By BJ Bennett
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FSU's interior of the defensive line has been young and thin at times in the past, now appears ready for higher expectations with the return of a handful of veterans.
Once known for a ferocious run defense that was annually one of the nation's best, Florida State has seen that tradition dissipate in recent years. The Seminoles, despite their continued recruitment of four and five star defensive linemen and linebackers, haven't ranked in the top five in the ACC at stopping the rush in four years. There isn't a player on the roster who was in school the last time Florida State had an elite rush defense.
Two years ago, Mickey Andrews' last as coordinator this proud unit, production reached a new low. The Seminoles allowed the most rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry in the conference. Only one BCS conference program, lowly Washington State, was worse. Considerable improvement was made in year one of the Mark Stoops' era but the 'Noles still finished just sixth in the league, allowing over 128 yards on the ground per game. During Bobby Bowden and Andrews' dynasty years, that would have been considered unacceptable.
While the secondary returns all four starters, including All-American candidates Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid, there are still some concerns as to whether or not this FSU defense can stop the run and do so consistently at a championship level. For a team getting top ten attention this pre-season, realizing their potential along the front seven will be an absolute must.
The 'Noles have their own superstar in the trenches: junior defensive end Brandon Jenkins. While he may be the best at his position in college football, Jenkins is a pure pass rusher. He is the returning runner-up nationally with 13.5 sacks from a year ago. The interior of the defensive line, young and thin at times in the past, appears ready for higher expectations with the return of a handful of veterans. Especially with Jenkins demanding constant attention on the edge. For the first time in years, coaches have proven depth at the line of scrimmage. Returning starters Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins are entering their junior seasons, along with former five-star recruit Jacobbi McDaniel. Redshirt junior Moses McCray is back after missing all of last season due to injury and he provides some much need muscle (320 pounds) inside.
Rising underclassmen also appear ready to figure prominently into the rotation at tackle. Sophomore Demonte McAllister showed promise as a freshman with three sacks and seven tackles for loss. Another sophomore, Darious Cummings, will push for playing time along with 6'5'' redshirt freshman Cameron Irving. Even with a crowded depth chart, true freshman Timmy Jernigan is expected to hold his own. He had offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU, USC and others. In all Jimbo Fisher signed seven defensive linemen in the 2011 class, including five defensive tackles.
The speed rusher Jenkins aside, 275-pound German Bjoern Werner developed quite the reputation late last season. He and sophomore Dan Hicks are larger end products, different defenders than Jenkins and rangy junior Toshmon Stevens. Many are excited to see the debut of JUCO All-American Tank Carradine. He comes to Tallahassee from Butler Community College at 6'5'', 251 pounds.
While the depth doesn't appear to be quite as proven at linebacker, there is an overflow of athleticism and bit more muscle than in years past. Senior all-conference candidate Nigel Bradham leads the returnees; he tied for tops on the team in tackles last season with 97. Projected starters Vince Williams and Christian Jones, along with Bradham, all hover around the 240-pound mark. This starting crop of FSU linebackers seems to have more bulk than most units, all while maintaining the speed and quickness that made their predecessors so highly-regarded. Former five-star Jeff Luc and dynamic Telvin Smith will also push for starting time.
Even some of the defensive backs showed more of a willingness to stopping the run a year ago, especially the second-half of the season. Nick Moody packs a punch at safety at 230 pounds and corners Reid and Mike James made highlights with their big hits. Reid's hit on All-SEC running back Marcus Lattimore in the Chic-fil-A Bowl was deemed by many as one of the defensive plays of the year.
For the first time in a long time, Florida State has size and depth up front to go along with their typical speed and quickness. As some whisper of a relative return to glory in the panhandle of Florida, the pressure will be on the defense to get back to defending the run like they used to. The 'Noles finally have the talent, the measurables and the personnel; all they need now is the results.