By Bob Thomas, Associate Sports Information Director
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There is a real value to the daily skirmishes in the trenches between the Florida State offensive and defensive lines. In many respects, it is the classroom – or more accurately, the laboratory – where the success of the Seminoles is refined and ultimately defined.
While the framework for development is laid out by demanding professors (assistant coaches) Rick Trickett, Odell Haggins and Sal Sunseri, the execution and development on either side of the line unfolds as the students get hands-on experience carrying out what they have learned.
Throughout the preseason, FSU’s veteran offensive line – with 113 career starts between the quintet – has not only been immersed in its own growth and development, but has also been instrumental bringing the defensive front up to speed. Given the lack of starting experience on the defensive line – a meager 35 career starts between four players – those practice field encounters have been invaluable leading up to Saturday’s opener against Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium.
“Going against soon to be first-round picks in the NFL, who are 6-4, 330, that can only get you better going up against those guys every day,” said FSU redshirt freshman nose guard Keith Bryant.
Bryant is one of a handful of youngsters, along with freshmen Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas, who are expected to put what they’ve learned from those preseason battles to work when they make their Seminole debuts against the Cowboys.
How rapidly they develop into productive successors to All-American Timmy Jernigan and Demonte McAllister, will going a long way toward keeping the top-ranked Seminoles among the elite defenses nationally.
“You do the best and learn the most from your peers,” fifth-year senior left tackle Cameron Erving said. “You learn a lot from your coaches, but it really sticks when it’s your peers telling you things. With me being a former defensive lineman it kind of helps me because I know both sides of the spectrum. I try to help these guys get better because I know we’re going to need them to help win another national championship.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Erving was walking in similar shoes, albeit on the opposite side of the ball. After two seasons at defensive tackle, he made the switch to offense in the spring of 2012 and found himself facing NFL-bound defensive ends Bjoern Werner, Tank Carradine and Brandon Jenkins, and interior line defenders Everett Dawkins and Amp McCloud.
“Going against those guys was so competitive; you wanted to get better,” Erving said. “And you weren’t going to get better unless you used technique. It helped me a whole lot.
“Those guys were seasoned vets. They knew how to play certain blocks and how to get out of certain blocks, even when you used good technique. It makes you have to be that much more sharp and quick; getting on blocks and using your hands. It made me work in ways I had never worked before.”
Now Erving is one of the elder statesman on the offensive line, passing along his knowledge along to the young defenders up front.
“For example, a guy like Derrick Nnadi - he’s a really strong guy and he’s going to be a great player in the future,” Erving said. “If we beat him on a double-team, we will tell him, ‘Nnadi, you’ve got to stay low. You’ve got to turn your shoulders into the gap.’ As an offensive lineman, you know how the defensive linemen are going to play certain blocks…After the play, I’m like, ‘OK, you’ve got to stay low. You’ve got to use your hands. Don’t let me get my head outside.’ Little stuff like that.”
It’s not difficult for the “little stuff” to get overlooked when you’re a freshman just fighting to keep your head above water.
“Last year when I came in it was like me just trying to catch up,” said Bryant, a decorated member of the 2013 signing class. “I wasn’t used to playing that fast... In high school I just had to get off a block and make a play; swim him, bully him and snatch him off. Now I’ve got to learn how to play a gap and let the linebacker make a play. I had to learn that and catch up to the way they’re playing.”
Bryant’s education began in the preseason last year, and though he ultimately sat out the season as a redshirt, he made the most of the individual work he received in practice before heading over to join forces with the scout team defense. By the time spring practice rolled around, he was ready to unleash what he had learned.
“I improved a lot,” Bryant said, looking back on what he learned during that redshirt season. “I got so much better on my take-off, my steps and hand placement.”
“He’s definitely improved very much,” FSU senior center Austin Barron said of Bryant. “When he was first here he had his habits from high school. Now he’s had a year under him and had a redshirt, so he was able to sit back and learn from the older guys. He’s really learned to use his hands a lot better. He’s really stepping up doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”
Now, Bryant finds himself mentoring his true freshmen teammates, who are being asked to step in and contribute right away.
There is more to the education than merely locking horns in the trenches. It is not uncommon for teammates to share information in an effort to make them better.
Junior defensive lineman Eddie Goldman remembers how physically challenging those battles with the veteran offensive linemen were when he first arrived.
“It definitely makes you take your game to another level, because you’re not the strongest one or the most athletic one anymore,” Goldman said. “When those two things meet … it comes down to who has the best technique. It forces you to be a technician and really disciplined.”
To that end, those conversations with the offensive linemen at the end of a long day on the practice field were quite beneficial.
“Sometimes after practice they’d say, ‘Hey, you’re rushing a little too high,’ or ‘Put your hands in a certain place because I’m getting my hands on you too easy,’” Goldman said. “We’ll do stuff like that; tell each other things to get us better.”
The give and take, both on the field when the ball is snapped, in the film room and through conversation, is the kind of team building that coach Jimbo Fisher has fostered within the program.
“We’re going to go out there and work each other as hard as we can to get better,” Barron said. “If we’re walking off the field together, we’ll kind of tell each other, ‘Good job working me today. Keep doing what you’re doing.’…It’s always good to tell them things that they can do to get better.”
By all accounts, there has been tangible progress made by the young defensive linemen throughout camp, in no small part due to the size, talent and experience of the offensive linemen they face daily.
“I think the tempo that we run really helps them kind of adjust to football in general, because no one really runs (the offense) as fast as we do,” Barron said. “They’re definitely stepping up to the challenge.”
“They’re definitely teaching them how to adjust to the game,” Goldman said. “We look at film every day after practice and give them pointers…As far as the experience on the line, that’s the best you can ask for. They’re smart and have a sense of what’s coming. If we’re lined up a certain way they know what to expect, which makes it a little harder on you.”
And in both theory and practice, better prepared to contribute as the season begins.