The starting lineup is essentially a traditional 5-2 look, which really shouldn't be much of a surprise since FSU will play in a two-linebacker set most of the year (which is why Jimbo Fisher mentioned earlier in the preseason that the Mike and Will linebackers are basically "interchangeable" in this defense). Those ostensible position changes are more surprising, however.
Surprising, that is, until one looks a little closer. To my eye, this defensive depth chart looks very much like a "best eleven." That is, these are the best eleven defensive players from camp, and Pruitt has simply chosen the lineup (and "positions") to put his best players on the field.
As we have already discussed this preseason, Pruitt's defense in many respects eliminates the idea of "positions" and thinks more in terms of players and roles. So if Dan Hicks is one of your eleven best in a base 4-3/3-4/5-2 look but you have other defensive linemen you also want on the field, you put him at the Sam linebacker spot that in most alignments is essentially a hybrid end/linebacker anyway. (That's not to discount Hicks' movement skills, as Jimbo Fisher reminded reporters after practice that Hicks had been a very good hurdler in high school.)
In "under" 4-3 fronts, the Sam lines up on the line of scrimmage anyway, as he does in many 3-4 and all 5-2 alignments. In that position, Hicks' responsibilities are basically the same as what they would be as a defensive end—which might drop into coverage in Pruitt's zone-blitz scheme anyway.
Likewise Goldman and McAllister being listed at end, each of whom will spend a good bit of time at the 2/3 techniques and the 5 technique throughout the year, depending on the front. Again, it's about roles and techniques rather than positions in Pruitt's defense, which will use multiple fronts and alignments to create confusion and maximize matchups for the defense.
So this depth chart is not exactly meaningless, but it does little more than communicate who Pruitt feels are his eleven best players. I'm sure that right now this would be the opening a base defense against traditional 21 (two backs and a tight end) personnel. But you can bet there are numerous other internal depth charts depending on other personnel groupings, with as many as seven defensive backs and as few as two defensive linemen on the field at once.
If an opposing offense goes to 11 personnel (three wide), expect one or two of those defensive linemen (still including Hicks as a defensive lineman) to head to the sideline, with a coverage player taking over at the "Star" (Sam) role and perhaps another defensive back stepping into the "Money" (Will) spot, with Christian Jones sliding down to one of the defensive ends.
The possibilities are almost limitless with FSU's personnel, but you can be certain that Karlos Williams (a backup in this depth chart) will see lots of time at the Money spot, that Christian Jones will have a pass rush role on passing downs, and that Lamarcus Joyner will likely log more time in the Star role than he will as an outside corner.
What then can we take away from this depth chart? First of all, it gives a good sense of which players the coaching staff believes performed best in camp. Based on the depth chart, it looks like P.J. Williams, Eddie Goldman, Hicks, Nile Lawrence-Stample, and true freshman Jalen Ramsey had especially good camps.
Williams and Ramsey have protypical size for outside corners in Pruitt's scheme and apparently performed well enough to be in the starting rotation (Ramsey appears to be a co-starter in the Nickel or Dime role). This confirms what Williams showed in the spring game, when he was FSU's best cover corner, displaying what I believe to be potential first-round skills.
Hicks was good enough to make room for himself even if that involves a so-called position change (while the young linebackers were simply not as impressive). The light obviously has gone on for Goldman, who made room for himself at a position most had penciled Hicks into—ahead of redshirt senior Demonte McAllister, who was terrific last year and in the spring.
In terms of how this will shake out on Saturdays, I expect those players listed at LE, DT, and NG to rotate quite a bit, with a good bit of movement between the three spots. "Linebackers" Hicks and Jones will put their hand on the ground to rush the passer in certain situations. And we're going to see a lot of defensive backs on the field at once, with Pruitt favoring the bigger corners on the outside.
Either way, expect a lot of variety from FSU in terms of fronts, something we'll cover in our next article on the defense.