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Florida State sees plenty of upside in Dade City native Jacob Pugh

Florida State Seminoles linebacker Jacob Pugh (16) and Florida State Seminoles defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44) celebrate after sacking the Miami quarterback Saturday October 8, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
Florida State Seminoles linebacker Jacob Pugh (16) and Florida State Seminoles defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44) celebrate after sacking the Miami quarterback Saturday October 8, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
Published Aug. 21, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — No, Florida State senior Jacob Pugh is not as versatile as teammate Derwin James.

FSU won't be asking him to zip through the secondary or start returning kicks like the Seminoles' do-it-all safety.

But Pugh isn't far behind. The Dade City native can line up at linebacker or defensive end, and he can rush the passer or drop back in coverage, making him an X factor on a defense that should be one of the best in the country.

"I can do anything," Pugh said. "I like me."

The third-ranked Seminoles like him, too, which is why they named the 6-foot-4, 229-pound Pugh their spring MVP and consider him one of their most crucial players heading into the blockbuster Sept. 2 season opener against No. 1 Alabama.

"He's one of our — I wouldn't say unheralded — but he makes a lot of plays," defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said. "A lot of critical plays."

That won't surprise anyone who knows his family roots.

Although Pugh moved to the Panhandle before high school — where he won state titles at Jefferson County and Tallahassee Godby — his roots are in the North Suncoast. His uncles, Darren and Troy Hambrick, led Pasco High to that county's only state championship before spending five years each in the NFL. His cousin, Pasco alumnus and Rutgers senior Janarion Grant, will break the NCAA career record if he returns a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown this season.

Pugh's also related to another one of Tampa Bay's top football families. He is cousins with Auburn receiver Nate Craig-Myers — the Tampa Bay Times' 2016 Blue Chip player of the year at Tampa Catholic — and cornerback Josh Johnson, who played eight games with the Jaguars last year.

"It runs in the bloodline," Pugh said.

Pugh got parts of the best of them all. He's the biggest of the bunch and inherited some of the athleticism that put his elders in the NFL.

Those physical skills have started to show. His 168 career tackles are second on FSU's roster, and he ranks fourth in returning sacks (7 ½) in tackles for loss (11).

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As a freshman, he lined up at end at North Carolina State, dodged one blocker and recovered a fumble inside the 10 to set up FSU's go-ahead score. On the first play from scrimmage last year at Miami, he flew from linebacker and threw quarterback Brad Kaaya to the ground in a vicious sack that set the tone for a brutal 20-19 win.

But some of Pugh's abilities aren't as easily appreciated. After the spring game, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher didn't rave about Pugh's sack or pass breakup; he focused on the way Pugh jammed a tight end.

"Something that little a lot of folks don't see," Fisher said, "but it screwed the whole play up."

It's also easy to overlook the way Pugh can mess up opponents' game plans with his versatility. He's strong enough to challenge an offensive lineman as a blitzer or throw off a block from a charging fullback. He's quick enough to hang with a running back or tight end going out for a pass, and he's smart enough to know which one to do at which time.

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All of that allows FSU to use different schemes without substituting — an underrated skill in the era of up-tempo offenses.

While the Seminoles haven't taken Pugh for granted, they want the rest of the country to have to start noticing him, too. His offseason accolades were a reminder of what FSU needs from him if it hopes to beat 'Bama.

"It's just motivation to keep on pushing," Pugh said. "You know you've got the potential to affect the team — play a big role on the team. Coach Fisher's just motivating me to go harder and bring out what I can really do."

And that, Pugh said, is just about anything — like help the Seminoles compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.