Florida State Seminoles: Colin Blake
The biggest question might be how similar the 2014 defensive scheme will look to 2013. Yes, promoting Charles Kelly certainly offers stability, but he’s also likely to want to put his own stamp on the unit rather than offering a shot-for-shot remake of Jeremy Pruitt’s system. With some significant transition in personnel and some major losses of talent, there’s room to tinker this spring. Here’s what we’ll be watching:
Backups: Desmond Hollin (Sr.), Chris Casher (RSSo.), DeMarcus Walker (So.), Derrick Mitchell (RSJr.), Keith Bryant (RSFr.), Justin Shanks (RSSo.)
Storylines: Replacing Timmy Jernigan is an impossible task, but expect plenty of hype for Lawrence-Stample this spring. He was one of Jimbo Fisher’s favorites last spring, and he’ll be counted on to step up even more this time around. The loss of Christian Jones as a hybrid rusher impacts the D line, too, and how Kelly plans to handle that role now should be interesting to watch. Edwards and Goldman are both five-star players with two years of experience under their belt, but now they’ll be looked to as leaders -- both on and off the field.
If you want to include Jones as a defensive lineman, FSU is set to lose seven DLs to the NFL in a two-year span -- including two first-rounders in Bjoern Werner and, likely, Jernigan. That’s sapped some depth from the position, but Goldman and Edwards are as good as any D-linemen in the ACC and there’s plenty of talent behind them, too.
Projected starters: Reggie Northrup (Jr.), Terrance Smith (RSJr.), Matthew Thomas (So.)
Backups: E.J. Levenberry (So.), Ro'Derrick Hoskins (RSFr.), Nigel Terrell (RSSr.), Ukeme Eligwe (RSSo.), Kain Daub (Fr.)
Storylines: Smith is the only lock for a starting job here -- and even that might depend on your definition of “lock.” But while the unit is short on experience, it’s high on talent. The battle to replace Jones in the hybrid LB/DE position should be an interesting one, with Thomas offering perhaps the most upside, but Casher and Eligwe certainly in the mix, too. Northrup is the most experienced option to replace Telvin Smith, and he’s certainly capable of blossoming into a disruptive force, but Fisher raved about Levenberry throughout 2013, and that figures to be one of the more intriguing battles of spring camp. Add Daub to the mix as an early enrollee, and Kelly’s biggest problem here might be figuring out how to get enough snaps for all his talented linebackers.
There’s plenty of talent here, but it’s impossible to replace the veteran savvy of Smith and Jones. By year’s end, this should be a terrific group, but there’s lots to be learned this spring.
Backups: Lamarcus Brutus (RSJr.), Keelin Smith (RSJr.), Tyrell Lyons (RSFr.)
Storylines: Ramsey and Andrews were exceptional as true freshmen, but the job now is to build on that progress under a new position coach. There’s little reason to believe that won’t happen. The bigger question mark at the moment is the health of Hunter, who is recovering from a neck injury that nearly ended his career. He was the leader of the secondary last spring and summer, and his impact on a young group could be huge again in 2014.
Terrence Brooks was always undervalued, and he’ll be missed, but Hunter, Ramsey and Andrews projects as potentially the best trio of safeties in the nation.
Projected starters: P.J. Williams (Jr.), Ronald Darby (Jr.)
Backups: Marquez White (So.), Nick Waisome (Sr.), Colin Blake (RSSo.)
Storylines: Losing Lamarcus Joyner is a big blow, but there’s little to be concerned with here. Williams and Darby are both exceptional and figure to get even better in 2014. Darby was limited all season with a groin injury, so some downtime may be the priority for him. Waisome saw a ton of action in 2012 but largely disappeared in 2013. How he responds this spring might tell a lot about his future.
It says a lot about the work Fisher, Pruitt and Mark Stoops have done over the past few years that FSU can lose a player of Joyner’s caliber and still likely have the best secondary -- and best pair of starting corners -- in the country.
The candidates: Mario Edwards Jr. (So.), Dan Hicks (RSSr.), Giorgio Newberry (RSSo.), Chris Casher (RSFr.), DeMarcus Walker (Fr.), Davarez Bryant (Fr.), Desmond Hollin (Jr.)
