- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When the 2012 season ended, Mario Edwards Jr. was exactly where he'd expected to be, starting in the Orange Bowl with an eye toward the future, where he'd be anchoring Florida State's defensive line.
The path to get there though, never went quite according to plan.
"It was a bit of a roller coaster," Edwards said.
His first season at FSU hardly followed the script Edwards had envisioned when he left high school as the nation's No. 1 recruit, but it was a season filled with lessons he needed to learn before he could blossom into a star at the college level.
Edwards arrived in Tallahassee with plenty of hype and an impressive pedigree, but he hardly resembled the future star who'd received so much advanced billing. In high school, he earned raves for his rare combination of speed and size, but when fall camp arrived last season, he checked in at a massive 315 pounds and showed no signs of that quick first step. He'd assumed all the recruiting hype would be enough to secure a job, but with three future NFL draft picks ahead of him on the depth chart, FSU's coaching staff had little room for an overweight freshman.
A week before Florida State's 2012 opener, Jimbo Fisher informed Edwards that he'd be redshirting. It was a blow to Edwards’ ego, who responded by skipping his first game altogether.
"It hit me, but then I couldn't blame anyone but myself," Edwards said. "I put myself behind the 8-ball coming in overweight, and I wasn't able to produce like they needed me to do because I was 315."
Edwards didn't have long to sulk. An injury to starting defensive end Brandon Jenkins put the freshman back in the mix.
"Jimbo called me in his office and said, 'Alright, bub, this is what you've been asking for -- now you've got it,'" Edwards said. "I knew then I had to get serious about what I was doing."
The opportunity offered some inspiration.
Edwards worked with strength coach Vic Viloria to improve his eating habits and adjust his exercise routine. His playing time was still minimal, but slowly he was beginning to resemble the player so many scouts had raved about during his high school days.
Throughout the season, Edwards shed more than 30 pounds, and when Cornellius Carradine went down with an ACL injury in the regular-season finale, he quickly made his case for the starting job.
"To end up starting the two biggest games -- the ACC [championship] and the Orange Bowl -- it was definitely really good," Edwards said.
Edwards held his own in those final two games, racking up 10 tackles as FSU's defensive front pounded Georgia Tech and Northern Illinois. It was a strong culmination of a frustrating year, but it was just the start of a much bigger role to come.
Jenkins and Carradine are both in NFL camps now, as is first round pick Bjoern Werner. What remains at defensive end for FSU is a crop of talented by inexperienced players with Edwards at the forefront.
"It's really amazing the talent that's here," new ends coach Sal Sunseri said. "They understand that there are three guys in the National Football League, and now it's their turn. So now they've got to come out and live up to that ability."
For Edwards, that means building on the lessons of 2012.
"He's finding out that with what I'm asking him to do, it's taxing and we've got to get him into better shape," Sunseri said. "I know it and everybody knows it and he knows it. He's going to fight through it and he's going to be good. He's got a lot of talent."
All that talent also means that the task of rebuilding FSU’s defensive line begins with Edwards.
Sitting the bench was never his plan as a freshman, but the experience offered him a chance to learn from the best.
"At the time I wasn't thinking about that, but then I started thinking, these are the top people in the nation," Edwards said. "I was top in the nation in high school but these are the top in college. I just took it as, learn from them and use it for next year."
It helps, too, that new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has implemented a scheme that fits Edwards' style perfectly.
"There's no more reading," Edwards said. "It's more just see it and go. More attack. I feel a little more comfortable."
That doesn't mean it's been easy. Edwards was one of Sunseri's favorite targets for criticism throughout the spring -- urging his star pupil to stop relying on his natural gifts and focus on becoming a more refined player.
It wasn't always easy to hear, but Edwards understood the message.
"Sal is definitely a firecracker," he said. "At any given moment, he can go off on you. But if he's on you and yelling at you, it's because he cares about you and he's trying to coach you for the player that you could be not the player that you are."
And Florida State will need Edwards to be something more than he was as a freshman when it opens the 2013 season. Werner and Carradine recorded 24 sacks between them in 2012 -- more than any duo in the nation -- while anchoring FSU's third-ranked run defense. Replacing the production is a tall order, even for a once-prized recruit.
But if last season taught Edwards anything, it's that success at this level isn't supposed to come easily, but the biggest tests are worth the work.
"I don't like to think of it as pressure," Edwards said. "I like to think of it as a challenge, and I like challenges. It's big shoes to fill, but I think I'll be able to do it."
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