Fisher downplays FSU defensive struggles

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
11:00
AM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The scenes flickered across the screen as Jimbo Fisher broke down the film on Sunday, and the Florida State coach breathed a sigh of relief.

The outcomes were just as he'd remembered. Boston College's rather mundane attack gashed the Seminoles' defense again and again, big chunks of yardage adding up to 34 points -- the most BC had scored in an ACC game in nearly four years.

Florida State still escaped with a win, thanks to another dynamic effort from Jameis Winston, but the defense was exposed, and the future schedule promised to be far less forgiving. Fisher assumed the worst, but the film eased his mind.

[+] EnlargeAndre Williams
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaBoston College rushed for 200 yards against the Seminoles, led by Andre Williams with 149.
"I wasn't as distraught as I thought I would be," Fisher said Monday, putting a happy face on an otherwise troubling effort. "It was more two or three individuals that caused all the problems."

There is ample room for big-picture concerns. Players admit to being slow to latch on to the subtleties of new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's defensive scheme. The aggressive approach has yielded a handful of big plays but also surrendered a few more to the opposition. The Seminoles' performance through four games has fans wondering if disaster looms just over the horizon, as the explosive offenses of Maryland and Clemson await.

Instead, what Fisher saw on film were a few minor glitches -- easily correctable mental errors. A few missed assignments here, a few sets of eyes focused on the wrong things there. Rather than panicking, Florida State's defense seems relieved.

“Those mistakes are going to help you," safety Terrence Brooks said. "It’s bad, but it also can be good for you, too. Those are things you know you’ve got to key in on. It’s just room for improvement.”

That's the upbeat spin. These are the raw numbers: Through four games, Florida State has coughed up 606 yards on the ground, nearly half the total its defense allowed in 14 games last year. Boston College amassed 397 total yards Saturday; only Clemson (2010 and 2011) managed more against FSU since the start of the 2011 season -- and the Tigers' high-flying attack gets its shot against the Seminoles in just three weeks. The defense has started slowly in every game, and as a result, FSU has trailed in three of four games. It's a particularly disconcerting picture given that this week's opponent, Maryland, has topped 500 yards of offense three times, is averaging better than 7 yards per play, has a dual-threat quarterback and one of the ACC's most explosive playmakers in receiver Stefon Diggs.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Brown
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyC.J. Brown is averaging 261 yards passing and 71 yards rushing through four games.
And yet, Florida State's players insist they're not worried. The fixes aren't physical failures, but rather mental miscues -- a product of new personnel seeing an increased workload, a handful of gimmick plays by the opposition and a continuing adjustment to Pruitt's new scheme.

"We had some little, stupid mental errors in that game -- letting our guys go, trying to do too much and getting out of gaps," Brooks said. "That’s the only reason they were able to get all those points they did get."

It's not an entirely unfair accounting. Two of Boston College's touchdowns came on nearly identical plays, when the offense shifted heavily to one side, then threw the opposite way. FSU's defense aggressively pursued the ball and left a receiver wide open.

Of course, Pruitt's approach also might be part of the problem. As FSU's players raved about the new scheme this offseason, the buzzword used again and again was "aggressive." Pruitt promised to turn the Seminoles' athletes loose to make plays, and the players loved the concept. It all sounded good until Boston College used that mindset against them.

"We’re a very aggressive defense, and we want to get to the ball fast," Brooks said. "That right there kind of killed us a little bit."

It's not that the scheme is flawed, however. Pruitt essentially is installing a defense similar to what Alabama used to win three of the past four national titles. There's a track record of success.

The difference is that when Pruitt took over as defensive backs coach at Alabama in 2010, that scheme was already in place, and the veterans already knew it well. At Florida State, it's all new, and the learning process requires time.

"When you come in during the spring and put in a new defense, especially as complex as this one, it’s not like you’re coaching a team full of guys that have already been in the system," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "It’s almost like you’re coaching a defense full of freshmen, technically. We’re all learning it."

Jernigan insists his teammates have bought in, but the learning process has come more quickly for some. Fisher praised Jernigan's work against BC, saying the junior played perhaps the best game of his career. Eddie Goldman earned raves, too, and linebacker Telvin Smith earned player of the week honors in the ACC after finishing with 10 tackles.

So where are the problems?

Fisher did his best to avoid criticizing specific players, though the absence of senior Christian Jones from his synopsis was noteworthy. Dan Hicks was burned for a touchdown, as well, though he was noticeably overmatched in his assignment. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and safety Tyler Hunter sat out for the second straight game against BC, too, and there are no assurances they'll be ready this week.

But to hear Fisher's analysis, there's no cause for alarm. It's not a matter of a flawed scheme, a too-steep learning curve or a lack of personnel. It's simply about getting the little things right.

Florida State's players are convinced of that, too, and the film from Boston College only burnished that optimism. But even so, this week's practices come with a mandate for improvement.

"Having that happen with these good teams that have mobile quarterbacks, people who can run and pass better, better receivers," Brooks said, "it’s just more of a problem at that point."

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