TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Telvin Smith is as enthusiastic a player as Florida State has on defense, but the man has priorities.
On the field, Smith had been a bundle of energy on an afternoon highlighted by his 79-yard interception return for a touchdown. By the second half, however, he was stuck on the sideline in a uniform still caked with sweat, and it was cold.
So when freshman E.J. Levenberry copied Smith’s first-quarter pick-six with one of his own midway through the fourth quarter, Smith wanted to celebrate. It’s just that those sideline heaters provided too much comfort to abandon.
“I stayed by the heater,” Smith said, “but I was ecstatic.”
This has become commonplace for Florida State of late. Veterans on the sideline, huddling for warmth, while the youngsters rack up valuable playing experience throughout the entirety of the second half.
In four of the Seminoles’ last five games, the starters haven’t played more than a series in the second half. Meanwhile, Levenberry and the rest of Florida State’s young defenders are getting a nearly even split with the starters when it comes to game-day reps.
That’s not ideal for stars like Smith, Lamarcus Joyner and Timmy Jernigan, who’ve lost out on valuable opportunities to pad their stats. But when it comes to building a foundation for the future, it’s been a perfect scenario for Florida State.
“The young guys are growing and making big contributions, so we’re adding depth and creating competition in practice,” coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Florida State lost seven defensive starters to the NFL draft from last season, but the talent Fisher had recruited in years past allowed coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to plug in a new batch of defenders with little drop-off. Where concerns persisted, at least initially, was the depth.
FSU’s two-deep to open the season included 12 first- or second-year players on defense, including a handful of players who few outside the program expected to see significant action this year.
As it turns out, Levenberry, Nate Andrews, DeMarcus Walker and others have been second-half stalwarts, and they’ve got the numbers to prove it. Andrews leads the team with four interceptions. Levenberry, Reggie Northrup and Jalen Ramsey all rank among FSU’s top 10 in tackles. Four of the nine fumbles forced by FSU’s defense this year are by freshmen.
“Just to see them grow from when they first got here to now -- and to know what they're going to become -- that's just tremendous,” Smith said.
Of course, the progress for FSU’s young defenders hasn’t been without a few growing pains.
The Seminoles’ starters smothered NC State in the first half of a blowout win, then took a seat on the bench for the entirety of the second half. Those latter 30 minutes looked ugly. The Wolfpack rushed for just 39 yards on 21 carries against the starters in the first half. In the second half, they tallied 149 yards on 21 carries against the second-string defense. In the first half, NC State averaged 2.3 yards per play. In the second, 6.1. In the first half, FSU pitched a shutout. In the second, the Seminoles were outscored 17-7.
In practice the following week, the starters were angry.
"You've got to look at it like it's your only shot, you're a starter when you get on that field,” Smith said. “Don't take plays off, don't slack off just because you're not on the field at the first snap of the game. Because that snap means just as much as this snap. And I think they really bought into it and now obviously you're seeing they're playing harder."
In the past three games, FSU’s backups have allowed just 13 points total and accounted for five takeaways, five sacks and two touchdowns, playing nearly all of the second half in each game.
The playing time for the backups has paid dividends. FSU has 23 interceptions this year, tops in the nation. But more impressive is that they’ve been made by 16 different players. Twenty-five players have recorded at least 10 tackles, 16 have recorded a sack and 26 have a tackle for loss.
Sure, the starters would love to stay warm by staying on the field, but when the season is finally over, as many as eight more of FSU’s veteran defenders could be headed to the NFL, and the reps their understudies are getting now could mean another smooth transition for the defense in 2014.