From preps to the pros and everything in between, the performance of the defensive line can oftentimes make or break a football team.
For Florida State, many of the defensive breakdowns that occurred in the 2008 season could be attributed in part to the less-than-stellar play of the defensive line -- particularly the defensive tackles. The Seminoles entered the spring looking to improve a position that last year combined for just five sacks and struggled against opponents with superior rushing attacks.
But outside of a stout performance in the Garnet & Gold game, the spring practice period lacked much luster by the defensive tackles. And at spring's end, there are still questions to be answered.
Redshirt senior Kendrick Stewart experienced a break-out type of season in 2008 when he earned nine starts and led all FSU defensive tackles with career highs in tackles (22) and sacks (two). The Lakeland, Fla. native manned the starting nose guard position in the spring and should have the inside track to the position this year.
Stewart's overall performance in the spring was good but he has yet to step into the role of FSU's top defensive tackle -- the player that defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins can rely on in any situation to stuff the run and demand double-teams on the inside.
The same could be said for senior Justin Mincey, who has the size and intangibles to make some noise at the position but hasn't put it all together yet.
Not helping matters in the spring was the fact that senior Budd Thacker was forced to miss the entire practice period with an injury. Thacker is the defense's most vocal and fiery player and not having him on the field certainly created a void.
The other defensive tackles on the FSU roster, sophomores Moses McCray and Everette Dawkins, got their first taste of spring practices in Tallahassee and both should be able to use the knowledge they gained in the upcoming season and beyond.
What to watch for:
There's no doubt that all eyes will be on Jacobbi McDaniel the moment the soon-to-be freshman defensive tackle steps foot on campus in June.
McDaniel is Florida State's highest ranked defensive recruit since Myron Rolle and should expect to see immediate playing time as a Seminole.
McDaniel starred in high school in nearby Greenville, Fla. by using his incredible strength to push through the offensive line and wreak havoc in opposing backfields. If his football career up to this point is any indication, his run-stuffing and middle-clogging ability will be a welcome addition to the defensive line at FSU.
His future classmate, Demonte McAllister, also is on his way to FSU after a prep career that generated a lot of interest from many of the nation's top football programs. Like McDaniel, McAllister could see the field very early in his career. Because of his versatility and pass-rushing skills, he could also be used at the defensive end position.
As for the returning players, Stewart needs to continue to build off his best season as a Seminole while Thacker needs to bounce back from his injury and Mincey must make an impact in his final season. It has been quite some time since FSU had three capable seniors at defensive tackle and the pressure is on each of them to perform in 2009.
As for McCray, his continued development will be important to watch. A highly-touted recruit just last year, he has the ideal frame and skill-set to be a dominant defensive tackle for the Seminoles.
After starting two games and playing in eight as a true freshman last season, the 6-foot-2 and 298-pounder has the early workings and experience to take his game to the next level in his sophomore campaign.
If the three seniors play well and avoid injury while setting a positive example for McCray and the two incoming freshmen this season, it may allow Dawkins to move back to the defensive end position where he starred in high school -- although it's likely that he will stay on the inside in the immediate future because of depth concerns.
Sidestepping the injury bug is the biggest key, though.
Defensive tackles are expected to take on big and mean offensive linemen on a regular basis while stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. It's a grueling job that comes with its fair share of bumps and bruises.
With only seven scholarship players manning the position come two-a-days this fall, FSU can't afford to lose anyone to the athletic trainer's table.