The situation: Florida State lost three top pass rushers to the NFL from last year's team, leaving a major void in a key area. Edwards appears all but certain to earn one of the two starting jobs after closing out 2012 in that role. On the opposite side, however, things are up for grabs. Newberry figured to be the top candidate entering spring practice, but Hicks -- nine months removed from ACL surgery -- made a big push. Walker might have been in the mix, too, but NCAA eligibility issues kept him on the sideline after he enrolled early.
The projection: Hicks' strong spring vaulted him to the top of the depth chart for now, and it's clear he's ready to play a sizable role after being shuffled to tight end a year ago. Odds are, however, this will be an area of some mixing and matching early on, with Hicks, Newberry and Casher all likely to see playing time alongside Edwards.
The candidates: Terrance Smith (RSSo.), Reggie Northrup (So.), Ukeme Eligwe (RSFr.), Nigel Terrell (RSJr.) and five incoming freshmen
The situation: Seniors Telvin Smith and Christian Jones offer a formidable pairing atop the depth chart, but the rest of the linebacker position remains in flux. None of the candidates have any significant experience, and while Terrance Smith looked to take an early lead as the starter on the strong side throughout the spring, there are endless possibilities on how the two-deep at each position might shake out.
The projection: Because FSU will run a majority of its defensive plays in nickel and dime sets, there may not be a need for a third linebacker routinely. Still, the coaching staff knows it needs to develop depth behind its two seniors, and identifying a pecking order is crucial. Northrup, Smith and Eligwe are likely the top contenders for regular playing time, but freshman Freddie Stevenson was an early enrollee who impressed this spring, and freshman Matthew Thomas might have more upside than anyone at the position.
The candidates: Jameis Winston (RSFr.), Jacob Coker (RSSo.), Sean Maguire (RSFr.)
The situation: What was a wide-open, four-man race this spring now looks to be Winston's job to lose. He was impressive throughout spring practice, dominated the spring game and has enjoyed immense hype and enthusiasm from the fan base ever since. Still, Fisher has been quick to point out that nothing is set in stone at the position yet, and Coker, who endured a foot injury that limited him this spring, figures to keep the pressure on Winston as fall camp begins.
The projection: In spite of Fisher's pronouncements, it would be a shock if anyone other than Winston got the starting nod in Week 1. By all indications, the redshirt freshman has continued to develop this summer, has handled all the publicity with aplomb, and his potential is undeniable.
The candidates: Lamarcus Joyner (Sr.), Nick Waisome (Jr.), Ronald Darby (So.), Tyler Hunter (Jr.), P.J. Williams (So.) and others
The situation: This falls under the category of good problems to have, but FSU's wealth of talent in the secondary is causing at least some confusion on the depth chart. Joyner switches from safety to corner this year, leaving five talented and experienced corners vying for limited playing time alongside presumptive starters at safety Terrence Brooks and Karlos Williams. The versatility of the group -- particularly Joyner, Hunter and P.J. Williams -- offers some options for new DC Jeremy Pruitt, but finding enough playing time for all the talent on the roster may be a tall order.
The projection: There is likely to be a healthy dose of mixing and matching this year, with Karlos Williams getting reps at linebacker, Joyner, Hunter and P.J. Williams shifting between corner, nickel and safety, and other options like Keelin Smith and Colin Blake vying for reps, too. Still, Joyner is the unquestioned leader, so his playing time should be secure, and Darby, Waisome and Hunter will likely grab the lion's share of what remains.
The candidates: Kelvin Benjamin (RSSo.), Christian Green (RSJr.), Willie Haulstead (RSSr.), Levonte Whitfield (Fr.), Jarred Haggins (Sr.), Isaiah Jones (Fr.), Jesus Wilson (Fr.)
The situation: Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw have a firm grip on starting jobs, but injuries, defections and suspensions have seriously limited FSU's depth in the passing game. Fisher needs at least one or two more receivers to step up into bigger roles, with none looming larger than the uber-talented Benjamin. Green and Haulstead -- afterthoughts a year ago -- are aiming for comeback seasons, while Whitfield's speed makes him an immediate threat, and Wilson has garnered early praise for his work in summer seven-on-seven drills.
