TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Blame the regenerating knee a little bit, Josh Sweat said. It was bothersome following an early-season procedure.
Partly attribute a slow start to the paralyzing fear, too. A torn meniscus in September caused old anxieties to flood back into the head of the Florida State sophomore, who nearly lost his leg after a devastating knee injury less than two years earlier as the No. 1 high school recruit. Whipping around a 300-pound left tackle is no easy task when consumed with the threat of another knee tear.
They’re reasons Sweat went the first five weeks without a sack, but don’t consider them excuses, he said. Ultimately, Sweat, who underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus and missed the Sept. 24 USF game, wasn’t performing the way he expected. Outside of senior DeMarcus Walker, nobody on the defensive line was through the season’s first month.
“I can’t even explain it,” Sweat said. “I was pulling myself back a little, was a little scared, but I don’t think it’s the whole reason. I really wasn’t playing how I was supposed to play.”
That has changed over No. 12 Florida State’s last two games, just as Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson and undefeated Clemson roll into Tallahassee, Florida (8 p.m. Saturday, ABC/WatchESPN). Sweat, with 2.5 sacks, has led a resurgent defensive line that’s finally complementing Walker and has confirmed the belief the Seminoles owned one of the country’s best units. Analysts pegged the Florida State defensive line as one of the nation’s best groups because it possessed speed (Sweat), power (Derrick Nnadi), versatility (Walker) and depth.
Against Miami and Wake Forest, the Seminoles had seven players combine for eight sacks with only two coming from Walker. In their first three FBS games, three players combined for nine sacks, but 5.5 of those came from Walker, who is second nationally with 8.5 sacks total.
“I think we have the best D-line in the country,” said cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, who leads the country with five interceptions.
Sweat said his job is made easier because offenses have to focus on Walker, but Walker cited the inverse and said it has been easier on him the last few weeks. Sweat was a five-star recruit who played his freshman season despite being less than a year removed from an ACL tear and knee dislocation. After a strong rookie campaign, he was expected to push double-digit sacks.
“Josh Sweat is the No. 1 player in the country, everybody thinks he's three and done, a top-10 pick. You don't think that grinds on these guys?” Fisher said. “Then all of a sudden they become result-oriented because I'm expected to do this and that, and they measure themselves unfortunately by social media. They want to go read what everybody says about them, how they're thought of, did I play a great game, did I not play a great game. They put such undue pressures on themselves today.”
The pressure is alleviated, and now the Seminoles rank 10th nationally with 3.4 sacks per game against FBS teams. The effects of an emerging line are felt in the run game, too, where the Seminoles were the worst Power 5 team for a stretch. From Weeks 3-5, they were dead last in yards per rush and yards per rush before contact. From Weeks 6-8, they rank eighth and fifth, respectively. Over the last few weeks, they’re 11th in percentage of rushes that did not result in a gain.
Nnadi, a 312-pound tackle, is largely responsible for that improvement. He has anchored the interior of the defensive line, often forcing opposing linemen into their own backfield. Fisher was effusive in his praise of Nnadi all preseason, but an ankle injury slowed the 6-foot-1 junior early.
“I could tell in the Louisville game he wasn’t at full energy,” Walker said of Nnadi. “I could tell in his face he wasn’t there, and I was wondering what the heck is wrong with this guy … I tell you one thing -- he’s getting better. He’s playing at a high level. He’s back to 100 percent.
“I feel like everybody’s back healthy.”