TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Odell Haggins has been Florida State’s defensive tackles coach since 1996, a total of 19 consecutive seasons. As far as stability goes on the defensive staff, it begins with Haggins. It ends there, too, as the remaining three assistants have been on staff a combined five seasons.
Charles Kelly is in his second year on staff but shifts from linebackers coach to the secondary while also adding the title of defensive coordinator, a position he’s never held for an entire season at the FBS level. In his stead coaching the linebackers is Bill Miller, who was hired away from Minnesota.
Early returns indicate Kelly, who received rave reviews when he was hired, has hit the ground running as the new leader of a defense that finished No. 1 in points per game during their 2013 championship run.
“He stays positive. He gets on you when you mess up but he explains it when you do,” cornerback Ronald Darby said. “If I’m going to do something, he asks why you did it, and if I explain why, he’s more understanding as a coach instead of ‘Shut up I don’t want to hear that!’ He’s a great coach.”
Despite switching defensive coordinators, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said not much has changed schematically. Kelly worked under 2013 coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and the players have said the changes have been minimal. The terminology and the scheme remain largely intact, which could foster an easier transition this season for a defense replacing its best player at every level of the unit.
Kelly said there will be small differences, though, simply because he and Pruitt are not clones of each other. Kelly said he will have his own identity, which is really just a mosaic of the knowledge he’s gained in his 23 seasons of coaching.
Over those 23 seasons, Kelly has coached nearly every position group, and that is not limited to just the defense. There are challenging aspects to that, but Kelly said a good coach is able to adapt to any position and it’s prepared him to coordinate the entire defense.
“I grew up wanting to be a coach, so if you can coach and communicate and teach, you should be able to coach any position,” Kelly said. “Coaching different positions, sometimes the personalities at positions are different, so it teaches you how to handle people differently.”
Kelly acknowledges the potential issues of adding a new coach in the mix, but he welcomes the addition of Miller, who began coaching in 1978 and has coached six first-round draft picks, including Ray Lewis.
“Change is good sometimes because it’s new blood, new ideas. It’s a different way of looking at things,” Kelly said. “When you’re the only one doing it, you get tunnel vision. When you trust people you work with, then you trust what they say.”
Helping facilitate a smooth transition for Miller is his familiarity with Fisher’s coaching philosophies. Fisher is a protégé of Nick Saban, and Miller was on Saban’s staff at Michigan State.
“There’s kind of an unwritten club of guys that worked for Nick Saban,” Miller said. “What helps me a lot is I’ve been in this defensive system before. Sal [Sunseri] and I were together at Michigan State, and having that kind of background and knowing what this system is all about has been a great aid to me.”
Fisher said E.J. Levenberry is working with the first team at linebacker, and the sophomore said during fall camp that Miller has helped him with his fundamentals.
Florida State held its first scrimmage this week, and throughout the defense the fundamentals were not lacking. Fisher was upbeat following the scrimmage, and defensive lineman Mario Edwards said the players are comfortable in the system. Any mistakes were attributed to tired legs, Edwards said.
“We know the defense,” Edwards said, “and we know where to be.”