Florida State’s 2013 national championship defense featured playmakers and future NFL starters at every level. Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Timmy Jernigan wrecked havoc on the defensive line and Jalen Ramsey, Ronald Darby, P.J. Williams and Lamarcus Joyner provided a lockdown secondary.
But the player that provided the heart and soul of that defense was linebacker Telvin Smith.
A senior in 2013, Smith had a breakout season en route to becoming a fifth round draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He totaled 90 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception on the year while being named second team All-ACC.
What made Smith such a good linebacker, and the reason why he is continuing to succeed in the NFL as a starter for the Jaguars, is his eye discipline.
What do I mean by eye discipline?
Well in this age of college football, offenses are scheming ways to confuse defenses as to who actually has the ball. Spread and up-tempo offenses make a living tricking defenders into thinking one player has the ball, when actually another player has it and is running for a big gain. We’ve seen this with the read-option and run-pass-option that has become so prevalent throughout college football.
Smith wasn’t the biggest linebacker (listed at 6-3, 218-pounds in 2013 per FSU’s official roster), but his ability to keep his eyes on the football and make plays in the backfield was second to none. His eye discipline was a big reason why Florida State’s defense held Auburn’s vaunted rushing attack to only 232 yards in the national championship game, well below their season average of 328.4 yards.
In order to get a better understanding of Smith’s eye discipline, let’s take a look at a few plays from the 2013 ACC Championship versus Duke.
In the play above, Duke runs a draw play, with the running back taking a delayed handoff from the quarterback. The quarterback looks towards the receiver on the field side, in order to freeze the defense into thinking the play is a pass. Instead, he hands off to the back who has a fullback leading the way.
At middle linebacker, Smith (#22) always keeps his eyes on the ball. He diagnoses immediately that the ball has been handed off and crashes down to make the stop.
The play above is a read option by Duke. The quarterback has the option to either hand the ball off to the back on a sweep or keep it himself up the middle. He reads the interior of the defensive line and hands the ball off to the back.
Smith initially stutters as the ball gets to the mesh point (where the decision to hand or keep the ball has not yet been made), but the recognizes that the ball has been handed off and crashes down to make the tackle.
The play above is a true testament to Smith’s ability to always keep his eyes on the ball. The quarterback flips the ball out to the running back out of the backfield on a play that, at first glance, is very well blocked down the field. The right tackle is downfield to make the block on PJ Williams while the receiver making an in-breaking route chips Smith as well. Despite this, Smith rights himself and still manages to make the tackle on the back before he gets the first down.
The few plays above are great examples of what made Smith such a great linebacker at Florida State and a big reason why he is currently succeeding as a starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Another underrated aspect of Smith’s game and one of the most important aspects of playing the linebacker position is taking the correct angle, or path, to the ball. The ability to keep your eye on the ball is only one part of the equation. If you take the wrong angle to the player with the ball, then you risk turning a one or two yard gain into a nine or ten yard gain. Smith’a athleticism and speed, in combination with his eye discipline, made him a havoc around the line of scrimmage.
Unfortunately, Florida State has been unable to replicate Telvin Smith’s playmaking ability and production since he graduated.
It’s not as if Florida State has failed to recruit and sign talented linebackers either. In fact, the Seminoles have been one of the better schools in the country in terms of signing blue-chip linebackers. However, due to unfortunate luck with injuries and transfers, their linebacker corps have been severely diminished over the past couple of seasons.
So while Florida State should have entered the 2016 season with a linebacker depth chart that included several third and fourth-year players, they are instead relying on two juniors and three freshman.
One of those players is redshirt junior Matthew Thomas.
Thomas’ story is well known. A former five-star recruit, Thomas has played sparingly for Florida State during his time on campus due to injuries and suspensions. However, the raw athleticism is still there that made Thomas one of the most coveted recruits in the nation. In the preseason, Jimbo Fisher even commented that Thomas could play cornerback if they needed him to.
Thomas entered the season with a lot of hype. He was penciled in as a starter at the WILL linebacker position early on and many fans expected Thomas to have a breakout performance in 2016.
Through the first five games of the season, Thomas has failed to live up to expectations.
His struggles have nothing to do with conditioning. Physically, Thomas looks like he’s in the best shape of his life and he’s made some occasional plays that display the athleticism.
But overall, Thomas’ play has left much to be desired. He looks lost at times, slow to react to the ball and is out of position at times. He commonly takes bad angles to the football and, when he does make his way into the backfield, he is often out of position to make the tackle.
Part of Thomas’ struggles is because he does not have good eye discipline. It is easy to see that the junior linebacker has been confused by the read-option that Ole Miss, Louisville, South Florida and North Carolina have utilized. There are times that Thomas will even attack the wrong player in the backfield simply because he does not truly know who has the ball.
These are problems that have plagued Thomas throughout his tenure at Florida State. Even going back to 2014, when Thomas played the second half of the season after coming back from suspension, he was not making a great impact on the Seminoles’ defense.
It always seems as if Thomas is a step too slow to make the play. In the play above (versus Louisville in 2014), Thomas (#7) is actually in the backfield as the handoff occurs but fails to make the tackle on the Louisville running back, who bursts free for a touchdown. It is plays like this that you would expect a former five-star recruit to make.
Coming back from a year-long suspension, some rust can expected for Thomas. But this is the fifth game of the season, a game that Florida State needed to win for their playoff hopes to have any legitimate chance. The North Carolina running back takes the handoff up the middle and Thomas (#6) is left running in circles, never actually laying a hand on the back before he scores. You can see the initial stutter that Thomas takes because he does not know who has the ball.
Perhaps there is a chance that Thomas’ poor play can be attributed to rust. But with Florida State’s season nearly halfway over, they cannot afford for the junior linebacker’s poor play to keep up. Much of the hype surrounding the Seminoles in the offseason was due to the fact that the media predicted this defense would be amongst the nation’s elite. Thomas was expected to be a major contributor and a playmaker.
Unfortunately, the Seminoles do not really have any other options to put out there besides Thomas and fellow junior Ro’Derrick Hoskins. Walk-on Nick Patti has played in spots when Thomas and Hoskins left with injuries, but both Ole Miss and Louisville exploited him for scores, taking advantage of his limited athleticism. True freshman Dontavious Jackson has played well in spots, in particularly on a fourth-down stop versus North Carolina, but a true freshman can only be relied on to do so much, especially in terms of pass coverage.
Florida State needs a linebacker like Telvin Smith for this defense to be successful: a playmaker who always has his eyes on the ball. His ability to diagnose and react to the read-option, especially in this day and age of college football, is a necessary component for any defense to gain leverage over spread and up-tempo offenses.
Perhaps this will make us appreciate Smith more, the heart and soul of that national championship defense and a playmaker whose ability to keep his eyes on the ball caused havoc for opposing offenses.