Jernigan poised to succeed on FSU’s D-line

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Timmy Jernigan did a pretty good job of just getting by in his first season at Florida State.

He was the only true freshman to play in all 13 of the Seminoles’ games, and Jernigan led all of FSU’s interior defensive linemen with 30 tackles.

“When I came in, I beat a lot of people with raw talent; I beat them because I was just better,” Jernigan said. “But now I’m learning to be a technician. Doing all the little things right. I feel like that’s what is going to make me a complete football player.”

Jernigan was a dominating defensive tackle at Lake City’s Columbia High, recording 14 sacks and 32 tackles for loss in his senior season. He was considered the No. 4 defensive tackle in the nation by, and the longtime Florida fan passed up offers from the Gators, who had just seen coach Urban Meyer resign, and offers from LSU and Alabama to attend FSU.

Jernigan saw considerable playing time last year, and he will now start in Saturday’s season opener against Murray State in place of injured senior Anthony McCloud (chest injury).

Going into his sophomore year, Jernigan said he has learned to use his hands more effectively to beat opposing offensive linemen.

“My biggest stride is probably hand placement off the ball, taking advantage of that inside,” Jernigan said. “When they (offensive linemen) step, they cock their hands a lot. I’m trying to beat them to the punch. I’m trying to get my hands in their breastplate before they can touch me. Because by the time they touch me, I’m trying to be gone to the ball.”

The play of FSU’s defensive tackles the past few seasons has often been overshadowed by the sack totals accumulated by defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner, who combined for 15 sacks last season. But it’s also the play of the defensive tackles — players like Jernigan, McCloud and Everett Dawkins — that makes the Seminoles’ defensive line arguably the best in the nation.

FSU was second in the nation in rush defense, and fourth in total defense and scoring defense in 2011. If the defensive line remains healthy, it’s conceivable that those numbers will improve this year.

“The game starts up front,” defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said. “You better be strong up front and have good, strong, dominant defensive linemen. We definitely have some guys there that have some experience and have proven themselves. It’s a luxury.”

A luxury for FSU, but also a nightmare for offensive linemen. FSU’s opponents have often tried to double-team Jenkins after he recorded 12.5 sacks in 2010. And while Jenkins’ numbers dipped a little last year, all of the attention on him resulted in one-on-one matchups for the other defensive linemen.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Jernigan said. “Not being cocky, but I understand the type of team that we have. I know what’s on the team. When everybody is at their best, it’s hard to double-team one of us.”

Jernigan may be 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, but he is athletic and has a quick first step. And after a productive first year at FSU, he accepted a challenge from defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins to learn how to use his hands to keep offensive linemen from getting a good grip on him.

It’s a lesson that will make Jernigan a better player at FSU but also prepare him for the NFL.

“That’s what coach Haggins always preached to me, taking care of your body and using technique,” Jernigan said. “He said you’re not going to beat everybody off raw talent forever. He said you can probably get away with it in college. But at the next level, it’s going to catch up to you. You’re going to find somebody that is just as talented as you are.”