Lamarcus Joyner calls it personality – the pre-snap games the Florida State defense likes to play.
Feigning a cornerback blitz. The defensive end hovering on his feet. A safety inching toward the line of scrimmage.
The second-ranked Seminoles are tied for the FBS lead with 18 interceptions in the first year under defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The combination of a multi-faceted 3-4 scheme with a cadre of athletes has turned Florida State into the No. 4 scoring defense in the country.
The Seminoles (9-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are No. 4 in turnover margin and on pace to set the school’s single-season interceptions record.
“Coach Pruitt loves personality,” said Joyner, the Florida State cornerback. “He doesn’t want you out there looking like a stiff guy.
“Just flirting with the coverage and everything.”
That flirting played a significant role in Wake Forest committing seven turnovers against Florida State last week, including six interceptions.
Quarterback Tanner Price turned it over in the first quarter when linebacker Terrence Smith took two steps toward the line of scrimmage, dropped in coverage, read Price’s eyes to the right and stepped in front of the defender as the ball arrives.
Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. had an interception fall in his hands after Christian Jones hit Price on their third possession. Jones stood up on the right end before the snap and couldn’t be identified as a pass rusher or someone dropping in coverage.
Freshman safety Nate Andrews picked off Price and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown on the first snap of the second quarter. Jalen Ramsey dropped into single, high-safety coverage with Andrews hovering in the middle of the field 5-8 yards off the line of scrimmage. Andrews jumped in front of a receiver and Price never saw him.
“Just us being comfortable with the defense,” safety Terrence Brooks said. “Knowing what we have to do to be more comfortable on the field and actually go out there and put our own twist on it and disguise things a little bit.
“We recognize things, we study film a lot so we’re able to just jump routes and do what we’re supposed to do.”
Opponents have struggled to identify the Florida State coverage before the snap and players have taken advantage. That’s the challenge for Syracuse (5-4, 3-2) on Saturday.
“This is a scheme, that if you play within the defense, and you learn how to dominate at your position, numbers are going to come,” nose guard Timmy Jernigan said. “Dominating has become a habit.
“Because the different looks we give people, you never know which way we’re going to come from.”
“It’s a typical Florida State team,” Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. “They have unbelievable speed. A lot of those interceptions come when their front-four put pressure on the quarterback, and not only in a blitz situation. It’s just bull rushing and speed rushing and the cause and effect when you get the ball being thrown up a little bit quicker than the quarterback would like.
“It gives those defensive backs an opportunity to break on the ball a step or two quicker. I think that has a lot to do with it. Their presence up front has really made that defense good.”
The success comes a year after the Seminoles had seven defensive players drafted into the NFL, including first-round cornerback Xavier Rhodes, first-round defensive end Bjoern Werner and second-round defensive end Cornellius Carradine. The secondary is deep with five freshmen and sophomores joining seniors Brooks and Joyner.
Pruitt’s scheme has run more nickel coverage recently with Joyner at nickelback and Jones playing a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end lined up standing or with his hand in the dirt. The Packers ran a similar package with Charles Woodson in Joyner’s role. Blitzes can come from anywhere, but a four-man rush is the preference.
The Seminoles created 21 turnovers, including 11 interceptions in 2012. They have 23 already with three regular-season games remaining, the ACC championship game and a bowl.
Coach Jimbo Fisher credits a combination of an effective pass rush with talented players executing a smart scheme. Calculated risks have created a unit full of ball-hawks.
“To me, a gamble is an educated guess, if you do it the right way,” Fisher said. “If you’re prepared and understand what’s coming, how it’s coming, then you can make a play on the ball. But to gamble just to gamble, to me, makes no sense.
“You have to process the information and make good choices. You have to make educated choices and make right choices.”