TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State had comfort in knowing that to replace an All-American they at least had a Tank. And now the job of replacing a Tank falls on two freshmen.
When Brandon Jenkins hurt his foot in the season opener, Tank Carradine turned in an 80-tackle, 11-sack season. But now that Carradine is hurt, there is no clear-cut answer to Florida State’s dilemma at defensive end.
The options are freshman Mario Edwards Jr., rated by Scout.com as the nation’s No. 1 player on the defensive side of the ball in the 2012 signing class. And the Seminoles also have redshirt freshman Giorgio Newberry, a four-star prospect coming out of high school.
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“When Brandon went down, they said, ‘Well, can Tank really do it?’ “ Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We thought he could. You never know. That’s how heroes are made, is when guys get an opportunity and step up. They’re quite capable.”
Capable? Yes. Experienced? No.
Edwards and Newberry have combined for just 20 tackles this season. Neither saw the kind of playing time that Carradine did as a junior in 2011, valuable experience that gave him confidence and showed the coaching staff that he was ready to step in when Jenkins hurt his foot on Sept. 1.
At the beginning of the season, Newberry was considered a backup but wasn’t expected to see much playing time behind Jenkins, Bjoern Werner and Carradine. Newberry took a redshirt in 2011, and he has just 13 tackles in 11 games but feels more prepared for an increased role.
“My game has improved a lot from when I first got here,” Edwards said. “I’m just playing ball better overall — technique-wise, fundamental-wise, everything.”
Fisher told Edwards in August that he would redshirt, in part because of Florida State’s depth at defensive end but his weight had also pushed him beyond 300 pounds. But Edwards, who as a true freshman is not allowed to speak to the media, has lost about 15 pounds and is in better shape to face the college football grind.
“I see the attitude. He just picked up in the middle of the season,” Werner said of Edwards. “He’s a freshman but he’s playing at a higher level than a normal freshman.”
Florida State (10-2) needs Edwards or Newberry to play like a veteran on Saturday night when the Seminoles face Georgia Tech (6-6) in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. The Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense is a challenge for any defense, but especially for defensive ends that must be cognizant of the quarterback’s willingness to run and also his ability to pitch.
During a normal week, against a run-of-the-mill 6-6 team with a drop-back passer, which player lines up at defensive end isn’t a tremendous concern. A freshman can get by on athleticism and rush the quarterback. But against Georgia Tech, and with a conference title on the line, it’s far different.
Edwards and Newberry are wild cards. Georgia Tech will surely run the option right at them (and not Werner). But Fisher sees improvement from both freshmen as the season has progressed.
“They’ve gotten much better,” Fisher said. “They’ve done a nice job. I thought Mario has really progressed. He has to continue to grow and get better. They’ve made mistakes, they’ll lose contain here and there or make a mistake but Brandon and Bjoern did it as young guys, too.”
The impact of Werner can’t be understated. Named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s defensive player of the year on Wednesday, Werner has 29 tackles and 13 sacks despite constant double-teams.
He takes the extra attention, allowing the pass rusher on the other side to make plays in one-on-one situations. Now, he’s hoping to do the same with Newberry or Edwards on the right side.
“I told you Tank (would) step up,” Werner said with a smile. “Somebody else will step up. We have good players.”