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Wednesday, November 28, 2012
With Stoops gone, what's next for FSU?

By David M. Hale

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The news came suddenly, but it was hardly a shock. A year ago, rumors were swirling that Mark Stoops would be headed elsewhere, and the fact that FSU held on to its defensive coordinator for this long was perhaps as surprising as his decision on Tuesday to depart for Kentucky.

In three years on the job, Stoops has taken a defense that was among the worst in the nation in 2009 and turned it into the No. 2 unit in the country in 2012. Add those credentials to a strong family legacy, and it's easy to see why Kentucky thinks it made an exceptional hire.

Mark Stoops
Mark Stoops was FSU's defensive coordinator for three seasons. It appears unlikely he'll stick around through the bowl game.
But with Stoops leaving, what's next for Florida State? Here's a quick breakdown of some of the major concerns.

Q. How much longer will Stoops stay on staff at Florida State?

A. At least through the ACC championship game, and Jimbo Fisher said there was never any discussion of Stoops leaving immediately. But the job at Kentucky is a big one, and it would be a surprise if Stoops stuck around through the bowl game, which would mean an extra month in Tallahassee.

Q. So if Stoops leaves after this game, who coaches the defense in the bowl game?

A. Odds are, Fisher would take a slightly bigger role, and the rest of the defensive coaches and grad assistants would pick up the slack, as the Noles would simply have to do their best with what they have for now. It's hardly an unprecedented situation, and Lamarcus Joyner said it could actually be a nice challenge for the defense.

"All these years of putting in work with Coach Stoops and building me into a team leader, we'll get to see him not able to coach that bowl game but see how we're able to carry on without him, see if we can really put it to the test -- the knowledge and tools he's given us. It'll be a great challenge," Joyner said. "It would be fun."

Q. What kind of a distraction will Stoops' impending departure be for the ACC championship game?

A. Fisher was resolute that it wouldn't be any distraction, and players seemed to echo those comments on Tuesday, saying the energy in practice was high and they hoped to send Stoops out on a high note.

Of course, the defensive lapses against Florida have certainly opened the door to some criticism about the timing of all of this, and if there's one team that you don't want to have to prepare for on short notice with major off-field distractions on the defensive side, it's Georgia Tech.

Q. When can we expect Fisher to find Stoops' replacement?

A. For obvious reasons, Fisher did his best to downplay all of that Tuesday, saying he has his list but won't start sifting through candidates until after Saturday's game.

There's a good chance that's at least partially true, but Bjoern Werner certainly undermined some of that story later when he said Fisher assured him a plan was already in place.

"I came here when he came here, so I want to know who the next guy is," Werner said. "At Unity Council, I asked Coach Fisher, 'Can you give us a little hint?' He's like, 'Nope, but I have my plan and you guys are going to know soon.' "

Q. So who are the top candidates?

A. This is a tough one to say because when it comes to assistants, there are a lot of names out there, and FSU remains an elite job. Stoops' quick rise from being hired in late 2009 to taking a head coaching job in the SEC is exactly the type of career path any assistant would drool over. In other words, Fisher expects to have his pick of top candidates.

Fisher didn't open up much about who those candidates would be or what type of coach he's looking for -- young up-and-comer or veteran assistant, coach with a similar scheme or someone willing to try something new -- but Werner offered a hint on that, too.

"Everybody that's been in the system for a few years wants the same system because we were successful like that," Werner said. "I've talked to Coach Fisher already and he has his plan already written out. I'm sure he'll find the best fit."

It's far too early to say any one candidate is clearly at the top of Fisher's list, but a few names to watch: Manny Diaz at Texas, Brent Venables at Clemson, Ellis Johnson, who was recently fired as Southern Miss head coach and Travis Jones of the New Orleans Saints.

Q. Could Fisher find a replacement from his current staff of assistants?

A. That's certainly a possibility, with Greg Hudson probably the most obvious choice. It seems less likely than an outside hire though, and while Fisher gave lip service to the possibility on Tuesday, he didn't exactly sound enthusiastic about it.

"I think there could be," Fisher said when asked if any of his current assistants were on his short list for DC. "There's possibilities of that all the time. We've got some great coaches underneath that could possibly do those things."

Q. Speaking of assistant coaches, will Stoops be the only one to leave?

A. There are plenty of reports already that offensive coordinator James Coley has an offer to go with Stoops to Kentucky, and given Coley's current role as OC in name only with no play-calling duties, it might be a smart career move.

For what it's worth, Fisher didn't offer much on that topic.

"[Stoops] is the head coach and none of those things have been done and nothing is set," Fisher said. "We haven't even talked about those things. We're totally focused on Georgia Tech."

Certainly other coaches -- D.J. Elliott and Dameyune Craig chief among them -- could be hot commodities for other programs around the country looking to make changes or fill vacancies, too.

Q. What impact will Stoops' departure have on the decisions of FSU's juniors considering the NFL draft?

A. It will definitely have an effect on the guys who are on the fence, but it would also stand to reason they'll be keenly interested in who Stoops' replacement will be. If it's a guy with an NFL pedigree or someone who runs a similar style to what's already being run at FSU, there may be no extra push to head out the door. In fact, for a guy like Christian Jones, who might be a huge star in some other systems, it could actually help his career to see some minor changes to FSU's defensive style in 2013.

It would be surprising if guys like Werner and Xavier Rhodes didn't already have a pretty firm decision in mind, so really it's Jones and Joyner who are most affected.

"That will be something I'll have to pray about," Joyner said. "I'll have to talk to my family, Coach Fisher and Coach Stoops about it. We have two games to finish, so I just want to finish strong and let the cards deal what it may."

It's also worth noting, too, that a number of FSU's defensive players have a very close relationship with Stoops off the field, too. So more goes into evaluating this than simply Xs and Os.

Q. What impact could Stoops' departure have on recruiting?

A. The initial reaction was, not surprisingly, mixed at best from some of FSU's current commitments. It's a tenuous time on the recruiting circuit with signing day still two months off and coaches around the country starting to make some late pushes for wavering commits.

"It's hard when you're a younger guy," Joyner said. "You get caught up into all kinds of reasons for why you commit to a program."

Of course, depending on who replaces Stoops, the shakeup could be just as likely to spark some interest from recruits as it is to turn off some others.

The key for FSU will be to quell any immediate concern with the commitments they already have and then move as quickly as possible to bring in a replacement to start the sales pitch again.

Q. So, enough about Stoops. What about those Fisher rumors?

A. That, of course, is the 10,000-pound elephant in the room -- unless it's not, which is sort of hard to say at this point.

Fisher has offered as stringent a denial of interest in other jobs as he can without actually saying, "No, I'm not leaving FSU under any circumstances," so it's fair to assume he'll be back for 2013 and beyond.

Still, with three potentially lucrative SEC jobs open at Tennessee, Arkansas and Auburn and recent rumblings that there could be a shift at LSU, there's probably not going to be any end to the speculation until every job is filled.

When it comes to money and athletics budgets, there may be some perks to moving on, but Fisher's also got a pretty good situation here. He's had to work hard to push the limits of the budget and get new projects underway, but he's been successful in doing so. He's rebuilt the talent on the roster, even if a slew of seniors and talented juniors could depart at year's end, and starting that process over again elsewhere has its drawbacks. And as he said Monday, his family is here and settled in Tallahassee. For a coach with young kids, sometimes the biggest paycheck isn't the top priority.

Of course, this is college football, so you never know what might be around the corner.