October 22, 2013

Insider Report: Thomas out, dominant secondary, O'Leary's role expands

Lamarcus Joyner made no bones about his confidence in Florida State's secondary on Saturday.

"Let my brothers tell it," Joyner said, basking in the glow of FSU's win. "We're the best secondary in the country."

What a difference one huge win makes. FSU's secondary went from being untested and unproven in a new system to suddenly a destructive force, and the numbers back Joyner up.

Florida State currently ranks as the No. 2 passing defense in the country in terms of yards surrendered and third nationally in yards per attempt at just 5.4 yards allowed per passing play. Those numbers were somewhat skewed early as FSU had faced mostly power running teams, but after shutting down Clemson's high-powered passing attack, Florida State suddenly looks much more fearsome in pass defense.

"I felt that way for the past couple of years," Jonyer said. "I always feel confident in the guys that I'm around. That's just the mentality I have on the football field."

Joyner has had quite a bit to do with that, as his move from safety to cornerback and specifically nickel back gives Florida State a versatile and explosive playmaker at the line of scrimmage. He showcased that skill on Saturday by creating three turnovers by himself.

"We have good players," head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We like our players. We're very confident. We have guys that are very multiple that can go corner-safety, safety-corner, have ball skills, have length, have size, have quickness. It's a very good group. They have a good scheme and they're learning."

But behind Joyner, Florida State relies on relatively young players. P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, who start at cornerback when Joyner moves to the nickel slot, are both sophomores and starting safety Jalen Ramsey is a true freshman. So far, that inexperience hasn't shown for FSU. Ramsey, Williams and Darby have combined for five passes broken up, 40 tackles and three interceptions so far.

"They did really well," senior safety Terrence Brooks said. "Just their confidence right now is through the roof. When you get that confidence and go out there loose and ready to play, those boys got everything in front of them."

O'Leary changing FSU's use of TE's

Florida State's leading receiver on Saturday at Clemson wasn't who most would expect.

It wasn't cagey veteran Rashad Greene athletic freak Kelvin Benjamin or even shifty slot receiver Kenny Shaw. It was tight end Nick O'Leary.

O'Leary hauled in five catches for a whopping 161 total yards, including a short route in the fourth quarter that he took 94 yards for what might be the longest play by a tight end in school history (FSU's tight end records are sketchy)

O'Leary isn't out catching 90-yard bombs every game, but Florida State has made a point to take advantage of his ability in the passing game. In fact, midway through the season, FSU is using O'Leary more than any tight end under Jimbo Fisher.

In previous seasons under Fisher, tight ends consistently received between 6 and 8 percent of the receptions for the season. So far in 2013, 13 percent of FSU's receptions and 14 percent of its passing yards have gone to O'Leary. But he's been even more lethal in the red zone. He's got a whopping 25 percent of FSU's touchdown catches - and while that's probably skewed from a three-touchdown performance in the season opener, there's no denying that O'Leary has become a vital part of FSU's passing attack.

"He's being much more consistent. I think he's learning blocking, on the ball, off the ball, being able to move. I think his routes have gotten better because of the knowledge of offense. He's always a great ball-skills guy (and has) great instincts that way, but understanding coverages and how to sit down and get open and we're allowing a lot of freedom and how we're getting him the ball and it's working."

At this rate, O'Leary is on pace for 32 catches, 586 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, which would put him on pace for easily the most productive season by a tight end in FSU history. One reason why he's justified an increased faith from Fisher and the offense could be seen on Saturday, when O'Leary broke off a 27-yard catch and run in the third quarter. O'Leary, who was much-maligned for fumbling while attempting to hurdle a defender last year, instead lowered his shoulder on Clemson safety Travis Blanks and put Blanks on the ground. That hit turned a first down into a 27-yard gain and set up a Winston touchdown run.

"I hope he learned from that," Fisher said, adding that the FSU coaching staff did have a sit-down with O'Leary to show him the right way to go into a hit. "How you go into a guy with your leg and your shoulder and put the ball in the other hand and generate some power."

Thomas done for the season

Freshman linebacker Matthew Thomas made an early impact for FSU - but his promising freshman season will be cut short by shoulder surgery.

Thomas sat out the Seminoles' past three games with a shoulder injury, and Fisher said after practice on Tuesday that Thomas will have surgery and miss the rest of the season. Fisher wasn't sure if Thomas would be able to redshirt the season.

The loss stings for Thomas, who was a highly touted recruit and was already working his way into a crowded linebacker rotation. In his absence, Ukeme Eligwe and Terrance Smith have seen more snaps at linebacker.

  • Florida State's win against Clemson was FSU's 10th straight win against an ACC opponent. It's the first time FSU has won that many games against the ACC since winning 24 straight 1998-2001.

  • FSU's sod cemetery will have 63 gravesites adorned with garnet and gold flowers representing all of Bobby Bowden's sod game victories to commemorate Bowden's return on Saturday.

  • Florida State's offense has the fewest turnovers in the nation with four. Three of them are Jameis Winston interceptions and one is a fumble.

  • Jameis Winston's 444 passing yards against Clemson were the most by an FSU quarterback since Chris Weinke in 2000. Weinke's big passing game - he threw for 521 yards - also came against Clemson, though that game was in Tallahassee. Winston's performance on Saturday was the ninth-highest single game total in Florida State history.

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