The projection: Benjamin is perhaps the biggest wild card on Florida State's roster. His talent is immense, but he's had difficulty showing consistency during his first two years in Tallahassee. If he blossoms into a star in 2013, it would be a huge boon to the Seminoles' offense, but don't be surprised if at least one of the freshmen manages to make some noise, too.
1. QB Jameis Winston: No surprise here, but Winston could end up being the single most significant piece to FSU's puzzle in 2013.
Nine members of the 2012 class saw action last season, and only defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. earned a start. But even Edwards' progress comes with an asterisk. He was slated to redshirt when the season began, and he only worked his way onto the field -- and later, into the starting lineup -- thanks to a series of injuries.
The wild card
Marvin Bracy, WR
Bracy skipped spring practice to focus on track, and now it seems entirely possible that decision could be permanent. Bracy has world-class speed, and if he chooses to go pro as a sprinter, he'd wave goodbye to his FSU football career. A decision could come any day.
Waiting their turn
Justin Shanks, DT
Despite FSU losing its two starting tackles, the position is still chock full of talent, which has managed to overshadow Shanks -- something that's awfully hard to do to a player pushing 320 pounds.
Colin Blake, CB
Blake battled injuries early in 2012 and ended up redshirting. He might have had a chance to earn a regular role this season, but Lamarcus Joyner's move to corner likely makes the field a bit too crowded. Blake will see work on special teams, but he'll need a few starters to go down with injuries before regular playing time is available in a crowded secondary.
Sean Maguire, QB
To Maguire's credit, he conceded nothing during FSU's quarterback competition this spring. Still, the writing was on the wall. Maguire has a good arm and solid long-term potential, but the job isn't likely to be his for at least a few more years.
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"I think I know what their abilities are, but you never know what somebody is capable of until they're put out there in a position to lead and take off," Fisher said. "You just have to let it happen and trust your eyes. Don't force it. Let them tell you. You can't tell them."
Coker has a minor foot injury and has been wearing a walking boot, but Fisher said he expects the sophomore "should be out there every day" this spring. Winston, who has been an integral part of the FSU baseball team thus far, will shift his focus back to football then, too, with Fisher assuring the freshman won't miss a single meeting or practice.
While Winston has only been a limited participant during fourth-quarter drills, his work has been impressive.
"He came over the other day and blew this thing away," Fisher said. "He flew around here like a wild man. He's in great shape, he's throwing, he's probably up there watching film by himself an hour or two hours a day. He's been right involved in the middle of everything."
While Winston has impressed, Fisher certainly isn't indicating he has a favorite in the race. In fact, he said he'll let what happens on the practice field -- both in the spring and potentially into fall camp -- decide who will win the starting job.
"It's going to be very interesting not only to see how they do their job but how they can make the other 10 guys around them do their job and make the guys on defense feel uncomfortable about them doing their job," Fisher said. "That's all important for a quarterback."
Up next, one of the most promising positions on the FSU roster: Cornerback.
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Vitals: Defensive back Nate Andrews (Fairhope, Ala./Fairhope), 5-foot-11, 195 pounds
Committed: Jan. 25, 2013
ESPN.com grade: 78, three-star prospect
ESPN.com rankings: No. 74 wide receiver prospect in the country, No. 253 player in the Southeast region and No. 23 in Alabama
Picked Florida State over: Alabama, Minnesota, Mississippi
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Up next, an abundance of talent has led to an interesting debate at safety.
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Vitals: Cornerback Marquez White (Dothan, Ala./Northview), 6-foot-1, 170 pounds.
Committed: May 25, 2012.
ESPN.com grade: 83, four-star prospect.
ESPN.com rankings: No. 17 cornerback in the country, No. 74 player in the Southeast region, No. 7 prospect in the state of Alabama and the No. 158 player in the ESPN 300.
Picked Florida State over: Alabama, Auburn and Kentucky.
