Friday, December 03, 2010

Seminole Defense Is Dramatically Improved

FLORIDA STATE DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR MARK STOOPS has turned one of the worst defenses in the country into one of the best in his first year.


December 2, 2010

TALLAHASSEE | Few college football teams in the past decade have achieved the kind of statistical improvement that the Florida State defense has enjoyed in 2010.

The Seminoles were among the nation's worst defenses last year: 94th in scoring defense (allowing 30 points per game) and 108th in rush defense (204 yards per game).

The numbers in 2010 show a stunning reversal: the Seminoles are 11th in scoring defense (17.8 points per game) and 23rd in rush defense (123 yards per game).

"I definitely have an appreciation for what we've done," FSU senior linebacker Kendall Smith said. "Our defense is one of the top defenses in the nation. I'm glad to be a part of it. I feel all of the hard work pays off.

"We have a lot of hard workers on defense, and we have a lot of young guys that stepped up and play like seniors. I'm happy with the progress that we made."

Progress may be an understatement. After the defense suffered through its worst season in decades, Mickey Andrews retired and new coordinator Mark Stoops has re-energized the Seminoles.

Gone are the mostly man-to-man principles that were a staple of Andrews' defenses. The Seminoles struggled in recent years to match up against spread offenses, and Stoops' schemes - which include man and zone coverages - have played to the strengths of players, who have been able to use their speed, athleticism and desire to deliver hard hits.

Stoops isn't allowed to speak with the media, but FSU players all say they love his schemes -- which often put players in position to make plays. And, of course, they relish the opportunity to deliver a ferocious hit, something that wasn't as likely in man-to-man coverage in the Andrews Era.

FSU (9-3) couldn't prevent the big plays last year, but in 2010 the Seminoles have shaved 12 points off their per-game average going in to Saturday's ACC championship game against Virginia Tech (10-2). And FSU is getting contributions from nearly every player -- many of them returning starters.

Linebackers Nigel Bradham and Kendall Smith are nearing career highs in tackles, while Mister Alexander is healthy and enjoying a career season (48 tackles).

Defensive end Brandon Jenkins played sparingly as a reserve last season but now has 12 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss (tied for third at FSU all-time). Fellow end Markus White has 52 tackles -- and could double his total from his last two seasons. He also has 7.5 sacks.

Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was converted from wide receiver and is the ACC's defensive rookie of the year, while sophomores Greg Reid and Nick Moody have improved dramatically. Junior-college transfer Mike Harris has excelled in nickel situations.

But the season hasn't been all rosy. FSU was thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball by Oklahoma, losing to the Sooners 47-17 on Sept. 11.

The next day, players feared the reaction. But coaches didn't yell. Practices stayed the same, and coaches didn't waver on their game plan.

"There were a lot of guys second-guessing themselves, but you come back this next week and you tell yourselves that you're going to get better," White said. "That was about as low as you can go. We were motivated to go up."

The defense steadily improved each week. FSU's confidence grew with a 45-17 rout of Miami on Oct. 9, which was part of a five-game winning streak. And while the defense struggled in losses to North Carolina and N.C. State, FSU rebounded to allow just one offensive touchdown in each of the past three games.

FSU has allowed teams to drive, but the Seminoles have been especially tough in the red zone. Clemson, Maryland and Florida were inside FSU's 20 a total of 12 times and came away with just two touchdowns and five field goals.

"Once you're in the red zone, inside the 20, everybody on the defense knows it's time to man up," Reid said. "We have to make plays."

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