Questions pile up in stacked secondary

August, 27, 2013
8/27/13
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The spring was an audition for cornerback P.J. Williams, a chance to strut his stuff in front of a new coaching staff without the long shadow cast by an immensely deep roster of defensive backs. He ran almost exclusively with the first-team defense, a luxury for the sophomore who picked up the slack while a trio of starters labored through rehab sessions following offseason surgeries.

The extended showcase paid dividends. When fall camp opened, Williams again was working with the starters, but the competition was stiff. The spring's attrition in the secondary had been replaced by a bounty of talent, and each rep in practice was under a microscope.

[+] EnlargePj Williams
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsP.J. Williams ran with the first team in the spring and returned an interception for a touchdown in the spring game. But that's not enough to earn definitive playing time in a loaded FSU secondary, and he knows it.
"You can't have bad practices," said Williams, who led Florida State in special-teams tackles last season as a freshman but saw just a handful of snaps on defense. "There's no taking plays off."

Even as new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has installed a defense designed to exploit Florida State's wealth of talented defensive backs, there remains a logjam in the secondary. The Seminoles figure to employ as many as six DBs on a majority of their defensive snaps this season, but that means at least four or five players with NFL futures will be waiting on the sideline.

In spite of all those first-team reps, Williams understands where he stacks up in the pecking order, and he's acutely aware that playing time this season will be at a premium.

"It's a real big motivator because you have to go hard every play," Williams said. "Coach is looking for consistency. He's going to play the best person every Saturday, and we've got a lot of great players."

Lamarcus Joyner is a preseason All-American. Ronald Darby is the reigning ACC defensive rookie of the year. Karlos Williams is a former five-star recruit who might well be Florida State's best overall athlete. Nick Waisome and Terrence Brooks each started all 14 games last season. Tyler Hunter is one of the defense's most vocal leaders, who spent the summer coordinating and scripting seven-on-seven drills. Jalen Ramsey, a physical freak of a corner, was a crown jewel in FSU's 2013 recruiting class.

The list goes on and on, underscoring P.J. Williams' tenuous grasp on regular playing time.

The Seminoles led the nation in pass defense last year, then watched corner Xavier Rhodes go in the first round of the NFL draft. As crazy at it sounds, this year's secondary might be even better.

"There's going to be a lot of them playing," Jimbo Fisher said after the team's final scrimmage of the preseason.

Fisher has been effusive with his praise across the board. Asked about Karlos Williams, a presumptive starter at safety, and Fisher gushed instead about Hunter's NFL future. Darby opened camp still gimpy following knee surgery early in the offseason, but by last week, he might have been the most impressive defensive back on the field, Fisher raved. Ramsey has been on campus just two months, but he looks like a seasoned pro. Joyner has been an All-ACC safety for two years, and Fisher is immensely pleased with how smoothly the senior's transition to cornerback has gone.

In other words, despite Tuesday's release of a depth chart that showed Joyner, P.J. Williams, Brooks and Hunter as starters, it's an order likely written in pencil, not ink.

"I feel like it's exciting because it means our competition level is going to go up," said Waisome, last year's starter, who now ranks as a co-No. 2 with Ramsey behind Joyner, according to the preseason depth chart. "Guys want to start, get up there and show their skills to the public. It shouldn't be a grind every day. We're all going to be pushing each other on the way."

If the stockpile of DBs is a luxury, the versatility of the group makes things even more exciting for Pruitt.

Since Fisher took over as head coach in 2010, he's made it a priority to draft all-purpose defensive backs -- bigger players with good speed who can handle an array of positions. This year's secondary is reaping the benefits of that approach.

"You have guys -- not only me, but Tyler Hunter, P.J. Williams -- that can play safety, nickel, corner," Joyner said. "Guys have been rotating, sharing the roles. That's what they expect."

Virtually every member of the secondary has cross-trained as part of Pruitt's new scheme. Brooks has worked in at both safety spots and nickel. Karlos Williams has worked at safety, linebacker and in the new hybrid roles Pruitt dubs "money" and "star." Hunter has played corner, safety and nickel, and Joyner expects to do the same.

The result is a plethora of options for how the defensive lineup might look on Monday when Florida State opens ACC play against Pittsburgh.

"To tell you the truth, it's all a shakeup right now," Brooks said. "They made sure they told us that this depth chart is not set at all. Personally, that's what I like. I don't want to just start because I'm a senior or a veteran. I want to earn my spot and show I'm the best on the field."

Odds are, Brooks won't spend much time on the sideline. He's proven enough already to enjoy a firm grip on a starting job. But start parsing the rest of the depth chart and the list of players who look the part of a starter is awfully long.

That can be a blessing or a curse, Joyner said. "Too much of anything can be bad for you," he said. But he insists this isn't a selfish group.

Uncertainty isn't always an ideal situation at this point in camp, but the quandary isn't likely to keep Pruitt up at night. He has ample options, and those possibilities make for an interesting battle that doesn't figure to have ended simply because the first depth chart has been announced.

"What I can say is we'll have a lot of football players rotating in and out," Joyner said. "I just don't know the number of reps, snaps, who deserves this or that."

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