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With that in mind, we're going to go position-by-position looking at Florida State's strengths and weaknesses as the Seminoles prepare for the start of spring practice.
First up: Cornerback
Departures: It seemed a foregone conclusion long before the season ended, and as expected, junior Xavier Rhodes opted to pass on a fifth year in Tallahassee and will head to the NFL draft. It's a big loss, as Rhodes had blossomed into one of the best cover corners in the nation, and 2012 might have been his best season as a Seminole.
Arrivals: Redshirt freshman Colin Blake will get his first taste of action. FSU has two four-star commitments at the position in Marquez White (Dothan, Ala./Northview) and Michael Johnson (Miami/Booker T. Washington). White is the 17th-ranked corner in the nation, according to ESPN.
Biggest question mark: Replacing Rhodes is obviously the top priority, but with the impressive 2012 campaigns from both Darby and Waisome, the answers appear fairly obvious. What might be a more intriguing question is who steps in as the third man in the cornerback rotation -- a list that could include more work from nickel Tyler Hunter, early playing time for the youngsters or, perhaps most likely, an expanded role for rising sophomore Keelin Smith.
Breakout star: Darby seems the logical choice. He never quite overtook Waisome for the starting job in 2012, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. Darby finished the season having appeared in all 14 games, making 22 tackles and recording eight pass breakups and one forced fumble en route to being named a freshman All-American. He's perhaps not quite as physical as Rhodes, but his speed is elite and he has the potential to quickly develop into one of the marquee defensive backs in the conference.
Projected 2013 starters: Darby and Waisome, with Hunter as the top nickel option.
"He wasn't having those happy feet," Jimbo Fisher said.
That's been par for the course this season for Manuel, whose numbers against the blitz have improved dramatically.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Manuel is completing 78.3 percent of his passes this season when facing five or more pass rushers. That's up from 59.8 percent a year ago. When under duress this year, Manuel has completed 10-of-13 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
It's patience mixed with trust in the players around him, Fisher said.
"He doesn't have to be blinking and looking and are guys supposed to be blocked," Fisher said. "There has to be a huge trust factor, know that's the guy I've got to handle, and then you get your sight, your hot, whatever you have to do."
It helps that Manuel is making better pre-snap reads and quicker decisions in the pocket, too. His checkdowns to third and fourth options this season have routinely turned into big plays.
"We're getting 10-15 yards off of check downs, which is a 5-yard pass," Manuel said.
That experience could loom large this week. USF has struggled to get pressure from its front four, meaning the Bulls will be tempted to bring the blitz and test Manuel's ability to hang in the pocket.
In years past, the plan may have worked. This season, Manuel's feeling a lot more comfortable.
"It allows him to have that confidence to keep doing it," Fisher said, "and they're executing around him."
Fisher said the lack of available reps behind incumbents Bjoern Werner, Brandon Jenkins and Cornellius Carradine led the coaching staff to decide to redshirt Edwards despite a strong performance during fall camp.
Edwards is one of 10 FSU freshmen expected to redshirt this season, but he was the only one not dressed for Florida State's opener against Murray State on Saturday.
Fisher said it was Edwards' decision not to dress, and that each redshirt player is given the choice before each game. Fisher said players might opt not to dress based on family members attending the game or other issues, but he did not offer any indication as to why Edwards, who along with all FSU freshmen is not made available to the media, chose against dressing for the first game of his college career.
"You don't have to dress. We'll have guys that will and guys that won't," Fisher said. "There was a situation last week, and [Edwards] will probably dress this week. But I give every guy their choice on that."
Edwards is the son of former FSU cornerback Mario Edwards Sr., who currently works for the university as a player development coordinator -- an administrative position that works closely with the coaching staff.
While the redshirt for Edwards comes as somewhat of a surprise given the defensive end's hype on the recruiting circuit, Fisher said the decision isn't indicative of any shortcomings Edwards displayed on the field.
"I'm not one bit disappointed," Fisher said. "What we saw on film and what we thought he was, we think he's exactly that right now. He could be even more. He's actually stronger and more powerful than I even realized."
