All spring and all summer, Florida State promised we would see a new-look defense come Week 1.
Well, the Noles delivered on those promises against Pittsburgh. Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt showed off new blitz packages designed for his athletic linebackers and cornerbacks in a 41-13 win over the Panthers on Monday night, allowing guys like linebacker Telvin Smith and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner to take on even bigger roles on the defense.
Smith was all over the field, making one punishing hit after another. He finished second on the team with eight tackles -- including two for loss. Joyner led the team with nine tackles and a team-high two sacks.
That is not a misprint. A defensive back led the Noles in sacks.
Rewind to last season: not one defensive back got a sack. Of the 36 total sacks the Noles notched in 2012, defensive linemen made 33 of them.
"Oh that was something that coach Pruitt emphasized on this offseason," Joyner said. "He said I was too much of a player with explosion not to come off the edge and try to make those kind of plays. That’s what this defense expects me to do. I was pretty successful with some of the guys doing their job allowing me to come off free."
The philosophy -- at least in Week 1 anyway -- was in stark contrast to last season, when the Seminoles rode the strength of their defensive front behind Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Florida State did not generate much of a pass rush against the Panthers from its defensive front, relying instead on the blitz packages to get after Pitt quarterback Tom Savage.
Considering the players Florida State has to replace up front, that does not come as a complete shock. Still, it was different.
"I love this defense," Smith said. "A lot of times I’m uncovered and guards can come hit me but I feel like I have an advantage with being quick and being fast. I’m trying to be more aggressive also. It’s just a transition to this defense."
With transition comes rocky patches, too. Pitt marched down the field on the opening drive, and found early success with its running backs rushing to the outside. But coach Jimbo Fisher praised his defense for not buckling.
On Pitt’s second possession, true freshman Jalen Ramsey came up with a huge interception to help swing the momentum back to the Noles. Florida State scored off the turnover. Terrence Brooks also got an interception that the Noles turned into a score just before halftime.
Fans are sure to see more of Ramsey, who joined defensive end DeMarcus Walker as the two true freshmen starters on defense. Joyner said Ramsey was a little rattled to start.
“He was very nervous at the beginning of the game and I told him, ‘Hey it’s just like high school. You go against Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene, two NFL receivers every day, Kenny Shaw. If you can do it against those guys, you can do it out here,’” Joyner said. “He took a deep breath and there was an interception the next drive.”
There is no question this defense remains a work in progress. Players said they felt comfortable in the scheme, but still believed they were doing too much thinking during the game as they get used to their new roles. Joyner says it is essential to get some technique and leverage issues squared away during practice this week.
All of that should get better over time. Still, Florida State did hold Pitt to under 300 yards total offense and only gave up 13 points.
“I thought we did pretty good but there’s still a lot more room for improvement,” Brooks said. “We messed up on some little things, they were able to get some plays out of that but just with more practice and reps, film study we’ll be fine.”
Could they be another Top 10 group by the time the season ends?
“We’ve got the same players that did it last year so we definitely have that mentality,” Smith said. “We set that standard last year and we’re going to try and do it again this year.”