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Florida State's defense will rebuild, with Jalen Ramsey as its foundation

FSU was forced to compensate for a wounded defense in 2014, but the Noles have a plan going forward.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Seminoles' offense had its share of struggles in 2014, it was their defense that really fell off the national title pace.

They lost nickel LaMarcus Joyner, tackle Timmy Jernigan, and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and suffered injuries, resulting in a defense that ranked 55th in passing S&P+ and 43rd in defending passing downs. This was a remarkable decline from the 2013 secondary that ranked fourth and 12th, respectively.

You can't win titles like that. The worst marks for any champion over the last 10 years belong to the 2010 Auburn Tigers, who finished 37th and 27th.

Moving Jalen Ramsey into Joyner's nickel position ("star" in FSU terminology) actually prevented a serious dropoff there. But that meant a drop at safety, where the Seminoles replaced Ramsey and Terrence Brooks with Tyler Hunter and Nate Andrews.

However, the Seminoles are now in decent shape. Potential first-round pick Ramsey returns, and there are few who can match him as an athlete -- he wants to long jump in the Olympics -- let alone as an all-around defensive back.

The most important non-QB choice the Noles make might be determining how to build the secondary around him. Jimbo Fisher and company have chosen to move him from the star to the boundary corner, which could have a ripple effect.

Taking away the edge

Teams often use their nickels to help control the edge to the wide side of the field. In two years, Joyner and Ramsey combined for 16.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.

Ramsey's twitchy athleticism made him an excellent run-force defender. In this play, the 204-pounder attacks a block on the edge from 245-pound Durham Smythe and resets the line of scrimmage in the backfield:

Ramsey ensures Everett Golson has to go up the middle. When linebacker Reggie Northrup fails to capitalize and prevent a first down, the fiery Ramsey gives him an earful.

The Noles loved using Jalen to attack from the edge, sometimes with simple DB blitzes and sometimes with exotic pressures like this two-deep fire zone:

2-deep FZ

With this one, Ramsey FSU blasted Golson during a throw, causing an INT.

Defending the edge with your nickel requires a defender who can read keys quickly, get off WR blocks, and explode across short distances. However, in one of FSU's favorite defenses, they need many of the same things from the boundary corner. That defense is known as cover 6, a coverage that uses two deep defenders on the wider side of the field (the right side, on the diagram below) and one on the narrower side.

Cover 6

Here, Florida State uses its nickel (N) and boundary (left C) corners as run-force defenders and keeps the ball funneled inside, while the safeties and field corner drop back.

Teams struggle to find boundary corners who can perform this role against opponents with big receivers. By moving Ramsey to the boundary, the Seminoles can play another physical nickel/safety type (evidently sophomore Trey Marshall) as the nickel.

That makes for an overall upgrade, boosting the blitzing and run-stopping ability at boundary corner while getting another physical athlete on the field.

Building the rest

Florida State returns three experienced DBs at safety: Tyler Hunter, Nate Andrews, and reserve Lamarcus Brutus. The only problem is they haven't demonstrated the ability to be foundational pieces.

This is likely the driving force behind reducing Ramsey's role as an edge defender, since he is brilliant at coverage.

In the middle as a nickel, Ramsey was asked to defend slot receivers in man coverage as a part of zone blitzes and cover 3 schemes. The same explosiveness he showed on blitzes allowed him to stick with receivers in and out of breaks.

Of Ramsey's 12 pass breakups in 2014, several came at crucial moments in hard-fought games. He clearly helped preserve FSU's 29-game undefeated streak.

Modern offenses are often designed to attack coverages at two spots: the slot and the boundary. As a nickel, Ramsey would take on the slot, whom he frequently erased. But on the boundary, he'll go against bigger and faster receivers. The Noles feel he can handle this and redistribute help elsewhere in its secondary.

One such example would be in cover 3 buzz, which would roll Ramsey's safety help elsewhere:

C3 buzz vs 2x2

Here, a linebacker (W) plays the short curl/flat zone and the run. Ramsey's safety ($) drops to the shallow middle to help cover the tight end. For both safeties this is a simple coverage, as it keeps them in small areas against weaker receivers. This is how the Seahawks are able to deploy a 230-pound monster at safety without getting burnt.

This is also a useful coverage against trips formations (three receivers on one side; below, the H, Y, and Z).

C3 buzz vs 3x1

The challenge? Offensive coaches are looking to see if the defense rolls help to the trips side. If so, they will then have their best receiver one-on-one against the isolated boundary corner. This is where Ramsey can truly be a foundation. If he can lock down Clemson's Mike Williams without safety help and allow the Noles to rotate help to the other side or blitz, he'll give coordinator Charles Kelly a lot of options.

2016 mock draft

In the Seminoles' Rose Bowl loss, they moved Ramey all over the field. Oregon attacked wherever he wasn't. FSU gave up on using him to blitz and moved him back to safety, but it was too easy for the Ducks to pick on everyone else.

As the boundary, it will be possible for Ramsey to protect the rest of the defense by locking down one side and putting relatively limited players in position to shine.

Good run-force players who can also cover are highly valued in the NFL. When Aaron Rodgers is throwing and the receiver is well-versed in option routes, it's difficult to stop the quick pass. The fact that Ramsey can stick with receivers while providing a physical edge will make him a hot commodity.

With a year to retool around Jalen, FSU's backfield should expect to take a big step back up.


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