Revamped Florida State D-Line will be tested by Notre Dame

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida State is banking on improvement production from the Seminoles after spending the last nine months patching up holes at quarterback, on the offensive line, in the secondary and along the defensive line.

Coach Mike Norvell believes that production and leadership will come from a group of nine newcomers who transferred and are part of the Seminoles’ two-deep depth chart. He and his staff are days away from seeing how much improvement they’ve made when Florida State plays No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday night.

While questions remain on both sides of the ball, defensive coordinator Adam Fuller is particularly optimistic about a line featuring transfer ends Jermaine Johnson (Georgia), Keir Thomas (South Carolina) and Marcus Cushnie (Alabama A&M), a trio that should provide a jolt to the pass rush as well as one of the nation’s worst run defenses in 2020.

“I said from the day that we got here that needs to be the front porch of our defense,” Fuller said of the front four. “Whether it’s due to recruiting, due to development, whether it’s due to scheme, that’s been a major push this offseason. It’s been impactful here early in preseason, and we’re going to lean on them to be make an impact all over the football field on Sunday night.”

Florida State will need the defensive line to play well — especially after last year’s performance against Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish ran for 353 yards in a 42-26 win over Florida State last October, averaging 8.4 yards per carry as Kyren Williams (19 carries for 185 yards, 2 TDs) and Chris Tyree (11 carries for 103 yards, 1 TD) led the ground attack.

Notre Dame had three offensive linemen — Aaron Banks, Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey — selected in the NFL draft but the Fighting Irish remain formidable up front with center Jarrett Patterson, tackle Josh Lugg as well as Marshall transfer and AP All-American guard Cain Madden. All three are seniors or grad students, and Madden even visited Florida State before making the decision to land at Notre Dame in June.

“They know what they’re trying to accomplish when it comes to the run game and it starts up front,” Norvell said. “And then when you have great tight ends and running backs that run with a true purpose. It’s a challenging spot.”

It’s an especially challenging spot for Florida State, which was 97th against the run last fall and allowed 199 rushing yards per game. The Seminoles coaches pursued help with the likes of Johnson, Thomas and Cushnie to improve a pass rush that generated just nine sacks in nine games. But it was also done to elevate the talent and bring in veterans who would teach and motivate younger players.

Norvell has praised sophomore defensive tackle Dennis Briggs for his work ethic and cited him as “one of the most consistent performers we had in fall camp.” Briggs as well as Robert Cooper and Fabien Lovett, in his second year at Florida State after transferring from Mississippi State, will anchor the interior of the line.

“He’s quick, he’s powerful,” defensive tackle coach Odell Haggins said of Briggs. “He’s developing into a very good run-stopper and a pass rusher.

While coaches say they have figured out a gaping concern on the defensive front, another question remains: Who will start at quarterback against Notre Dame. Norvell has only indicated that Jordan Travis and UCF transfer McKenzie Milton are co-starters on the Seminoles’ depth chart, and he’s clearly looking to keep the Fighting Irish guessing as to who will start or if both could play.

“I’m really excited about that quarterback room and the competition that we have,” Norvell said, “the versatility of skill sets that these guys bring.”

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