Defense strikes back on Day 4

TALLAHASSEE – Florida State was back in shells on Sunday for Day 4 of preseason camp.

The practice was largely controlled by the defense, responding to the previous session in which the offense won a fair amount of contested plays through the air. FSU’s defense was smothering on the first morning practice of the fall, consistently pressuring quarterbacks while making life difficult for receivers in all areas of the field.

One player who I’ll highlight at the top of the observations/takeaways piece is a freshman Azareyeh Thomas. The rookie corner was electric throughout the day, making his presence felt in various facets.

Thomas got off to a strong start in team tempo drills, defending a pass on the sideline to Johnny Wilson. Thomas did a good job bodying up the bigger receiver and playing through his arms to contest the pass.

But the Niceville native was just getting going. Thomas had a beautiful interception in 1 vs. 1s, sticking with Josh Burrell off the line and turning to run with him down the sideline. Once the ball was in the air, Thomas accelerated and started tracking it downfield…essentially turning into a wide receiver with how naturally he located the ball. Thomas was able to catch up with it and record the pick. He almost had another pick in the 1 vs. 1 drills.

Then he had a pick in 7 vs. 7s.

Finally, Thomas had a great rep holding up against a perimeter block in team drills to force a play back inside to be cleaned up by Amari Gainer.

Cornerbacks coach Marcus Woodson was jumping around and celebrating with Thomas throughout the day, giving a good indication how the coach felt about the rookie’s showing.

Here are some other notes and observations on the day…

**As noted above, it was a damn good day for the defense. All three levels of the defense brought energy and physicality.

**DT Fabien Lovett was dominant in 11 vs. 11 tempo drills at the beginning of practice. He had a stuff and a tackle for loss in just a few plays. This was a continuation of a strong start to padded practices on Friday.

He was animated later in the day, getting after fellow defenders who weren’t hustling to the next drill.

**CB Omarion Cooper was fiery at the beginning of practice. He had a physical rep in the cat-and-mouse drills, and then was on a PBU with Calen DeLoach in team drills in which they hit a receiver simultaneously to jar the ball loose.

Cooper was super physical with Malik McClain today and consistently kept the ball away from the long receiver.

**EDGE Jared Verse walked into practice talking to the offense, and backed it up early on in practice. He lined up against Robert Scott in run-fit drills and violently chucked him to the side.

Verse’s energy is constant. Later on, inside run drills, RB Trey Benson broke away from the defense…Verse pursued from the opposite side of the field and actually gained some ground on the speedy back.

**DT Josh Farmer and OL D’Mitri Emmanuel had a good back-and-forth in the run-fit drills. Farmer pushed back the veteran lineman on the first rep, prompting cheers from Odell Huggins. The two went against each other again, with Emmanuel and Farmer stalemating in a physical matchup.

2023 DT commit Keith Sampson was watching closely.

**Another good back-and-forth during the first few periods of practice came in perimeter drills between WR Micah Pittman and CB Kevin Knowles II. Pittman bested Knowles on the first go-round, out-leveraging him and shoving the corner out of the way and to the ground as he pursued a ball carrier. Knowles II got his revenge the next time up, fighting past Pittman to make the tackle.

**WR Deuce Spann ran a great pattern in 1 vs. 1s, crisply cutting back to the ball to gain separation from Renardo Green. Green recovered well, but Spann’s length allowed him to get back to the pass. This was an encouraging rep for a developing player.

His deep speed flashed a few times as well as he was able to get by corners in 1 vs. 1s.

**CB Jarrian Jones was again impressive in 1 vs. 1s. He was able to hang with Pittman in space, although he was a little handsy on the rep, and later had an emphatic PBU as he fought back to the ball to knock it away from Pittman.

**WR Ontario Wilson made a difficult catch against Green down the sideline in 1 vs. 1s.

**The linebackers were fast and physical on the day. You could feel their presence consistently in multiple drills, and with different combinations on the field.

DeLoach, Tatum Bethune, DJ Lundy, and Gainer all popped at various times in space. Bethune had one sequence in which he had a tackle for loss after shooting a gap, then helped corner the ball carrier on a Verse TFL, and he finally ended the three-play stretch with a stop on the sideline.

DeLoach had a solid stop against Jordan Travis in space.

**TE Jackson West had a diving catch down the sideline in team drills, prompting enthusiastic praise from Mike Norwell oath Chris Thomsen. He later struggled to hold on to a low pass down the field, showing that consistency is still a work in progress…but the good moments have been noteworthy in the last couple of practices.

**Another TE who’s standing out with his athleticism is a freshman Brian Courtney. He plays the ball naturally and presents a good catch radius.

**RS Fr. DE Byron Turner flashed a few times off the edge. He’s moving well, with fluid movement skills and a good first step standing out. He was able to make a play in space defending the run that demonstrated good patience as well as a requisite level of athleticism to play in space.

Turner is a player worth monitoring this preseason as he’s clearly recovered from a shoulder injury and building off a strong offseason program.

**Tough day for WR Kentron Poitier, who put the ball on the ground once and ran the wrong pattern another time. He had a good Friday practice, so this fits into a pattern of ups and downs for the talented receiver.

**Norvell went over to congratulate DE Dennis Briggs for his effort pursuing a play to the perimeter, with the 280-pound defensive lineman showing good burst to get into space and help sniff out a play to the outside.

This allowed Lundy – looking quicker in space – to get the cut-back for a stop.

**Freshman RB Rodney Hill has enjoyed a strong start to camp, although Sunday appeared to be his best day to date. Hill was natural as a runner, patiently letting blocks open up before hitting the jets to get into the open field.

Norvell was very complimentary of the freshman after practice, noting that he’s up to nearly 190 pounds. I recall Trey Benson saying earlier this offseason that Hill doesn’t realize how powerful he is yet, and you’re starting to see him realize what he’s capable of.

**Speaking of Benson, man, he’s fun to watch when he gets into space. Accelerates at such a high level.

**RB CJ Campbell hit a couple big plays on the day, showing good patience and burst.

**QB AJ Duffy has seemingly struggled with the speed of the college game earlier this camp, but I thought he settled in at the end of Sunday’s session.

Things started to slow down for him after he hit a remarkably impressive deep shot, rolling right while under pressure. The defender got close enough to him where Duffy had to change his arm slot and couldn’t step into the throw while kind of drifting to the side. The off-platform throw was perfect though as he pushed it downfield and gave Courtney enough air to lay out for the long completion.

Duffy then had one of his best series of the camp, managing the offense and taking what the defense gave him on three consecutive plays. This includes fielding a bobble snap and quickly getting the ball outside Gerald Powers to turn a negative into a positive.

**Norvell consistently went up to Jordan Travis after series to quickly go over what the quarterback was seeing, with the two communicating consistently on pressure-filled drives in passing situations.

Norvell wanted to emphasize aspects of decision making by Travis, letting him know that a thrown away ball or a completion short of the sticks were the right choices based on what the defense presented.

**FSU returns to the practice field for Day 5 on Monday morning.

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