TALLAHASSEE — You might think Florida State's returning defensive players would be dwelling on last season's disappointing and embarrassing performance.
Not so, they insist, even though their goals bulletin board — a list of statistical targets for each week, complete with magnets that indicate whether they were achieved — hung prominently in the team meeting room and remained unchanged well into the start of preseason camp.
"It's passed," sophomore defensive end Brandon Jenkins said simply. "There's a new attitude, a new defense."
There better be.
FSU, which opens the season today against visiting Division I-AA Samford, was among the nation's most porous defenses a year ago. It allowed an average of 30 points and 434.6 yards per game, 94th and 108th, respectively, out of Division I-A's 120 schools, by far the worst in Mickey Andrews' storied 26-year stint as defensive coordinator.
"I don't know if it was a fundamental problem," new head coach Jimbo Fisher said of last year's showing, "and you guys, you're talking about one of the greatest coordinators in college football history, and he had one year where the stars didn't match. … It was just one of those years."
But with Andrews retired, Fisher had the chance to revamp the defensive staff in hopes of re-establishing a tradition of stingy defenses.
"I think we have an opportunity to be a great defense," said new defensive coordinator/secondary coach Mark Stoops, who held that same position at Arizona and is the younger brother of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "And that's what we're going to strive for. There's definitely enough talent here for us to be successful. It's our job as a coaching staff and a program to get them in a position to be successful."
He, along with new additions, Greg Hudson from East Carolina (linebackers) and D.J. Eliot from Rice (ends), and Odell Haggins (tackles), the lone returning defensive coach, have changed the Seminoles from a base man-to-man defense to a base zone. In an aggressive man-to-man, which was Andrews' trademark defense, one botched assignment, missed tackle or lack of pressure on the quarterback on a passing play can turn what should have been a short gainer into a game-changer.
And that happened to the Seminoles with regularity in 2009.
Not that FSU fans want to dwell on the past, either, but picture for a moment the 17-7 loss to USF that began a program-changing three-game losing streak. Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels hit Theo Wilson for 77 yards to set up the first score, then followed with a 73-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Griffin.
"I think the zone defense is better because last season it was a lot of man-to-man and some players, I'm not trying to down them, they probably couldn't stick man-to-man," sophomore defensive tackle Jacobbi McDaniel said.
Playing zone, players invariably have more help, and that helps decrease the likelihood of big plays. Stoops' scheme also gives the Seminoles a chance to be more diversified, and that can't be a bad thing.
"We didn't have as many options," said sophomore linebacker Vince Williams, calling last season's defense a bit too predictable at times. "Now we have a lot of things we're doing."
And doing well.
At least against their own offense.
"Ever since the start of spring practice, they've done an unbelievable job and gotten a lot better," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "If you looked at last year, the offense was kind of winning those scrimmages. This year, the defense has done an unbelievable job, and it's kind of gone back and forth."
That's encouraging when you consider the offense for the No. 20-ranked Seminoles is loaded with upperclassmen while the defense features a total of 17 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep depth chart for today's game.
"We have to build confidence back and get a system the kids felt comfortable in and put them in situations to be successful, but I think we have good ability; I really do," Fisher said. "I don't know if we've got the best players in America … but I think we have talent; we have some guys who can really play good ball, and they've played very well, and Mark and them have done a good job of putting the system in."
But how much can the coaches really learn about the defense's progress against a I-AA opponent? It's at least a pop quiz before the Seminoles see a real test on Sept. 11 at Oklahoma.
"We are progressing. Anybody can see that," Williams said. "There's not a player here who had an outstanding Florida State season that we're used to. … We're thirsty for this (improvement)."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.