Friday, August 10, 2012
Revamped O-line brings questions, hope
By David M. Hale
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A healthy dose of August hype is nothing new for Florida State, which once again finds itself as the ACC's preseason favorite and a chic pick to win a national championship.
This year's lofty expectations come with a foreboding caveat, however.
Yes, Florida State can win a title -- if the offensive line improves.
It's become a familiar refrain for a team with established stars all over the field, but five huge question marks lining up in the trenches.
“We really don’t listen to the media stuff," said Bryan Stork, a junior who is likely to serve as the veteran of a group likely to include four sophomore starters. "But we know what we’ve got to do, and we’re going to do it.”
Given the talent on the offensive line, Stork's confidence doesn't appear misplaced, but the job of transforming last year's biggest weakness into a potential strength isn't an easy one. Consider:
• A year ago, Florida State's offensive line allowed 40 sacks, ninth most in the country.
• The line opened few holes for the running game, which averaged just 112 yards per game, good for 104th in the nation.
• Florida State's line was flagged for holding 25 times, more than any other team in the country.
And while this year's group figures to have nowhere to go but up, there are bound to be some growing pains.
After a season's worth of struggles, coach Jimbo Fisher ended 2011 with a clean slate in the Seminoles' bowl game, starting four freshmen on the line in a win over Notre Dame.
The plan didn't produce instant results -- the Fighting Irish racked up five sacks -- but by the second half of the game the group began to jell and an image of a brighter future for the young line began to take shape.
Now the Seminoles enter 2012 with plenty of hope, but little in the way of experience.
Stork is the veteran, having started 14 games throughout his career at Florida State, but he's hardly solidified in his role.
When spring practice began, Stork was working with the second-team line. It was only after sophomore Bobby Hart, who had started the final nine games of the 2011 season, struggled badly enough to prompt a change.
For now, Stork is penciled in as the starting right tackle, a role he's played sparingly in the past. On the opposite side of the line is Cameron Erving, a converted defensive lineman who has never taken a college snap on offense.
In the middle, sophomores Austin Barron, Josue Matias and Tre Jackson account for a total of five combined starts in their careers -- three of which came in that bowl win over Notre Dame.
In terms of experience, it's not much, Fisher said, but it's a start.
"They’ve worked hard this summer," Fisher said. "Even though they’re young, they’ve gone out there and done it. They haven’t done it a bunch but they’ve done it, and they’ve come back."
Those 30 minutes in the second half against Notre Dame have made all the difference in terms of confidence. As fall camp gets into full swing, there's plenty of talk about a new start and the potential for a big improvement.
That starts with Erving, who made the switch from defensive end to left tackle this spring and immediately wowed coaches and teammates with his strength and athleticism. Fisher believes Erving has a chance to not only help round out the line but develop into one of the best tackles Florida State has ever produced.
Of course, Erving hasn't proven much of anything yet, but his first test against teammate Brandon Jenkins in spring practice earned him his share of believers.
"He's going to be great," said Jenkins, one of the ACC's top pass rushers for the past two seasons. "The first day he played tackle, I had never gone against somebody with his set. He has a set that is difficult to adjust to. I had to go hard the whole spring."
Erving has taken virtually all of the first-team reps so far in fall camp, too. The same is true for Jackson and Matias.
Fisher is keeping his options open in other areas, however.
During Thursday's morning workouts, Stork had shifted to center -- a position he called home for the bulk of 2011 -- and Fisher said he's intrigued by the idea of having the experienced 320-pounder in the middle of the line.
Junior college transfer Daniel Glauser saw work at right tackle, and coaches have praised his knowledge and veteran savvy. Still, Bjoern Werner made quick work of Glauser at times during practice, underscoring that a transition to big-time college football won't be simple for Glauser and fellow juco transfer Menelik Watson.
"You can tell it’s a little different than juco, just game speed," Stork said. "But they'll adjust quickly. They have no choice.”
That seems to be the familiar sentiment across the offensive line.
There's enough potential to believe the unit can improve, but the expectations are high enough that Florida State has little choice other than to believe that the line will improve.
"Our Achilles heel last year at times was our offensive line, and I think it could end up being a very good strength for us now," Fisher said. "We've forced ourselves to play that young, talented group of guys and we put a big emphasis on that this spring."
Thirty minutes of football against Notre Dame provided hope.
Now the work they've done since that bowl win, Stork said, will provide answers.
“Everybody’s pretty confident," Stork said. "We’re on a mission to turn that thing around."