Florida State’s defense will rotate several talented players

Florida State promised more looks when Jeremy Pruitt was Jimbo Fisher’s choice to run the Seminoles’ defense.

And the release of the initial depth chart shows just how multiple this group will be.

The 11th-ranked Seminoles have five true linemen and two linebackers listed among the starters for Monday’s opener at Pittsburgh. Senior Dan Hicks, a natural defensive end, is listed as the strong-side linebacker, with sophomore Eddie Goldman moving from tackle to end. Junior Timmy Jernigan (nose guard), sophomore Nile Lawrence-Stample (tackle) and sophomore Mario Edwards (end) complete the front line with seniors Christian Jones and Telvin Smith the starting linebackers.

The look likely has more to do with the expectation that Pitt will run the ball to help quarterback Tom Savage, who sat out each of the past two years after transferring from Rutgers to Arizona and Arizona to Pittsburgh.

But this is a defense that will be multiple and versatile and will not hesitate to play five down linemen or seven defensive backs.

“All those guys are going to have roles, whether it’s nickel or dime packages,” Fisher said, adding this was his most consistent group. “There are different packages that we’ll use and we’ll keep a rotation of those guys in all the different personnel groups.”

The Seminoles have a strong core led by Jernigan, Jones and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and added to the depth with a solid freshman class that includes three players — linebackers Matthew Thomas and E.J. Levenberry and cornerback Jalen Ramsey — in the rotation.

That depth is most evident in the secondary, where a logjam of talented, NFL-caliber corners and safeties dot the roster.

The Seminoles will use six defensive backs frequently and seven at times. Ramsey, Nick Waisome and Ronald Darby are behind starting corners Joyner and P.J. Williams and starting safeties Tyler Hunter and Terrence Brooks will be pushed by Karlos Williams and former Treasure Coast High standout Keelin Smith.

FSU led the nation in pass defense last season.

“What I can say is we’ll have a lot of football players rotating in and out,” Joyner said.

The offense became more settled last week when redshirt freshman Jameis Winston was named the starting quarterback. The line and backfield are experienced, while the receivers are looking to develop depth with the loss of three veterans since last summer because of injury and off-field issues.

The initial depth chart lists three starting receivers — Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and former Glades Central standout Kelvin Benjamin.

Christian Green is the lone backup with experience. True freshmen Isaiah Jones and Jesus Wilson have moved into backup roles.

“They are learning fast … playing fast,” said Greene, who led FSU receivers in catches, yards and touchdowns last year. “They’ll be able to help us a lot.”

Fisher praised Winston’s maturity and poise while he was competing with Jacob Coker for the starting job, but he will not overload his rookie quarterback. Winston will be the first FSU freshman to start the season opener since Drew Weatherford in 2005.

Look for the experienced backfield of James Wilder and Devonta Freeman to help with the transition.

“You got to be able to take the pressure off the quarterback and hand that ball off,” Fisher said. “That’s the quarterback’s best friend. I don’t care if you’re a great one or not great. If you have to make 70 or 80 perfect decisions every game, that can be tough. It will be critical on the road.”

The game will mark Pittsburgh’s first as a member of the ACC. The Panthers will have the added emotion of playing the Labor Day night nationally televised game and the return of Arizona Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who will have his number retired.

Still, Fisher was pleased with camp and said his team is ready for the season to start.

“All of us are camp weary,” he said. “It brings the excitement level back up when the game comes. I liked our camp. I thought it was a good, physical camp. We sustained some bangs and bruises but for the most part stayed relatively healthy.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.