The one-loss, defending ACC Champion Seminoles come to Clemson for a clash that will almost certainly decide the Atlantic Division. To help us preview the ACC's biggest game of the year Dylan Kidd joins us from Tomahawk Nation.
STS: Shakin the Southland
TN: Tomahawk Nation
STS: If there is one description that can be used to describe the Seminole defense on a yearly basis, it would be "freakishly athletic." With top ranked recruits coming in year after year, can you explain the job that DC Charles Kelly has done turning these kids from just athletes to fitting a system and becoming well rounded defenders?
TN: There were (and probably still are, for some) questions about Charles Kelly as a defensive coordinator after his first season in 2014. The Seminoles brought back a lot of talent and experience from a phenomenal 2013 defense, and fans expected the 2014 squad to perform at a similar level. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. The 2014 ‘Noles suffered from many of its NFL-bound defenders likely playing with one foot out the door, and were also weak in the middle of the defense consistently. How much of that was due to the players, and how much was due to Kelly, were both legitimate questions, and 2015 was to be critical in figuring out what FSU has in its defensive coordinator.
This year's defense has performed better, at least so far. The depth on the defensive line is much improved, and while the linebacker and safety corps have been thinned out by injuries, the secondary play on the outside has been very good. I do think Kelly has his guys playing more cohesively this season, and I'm fine with the job he has done. I think the success of the unit depends much more on the players and their health right now than it does on anything Kelly and his staff do. If the ‘Noles don't get their only linebacker who can cover back from injury (Terrance Smith) and/or come up with enough healthy players to cover up a potential liability in a 175-pound walk-on at the star position, there won't be much Kelly can do against the Clemson offense.
STS: Florida State has the season turnover advantage (+9) as opposed to Clemson's (+1). In which portion of the defense has Florida State found its turnover success and who would you say is the defender most likely to change the game by creating a key turnover?
TN: Well first I'll note that the primary reason for FSU's turnover advantage is that the ‘Noles have only turned it over twice all season, and only once on offense. So, the defense hasn't been anything particularly special in terms of taking the ball away. Florida State's defense certainly features players capable of doing it, though. Defensive ends DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat can really get after the passer. So can another true freshman, safety Derwin James. (for example...)
I think any of those three are good candidates, but if I'm betting, I would still have to put my money on Jalen Ramsey. Though he's no longer at the star position for the ‘Noles, the boundary corner will find a way to impact the game on Saturday. He's great against the run, can certainly cover, and is just a nasty, freak athlete. I wouldn't be surprised to see FSU move him around a bit to try to cause some havoc against the Tigers, as they'll certainly need some big plays.
STS: Since the departure of Offensive Coordinator Chad Morris, Clemson has put a greater emphasis on running the football. Who are one or two Seminoles who will be tracking Tiger RB Wayne Gallman and may force Clemson to re-think its game plan?
TN: I think that as is the case with many spread option types of running games, it's very important for Florida State to make sure they stop the inside A and B-gap runs first and foremost. With that in mind, the defensive tackle pairing of Nile Lawrence-Stample and Derrick Nnadi will be critical in controlling the point of attack on the interior. They're both very solid against the run, and I expect them to have some moderate success against the Clemson offensive line. They're spelled by backups Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Mitchell. The play of the linebackers will be critical to FSU's fortunes on this side of the ball. As mentioned, the ‘Noles badly need Terrance Smith to return from injury. Linebackers Reggie Northrup and Ro'Derrick Hoskins are fine against the run, but the Tigers will kill them in coverage if they get the chance.
The star position is also really important against the run, and Florida State is currently starting a 175-pound walk-on at that position. I'm hopeful something changes there, like starting Tyler Hunter again, or even playing Jalen Ramsey at the position. The problem is that you're then sacrificing Ramsey's ability to control the run game in the boundary, which he has done remarkably well this season. It may also mean relying on another true freshman, which would make for three of them in the starting lineup. I'm not sure what the right answer is, but I am sure that there really isn't a great one available if the defensive lineup remains the same as it was against Syracuse due to injuries at key positions.
STS: To close part one of this Q&A, I want to look beyond this game. If we're honest, this FSU team is a notch below the three ACC Championship squads from the last three years, but there seems to be some impressive young talent. Scare us straight by telling us about some of the youngsters that I'm sure are keeping you optimistic about the future.
TN: I agree with your assessment and am thankfully able to provide you with a few names here. The ‘Noles are starting two true freshmen who were among the top recruits in the nation a year ago. Josh Sweat and Derwin James are guys who Tiger fans will become very familiar with over what will likely be their three-year careers at FSU.
Sweat is going to be a terror at defensive end, having already contributed more than anyone could've realistically predicted that he would after he suffered a nasty knee injury during his senior season in high school. He's 6'5" 240, and will only get even scarier with an off-season to actually lift in the lower body rather than rehab a knee injury. James is an even more freakish athlete at safety, who will also only improve when he learns the defense to a greater degree. Freshman corner Tarvarus McFadden has seen some time, and I expect big things from him.
Overall, the Seminoles bring back almost everything important on this defense not named Jalen Ramsey in 2016, and will add some excellent new players too, like incoming recruit phenom Levonta Taylor. This may very well be what we're repeating to ourselves as a coping mechanism as the clock winds down in Death Valley on Saturday afternoon.