Despite a hard-fought first half, the surprise ACC coastal representative Duke didn’t stand a chance against the only undefeated team in the country. The Seminoles defense has allowed under 10 points seven times, this year, and only once did they allow over 17.
The best defense in the country (according to points allowed) expectedly destroyed the far less talented Duke Blue Devils. Lead by Lamarcus Joyner and Timmy Jernigan, this defense has been hard pressed to find an offense to match their talent level. But they’ll meet their match against the Auburn Tigers.
The Florida State defense is always known for pumping out quality NFL talent, having at least one player drafted from their unit since 1971. Last year alone, this unit produced seven draft picks, including three in the Top 40.
But despite those loses, this defense simply reloaded. With only five starters returning, this defense grew up quickly in the season and relied on their experienced leaders to guide them to the country’s best defense. With impact players at all three levels, this zone-based defense (who has flirted with third down aggressiveness) has trusted their leaders to finish tackles and disrupt offenses consistently.
Lead by junior (and possible declaree) Timmy Jernigan, the Florida State four-manned defensive line is generally left to rush 4-on-5 most non-obvious passing downs. While they get occasional help from a fifth blitzers, they generally rely on Jernigan to penetrate upfield and their defensive ends to work in contain on the edge. Jernigan possesses loads of talent, leaning ahead with graet positioning and lower leg power, and the quick hands and ability to regain balance fluidly to be a devastating one on one pass rusher. Playing nose tackle, he’s able to fight at double teams, taking up his responsible gaps and letting his other rushers have space. However, he does tend to run “hot and cold”, not consistently winning on consecutive snaps, getting tired vs. hurry up offenses, and not getting the type of consistent pressure evaluators want to see for a potential first rounder.
At the linebacker level, they’re lead by Telvin Smith and Christian Jones, both of whom likely end up as Top 100 picks. Smith, playing the WILL linebacker spot, moved remarkably well for a linebacker in coverage, reaching his drops quickly and reacting to screens/run plays with ideal body positioning. One of the vocal leaders for this defense, his high football IQ and consistency around the ball will need to continue to be on point against Auburn. As for Jones, the SAM linebacker, he has the size and burst to finish tackles in run situations, and occasionally rushes off the edge in more of a 4-3 Over defense. While he’s not nearly as fluid as Smith in coverage and doesn’t generally play in nickel sets, his impact is felt on obvious run plays or situations when he delay rush the passer and win in the short area.
And as for Joyner, the best of the Florida State defensive players, his football IQ, aggressiveness, and incredible reaction/explosion was the key factor for Duke’s inability to sustain drives with the passing game in the ACC title game. Despite being undersized for a defensive back, Joyner times his breaks remarkably well, is constantly flying to the ball, and rarely seems out of place. Playing in the slot, outside in man coverage, and dropping into Cover 2 and Cover 3 zone, his versatility and playmaking ability remind of a mix of Brandon Boykin and Tyrann Mathieu.
Now, with an eye on the past (Duke game) and a focus on the future (Auburn game), here are some of the biggest factors for this Florida State defense that leads them to success.
Factor #1 – Timmy Jernigan is Just Too Good When He Wants To Be
Unfortunately, one of the biggest concerns and focal points on a defensive lineman’s scouting report tends to be his “motor”, or how consistently he’s able to cause disruption. For Jernigan, that’s a question that, when answered, will decide if he’s a Top 15 pick or a fringe Top 50 pick. When he turns it on, he’s as talented as any 4-3 nose tackle in the country.
With elite balance after his rush move, lower leg drive to quickly gain an advantage against his blocker, and nimble lateral control, he sets up his rushes very well when focused. Against Duke, he was among the most consistent in generating pressure as he has been all season. If Florida State hopes to slow the Auburn rushing attack, it’ll be in large part to Jernigan dictating the middle of the field. With how often Auburn pulls it’s guards, Jernigan will have plenty of one-on-one situations to capitalize and disrupt their rushing attack.
Factor #2 – Lamarcus Joyner is an Awesome Blend of Tyrann Mathieu and Brandon Boykin
I alluded to this comparsion earlier, but I think it rings true for both his impact for this defense and his eventual pro career. In terms of this defense, Joyner generally plays the nickel spot in nickel packages (which they play a lot of) and is asked to have success in multiple areas. He presses, drops into full-field man coverage, and makes coverage drops for Cover 2 and Cover 3. He’s also asked to make plays in space as a tackler, and is a frequent blitzer from his nickel spot.
In their win over Duke, Florida State relied on Joyner to limit the screen/flair routes that Duke uses to spread a defense thin, and limited any sort of consistent separation in the middle of the field for his receiver. Auburn, who runs ample amounts of outside runs, screen passes, and attacks the middle of the field on play action, will face a tough schematic match-up in Joyner, who will be key in this defense “bending not breaking” against the Tigers.
Factor #3 – Creativity on 3rd Down Combined with Disciplined Linebackers
The defense as a whole has grown into being one of the most disciplined in the country, despite their youth. Generally rushing just four on first and second downs, the defense tends to get more creative on 3rd downs, sending nickel rushers, delayed linebackers, and running hybrid coverages to keep quarterbacks off balance.
In the game against Duke, this defense ran a host of concepts that gave Duke quarterback Anthony Boone fits on 3rd down, especially after the first few drives. However, despite these occasionally aggressive playcalls, the defense didn’t become susceptible to counters or screens, staying at home and consistently winning on 3rd and shorts as well as 3rd and longs. Check the plays below (the first on 3rd down, the second just an example of their versatility) to see how versatile they can be when they want to be. They rarely need to thanks to their linebacker and defensive line presence, but they’ll need to keep Auburn guessing and not have this defense reactionary against the Tigers running game.
Florida State’s defense is no joke. While some have criticized their schedule, they’ve played (and handily beat) three likely draft picks at quarterback (Tom Savage, Tajh Boyd, Stephen Morris), an SEC foe (despite Florida being very down this year), and remaining unblemished through the year. And with five likely draft picks (if Jernigan declares) and plenty more that aren’t eligible yet, this defense is stocked with the talent to hold their own against any offense in the country. Not to mention the added advantage of having the eventual Heisman Trophy winner on the other side of the ball.
That being said, they could have trouble against Auburn’s devastating running game. Florida State may have more success than Missouri or Alabama before them, however, thanks to their speed/length of their linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith, the aggressiveness and Mathieu-esque playmaking of Lamarcus Joyner, and the perceived high impact of Jernigan. If Jernigan can “turn it on” for 80-90% of snaps against the Tigers, he’ll earn a 1st round grade for many teams and may lead this team to a national championship, similar to what Nick Fairley did against Oregon in 2010.
Florida State has earned the title of best defense in the country. But they'll need all their horses to play at their peak ability if they hope to finish their perfect season with a BCS Title.