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Nigel Bradham has 19 tackles - 13 solo stops - in FSU's last two games.

Nigel Bradham has 19 tackles - 13 solo stops - in FSU's last two games.

Nov. 17, 2009

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In Saturday's home finale, Florida State will recognize the outstanding contributions of defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, who will retire after 26 seasons with the Seminoles at the end of the season.

Andrews freely admits that his 2009 defensive unit has been prone to mistakes that have been costly, but he's never questioned the effort of his players. Despite the significant drop-off from the long-accustomed standard of excellence, the defense came up with timely stops - and two big takeaways - in last week's win over Wake Forest.

Improving on that effort against Maryland would be a fitting tribute to Andrews and go a long way toward sealing a victory and the accompanying 28th consecutive bowl berth for the Seminoles.

One defensive unit, in particular, has made significant strides over the second half of the season. FSU's starting linebacker trio of Nigel Bradham, Kendall Smith and Dekoda Watson have stepped up their productivity in the second half.

With 19 tackles in his last two games, Bradham has grabbed the team lead in tackles from Smith by the narrowest of margins - 66-65. Over the last five games Bradham has registered 39 stops, including a team-high 27 of the solo variety. That's a vast improvement from his 27 tackles (18 solos) through the first five games.

"Nigel has been playing pretty good all year," said veteran linebackers coach Chuck Amato. "He made a couple open-field tackles the other day (at Wake Forest). He made an open-field tackle against (C.J. Spiller) up at Clemson. Nigel's really starting to get confidence in himself; confidence in what he's doing. The vision is stretching on all of them."

Smith's improving field vision led the middle linebacker straight to the ball and his first career interception against Wake Forest. Jumping a route over the middle, Smith picked off a Riley Skinner pass that set up a second quarter touchdown drive, good for a 21-7 lead.

That vision is also paying dividends when it comes to tackles. Smith has 35 stops (19 solo) over the past five games; up from 30 tackles (18 solos) in the first five.

"They're linebackers," said Amato, who also praised the trio for their improved film study habits. "They're supposed to make tackles and they're not missing as many tackles. They have really done a lot on their own, which is good."

Watson's second half production has dipped, in large part due to a groin strain which limited to only three snaps in the final series against North Carolina. The lone senior of the bunch, Watson has remained a loyal supporter as the teams' defensive captain while working his way back to full healthy.

"He's a person who wants to excel so much," Amato said of Watson.

The efforts of the linebacking corps, which struggled to finish plays earlier in the year, has not gone unnoticed by the man in the tower.

"It has stepped up and it's very important," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said of the unit's performance. "As I look at each one of them, they're beginning to make more plays, which they have the ability to do. They have good speed. They have to be careful of over-running plays, because of their speed. They've adjusted better."

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