Every week day in “Daily Focus,” Pro Football Focus looks at the top college football storylines and explains what they mean from a PFF perspective.
Florida State’s defense should be loaded in 2016: ACC Media Days kick off on Thursday, and one of the teams that figures to get a lot of love in the media voting is Florida State. And while we’ve dedicated quite a bit of time this offseason to why the Michigan and Alabama defenses should rank among the nation’s best this season, it’s worth recognizing the Seminoles as having the potential to be a top-5 defense as well.
Only three teams earned higher overall defensive grades last season than FSU – Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State. The loss of star defensive back Jalen Ramsey to the NFL (he was the fifth overall pick of the Jaguars) certainly hurts, but there is a lot of returning production entering the 2016 season. Defensive ends DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat both graded very well, with Walker faring better as a pass-rusher and Sweat standing out as a run defender. Derrick Nnandi was very disruptive at defensive tackle in both facets, and Demarcus Christmas showed promise as well.
They are less experienced at linebacker, although Ro’Derrick Hoskins earned a positive coverage grade, but the secondary is what really stands out about this defense. Marquez White will be the team’s top corner following Ramsey’s departure, and he appears ready for the job. His 0.46 yards per coverage snap allowed is the best among returning Power-5 corners, after giving up just 20 catches for 225 yards and a touchdown last year. He’ll be joined by a number of talented albeit less experienced at the position.
But there might not be a better safety tandem in the nation than Nate Andrews (who graded very well in his limited role last year) and Derwin James. We think James has the potential to challenge for the title of college football’s best defender this season, as he enters as our top-graded returning safety after excelling as a pass-rusher (22 total pressures, including five sacks), in coverage and against the run. There aren’t too many players who can cover slot receivers, act as an enforcer in the running game and knock offensive tackles flat on their backs as an edge rusher, but James did all of those things in 2015 – as a true freshman.
FSU has one of the nation’s top offensive players in running back Dalvin Cook, but it could be its defense that determines its success in 2016.
Mark Andrews can help replace Sterling Shepard in Oklahoma’s offense: Sooners WR Sterling Shepard, before becoming the second-round pick of the New York Giants in the 2016 NFL Draft, ranked No. 1 in PFF’s college receiving grades last season. He did most of his work out of the slot, combining an ability to get open on underneath routes with great efficiency on deep passes.
Replacing him as a target for Baker Mayfield, the top-graded returning quarterback in the country, is a tall order, but one player who could help with that is Mark Andrews. As reported by ESPN’s Brandon Chatmon, Mayfield thinks Andrews’ numbers will “at least double” now that Shepard is catching passes from Eli Manning instead of from him.
Based on how Andrews, who at 6-foot-6 and roughly 250 pounds looks like a tight end but spends a lot of his time off the line, performed in his more limited role a year ago, that could equal some big production this season. He was only targeted 28 times, catching 19 of those, and like Shepard he did the majority of his work out of the slot. 59 percent of his targets came out of the slot including 15 of his catches, which he turned into 216 yards of his 318 yards and five of his seven touchdowns.
Most significantly, Andrews’ 3.04 yards per route run average and 78.9 catch rate from the slot both would have ranked second nationally, had he maintained that efficiency with a larger workload.
Projected starting wideouts Dede Wetbrook and Michiah Quick both graded positively last season, but Andrews might be OU’s top pass-catching weapon this year.