DeMarcus Walker knew exactly what he was going to do when he met Darnell Dockett this summer.
When Dockett, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end, came back to his alma mater of Florida State for a summer camp, the senior Seminole made sure to ask plenty of questions.
“I picked his brain the whole entire day, because I take advantage of every opportunity I have,” Walker said at last month’s ACC Kickoff. “I picked his brain—what to do, what not to do. … We exchanged numbers and everything.”
The conversation went well for the most part for Walker and Dockett, who started on Florida State’s defensive line for four seasons and still holds the school’s record for most tackles for loss in a career with 65.
But then Walker said something that fired up the 10-year NFL veteran.
“I told him the 2013 defense was the best defense FSU has ever had, and we all got in an argument with him,” Walker said with a mischievous smile. “He almost bit my head off.”
That’s far from Walker’s biggest claim, though. In Charlotte, North Carolina, he boldly stated Florida State’s 2016 defense could be even better than that national title-winning squad he was a part of in 2013—or any that Dockett was a part of in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I can see this defense being the best defense FSU has ever had,” Walker said. “And those are big words.”
Seven of the starters from that unit are already first-teamers in the NFL, and defensive back Jalen Ramsey was a No. 5 overall pick earlier this year:
The production of Florida State’s defense understandably slipped after that star-studded 2013 campaign, but it rebounded to be one of the nation’s best in 2015:
Now, in 2016, Walker is back with five other returning starters—nose guard Derrick Nnadi, Buck defensive end Josh Sweat, linebacker Ro’Derrick Hoskins, cornerback Marquez White and safety Derwin James.
Trey Marshall, the projected starter at the Star defensive back spot, started six games in 2015 before suffering a season-ending injury. Linebackers Jacob Pugh and Matthew Thomas combined for seven starts last season as well, so the Seminoles have quality experience at nearly every defensive position.
Walker knows firsthand the potential that is in Florida State’s defense for 2016, and it was a major reason he decided to come back for his senior campaign.
“The biggest thing you come to college for is an education. A degree was the best thing,” Walker said. “[I knew] I was coming back to a great team. Very talented. We’re disciplined. We’re back. We’re better than ever.”
Walker’s emphasis on talent is extremely important here. A lot of teams return experience. The best ones return experience and top-tier talent.
And Florida State’s preseason depth chart on defense is just dripping with blue-chip talent:
Of the 22 players who are listed on Florida State’s preseason two-deep defensive depth chart, 12 of them were top-10 recruits for their given position. Fifteen were consensus blue-chip recruits. Four were 5-stars.
That depth chart doesn’t include the likes of 5-star cornerback Levonta Taylor, who has received high praise of many FSU veterans in preseason camp, and a slew of 4-star underclassmen who might break into the rotation this fall.
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher sees a lot more room for improvement for those former 5- and 4-stars who are back this fall.
“DeMarcus Christmas, I think has a chance [to break out],” Fisher said. “We’re seeing Sweat just keeping evolving. You’re getting Trey Marshall back. No one really talks about him anymore. That guy was a starter for half of a season and was playing really well. Marquez [White] may still take that next step.”
They all could be taking that next step at the perfect time. As David Visser of Tomahawk Nation discovered, that amount of returning experience is eerily similar to what Florida State had coming back heading into the 2013 championship season:
The 2013 team brought back 271 starts. The 2016 team will return a staggeringly similar 264. But let’s get more specific. FSU’s 2016 defense returns 109 starts. How many came back in 2013? 109. Let’s break this down. The most single-player defensive starts returned in 2013? 27. In 2016? 27. The second-most returning starts from a defensive player in 2013? 18. In 2016? 18.
Cue the evil laughter from the Florida State faithful and some creepy Twilight Zone music. This defense really is scary.
The lead terror is none other than James, a former top-five overall recruit who enrolled early at Florida State last year. Although he didn’t pick up his first start until midway through the regular season, James finished 2015 second on the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks—again, as a true freshman safety.
“I think [James] is going to be the best defensive player in the country. He probably already is the best defensive player in the country,” Adam Kramer said in Bleacher Report’s FSU season preview. “He is like a once-in-a-decade type safety.”
James’ freakish talent at run support, pass rushing and pass coverage makes him one of the most valuable weapons in the entire country. The loss of a do-it-all player like Ramsey in the secondary is almost wiped away by the presence of an older James.
And that’s not all for the Florida State secondary. In addition to White and Marshall, the Seminoles can rely on an incredibly deep amount of talent there between the reserves and the newcomers, as SB Nation’s Bill Connelly wrote:
Trey Marshall, A.J. Westbrook and Calvin Brewton…Tarvarus McFadden, Malique Jackson and Marcus Lewis have been waiting for an opportunity, and all-world freshman Levonta Taylor is expected to make an immediate impact. In the absence of proven production, you’re looking for competition. FSU has loads of the latter.
The more proven production can be found up front, where Florida State boasts one of the fiercest front sevens in the entire country. Three of its starting four defensive linemen are back, and all three projected first-teamers at linebacker have starting experience.
And they all bring elite speed and strength.
“That front seven is the most athletic front seven Jimbo Fisher has had at Florida State,” Barrett Sallee said in Bleacher Report’s FSU season preview. “Think about that for a second. … Josh Sweat, now that he’s fully recovered from his high school injury, that kid is going to be an absolute monster. This is going to be a terrifying front seven.”
Florida State will pair Sweat, who had 41 tackles and five tackles for loss as a true freshman coming off a catastrophic knee injury, with Walker on the edges. Walker is coming off a season with 15.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
But, according to Walker, that production could rise even higher in 2016.
“Y’all ain’t seen nothing yet from DeMarcus, I promise you,” Walker said. “I’ve been working. You guys will see a huge leap.”
That intersection of talent, experience and potential with Walker and the rest of the Florida State defense has many around Tallahassee dreaming of a huge 2016 season.
And Fisher isn’t going to snuff out Walker’s big words about the defense being the Seminoles’ best ever.
“I’m going to tell you what, when I was playing, that’s how I always looked at it,” Fisher said. “Whenever I stepped on the field, I thought we were going to win and that we were the best. You do what you think you do. If you don’t think it, then it isn’t going to happen.
“They have a chance to be a good group. We’ll wait and see, but I like his mindset. I really do.”
That’s a stance that even Dockett wouldn’t argue.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
Read more ACC Football news on BleacherReport.com
Source: Bleacher Report-ACC Football