Duke vs. FSU: Ask a Seminoles' beat writer

Posted by Laura Keeley on December 6, 2013 

The Blue Devils are in Charlotte and ready to go against Florida State


Each week, I’ll (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Duke’s opponent. Today we have Brendan Sonnone, who covers Florida State for the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun Sentinel. Check out Brendan’s work here and follow him on Twitter at @osfsu.

1. Lots of chatter this week about how Boston College was able to challenge Florida State better than anyone else, really. Other than the fact that the Eagles run a completely different offense than Duke (no double tight end, handoff to your 2,000 power rusher playcalls here), Florida State's defensive personnel has switched, too. Can you run down what has changed and why that's made the Seminoles better?

At the time of that Boston College game, Florida State’s defense was in transition. Jeremy Pruitt came to Tallahassee from Alabama this offseason and has never been a coordinator at the college level.

Pruitt brought in the same complex defensive scheme Nick Saban runs at Alabama, a far cry from the fairly basic (yet successful) 4-3 scheme FSU had with Mark Stoops. Because of this adjustment, FSU players were seemingly thinking instead of just reacting. The concept was not natural to them yet.

Also, FSU was mixing around different schemes while not trying to show its nickel package before facing ranked spread-offense teams like Clemson and Maryland.

After BC, FSU went to its nickel – five defensive backs, two linebackers and four linemen – and that’s when things turned around. Essentially, FSU put its 11 best defenders on the field and stopped worrying about matchups and rotating personnel. Christian Jones was moved from linebacker to a hybrid defensive end, where he can just react and be aggressive. Terrance Smith moved to the starting linebacker spot next of Telvin Smith, giving FSU two rangy backers capable of stopping the run and dropping into coverage. Finally, the nickel allowed cornerback Lamarcus Joyner to play closer to the line of scrimmage as the team’s nickel back.

Plus defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. was out for that game. He’s gotten better every week and is key in stopping the run while adding a little bit of a pass rush.

The game also serves as a wakeup call for FSU players, who admittedly starting trusting Pruitt a little more after watching film and seeing they would be in the right place to make places if they just played within the scheme.

Those factors have made FSU’s defense arguably the nation’s top unit. FSU is the top-ranked scoring defense in the country and the top pass defense as well.

2. Jameis Winston. He's pretty good. But why is he SO good, like Heisman good ?

Obviously you see the physical tools: Excellent arm, strength in the pocket, good athleticism. Then there’s that bubbly persona, that charisma that has helped his teammates rally around him.

But what has really made Jameis Winston the front runner for the Heisman is this: He does not get rattled. Ever.

Winston has had his moments where’s he’s struggled in spurts, maybe made some bad passes. But he always finds a way to turn things around. Winston has this uncanny ability to overcome any adversity on the field.

He’s a guy that gets better after he gets sacked or throws an interception. He gets more focused after a mistake. The bigger the stage, the more hostile the environment, the better he’s played (see Clemson.) It’s this intangible quality that few posses and his hard for me to really quantify.

3. So there is just one Florida State defender on the first-team all-ACC team (CB Lamarcus Joyner). First off, how angry were the players and coaches that he was the only one to get that recognition and who are the other names to know on that defense.

The players and coaches kind of shrugged off the snubs, it was more the fan base that was livid.

Most FSU players don’t have big numbers because 1. The scheme is designed to filter the ball to different defenders, and 2. The starting defense usually isn’t on the field past the first drive or two in the third quarter.

That’s what has made this FSU defense so good: The players act as a collective unit.

Timmy Jernigan was the one guy that teammates were surprised that he didn’t make the first team. The defensive tackle is utterly dominant and will likely be a first-round pick if he declares for the NFL Draft. He regularly draws double teams but doesn’t give up much ground. And when he’s not double teamed, that’s usually bad news for whoever has the ball.

Two secondary members that are kind of unsung heroes are Terrence Brooks and Ronald Darby. Brooks is a versatile safety who is equally effective against the run and the pass. Darby, a sophomore corner, doesn’t have gaudy numbers because teams have basically stopped throwing his way. Guys don’t get open against him.

I mentioned the Smiths (no relation) at linebacker earlier. Both are very athletic and instinctive, and solidify the middle of the defense.

But really, you could talk about every FSU starter. This is not hyperbole: All 11 of FSU’s starters will eventually be drafted.

4. So we've been over Jameis and the defense. What/who else do Duke fans need to be aware of when watching Saturday?

FSU’s wide receivers need to be noted. The three starters – Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw – form what is the top receiver trio in the country. Each has more than 800 yards receiving and all three bring something special to the table.

Benjamin (6-5, 235) is a matchup nightmare because he has the size of a tight end but the athleticism of Greene or Shaw. Keep an eye on him as a blocker as well, he’s usually good for one pancake a game.

Greene is steady. He doesn’t wow you with blazing speed or quickness. His game is actually unorthodox, but he finds ways to get open and almost always catches the ball. He’s the most polished of the three wide outs.

Finally there is Shaw. He’s super fluid and a warrior going across the middle of the field. He’s scrawny (6-0, maybe 180 pounds) but can take a hit. Really, he’s an ideal slot receiver.

Add tight end Nick O’Leary to the mix and FSU has four formidable weapons for Winston.

5. All that stands in between FSU and the national title game are the little Blue Devils that could be 29-point underdogs, according to Vegas. The temptation to look past this game must be high. Have you noticed any difference in the way the team has approached this week or the way they've been talking about the remainder of the season?

Other than Terrence Brooks shrugging off talk about Jamison Crowder’s lofty stats, not really. It’s business as usual in Tallahassee. The Seminoles have really done a fantastic job not looking ahead of any opponent this season, and that’s a testament to coach Jimbo Fisher. Jameis Winston said “this is a two game season” the other day. So FSU knows what’s at stake if it beats Duke.

Thanks so much to Brendan for his time—it’s been a busy spell on the Seminoles beat.

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