Courtesy of Ross Obley | Florida State Sports InformationFootball
Back on the warpath: Florida State poised to return to championship discussion behind swarming defense
The two crystal footballs get special treatment. They’re not tucked away in the coach’s office with the rest of the bowl trophies — they’re both showcased at the entrance of the Coyle E. Moore Athletic Center for every student-athlete to see.
As soon as he walks through the doors, Lamarcus Joyner is reminded about the golden age of Florida State football and the 13-year national championship drought in Tallahassee, Fla.
“We’re hungry to get one,” said Joyner, an All-Atlantic Coast Conference free safety last season. “You want to add to the tradition of Florida State, and we’ve got a good chance to get one for ourselves.”
The Seminoles are ACC favorites once again. After failing to take the conference in 2011 with losses to inferior teams like Virginia and Wake Forest, they enter this season with the talent needed to recapture the glory of the storied Bobby Bowden era.
Joyner and his defensive teammates will be at the center of FSU’s charge this year. Head coach Jimbo Fisher will field the deepest and most talented defense since Bowden’s national championship team in 1999. Only Alabama, LSU — the two teams that played for the 2011 national championship — and Temple outranked the Seminoles in total defense last season. Florida State surrendered only 275 yards per game in 2011, and the defense will return eight starters in 2012.
If that unit plays to its incredible potential, this could be the year Florida State returns to national prominence.
Defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner combined for 15 sacks alone in 2012. Jenkins could’ve been a first-round NFL Draft pick but returned to team up with Werner for his senior season.
Joyner, fellow safety Terrance Brooks and cornerback Xavier Rhodes are just as talented and just as NFL-ready. Even without recently exiled cornerback and returner Greg Reid, the secondary has few rivals in the country.
Linebackers Vince Williams and Christian Jones help put the unit over the edge.
“You can’t just point to one moment or one play in practice,” kicker Dustin Hopkins said of the defense. “They do something amazing on every snap, and they’re only getting better.”
James “Buster” Davis can’t help but think about how he would play on a unit like this. The former All-ACC middle linebacker finished his college career six years ago, but as he watched the Seminoles last season from his home in the Jacksonville, Fla. area, he said his alma mater looks completely different on the defensive side of the ball.
Davis said that Bowden and his former defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, never deviated from the recruiting recipe that won them championships in the 1993 and 1999 seasons. After all, the two had unprecedented success with undersized players who were fast and could break on the ball during their historic streak of top-five finishes from 1987-2000.
“Those are the plays that you can’t wait to see in a game. Those are the plays you can’t wait to see them make against someone else.”
Dustin Hopkins, Florida State kicker
“Those teams I played on were built around speed and the freedom to go make a play with that speed,” said Davis. “You could be 5-9, and if you were fast and could get to the ball, you were good. These defenses that coach Fisher and coach Stoops put out there aren’t built like that at all.”
The change was necessary. By the time Davis got there, FSU was on the decline. And by the time Fisher took over, the team surrendered an average 30.8 points per game.
Fisher was Bowden’s offensive coordinator for three seasons, but the work he put into rebuilding the defense — including the hire of Stoops away from his brother Mike at Oklahoma — is reflected in the state of his current roster.
These Seminoles are fast, but they’re also built to combat the pass-happy spread offenses in college football.
The first padded practice of the summer showed Christian Thompson just how dominant the defense has become under Fisher.
Before his number was called, the senior running back was forced to watch as the defense returned three consecutive interceptions for scores. Thompson thought that the ensuing play, a screen pass away from the FSU blitz, could be a much-needed spark for a dejected offense.
“It worked so well during team drills, and we were all ready to get into some sort of groove,” said Thompson. “But sometimes the defense likes to remind us that we still have work to do.”
Those reminders occur often for the offense against this defense. On this play, Thompson cradled the ball against his chest before looking upfield and right into the garnet and gold helmet of Jones.
“Those are the plays that you can’t wait to see in a game,” said All-ACC placekicker Dustin Hopkins. “Those are the plays you can’t wait to see them make against someone else.”
On paper, the team has the makings to be among the best in the ACC, but the Seminoles must prove it on the field.
Bowden’s two national championships and decades of success set the bar high for college football at FSU. Expectations are heightened in Tallahassee again in 2012.
Joyner knows how important his defense is to living up to the preseason hype. The unit will be crucial to Florida State becoming a program that competes for titles at the end of the season, not the beginning.
“If people are going to say that Florida State is back, that means that we’re competing for championships,” Joyner said. “They’ll be no question that we’re back when that happens.”
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