- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
Editor’s note: Each day until the start of spring practice, we’ll pose a question facing Florida State's football team as it moves toward the 2013 season. Today’s question: Can FSU's offensive line continue to grow in 2013?
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The starting point was so low, it would've been nearly impossible for Florida State's offensive line to fall short of expectations last season.
In 2011, the line was horrendous -- allowing the most sacks in the conference, providing virtually no room to run, and forcing an injured EJ Manuel to be a one-man offense far too often. By season's end, Jimbo Fisher essentially went back to the drawing board and started from scratch, giving a starting nod in FSU's bowl game to four freshmen. It was a gesture that admitted there was nowhere to go but up.
That the unit played passably in a winning effort in the bowl game offered optimism for 2012, and although the line got another facelift in fall camp, the results -- by and large -- exceeded tepid expectations.
There were highs and lows, but by season's end, FSU had nearly doubled its rushing production from 2011 and shaved 14 sacks off its total. Dubious fans may have labeled the unit average, but even they'd admit it was a big step forward.
As spring approaches in 2013, however, that feeling of starting from rock bottom is gone. Expectations for the offensive line have been raised, and with Manuel and FSU's two most experienced runners gone, there's little question the line is going to have to shoulder a bigger load. The question is, is this line ready to take another step forward?
The biggest obstacle comes at right tackle, where Menelik Watson proved to be a miracle worker in 2012. The juco transfer was perhaps FSU's best pass blocker, and the numbers underscored his significance. In the 10 quarters he missed with injury, FSU allowed 10 sacks. In the other 11-and-a-half games, the line gave up just 16.
Watson is headed to the NFL, which means juniors Bobby Hart and Austin Barron will likely be vying to replace him -- Hart at right tackle, Barron at center, leaving Bryan Stork to slide out to the edge. Fisher insists he's encouraged by his options.
"You've got quite a few guys," Fisher said. "Bobby Hart has had a good offseason. Stork can do what he does. There's different guys we can put in there. Austin Barron started three games the year before and did a tremendous job. The best guy will play."
This is perhaps a generous estimation of the situation.
Hart started nine games as a freshman on that dismal 2011 line, but he appeared to regress as a sophomore. Barron, too, lost his starting job in 2012, which begs the question of whether either is ready to jump back into the fray this spring.
It's possible that, even if Florida State sees a dip in production from its right tackle or center position, the unit as a whole could be better. Cameron Erving progressed dramatically over the course of 2012, his first season on offense. Josue Matias and Tre Jackson now have a year of experience under their belts, too. Overall, the unit that had just 16 career starts combined (14 by Stork) entering last season will open this season with at least 75.
And while talent and experience certainly played a key role in last year's improvement, the biggest factor might have been chemistry -- something that will be shuffled, at least a bit, this spring.
"We had a chance to be hands down one of the best [in the nation]," Watson said of a possible return for his senior season. "They still are going to be one of the best in the country, but the camaraderie us five had was good."
This spring provides FSU with a first serious look at what that new chemistry will look like -- whether it's Hart proving his doubters wrong or Stork and Barron adjusting to new roles. A year ago, either solution may have been encouraging. This time around, however, there's far less margin for error.
2dJeremy Crabtree and Brandon Chatmon