TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State’s defense was expected to go through some growing pains after losing seven starters to the NFL, including a pair of first-round picks in defensive end Bjoern Werner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Three of four defensive assistant coaches left for other jobs.
There were a few speed bumps early, especially during a 48-34 win at Boston College on Sept. 28. Since then, the Seminoles have allowed just 72 points in the last eight games.
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Despite the turnover, Florida State’s defense has improved, and much of the credit goes to first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher lured Pruitt, who won a pair of national titles as Alabama’s defensive backs coach, to Tallahassee to replace Mark Stoops (who had left to take over as Kentucky’s head coach).
On Monday, Pruitt was named one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, presented annually to the nation’s top college assistant coach.
“He is very deserving,” Fisher said. “He’s had a great year, our defense has had a great year. It’s been a huge part of our success, what we’re doing on defense.”
No. 1 Florida State (12-0) finished off a perfect regular season and now faces No. 20 Duke (10-2), putting the Seminoles one win away from a spot in the BCS championship game.
It’s no coincidence the Seminoles have also enjoyed one of the best defensive seasons in a decade. They lead the nation in scoring defense (11 points per game), the lowest total since Florida State allowed just 10.2 points per game in 2000.
Pruitt, who is not allowed to speak to the media during the season, has turned a very good Seminoles defense into an even better one in 2013 with more aggressive schemes. He loves to blitz, often sending cornerback Lamarcus Joyner after the quarterback, and he likes to show multiple defensive fronts.
In the days after Pruitt was hired in January, Rhodes and Werner decided to leave FSU after their junior years. Joyner and linebacker Christian Jones debated their decisions, and in many ways it was Pruitt who talked made the rising seniors comfortable with the new defensive schemes that he would be employing.
Convincing them to stay was key in maintaining stability even though both changed positions. Jones is now often a rush end, and he has 47 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss this season. Joyner moved from safety to corner, a switch that he hoped would help raise his NFL draft stock. Joyner was an All-ACC first-team pick, recording 60 tackles and a team-leading five sacks.
“I just remember having a conversation with Coach Pruitt over the phone, and from that conversation I knew what kind of character man he was,” Joyner said. “To see him come in and to see his hunger to get this program better and install his defense and his philosophy around here, it was just a great experience.
“It was almost that love-at-first-sight thing, just meeting him and just speaking with him. Just the intelligence he has and the care and the love he has for the game and to make kids better around him, it was kind of easy for all the guys buy into it. That’s exactly why we’re having success this year, because of that trust factor.”
Pruitt also got Florida State to buy into something else — the need to force more turnovers. Florida State had just 11 interceptions and 10 fumbles in 2012, numbers that put them in the middle of the pack in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“As good as Florida State played defensively last fall, one of the things where we really could improve is getting turnovers,” Pruitt said in August.
His players listened and have delivered. The Seminoles have 23 interceptions, which is tied with Houston for first nationally. While they have more than doubled last year’s interception total, Florida State has also recovered eight fumbles. The combined 31 turnovers places the Seminoles in the top 5 in the FBS.
Just about everyone has had a part in the interception party, as 16 players have at least one. True freshman Nate Andrews has four interceptions, while Ronald Darby, P.J. Williams, Terrence Brooks and Telvin Smith have two apiece.
“Pruitt is amazing,” Brooks said. “His defense is really good. Everyone is really buying into it.”
Andrews, initially thought to be facing a possible redshirt season, has found playing time both as a fill-in starter and as a backup (he has 26 tackles) defensive back. Another true freshman defensive back, Jalen Ramsey, has started every game while recording 41 tackles and an interception.
“They’re going to be really good in the future,” Brooks said of the underclassmen. “Probably better than we are, to tell the truth.”
The defense is improving as the season progresses. While the Florida State secondary is considered one of the best in the nation, Fisher said the defensive linemen and linebackers deserve plenty of credit for the increased interception totals.
“Those guys are able to run and put pressure on the passer, and we’re able to do the things we do,” Fisher said.
Florida State was one of the nation’s top defensive teams the past few seasons under Stoops. He took the defense from one that was ranked 100th in scoring defense in 2009 to a top-10 group.
Now, with Pruitt, Florida State has the nation’s top defense.
“We’ve got a great group of guys as far as character,” Joyner said. “We’re all in it together.”