By Bob Thomas, Associate Sports Information Director
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It seems like only yesterday that Florida State freshman linebacker Reggie Northrup came running out of the tunnel with the American flag in hand, leading the Seminoles onto the field on Military Appreciation Day.
That was a special honor in 2012 for the Jacksonville native, whose father, Reggie, Sr., is a retired Naval Officer who served from 1990-2004, including two tours during the Gulf War.
The younger Northrup enjoyed another special honor last week at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, when he took the field with the starting defense for the first time against Oklahoma State in the AdvoCare Cowboys Classic.
“There was an overwhelming excitement, making my first start,” said Northrup, who responded with seven tackles. “I was anxious; had cold feet for a series or two and then I said, ‘OK, I’ve played in big games before, so just relax. I know what to do and just go out there and perform.’”
Northrup will be in Saturday’s starting lineup when the top-ranked Seminoles face The Citadel in the sold out home-opener at Doak Campbell Stadium. Coming off a closely-scrutinized performance in its 37-31 opening win, the FSU defense will be tested by the Bulldogs’ run-based, triple-option, which places a premium defensively on assignment football.
Facing the triple-option is a “pain in the tail” confessed Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who knows all too well. Georgia Tech, FSU’s opponent in the 2012 ACC Championship game, has been running it for years with great success under coach Paul Johnson. Consequently, preparation is essential.
“That’s a ton now; it’s a ton of meeting time,” Fisher said. “We had plans for it in the summer, to come out and install it…It’s very disciplined, they know all the tricks off of that so we’re going to have to play very well. You have to be disciplined and physical at the same time.”
Defending the triple option begins with gap control up front, but doesn’t stop there, as the defensive front seven must defend the dive, the pitch, the quarterback keeper and the pass. That the challenge comes a week after missed assignments against OSU’s spread and run-threat quarterback J.W. Walsh proved costly. Consequently, Fisher and his staff have had the team’s complete attention this week.
“Option teams are a pain no matter when they are (played),” Fisher said. “You have to be willing to do all the work.”
Having grown up in the home of a military father, Northrup knows a little bit about discipline and what can be expected from the Charleston, S.C. military school, which regularly ranks as one of the top rushing offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
“It will be a great test,” Northrup said. “As far as physicality, I know The Citadel is a smaller school, but they are a military school and anything involving the military, you know they’re disciplined and you know they’re tough. They’re going to bring it to us and we’re going to have to play assignment football.
“We’ve got to make sure our D-linemen are filling the gaps they’re supposed to fill; the defensive ends are containing or making the right reads. As far as a linebackers, we have our assignments and mostly it’s going to be on us. We have to make sure we fill those gaps and know the reads…You’ve got to read for the quarterback, the pitch, the dives and the pass plays they may try and pop out. It will be a challenge.”
In addition to its precision-based running attack, The Citadel has ranked as one of the nation’s least-penalized programs in the country over the past three seasons; another tip of the cap to the discipline instilled within the program.
That hardly surprises Northrup, who was drilled on the importance of doing things the right way by his father.
“He wasn’t like a drill seargent,” Northrup said of his father. “He was cool; down to earth. He shared the mistakes he made when he was my age and makes sure I don’t make the same mistakes. He was always hard on me and my biggest critic as far as being a football player and working on my technique. He did emphasize paying attention to detail and that’s real important on this level.”
That lesson hit home last season. After playing predominantly on special teams as a true freshman, Northrup had hoped to work his way into defensive rotation as the back-up to Telvin Smith. First, however, he had to learn an entirely new defensive scheme, as opposed to the one the Seminole ran during his freshman year.
“It was a challenge learning the new defense,” Northrup said. “It was real different with a lot of different calls and checks. I ain’t gonna lie. Learning it was harder than a couple of my classes.”
“I just had to really focus and tell myself to do my job. That helped me. I got into my playbook and really took it serious. I’ve gotten older. Yesterday I was just a freshman. Now I’m a junior. I’m trying to be more of a leader now that I have a bigger role on the team. It was essential that I learned the defense.”
The process was not accomplished overnight. Early in the 2013 National Championship run, as Northrup was still absorbing the nuances of the defensive scheme, he was largely relegated to making his mark on special teams. Fortunately, his ever-running football motor and nose for the ball allowed him to excel.
“When it’s game time I know how to cut it on and get that dog mentality,” Northrup said. “Whether it was special teams or I was in on defense, I always had that mentality when it comes to finding the ball. On special teams, I was hungry. I still am hungry. I had that ambition to make my presence known, so if I get you … you’re going to feel me.”
As the season progressed he became more involved defensively as Smith’s back-up and finished with 46 tackles to rank eighth on the team, including a career-high 11 against Syracuse.
Despite moving from the weakside to middle linebacker position, Northrup figured to have a leg up on the starting job entering the season. Yet with less than two weeks remaining in camp, Fisher said that it was sophomore E.J. Levenberry who actually held the top spot on the depth chart. That seemed to light a fire under Northrup.
“E.J. is a great player and a great guy,” Northrup said. “I know he felt like it was a great opportunity for him. It was a good opportunity (for me), like, ‘OK, they want me to compete again, let’s go.’ I had to take it to another level. I’m going to be a junior. ‘Let me make something happen. It’s my time. Let me step it up, pick up my game, get in the playbook better and execute when I step on the field.’
“Putting that pressure on me brought out the best in me, and him too. He’s developed tremendously as a linebacker and he’s a great addition to our corps. (Competition) was a good thing.”
Northrup understands that one start does not make a season and has designs on many more. He also wants to evolve into a leader on a defensive unit that at this point is still looking for one or more people to fill the void created by the departure of players like Smith, Timmy Jernigan and Lamarcus Joyner.
The soft-spoken son of a retired sailor has flashed some of the same attributes as Smith, at least when the game day lights come on.
“Being behind (Smith) and just seeing his intensity level, he’s a real mentally tough guy,” Northrup said. “When he was tired he was still running his mouth; being loud and having that energy. He held everyone accountable on our team. That’s the thing we’re trying to get going again this year as far as leaders on both sides of the ball. We’ve got to hold each other accountable if we want to have another successful season.”
There might not be a better early-season measuring stick of the leadership on FSU’s defense than the triple-option the Noles will face against The Citadel. And after last week’s hit-or-miss effort at Oklahoma State, a strong performance would come at just the right time.
“It really should,” Northrup said. “Last week was an eye-opener. It wasn’t expected to be as close as it was. Oklahoma State was a good team. Forget all the rankings and all that stuff…We’re going to get the best out of everybody all season. That’s why we’re emphasizing that you get better every day in practice.”