one who seemed to show noticeable improvement during the spring.
Others in the mix: Stephen Dix Jr., Brendan Gant, Omar Graham Jr.
With Florida State often operating out of a 4-2-5 defense, the Seminoles aren't carrying nearly as many linebackers as they might have in the past. They have seven scholarship players in Shannon's group, with several reserves having transferred out over the last couple of years.
Dix started as a true freshman in 2020 before seeing his role diminish significantly last season. That led some to wonder if he would consider entering the transfer portal this offseason, but he stayed put and seemed to make strides during spring drills. He is one of several players who likely will benefit from watching the way Bethune plays the position.
Gant made the move to linebacker in the spring after playing mostly safety the past three years, and the switch should suit him well. He seemed to make more plays toward the end of the spring, and he still has two years of eligibility remaining, so there is plenty of time to continue learning the position.
Graham is just a true freshman but quickly made a strong impression as an early enrollee this spring. He likely will make his biggest impact on special teams in 2022, but FSU's coaches believe he could be a future college star.
Outlook for 2022
It has been a long time since Florida State's linebacker position group could be considered a team strength, but it's looking like that will be the case this fall. DeLoach is turning into a very good college linebacker, and Bethune is already there.
With Gainer and Lundy getting more and more comfortable, and Shannon bringing his decades of experience as a position coach and defensive coordinator, there is plenty to be excited about.
Needs this offseason
None. That's not to say FSU would refuse to even consider a transfer at this position, but it would have to be a proven star. The Seminoles feel great about their starters, and there is plenty of depth when you consider that there often are only two linebackers on the field.
Grade entering the summer
B: Above average in the ACC
As alluded to earlier, FSU's linebacker segment was in very poor shape just two or three years ago. It was one of the worst groups in the country and one of the major reasons why the Seminoles' defense struggled against the run and the pass.
Those days appear to be long gone. FSU fans will be able to go into games this fall expecting the linebackers to be in position and to even make impact plays behind the line of scrimmage. This won't be a return to the days of Marvin Jones and Derrick Brooks by any stretch, but this group is a significant upgrade from recent years' past.