The Florida State Seminoles received great news last offseason when linebacker Christian Jones decided to return for his senior season. The second team All-ACC performer was outstanding on the outside in 2012, but must make the transition to middle linebacker for the upcoming season. At 6-foot-4, 232 pounds, he has the perfect size to shed blocks on the interior, but still has great speed to play downhill and run down plays on the outside.
He and Telvin Smith are the only two returning linebackers with significant playing experience in Tallahassee. Smith, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior, can be a disruptive force with his great length and athleticism from his weak-side linebacker spot. It will be interesting to see how new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt decides to use his talents in his new look, blitz-heavy packages. Although he didn’t start often, he did rotate in frequent at middle linebacker with Vince Williams for the past two seasons.
The new strong-side linebacker shares more than just a last name with Smith. Terrance Smith is the odds on favorite to be the third linebacker in Pruitt’s 4-3 scheme, and is built a lot like Telvin Smith. At 6-foot-4, 214 pounds, he too has long arms and displays a knack for tracking down ball carriers in pursuit. Both Smiths sometimes struggle at the point of attack because they are a little light for such a tall frame, but they make up for it with tremendous desire and pursuit of the ball.
Ukeme Eligwe, Reggie Northrup and true freshman Matthew Thomas figure to earn playing time in back-up roles, and Nigel Terrell could crack the rotations as well.
Eligwe has some of the best size on the team at 6-foot-2, 231 pounds, but lacks the experience of playing at the collegiate level. That will change early this season and Eligwe could be a contender to for breakout star if given the opportunities. Northrup has made a name for himself on special teams, and is a reliable back-up for Pruitt and Jimbo Fisher.
Thomas, the five-star recruit, will arrive on campus and try to earn playing time as a true freshman. With the drama now over, he has the skill set and athleticism to break into the rotation by the first game. He is tall, long, athletic and hits with an explosiveness that cannot be taught. He could be one of the best linebackers to play at Florida State when it is all said and done. It would be a surprise if he didn’t see increased playing time as the season wears on. Regardless, he will be a standout on special teams from day one.
There is a bit of intrigue heading into the 2013 season because no one knows what Pruitt has in store for the defense. Early reports indicate that he could be more aggressive than his predecessor Mark Stoops, and this talented linebacking corps could give him several options on the second level.
Time will tell what the defense will look like, but there are certainly a handful of talented linebackers that Pruitt will have at his disposal. Look out ACC.
B.L. is an ACC Football writer for Rant Sports and can be followed on Twitter @coachlip.