7 min read

2023 Football Preview: Defensive Front

2023 Football Preview: Defensive Front

If you missed Alec's other '23 season previews, you can find them here: Passing Game, Ground Game

The 3-3-5 stack has worked well for State the last couple of years, and that's mostly because of how good the two 3s have been. The Pack had an elite defensive front last year, one of the best in America actually. It anchored a defensive effort that gave up gave up 3.4 YPC for the season, good for 17th nationally and its best mark since it tied that number in 2017. State's front six was dominant. Now, for the first time in a while, State has a decent amount of turnover up front. The Pack brings back 3 of 6 starters and 8 of 12 on the two-deep at defensive line and linebacker.

Starting on the defensive line, a group that doesn't always get its due in this system, let's look at what made them so effective and what the line could look like this year.

There is a reason that every defensive linemen who saw significant time last year plays over 280 pounds (except Travali Price, who was 275). State wants to be big and physical at the point of attack. It doesn’t really recruit true pass rushers anymore. It recruits large people who are difficult for offensive linemen to displace. Maintaining that gap integrity up front makes things much easier for the run support to finish plays. 

This is a gap scheme play designed to the right with a cutback lane available. State is only playing with a 5-man box here. The center, left tackle, and right guard all end up responsible for one of State’s linemen based on how State has lined up, while the left guard and the right tackle release freely to block Moore and Wilson. The left tackle tries to seal C.J. Clark to the original play side to establish the cutback lane, but Clark fights through the block and creates penetration through the B-gap. The running back reads the penetration to the play side and takes the cutback lane in the C-gap (outside the left tackle), but Moore flows over the releasing guard and fights off the block to get to the C-gap, forcing the runner back inside and containing the play. If 75 blocks Moore, this is a first down run, but that was the thing about Isaiah Moore. He was always where he needed to be when he needed to be there. 

This may look chaotic because football is chaotic, but this is good. Harris has leverage in the middle to work off the block and cover the original direction of the play. Moore has the cutback lane covered perfectly because he beat 75 over the top. 

Here’s another. 

The penetration State gets here from the defensive line annihilates this play immediately. Vann is in the backfield instantly. Watch 61 release and try to block Moore, just to get put in reverse. Thomas gets home on the backside pursuit because the back can't get toward the edge where this play was supposed to go. There was a Davin Vann in his way.

This only works if your large humans are also good athletes who have the quickness to fight off blocks. It goes without saying that 300 pounders who are good athletes don’t grow on trees. You have to recruit well for this to work. Fortunately, defensive line is one of the most well-recruited positions on the roster if you go by recruiting rankings. Of the expected two-deep this year, all six were considered 4-star talents by at least one of the recruiting services, and four were unanimous. 

It’s a talented group, and it will be tasked with replacing both Cory Durden and Josh Harris at nose tackle. Durden was expected as he exhausted his eligibility, but Harris transferring was not. Durden was a really good player. He made a lot of plays happen that he didn’t get any kind of statistical credit for. Watch him nuke this run play against Florida State. 

Harris would have been a good nose tackle too and a solid breakout candidate if he had stuck around. Now, the only returning experience at nose tackle belongs to C.J. Clark, who started there in 2021 but shifted outside last year. Clark should slide back to nose this season with the depth State has at defensive end, a transition that he should handle easily. One of the added benefits of State's system is positional versatility. Clark has played both, and Vann easily could too. It allows you to get your best three linemen on the field. Brandon Cleveland saw his first action last season at defensive end, but with State solidly locked in with its two-deep at defensive end, the 300-pound Cleveland may be the backup at nose. It's where he played in the Spring. Nick Campbell should also compete for this spot.

On the edge, State returns all of its major contributors from last year and adds a couple names that could be valuable depth pieces. First, Davin Vann is the best player on the defensive line. He is a freak. Vann is big enough to be effective as an edge-setter, but he’s athletic enough to be a legit pass rusher too. That’s a rare combo.

Vann's power here knocks the right tackle off balance. 71 gains no leverage over Vann, who easily releases from the block and then runs down the ball carrier for a solo tackle. Just a dominant play.

Vann was second on the defensive line in sacks in 2021 despite not being a starter, and he led the group a year ago. His versatility is the reason he led the defensive line in snaps last year, and the likely NFL Draft pick could be an All-ACC player this year.

Joining him as returnees on the edge are Savion Jackson and Travali Price. Jackson is a multi-year starter, but has dealt with injury issues basically every year. He isn’t a stat-stuffer, but he’s a very important piece of State’s run defense as a physical, edge-setting defensive end. Price played a lot last year as a rotational player, and his game has a bit more pass-rushy vibes to it, making him a valuable rotational piece and third-down player.

State also adds Noah Potter, a Cincinnati transfer who adds great size at defensive end and will definitely see the field this year. In addition to Potter, Jykeveous Hibbler is a new face that has drawn some eyes.

The second part of the 3-3-5 stack, which was phenomenal last year, was the linebacker play. Sadly, State has to say goodbye to Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas. Thomas was this defense’s best player each of the last two years. This guy made so many plays for this team that there is just no way around it. You will notice he’s gone. 

This appears to be a well-developing run play for Florida State. The back gets the edge as the much larger Johnny Wilson gets to Drake Thomas and the releasing right tackle is there to combination block Thomas. Thomas simply fights off the block and makes an open-field tackle, like it was just that easy. This dude was so good. Like, so so good. The fact that he wasn’t first-team all league last year is one of the funniest jokes ever written. 

Moore was a five-year starter, a captain, a leadership voice that was irreplaceable, and one of the most fundamentally sound football players to ever come through Raleigh. None of this is hyperbole. These guys were really good.

State is going to take a step back here replacing these two stars, but despite that, it should still be good at linebacker. For starters, Payton Wilson returns, and Wilson’s ceiling is actually higher than both Thomas and Moore. His injury issues are well documented, and it’s kept a ball and chain on his career to some degree, but a healthy Payton Wilson is very scary. He is a phenomenal athlete. Wilson is listed at 6’4 and almost 240 pounds, but he is one of the fastest players on the team. Wilson averaged nearly 11 tackles per game back in 2020, when he was a first-team All-ACC performer. If he can stay healthy this year, he could compete for another all-league spot, or more. 

Here are some fun GIFs of Wilson doing really athletic stuff.

This tackle gets made regardless but Wilson finding a way to be involved in this play, even after the kick out block was perfectly set up, is pretty impressive. Wilson was was good at working back over the block toward the gap, typically courtesy of his lightning spin.

This tackle is just crazy. Tanner Ingle is preparing to knock this guy's soul out of his body, but he never gets there because of Wilson's insanely athletic tackle.

State returns Devon Betty and Jaylon Scott, the former of which should start in the middle. Neither played a ton last year, but both played a lot in 2021 when the injury bug hit the linebacker room. Jayland Parker and Caden Fordham are also guys who have drawn lots of praise during spring and fall camps of the last two years. State may rotate a little more at linebacker this year, outside of Wilson of course. It should be a good unit with a pretty high ceiling. 

The 3-3-5 stack is built for linebacker production. 15 of State's 28 sacks last season were recorded by Thomas, Moore, and Wilson. Thomas had 7.5. A lot of these were schemed up via Tony Gibson's exotic blitz packages. Everything about Gibson's scheme creates opportunities for linebackers to make plays. With a lot returning on the defensive line, and State having five linebackers they'll likely be comfortable playing, it's easy to be optimistic that State will have a really good defensive front again.

Passing game preview

Running game preview