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Sept. 30, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – When a coach talks about a game as a “learning experience,” often it’s to mask the fact that his team has just been soundly beaten.
But once in a while a team really does learn from a bad experience.
When Florida State played at Oklahoma in its second game of the season, the Seminoles had a long day on both sides of the football. The defense surrendered 47 points and 487 yards, not exactly the kind of outing that validated a change in defensive schemes.
“One of the things we took from that game was, ‘OK, we got tested,’” said Kendall Smith, the Seminoles’ senior middle linebacker. “We didn’t just forget about it and just say it’s a loss and we threw it out the window. We actually learned from it.
“I told my teammates on the defensive side of the ball, ‘OK, this is when we step up. It’s not the end of the world, it’s not the end of the season for us. We’ve got to use this to add fuel to the fire, try to get better every week and make a statement to every team we play against that we’re not going to let that happen again.’”
That’s exactly the kind of leadership coach Jimbo Fisher expected. Instead of licking their wounds, the FSU defenders came out with a renewed sense of purpose. In their next two outings, they limited BYU to 191 yards and 10 points and Wake Forest to 185 yards and no points.
Fisher, of course, took over when Bobby Bowden surrendered the coaching reins after the 2009 season. Long-time defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, who coached a man-to-man scheme, also retired and Fisher brought in Mark Stoops, a defensive coordinator who teaches zone.
One tough game was not enough to convince the Seminole staff to try something else.
“We didn’t blow up and go crazy and make a lot of changes,” Fisher said “We knew we had some good guys in there that were playing well, there were some young guys and it’s going to be a growing process.
“We explained it to them, we kept coaching them the same way, we didn’t change how we were approaching things. We believed in what we were doing and our kids have bought into that and they’re doing a great job of playing one play at a time and understanding how much preparation is a huge key.”
Smith, who was second on the team with 85 tackles in the man-to-man scheme last season, adapted quickly to the new style.
“As a linebacker in a man-to-man defense, my main focus was on my man or trading off men with the (strong side) linebacker,” he said. “Now that we’re playing a zone defense I’m doing more of a drop back and using my eyes, making plays, running to the football. It’s more having the ball in front of you instead of focusing on a man. It’s more of a playmaker defense.
“I think things through more. In a zone you’re passing a man off; if he comes through your zone, crisscrosses through, you can’t chase him, you’ve got to use your eyes. If you do your job and the other 10 guys do their jobs, you should be successful.”
There are numerous playmakers on the Seminole defense, many of them young. Sophomore end Brandon Jenkins has 4.5 sacks, sophomore defensive lineman Everett Dawkins has four tackles for loss and two sacks and sophomore cornerback Greg Reid is a tough cover man and a constant threat on punt returns.
Smith doesn’t have gaudy stats to date – 22 tackles (third on the team) and one tackle for loss. But he’s the linchpin of what the Seminoles do defensively.
“When you look at the defense as a whole, they run very well in space, they tackle, they get off blocks well, they use their hands well,” said Virginia coach Mike London, whose team faces Florida State Saturday.
“When you’re a middle linebacker you’re kind of the quarterback of the defense, so to speak. He gets guys lined up, he gets guys involved in the running game and the passing game, he brings the middle linebacker presence. When you have a good middle linebacker, you normally have a pretty good defense. There’s no surprise that the way they’re playing on defense, you can attribute a lot of that to the guy in the middle.”
Fisher said he has been pleased with Smith’s play and his leadership.
“He’s a senior, he’s been around, he understands out defense, he’s done a great job of transitioning into the new defensive scheme which we’ve put in,” the coach said “He’s just a hard worker – athletic, physical, makes plays. He’s seeing the field well right now, hustling everywhere, really just playing great football and being a great senior leader for our guys.”
The leadership role goes with the territory for a middle linebacker, Smith said, even though he’s not a rah-rah guy.
“Everybody looks for you to be a leader,” he said. “I never really thought about it; it kind of fell in my lap and I took it as it went. By me making plays and knowing my position and also by knowing what everybody else around me is doing, that’s being a leader.
“I don’t have to scream and yell. I feel I lead by example and just do my job and make sure everybody is on the same page that I am.”
One of Smith’s responsibilities is to look around before each snap and make sure everyone is in the proper alignment. That was a problem against Oklahoma, especially when the Sooners went to a no-huddle offense and Smith felt the defense was “discombobulated a little bit.”
And that was part of the learning experience. Now, when a play starts, Smith doesn’t worry about anyone missing assignments.
“The good thing about it is the young guys are very mature and ahead of their time when it comes to football,” he said. “They definitely make my job easier and I give them all the credit. They know their assignments and they have taken to their starting position roles very well.
“I honestly feel like when it comes to the game of football out there on the field, they’re not freshmen, sophomores or juniors. I feel like they’re right there beside me, they’re the same players as me when they play.”
That kind of confidence in his teammates is one reason Smith said he never wavered in his belief in the scheme or the personnel.
“Oklahoma is a very good team and they had a very good game plan and they out-played us,” he said. “We’re not going to forget that; we use it as fuel. These young guys, they got recruited by Florida State to come play football for a reason. I have no doubt in the world about them.”
The Seminoles are 1-0 in the ACC’s Atlantic Division and 3-1 overall. Smith said they’re not taking Virginia for granted under any circumstances.
“They’re a very physical team and they love to pound the ball,” he said. “As a defense that’s good for us. That makes us key in and stop the run and make them have to go to other options in order to move the ball. I’ve been watching Virginia since I was in high school and I know they’re going to play us hard in their home setting.”
As for success the rest of the season, it’s really not that complicated.
“No missed assignments, we definitely have got to tackle as a defense, and everybody just make plays,” Smith said. “Try to cause turnovers, fumbles, interceptions, anything possible to keep the ball on the offensive side. Go out there and play 100 percent and straight, hard-nosed football.”
With everything revolving around their defensive linchpin.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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