Noles' D steps out of Winston's shadow

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The speech is already part of the Jameis Winston legend. It came before the Clemson game, a rousing-yet-bubbly dose of inspiration, recorded by the TV cameras and broadcast for public consumption as Winston and the Seminoles demolished Clemson on a national stage.

It was a good speech, Telvin Smith admits, but it wasn’t the only one delivered before that game. Lots of players stood up, said their peace. It’s just that Winston’s the star, so the media gave him all the love.

“I’m a senior,” Smith said, “so I understand the politics of college football.”

Winston's star power has driven the FSU storyline. He’s a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and his gregarious personality has endeared him to fans and media alike. The past few weeks, however, the narrative has begun to change just a bit.

While Florida State cruised to another dominant win last week at Wake Forest, Winston and the rest of the offense spent the bulk of the game standing on the sideline, huddling for warmth rather than scripting the next play.

“It was cold,” tackle Cameron Erving said. “It got cold. We started sweating then just sat on the sideline.”

The game belonged to Florida State’s defense, which has quietly become one of the most dominant units in college football.

Down two senior safeties, FSU still racked up seven turnovers, held Wake to just a field goal, and, in what was perhaps the most impressive feat of the day, completely overshadowed Winston.

In the locker room, the balance of power never tilted too far toward Winston, a fact he has always been quick to point out to anyone pressing him for details on his own performance. On the practice field during the week, Florida State’s defense has provided the star QB with his biggest tests, and Smith’s crew has won more than its share of those battles.

But when the season began, Winston proved a quick study, lighting up Pitt in his debut performance and riding a wave of popularity from there. The defense, on the other hand, took a little longer to coalesce.

“It took us a little bit before we understood how the defense was supposed to operate,” defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. said.

When former coordinator Mark Stoops left at the end of last season -- followed by seven defensive starters in the NFL draft -- Florida State began a rebuilding job. Jeremy Pruitt was brought in to revamp the scheme, installing a defense that more closely resembled the one he helped run at Alabama.

The scheme required a group effort, though, and not everyone was on the same page.

“Early in the year, we played a little selfish,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We were trying to force the game, trying to make a play and there’d be a gap there.”

That started to change after Boston College piled up 200 yards and 34 points, a tally that still represents nearly half the points FSU's first-team defense has allowed all season.

In fairness, it wasn’t a good measure of how far the Seminoles had come. This was still the infancy stages of Pruitt’s new defense. Edwards was out for that game after surgery on his hand. Christian Jones was still working as a hybrid linebacker/pass rusher, his role still vague. Terrance Smith was in a supporting role, Jalen Ramsey was in his first game as a starting safety and the defensive line was rotating routinely.

The product looked shaky, but it also helped to uncover what needed to be fixed.

“We watched film and it just started clicking,” Edwards said. “It’s one of those things where you had to be a visual learner, see what your mistake was.”

Almost overnight, things began to change. Edwards got healthy, and he has been exceptional. Jones moved to defensive end permanently, and his athleticism has helped seal the edge of the line. Terrance Smith became a fixture at linebacker, and he’s now Florida State’s third-leading tackler. Ramsey and fellow freshman Nate Andrews have acquitted themselves nicely in the secondary.

The early season was trial-and-error. The past five games have been pure success.

“They just got the puzzle, and they put all the pieces together," Telvin Smith said. "Now we’re making the perfect picture out there.”

The numbers are eye-popping. In five games since Boston College, Florida State’s first-team defense has surrendered just 21 points. It has also scored 21 points on two interception returns and a fumble recovery. It’s allowing nearly a yard less per carry and has racked up a whopping 17 takeaways in its last five games.

Against Wake Forest on Saturday, that meant Winston barely saw the field for three quarters of the game -- first because of a plethora of defensive touchdowns and short fields, later because Florida State was well on its way to another blowout win.

And after it was over, the tables had turned, with Winston quizzed on how well his defense had played.

“From the beginning of the season I’ve said we were the silent killers,” Smith said. “We can give them all the credit. That’s them. They’re going to make big plays, score the touchdowns, bring the fans. But hey, we’re making noise even though we’re being quiet out there.”