Scouting the opponent: Duke football's defense must be ready for Florida State's lethal Travis-Coleman duo

Jaylen Stinson (2) drags down an N.C. State player during Duke's Saturday win.
Jaylen Stinson (2) drags down an N.C. State player during Duke's Saturday win.

In its first game after the bye week, Duke once again proved its mettle, decimating N.C. State 24-3 in a defensive clinic to move to 5-1 overall on the year and 2-0 in ACC play. The Blue Devils were once again recognized by the media as one of the top teams in the country, coming in at No. 16 in this week’s AP poll. But Saturday, head coach Mike Elko’s squad will face likely its best opponent of the season, as Duke will travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on presumed ACC favorite No. 4 Florida State. 

Let’s take a look at what makes the Seminoles so dangerous.

Florida State, coming off a 10-3 season in 2022, is even better this season. Not many schools have used a better combination of in-house player development and the transfer portal than head coach Mike Norvell and the Seminoles, as they have jumped out to a dominant 6-0 start overall with a 4-0 conference record. Norvell’s group has been impressive from the start this season, knocking off then-No. 5 LSU in college football’s opening weekend, an impressive performance that cemented Florida State as a national title contender. The Seminoles also took down Clemson 31-24 away from home in Death Valley, a notoriously tough place to play and a possible signal for a changing of the guard in the conference. 

Meanwhile, a loss to Florida State would hardly be a knock on Duke. But a victory would dramatically change its outlook for the remainder of the season, putting the Blue Devils in the driver’s seat to make the ACC championship and possibly contend for a College Football Playoff spot. 

“They are an extremely talented football team. Ton of respect for the job that Mike Norvell has done down there,” Elko said at his weekly press conference Monday. “I think he has built a program, not just a team, but a program. You can see it with how those kids play and the energy and passion that they play the game with.”

Like many elite teams, Florida State’s figurehead is its quarterback, and the Seminoles have an outstanding one in Jordan Travis. The redshirt senior is one of the nation’s best signal callers, and has helped to elevate Norvell’s offense to new heights this season. 

In 2022, Travis put together one of the best single seasons in program history, becoming the only player in Seminoles history to have at least 20 passing touchdowns and seven rushing touchdowns in a season. The West Palm Beach, Fla., native has picked up right where he left off in 2023, already throwing for 1,482 yards and 13 touchdowns through six games, while also adding 114 yards and four scores on the ground. Travis also does not have a tendency to turn the ball over, only throwing one interception on the season, something that the Duke defense will likely have to change in order to emerge victorious. 

“Offensively, this is an extremely talented operation. It starts with the quarterback, Jordan Travis,” Elko said. “He is playing at an elite level and really has been for the better part of two years now. He knows exactly what he wants to do in that system. He's managing it really well.”

While Travis is outstanding, it helps that he gets to throw to some of the best pass catchers in the country. Both of Travis’ main targets at wideout are nothing short of spectacular, as Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson have both established themselves as two of the top receivers not just in the conference, but across college football. 

Wilson is the more known commodity, as the redshirt junior is coming off a breakout year in his first year in Tallahassee after transferring from Arizona State, racking up 897 yards and five touchdowns in 2022. This season, the All-ACC selection has been similarly effective, using his 6-foot-7 frame to already haul in 20 receptions for 357 yards despite missing a game due to injury. While most teams would be happy to have Wilson as their WR1, Florida State arguably got the most impactful transfer this past offseason, as Coleman has become a potential first-round draft pick during his first year in the ACC. The former Michigan State Spartan has been a revelation for Norvell’s team, hauling in 29 catches for 418 yards and seven touchdowns, while adding an array of highlight-reel grabs along the way. Add in solid tight end Jaheim Bell, and Duke’s secondary will have its hands full.

“They've got skill players all over the place. The two really talented wide receivers in Wilson and Coleman. Tall, athletic, can run, can separate, can make explosive plays,” Elko said. “They rotate through four or five other guys with no drop-off at all.”

Florida State also boasts a solid defense, but certainly nothing as impressive as its offense. The Seminoles come in at 56th nationally in total defense, allowing 362.8 yards per game. While this number isn’t as good as Duke’s, at 16th, it is probably also affected by the efficiency of Florida State’s offense, forcing the defense to take the field often. One of the better aspects of the Seminole defensive unit is its ability to force turnovers, tallying eight so far, giving the team a .83 turnover margin. The Blue Devils also thrive on turnover margin, so the turnover battle will certainly be one to watch Saturday. 

“I've known Adam Fuller, the defensive coordinator, probably as long as I've known most coaches in this profession,” Elko said. “He does a really good job. He's a really good football coach. He's got that defense playing at a really high level. I think it's the best front we've seen in our time here at Duke.”

The star of the Florida State defense is Jared Verse, its superstar defensive end. The former Albany transfer has had an excellent two-year stint in the ACC, garnering the most All-ACC votes on defense last season. Last season, the redshirt junior tallied 47 tackles, including 16.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks, cementing himself as one of the best pass rushers in college. While he likely would have gone in the first round of the NFL Draft, Verse made the decision to return to Florida State and pursue a national championship. Through the first half of the season, the Dayton, Ohio, native has 15 tackles and 2.5 sacks, while also garnering multiple double-teams from opposing offensive lines, allowing the rest of the defense to create favorable matchups. 

On the back end, Fentrell Cypress II is the name to know. Coming over from conference foe Virginia, Cypress was one of the most highly sought-after players in the transfer portal, ranking fifth in 247Sports transfer rankings. Last year with the Cavaliers, the redshirt junior led the conference with 1.6 pass breakups per game, receiving first team All-ACC honors from Pro Football Focus. So far in 2023, the Rock Hill, S.C., native has made 21 tackles while also forcing three passes deflected, showcasing his ability as a lockdown corner. 

Duke has a massive challenge in front of it, but Elko’s unit will undoubtedly be ready to go come Saturday, hoping to find a way to exploit the Florida State defense while slowing down Travis and the offense. If they can pull it off, we may be talking about the Blue Devils as ACC favorites next week.

“We're going to be down there on their homecoming, at night, under the lights in Tallahassee,” Elko said. “It's a big challenge for us and certainly a challenge that we're looking forward to and we'll get our guys ready to go down there and play our best football." 


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