The big, bad FSU secondary was unable to slow down the Clemson passing game last year in Death Valley.
For this week’s Q&A, STS is lucky enough to have Dylan Kidd from one of SBNation’s best and busiest sites, Tomahawk Nation, join us to answer a few questions about this weekend’s enormous game. If you guys don’t already follow Tomahawk Nation to keep track of the ‘Noles, I recommend you do so. I think it’s important to keep an eye on your biggest rivals in order to see where Clemson stands in comparison. The ‘Noles are our biggest conference rival and should be our competition for the Atlantic Division title each and every year.
STS: FSU's defense was very good last year and has been virtually impenetrable this year. I'm not sure if there is a true weakness, but are there soft spots where this defense can be attacked?
TN: Soft spots on this Seminole defense are certainly few and far between. The linebacker position is the group with the most question marks, as solid but not spectacular Vince Williams and converted safety Nick Moody start alongside freak of nature Christian Jones. The field corner position is one marked by a lack of experience, but the talented players battling for the spot have been solid so far. The defensive line and safety positions are an embarrassment of riches, and the unit has looked fantastic with another year under coordinator Mark Stoops. However, the competition faced thus far has not posed a threat to stretch the defense horizontally in the passing game, something that Clemson certainly will. Chad Morris will want to keep FSU’s DBs out of the run game and try to establish it against what will likely be a nickel package from the ‘Noles. It won’t be easy, but Clemson has some serious weapons at its disposal on offense.
STS: Following up on that thought - FSU lost Greg Reid in the offseason and Brandon Jenkins the first game of the season. What has FSU done to mitigate these losses and what's the potential impact of their absence in this game?
TN: While Florida State’s defense is very, very deep, it’s impossible to claim that these losses haven’t hurt, despite the efforts of some FSU fans. While Reid wasn’t a fantastic corner, he had become increasingly dependable throughout his career and was probably too harshly criticized by some fans. He left a hole at field corner that FSU is seeking to fill with sophomore Nick Waisome and true freshman Ronald Darby. While both are very talented players, they are certainly green and will be worth watching in their matchups on Saturday. Fortunately, FSU has a front seven and defensive line in particular that generates a lot of pressure in the passing game and two excellent safeties to help the young guys out.
Another hole that Reid’s dismissal created was at punt returner. While Reid wasn’t an elite corner, he was elite at this position. Top wideout Rashad Greene has filled in, and while he has two returns for TD’s, he isn’t the savant Reid was in knowing which punts to field, which to let go, and displaying the patience and wiggle needed to consistently return punts effectively. ‘Noles fans simply hope that Greene doesn’t make a costly mistake when he lines up deep to return rather than hoping for a big play.
As to Jenkins, his loss was a heartbreaker. The guy is the consummate teammate who returned to school for all the right reasons. Sadness aside, Florida State was as well equipped as anybody to handle the loss of an All-American defensive end, as Tank Carradine is an excellent player in his own right. The drop-off in performance won’t be seen between Jenkins and Carradine, but rather between the new third defensive end and the fourth. It has also forced FSU (for the moment) to take redshirts off of both top freshman defensive ends Mario Edwards Jr. and Chris Casher for depth purposes. Still, the ‘Noles have been more than okay at the end position thus far.
STS: What type of game plan should we expect from FSU DC Mark Stoops? Is he an aggressive play caller that likes to dial up different blitzes, or will he rely on his front 4 to generate pressure, which will allow him to drop 7 into coverage?
TN: In a word, multiple. It’s Stoops’ favorite word, and it’s accurate here. He will mix man and zone coverages, show some exotic looks and three man fronts, and can blitz from a lot of different places on the field. As for Saturday night, I think the gameplan for Wake last week gives a little bit of insight into what we’ll see. The ‘Noles loved the nickel package last week, going to it roughly every time the Deacs sent more than two wideouts onto the field. Nickleback Tyler Hunter is a good young player and had an excellent game against Wake Forest receiving threat Michael Campanaro last week. He’ll need to do the same this week. Last week we saw Stoops elect not to send much extra pressure in favor of keeping the Demon Deacons rolls, misderection, etc. in front of his defenders. It’s likely that he also didn’t see the need with Wake’s green o-line and lack of big time playmakers. This week the latter has certainly changed, though as to the former I am unsure. While Clemson’s horizontal action on offense is of a different variety than Wake’s, I think Stoops will express some of the same preference to keep offensive players in front in defending it. However, I do expect to see more pressure than last week because giving Tajh Boyd too much time to find his elite receivers is a recipe for disaster. Obviously, if the Seminoles can get pressure with their excellent defensive line alone, then Stoops will sit back for the majority of the night and put the Tigers in a precarious position on offense.
STS: I watched a good amount of FSU football last year and came away very underwhelmed with their OL (especially 1st half against ND). I understand that was an extremely young group of linemen, but have they somehow gone from a weakness to a strength over one offseason? What are the strengths of this unit and where are they weak?
TN: You are not alone in that impression of last year’s offensive line. However, it’s important to remember how ridiculously banged up that unit was. Florida State’s offense was the most injured unit of any in the nation last season, according to Phil Steele, and the offensive line alone started ten different players during the season, including four true freshmen in the bowl game. Then things got even weirder. To replace the two departing tackles, FSU brought in two JUCO players in Menelik Watson and Daniel Glauser at right tackle while switching defensive tackle Cameron Erving over to left tackle. This shouldn’t work. But, improbably, it has so far. Erving has a prototypical body for an offensive tackle and is a great athlete, while his counterpart starter Watson is a 6’6" 330 pound mauler from Manchester, UK. They’ve both been very solid to start the season, and have combined with a big interior line that is very talented. Against all odds, this unit has gone from a revolving door, both in terms of personnel and in blocking style, to a formidable group of linemen. I think this is a primary reason that ‘Noles fans are so excited at this point. Are huge performances against Murray State, Savannah State, and Wake Forest without Nikita Whitlock overly impressive? No. But, are they a far cry from what we saw last year against Charleston Southern, Wake Forest, etc.? Absolutely. The Seminoles ran at will against the Deacs and made believers out of many fans, especially in the outside zone running game.
