It’s first-and-10 near midfield, and the quarterback lines up under center. Josh Sweat, Florida State’s freakish 6-foot-5 defensive end, is standing up on the left side of the line.
While the Seminoles’ other three defensive linemen are bent over at the waist with their hands on the turf, Sweat is in more of a racing position. His right foot is at the line of scrimmage; his left is angled back as if it were pushing against a starting block. He rocks forward while listening to the quarterback’s cadence.
The ball is snapped, and Sweat charges forward, colliding with an offensive tackle who is two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. The pair of Goliaths grapple to an apparent draw until the quarterback senses pressure and tries to escape up the middle. In a flash, Sweat tosses his blocker aside and records a sack.
It’s now second-and-15, and Sweat is in a new position. He’s crouching in a four-point stance like the other linemen. The quarterback takes a shotgun snap and fires a quick pass before Sweat can pose a threat.
One play later, he is standing again at left defensive end; he charges upfield, collapses the pocket and forces an incompletion. On the next, he is back in a four-point stance at left end; he stands his ground on a running play and then chases the tailback down from behind to record a tackle.
On the next play, a third-and-2, Sweat is lined up in yet another new position — he’s in a four-point stance on the right side of the line. This time, he beats a guard with a beautiful inside-out move and narrowly misses his second sack of the drive.
Though they were merely five snaps of an otherwise inconsequential spring game, that single drive offered a snapshot of how Florida State’s defensive coaches plan to use Sweat this season, and what his versatility could mean to the Seminoles’ defense. In an era when most offensive plays are dictated by defensive personnel and alignment, Sweat gives FSU the luxury of having three players in one — a down lineman who can stop the run, a pass rusher and a linebacker who can play in space.
“He’s the real deal,” senior defensive back Nate Andrews says. “He’s one of the most athletic guys on our team. He can rush the passer, drop back in coverage, cover tight ends … he’s gonna be pretty good.”
Sweat already was “pretty good” last season. As a true freshman, he started nine games, recorded 41 tackles, finished fourth on the team with five tackles for a loss, led the Seminoles with three fumble recoveries and even intercepted a pass.
That he even played in 2015 was remarkable in itself. One year earlier, Sweat’s senior season of high school was cut short by a catastrophic knee injury. At the time, he was rated the No. 1 high school prospect in the country. But in mid-September, he sustained a torn ACL and a dislocated left kneecap.
Doctors originally planned to repair the damage with two separate surgeries. But Sweat’s family consulted with longtime New York Giants physician Dr. Russell F. Warren, and he was able to get it done with one operation. Less than three months later, after graduating early from Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., Sweat was enrolled at Florida State and undergoing rigorous rehabilitation with the Seminoles’ trainers and FSU team physician Dr. William Thompson.
Just a few months after that, he was running at close to full speed — a product, trainers say, of Sweat’s relentless dedication to rehab. Not only did the former five-star recruit follow every prescribed workout, but he also often asked for extra. It was a similar approach to Sweat’s play on the field.
Despite receiving Freshman All-America consideration from one national media outlet, Sweat was somewhat disappointed by his first collegiate season. He was happy to earn a starting job so quickly, but he was more frustrated by the sacks he didn’t record than the ones he did.
“As far as the team, I felt I could have helped them a lot better by bettering myself, getting more sacks and tackles for a loss,” Sweat says. “I’ll definitely pull off a lot more sacks [in 2016].”
If Florida State’s spring game was any indication, Sweat could be well on his way. Although he was credited with only one sack, he easily could have had two others. He also provided a stunning display of his athletic ability, moving around to different spots in the Seminoles’ defense on what seemed like every other play.
In the 29 snaps that Sweat was on the field, he essentially lined up six different ways — standing up as an edge rusher on the right side 13 times and on the left side four times; in a four-point stance on the right side six times and on the left side four times. He also lined up as a linebacker in zone coverage twice, and he even dropped into coverage from his end position on one occasion.
He excelled in every facet.
On his first snap at linebacker, the 6'5", 236-pound Sweat read the quarterback’s eyes, anticipated a pass to receiver Jesus Wilson on a crossing route and delivered a wicked hit to separate Wilson from the football.
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“Josh can do it all,” sophomore safety Derwin James says. “Josh can play receiver — he played receiver in high school. Josh is looking to play anywhere. He’s a competitor like me. He’s an athlete. He just loves the game.”
For all of Sweat’s athletic ability, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher says his greatest asset actually is his powerful lower body. In 2015, the then-freshman Sweat actually was more effective as a run stuffer than he was as a pass rusher.
“The biggest thing about him is that guy is so strong,” Fisher says. “It’s crazy the leverage he can play with.”
Sweat knows he has plenty of room for improvement, however.
Heading into his sophomore campaign, Sweat’s focus has been twofold: polishing his technique so that he doesn’t miss as many sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and also adding size and strength.
After playing at less than 240 pounds last season, he hopes to be closer to 255 this fall.
“I feel I can be excellent next season,” Sweat says. “I just need to finish on the sacks and stuff like that. I missed way too many [in 2015].”
Sweat is being pushed by his coaches as well. As impressive as he was as a freshman, Fisher says the Seminoles want to see the same type of explosiveness he displayed before his knee surgery. As a junior in high school, Sweat established himself as the nation’s top defensive end by racking up 22 sacks. Nearly one-third (31) of his 94 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage.
“I want to see him play with more burst,” Fisher says. “When he wants to turn it on, he can do whatever [he wants].”
His teammates believe that time is now. They say his combination of athletic ability, work ethic and intelligence have him poised to emerge as a national star.
“He’s really instinctual,” says defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample, who was a fifth-year senior when he lined up alongside the freshman Sweat in 2015. “He has a lot of gifts that are very rare … He’s going to be a great player for us. He’s going to be Florida State’s next All-American.”
– By Ira Schoffel