Following the end of a disappointing 2009 season in which Florida State’s defense was statistically one of the worst in the country, a few upperclassmen on the team sent a strong message that “we can’t have another season like that.”
Worst in the ACC in rushing defense. Worst in pass efficiency defense. Worst in total defense.
“I can honestly say everybody wasn’t on the same page,” senior linebacker Kendall Smith said. “That was from the coaches all the way down to the players. Everybody wasn’t on the same page. I feel that now we’ve got a better opportunity to step up the plate and straighten things out.”
If Florida State is going to contend for the Atlantic Division in Jimbo Fisher’s first season as head coach, the Seminoles don’t have much choice. The defense will have to take a quantum leap under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops, who will have a lot of inexperience to work with. The Seminoles have the pieces in place offensively to be a championship team, but the jury is still out on a defense in transition that allowed 30 points per game last year. The one thing that seems to have started to change under the new staff is the attitude.
“As of now, we all feel like we’ve got something to prove to the whole world,” Smith said. “As of last year, we didn’t perform up to par like we were supposed to, especially playing for Coach [Mickey] Andrews. This year I feel like the scheme is better for us, keep everything in front of us, no more deep balls, no more getting beat deep, no more long runs. I feel we’ve got a lot to prove and this is like a fuel to the fire because everyone is like defense was the weak link of our team last year. This year we’re fighting hard, working hard to bring that Florida State defense back.”
It’s not going to be easy.
In addition to adopting a new coordinator and new philosophies, FSU has to replace three starters in a secondary that had glaring weaknesses last year. The Seminoles return just three proven defensive tackles, and until signing day lacked depth across the board. There will be plenty of competition this spring and a rebuilding effort that will last through the summer.
Not that that’s a bad thing.
“We’re starting over, that’s what we’re selling,” said Stoops. “That’s what the players want. We’re starting fresh, starting over. It’s a new beginning for them. What they do with it and what they make of it is up to all of it as a group. It takes a great commitment. They have to be committed to anything. We’re taking it one step at a time.”
Stoops has been tasked with turning around the group that faced the most criticism last year, and he’s not naïve about how much work needs to be done. Florida State ranked 108th or worse in the nation in three defensive categories last fall.
“It’s fair to say there’s an awful lot to do,” Stoops said. “It can be overwhelming if you let it get that way. I believe in teaching it from the ground up, teaching the core of our system, have them understand the base principles of our system and they understand that more and more then you’re able to add things and show them the adjustments and the tweaks.”
The spring will be critical to build off of the base 4-3 front, which was the same scheme used by Andrews, but Stoops will show more variations than his predecessor did. Andrews mainly relied on man coverage while this year, fans might notice more zone coverage on the back end and more variety in the zone-coverage schemes.
The players seem willing to work at whatever will help them improve.
“I came to Florida State for one reason, and that’s to win a championship,” Smith said. “The fact that that hasn’t happened yet, I’m not happy with that at all. We talk about it every day in the locker room. Put in the hard work, do what you’ve been doing, we’ve got to do everything right. We want everybody to be on the same page. If you don’t know a certain defense or a certain call, ask the person besides you. Get coached up, be coachable. It’s all the little things: Go to class on time, stay out of trouble, all of the things you need to do to be a championship team.”
Including playing the kind of championship defense Florida State fans are used to.