STS: Let me start be saying that I've always been an EJ Manuel fan because of his Virginia roots. But last week against Wake Forest he completed 76% of his pass that were thrown under 10 yards and 40% of his passes that were 10 yards downfield or more. I've always felt that he throws well to the flats, but struggles on intermediate passes. Is this an accurate assessment? And if so, in your opinion should Clemson's DBs play closer to the line and force EJ to make plays down the field?
TN: Yes and no. A big area of concern with Manuel, and there are several, is his ability to read the middle of the field. He’s not great in the pre-snap phase, nor is he particularly adept at going through his reads when the bullets are flying. He can throw the screen game stuff, he can throw a smash combo pretty effectively, and he actually throws a really pretty deep ball. The offensive line that I lauded for being improved above struggled a bit in pass protection last week, though some of that was more the responsibility of the backs and tight ends. EJ missed some throws and reads, had some drops, and was generally unimpressive last week. But, FSU doesn’t need him to set the world on fire. He ran the zone read very effectively last week, a significant change from last season when he struggled mightily with it for some reason. He has been better at getting the offense into the right plays at the line and at getting out of the pocket before too much time has elapsed this season, both important improvements. Manuel has what appears to be a capable running game from his backs this season and presents a significant run threat in his own right, while also benefitting from a very deep wide receiver corps. If he can avoid costly mistakes and three and outs, I like FSU’s chances both Saturday and for the rest of the season.
If I’m Clemson I want to make EJ Manuel beat me with his arm from the pocket. I think it’s the least feared of the three threats, which are the outside zone run game, EJ’s run threat (these two can be combined with OZ zone reads, and were frequently last week), and his passing game. I do think it would be prudent to play the Seminole wideouts tight, though it is a gamble because they’re quite good. But the Tigers simply can’t let the ‘Noles run at will like they did last week and in turn rest their elite defense, crucial in defending Clemson’s offensive pace.
STS: Big Chris Thompson fan here and was very glad to hear that his neck injury wasn't career ending. Does he look like the same player he was prior to his injury? I know he broke off a couple of big runs against Wake. Was that an indication that his burst is fully back? Any hesitation from him running between the tackles?
TN: It’s hard not to root for Chris, and we were ecstatic to see him have such a huge game last weekend. We were certainly worried about the long-term effects of breaking the two vertebrae, but I think these concerns were quelled on Saturday. Thompson looked as good as I’ve ever seen him against Wake Forest after seeing limited action against the two FCS schools. Though he broke his two long runs on OZ plays, I thought he looked fine when FSU did run between the tackles, which happened early but not as much later when the ‘Noles adjusted to what Wake was doing with their 1-gap 3-4. ‘Noles fans hope CT4 keeps the momentum rolling against the Tigers.
STS: I feel like if Clemson is to have a chance in this game they will have to win the special teams battle. FSU had to replace their punt returner and punter this year. What are the early returns on FSU's special teams unit?
TN: Freshman punter Cason Beatty was probably one of the primary concerns for FSU fans coming into the year. He didn’t look good in the spring game and was stepping into huge shoes after the phenomenal Shawn Powell departed. However, he has looked very solid so far this year with a couple of excellent punts last week to pin Wake around the five-yard line. As previously mentioned, Rashad Greene has been serviceable if not a little scary sometimes returning punts. The kick return game features Karlos Williams and usually either Lamarcus Joyner or Rashad Greene, and we strongly prefer Greene because of Joyner’s importance to the defense. Williams runs like a freaking gazelle at 230 pounds and we like it when he has the ball.
The interesting part of the FSU special teams unit is its kickoff strategy. Dustin Hopkins is an elite kicker, and the ‘Noles have freak athletes on the coverage unit. They’ve devised a strategy under the new kickoff rules wherein Hopkins will launch the ball with a greater than 4.0 hang time and attempt to land it inside the five-yard line, allowing the coverage team to maximize field position. Wake Forest didn’t get past the fifteen when the Seminoles did this last week before having Hopkins kick the ball out of the endzone when the route was on. Obviously, Clemson has a more dangerous return man than the Deacs did, so it will be interesting to see if FSU decides to continue with this strategy or simply to give the Tigers the ball at the 25 each time.
STS: Tomahawk Nation does an excellent job and has become a daily read for me. As a result, I've been introduced to win shares. So, DK, I must ask, what is your win share for FSU in this contest? And while your at it, go ahead and throw out a final score prediction for me.
TN: We appreciate the kind words and are always happy to have you and all STS posters stop by. You guys do some fantastic work over here and we’re can't wait to work with you each year during this game week. It’s a great rivalry we’ve got brewing.
We at TN like this matchup. In a nutshell, Clemson has not been good at setting the edge on defense this season, nor has its offensive line been good enough to cause us to feel that FSU’s defensive line won’t wreak some havoc against it. I’m glad you bring up the win shares, and here’s a llink to the original post n case some readers are curious.
As much as we like the matchup, I can’t be comfortable with a 14 point spread against Clemson. The Tigers have a lot of talent, and FSU has beaten up on bad football teams so far (though they’ve done everything they’re supposed to). I like FSU at a .65 win share (65%) and will give you a final score of 30-22 ‘Noles.