TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With Florida State's fall camp set to begin this week, Seminoles.com is taking a position-by-position look at the 2017 FSU football team. Up next are the linebackers.
Welcome back:Dontavious Jackson (6-2, 249; So.), Matthew Thomas (6-3, 227; RSr.), Jacob Pugh (6-4, 229; Sr.), Ro'Derrick Hoskins (6-2, 240; RSr.), Delvin Purifoy (6-2, 246; RJr.), Josh Brown (6-3, 216; So.), Emmett Rice (6-2, 203; So.)
So long, farewell: Sh'Mar Kilby-Lane (transferred).
The buzz: FSU's only position group to return every player who appeared in a game last season, the linebackers could be primed for their best year since 2013, when seniors Telvin Smith and Christian Jones played key roles on a defense that finished as the best in the nation.
Four years later, the Seminoles have another core of seniors – Matthew Thomas, Ro'Derrick Hoskins and Jacob Pugh – set to lead a talented trio of sophomores on the quest to become another championship-caliber defense.
Thomas is the top performer of the bunch, a Miami native who, after a long road to becoming a full-time starter, flourished to the tune of a team-high 77 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and a forced fumble a year ago.
And, in a trend shared with several of his teammates, Thomas had some of his best performances at the end of the season, including a 15-tackle outburst against Michigan in the Orange Bowl.
“I'm really motivated,” Thomas said in the spring. “And a lot of momentum from last year is carrying over to (this) year.”
At Thomas' side is Ro'Derrick Hoskins, who combined for more than 100 tackles in his first two years as a starter.
And often joining them will be yet another senior, Jacob Pugh, who was the talk of spring camp a few months ago.
A linebacker/defensive end hybrid, expect Pugh's role to look a lot like Jones' did in 2013. Depending on game situation and personnel, Pugh can do the job of a traditional strong-side linebacker, or he can slide down to the line of scrimmage and line up as a defensive end.
Wherever Pugh plays, his performance during the spring suggests he'll do it well. In a defense that boasts Sports Illustrated's No. 1 player in college football (Derwin James) and the national leader in interceptions (Tarvarus McFadden), it was Pugh who surprised and claimed spring defensive MVP honors.
“He has been a super player and done a tremendous job,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Probably has done as good a job as anyone on this team.”
Position coach Bill Miller is already grooming FSU's next wave of linebackers, too. Three sophomores – Dontavious Jackson (20 tackles, 3 TFLs, 0.5 sacks), Emmett Rice (12 tackles) and Josh Brown (3 tackles) – are back after flashing potential on both special teams and in the base defense a year ago. Jackson even made his first career start in the Seminoles' victory against Wake Forest.
Any of those three could work his way into extended playing time. As could Adonis Thomas, a redshirt sophomore who transferred to Florida State after racking up 73 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss last year at Northwest Mississippi Community College.
Thomas is one of three new linebackers for 2017. He'll be joined by freshmen Leonard Warner, ESPN's No. 2 inside linebacker recruit, and DeCalon Brooks. Brooks, a member of the Tampa Bay Times' All-Tampa Bay team, is the son of former FSU great Derrick Brooks.
Burning question: Is this the year the linebackers steal the spotlight?
Florida State's defenses under Fisher have been defined by dominance on the defensive line and in the secondary – consider that FSU has had 10 defenders drafted in the first two rounds since 2011, and none of them have been linebackers.
And while a glance across the roster suggests that it will another big year for those two groups, the linebackers could be ready to make noise to match.
That's due to both star power – Thomas and Pugh are the rare Seminoles flying under the radar at the conference and national level – and depth, the latter of which has often been lacking over the last few years.
In a remarkable turn of fortune, Florida State will enter the season with 10 scholarship linebackers, three of them seniors and three more sophomores who got their feet plenty wet a year ago.
Not since 2010, when Smith and Jones were just freshmen, has FSU been this deep at the position.