Still, Edwards checked in at nearly 300 pounds upon arrival this summer, and Fisher said he hopes the redshirt season will provide the freshman with an opportunity to shed a few pounds while getting a better grasp on the playbook.
Fisher said Edwards was not upset by the decision, saying the two "had a good conversation" about the redshirt.
In addition to Edwards, Fisher said fellow defensive end Chris Casher, defensive tackle Justin Shanks, defensive back Colin Blake, linebacker Markuss Eligwe and receiver Marvin Bracy are all expected to redshirt as well.
Bracy has been limited since the spring with a nagging hamstring injury, and Fisher said there's still a chance he could work his way into a smaller role on offense this year, assuming the injury is fully healed now.
"If his hamstring will hold up, we may try to give him four or five things -- the return game and teach him four or five things on offense to get real good at and judge that as we go," Fisher said. "But we've got to do that hopefully this week. I'm anxious to see where he's at -- full, full speed."
Quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Sean Maguire and kicker Roberto Aguayo will also redshirt, along with freshman running back Mario Pender, who will miss the season with a groin injury, and senior defensive tackle Jacobbi McDaniel, who is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered last season.
But whenever 69 points is scored, there are bound to be a few storylines that get overlooked. So with that in mind, here are five newsworthy items and behind-the-scenes tidbits from Saturday that you might have missed.
1. Wilder's big night
After the game, James Wilder Jr. was still carrying around the game ball, promising he'd sleep with it Saturday night.
"I'm not letting it go tonight," Wilder said after the game. "This is going to be my girlfriend tonight."
Wilder said he already had purchased a glass trophy case before the season, waiting to get his first 100-yard game so he'd have a ball to put in it.
Turns out, it didn't take long.
Wilder racked up 106 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries -- and six more on one catch -- to pace the Seminoles' running game.
What's more, Wilder did it while checking in at a hefty 231 pounds.
Wilder said he usually weighs in at 225 before a game, and his goal had been 222. But Wilder had trouble shedding pounds in recent weeks because he was held out of a number of workouts during practice.
Jimbo Fisher had said they were being cautious with Wilder because of some shoulder soreness suffered during FSU's first full scrimmage. Turns out, Wilder said, it was actually a hip injury that had slowed him down.
Of course, he didn't look too slow Saturday.
But while Wilder's performance certainly was a good one, it's also worth noting he didn't get his first carry until the third quarter, when Murray State's defense was already gasping for breath. In fact, 182 of Wilder's 266 career rushing yards have come in the second half of games against FCS teams.
That certainly doesn't mean Wilder won't be impressive this year. After all, he said, he's molded his game after some great runners -- who just so happen to have been hefty for running backs, too.
"You don't see a lot of backs that big anymore," Wilder said. "But I always watched backs that big -- (Walter) Payton, my father, Earl Campbell. I just feel like, size doesn't really matter. I have the drive to get to the end zone, and that's what's going to get it done."
Granted, all three of those runners had retired before Wilder was born, but after averaging nearly 9 yards a carry, who's going to argue?
"There are a lot of these young guys that still have a lot of work to do," Jimbo Fisher said. "They need to come on, because we're going to need them. A lot of them are doing good, but we've got to get them game ready."
Unlike last season, when FSU had freshmen in a number of prominent roles -- including four starters on the offensive line -- that need isn't quite so great this season. The advantage of Florida State's depth is that it isn't reliant on inexperienced players at most key positions.
That means Fisher can be somewhat cautious with which freshmen he puts on the field, and that's a decision he'll need to make soon.
"I think quite a few of them will get in there," Fisher said. "Some might be ready, but have a good quality number of guys in front of them, and you want to be careful not to waste a year on 50 plays. We've got to evaluate that, and in the next day or two, we'll make some decisions."
A year ago, 13 of Florida State's 22 true freshmen saw action, including eight as occasional starters. This year, only one freshman, Ronald Darby, appears to be in competition for a starting job, and the overall need for contributors is less. But a look at each player underscores the idea that there aren't many who can't contribute.
Here's our breakdown of which freshman are likely to see action, and which ones could be saddled with a redshirt.