Joyner impressing in new role for FSU

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State was fresh off a dominant win in Death Valley. The defense shut down Clemson’s offensive juggernaut, and Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd turned in one of the worst performances of his career.

Lamarcus Joyner was jubilant, pronouncing FSU’s secondary the best in the country. His rationale, he said, was simple.

“We have a bunch of physical specimens in the secondary,” Joyner said, pointing out P.J. Williams, Jalen Ramsey and Ronald Darby before turning his attention inward. “Not myself though. I’m only 5-8.”

The self-deprecation was intended as a joke, but Joyner knows his height is a weapon used against him by the opposition and talent evaluators in the NFL. That’s why he was pegged as a mid-round selection had he entered the draft following the 2012 season, and that’s why he switched from safety to corner this year.

Joyner’s height sets him apart from his more imposing counterparts, but he’s using this season to showcase a plethora of skills that more than make up for his stature.

In Saturday’s win over Clemson, Joyner was the catalyst. He finished the game with eight tackles, while creating three turnovers. Each one underscored Joyner’s versatility.

On Clemson’s first play from scrimmage, Boyd completed a short pass to slot receiver Stanton Seckinger. Joyner closed quickly, walloped the receiver and stripped away the football. The forced fumble shocked even Joyner’s teammates.

“I had to do a double take,” said safety Terrence Brooks, who recovered the fumble. “I looked at it one time and said, ‘OK, that can’t be the ball.’ ”

Joyner’s second takeaway came on a corner blitz. It’s a new role for the senior this season. He had just one sack in his career prior to this season, but his speed makes him a weapon off the edge, and on Saturday, he pounced on Boyd with such instantaneous fury, the Clemson quarterback had no chance to prepare for impact. The ball tumbled away, and Mario Edwards Jr. scooped it up and rumbled into the end zone for a score.

The final addition to Joyner’s turnover hat trick came on a play he’d flubbed all week in practice.

All those corner blitzes had gotten the attention of the opposition, and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt knew Clemson would be looking for it. The plan was for Joyner to show blitz, then drop into coverage and hope Boyd would fall for the trick. Over and over in practice last week, Joyner failed to execute the play, but Pruitt told him to keep at it.

On Saturday, things hardly went according to plan. A miscommunication on the sideline meant only 10 players were on the field, but Joyner sold the blitz so effectively that it didn’t matter. Boyd’s pass found Joyner’s hands, and the misery for Clemson’s quarterback continued.

“I dropped into my zone and on that particular night I just seemed to do what I was coached to do,” Joyner said. “I was able to bait Tajh into throwing an interception.”

The first play was a product of Joyner’s strength. The second, his speed. The third, his smarts. It was precisely the type of showcase he’d hoped for when he decided to return for his senior season.

“I’m at nickel, I'm at corner, I get to blitz, I get to play man-to-man,” Joyner said. “I get to do all those things I wanted to do coming back for my senior year. When he sold the defense to me, I just committed myself to it."

The expanded role has meant more measurable production. Joyner is second on the team with 33 tackles and is on pace to shatter his previous career high. His three sacks and four takeaways leads the team. NFL scouts are taking notice.

"He's got tremendous range and ball skills and brings the right kind of mentality to support the run,” said Phil Savage, a longtime NFL talent evaluator and current executive director for the Senior Bowl. “The way the league is now, everybody's looking for three and four corners at least. There's going to be a bigger market for him at that position than there would've been at safety most likely. The big question is going to remain his height, going against the Calvin Johnsons and Andre Johnsons and the guys that are out there that have just that overwhelming size. But hey, they make 6-foot corners look bad at times."

Of course, by the time the 2014 draft comes around, the Clemson game will be ancient history and Joyner will still be 5-8. That much, he can’t change.

But while the behemoth receivers at the NFL level figure to have a distinct advantage, the guys who go up against Joyner every day know it won’t be so simple.

“It don’t matter how big he is,” said 6-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. “He is going to compete. He is like a dog. If you got that bone in your hand, he’s coming to get you.”

There are some skills that aren’t measurable, Jimbo Fisher said. So much of what sets Joyner apart isn’t his size or speed or smarts.

“He’s short, he’s not little,” Fisher said. “He packs a big punch, and his heart’s as big as the world.”