The Willie Taggart era of Florida State football will not be remembered fondly. Losing a combined 14 games in two seasons (FSU was 2-2 in four games after Taggart was fired in 2019 under interim head coach Odell Haggins), the Seminoles haven’t endured a stretch that included so much losing since the 1970s.
From 1977-2017, Florida State was under the steady direction of head coaches Bobby Bowden (1977-2009) and Jimbo Fisher (2010-2017), but the characteristics of the Seminoles under Taggart did not resemble the well-coached teams that have long been the standard in Tallahassee.
When describing Seminoles wide receiver Tamorrion Terry on the Locked on NFL Draft Podcast, Benjamin Solak perfectly summed up the inconsistency of Terry’s performance by stating: “He’s just not a super detail-oriented, rigidly-repped player right now and to me, that falls exclusively and condemningly on coaching.”
Terry’s frustrating inconsistency extends to several of the gifted Florida State players that haven’t quite lived up to expectations to this point in their careers, and the more I study the Seminoles’ game tape from the 2019 season, the more obvious it becomes that the team was poorly coached and their problems are far from a talent issue. Whether it was the illogical scheme employed by Taggart and his staff or the discrepant performance and lack of growth from talented players, the Seminoles were wise to identify Taggart as the problem and dismiss him before completing two full seasons on the job.
To replace Taggart, Florida State hired former Memphis head coach Mike Norvell, who led the Tigers to a 38-15 record and two top-25 finishes in his four seasons on the job. Norvell is regarded as one of football’s most innovative young minds and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about him taking over the program.
The new direction at head coach for the Seminoles is exciting. While Norvell is renowned for his offensive prowess, it’s the defensive side of the football that I believe is capable of being the strength of the team in 2020.
From the hire of Adam Fuller as the defensive coordinator to a talented depth chart of defensive players with untapped potential, Florida State could boast the best defense in the ACC in 2020. Yes, that includes the Clemson Tigers.
Let’s examine why.
The most significant reason to believe Florida State is primed to become the best defense in the ACC is the arrival of Fuller, who has a proven track record of turning around poor defenses.
Fuller joins the Seminoles after just one season on the job at Memphis where he oversaw a defense that improved drastically. The year before he arrived, the Tigers’ defense was ranked 94th nationally in scoring defense and 89th in yards per game allowed. Those numbers improved to 47th and 54th respectively after one year under Fuller.
Memphis wasn’t the first defense that Fuller overhauled. The year before his arrival at UT-Chattanooga in 2009, the Mocs allowed 37.9 points and 443 yards per game. In Fuller’s first season as defensive coordinator, Chattanooga allowed 25.7 points per game and 308 yards per game.
Fuller’s next opportunity came at Marshall, where he took a job as the associate head coach/linebackers. In his first season, Marshall improved from allowing 43.1 points and 457 yards per game in 2012 to 22.9 points per game and 369 yards with Fuller on staff. During his final year on staff at Marshall and his first as the defensive coordinator, Fuller’s defense ranked in the top-26 nationally for both yards and points per game.
Fuller will enjoy more talent at Florida State than he’s ever had at his disposal previously, but the challenge ahead may also be his greatest. In 2018, Florida State allowed 31.5 points per game, which is the most in a season in program history. That number improved modestly to 28.5 points per game in 2019, but the Seminoles allowed 436 yards per game, which ranked 99th nationally.
Fuller has his work cut out for him, but his track record and incorporation of a 4-3 scheme which fits the Seminoles defensive personnel correctly gives plenty of reason for optimism.
Florida State is loaded with future NFL players and the defensive line is where most of it can be found. The headliner for the defensive line and unit overall is senior DT Marvin Wilson, who profiles as a likely first-round draft pick. His blend of power and quickness makes him a dynamic interior pass rusher that is also stout against the run. There are times where he is simply unblockable on tape.
Joining Wilson along the interior is junior DT Robert Cooper, who is extremely underrated. He’s a massive man with surprising quickness and he simply owns the line of scrimmage. The third man in the rotation at defensive tackle is Cory Durden, who was miscast playing frequently on the edge in 2019, Durden profiles best as a penetration-style player on the interior. He is powerful, explosive, and actually led the team in quarterback pressures last season with 47.
At defensive end, Florida State features former top recruits Joshua Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson, who are both toolsy defenders that have yet to fully learn how to deploy their exciting physical traits—although flashes are present. Kaindoh has battled injuries but enters 2020 healthy. They may not be household names at this point but both are capable of breakout seasons under Fuller where they will be used as true 4-3 ends with the type of coaching that will help develop the technical components of the game. It was disappointing to see how frequently Robinson and Kaindoh were tasked with playing in space in previous seasons, taking away from what they do best and putting them in uncomfortable situations.
Leonard Warner III and Emmet Rice are experienced seniors that make up two-thirds of the Seminoles’ linebacker corps. They are viable starters that have played plenty of football entering the 2020 season. With that said, the rising star of the unit is Amari Gainer, who racked up 69 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2019.
Gainer played a fair amount on the line of scrimmage in 2019 but he’s best utilized as a true off-ball linebacker, where he projects to play under Fuller. Gainer is versatile and athletic with terrific length. He has potential as a blitzer, in man coverage, and deeper zone drops, but can also play into the line of scrimmage and plug gaps against the run. Gainer is an exciting young chess piece that Fuller can deploy in a variety of ways and he has an exciting NFL future ahead of him.
At one corner spot, the Seminoles boast one of the best cornerbacks in college football in Asante Samuel Jr., who thrives in man coverage with his blend of instincts, quick feet, and fluid hips. He has the type of ability to match up with the opposing teams’ top receiver and stay in their hip pocket all game long. Samuel Jr. has the makings of a top-50 NFL draft pick. Lining up opposite of Samuel is likely to be Meiko Dotson, who grad-transferred in from FAU after leading the nation with nine interceptions in 2019.
A four-star recruit in 2018, Jaiden Lars-Woodbey projects as one of Florida State’s starting safeties. A rising redshirt sophomore, Lars-Woodbey frequently played linebacker in the Seminoles’ hybrid scheme last season and like many of his teammates, was miscast. He should take a major step forward as a traditional safety.
While Samuel is an exciting player and NFL prospect, the marquee name on the backend for Florida State is Hamsah Nasirildeen, who is a rare talent. Nasirilideen’s blend of size, athleticism, football intelligence, versatility, and physicality make him the total package. Gainer provides Fuller a do-everything type player on the second level and Nasirildeen is that guy in the secondary. Nasirildeen is absolutely in the first-round conversation when it comes to his draft stock.