Florida State Seminoles: Dan Hicks

Florida State finished off a spectacular season with a national championship, and with Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, Jalen Ramsey and a host of other stars returning for 2014, the expectations for next season are already sky high.

So if FSU is going to repeat as national champs, what are the big stumbling blocks on the road ahead? We take a look at the top five.

1. Rebuilding the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWith Timmy Jernigan heading to the NFL, Florida State will have a big hole to fill in the middle of its line.
With Timmy Jernigan leaving early for the NFL draft -- he’s widely considered a top-15 pick — Florida State will have a huge hole in the middle of the line. But the Seminoles also need to find someone to rush off the edge, as Christian Jones did throughout the season and develop some depth after waving goodbye to Demonte McAllister and Dan Hicks. Nile Lawrence-Stample, Matthew Thomas and others could fill those voids, but it will be incumbent on emerging stars Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman to step up their games, too.

2. Developing new receivers.

It wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was nevertheless a relief when Greene decided to return for his senior season. Florida State’s receiving corps was exceptional in 2013, but it wasn’t deep. Kenny Shaw is moving on, and Kelvin Benjamin could follow. That leaves Greene as FSU’s only established, consistent receiver. Isaiah Jones, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield all got a taste of playing time in 2013, but they’ll need to do a lot more next season.

3. Finding new leaders on defense.

This might be the toughest task for Florida State. Telvin Smith, Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Jones and Jernigan weren’t simply the defensive standouts on the field, they were the heart and soul of the unit in the locker room. There’s still plenty of talent remaining on the unit, but no one who has had to step up and galvanize a locker room or push the younger players to work harder. Finding leaders on that side of the ball — Edwards, Goldman, Terrance Smith and Ronald Darby, perhaps — will be crucial to maintaining the unit’s immense production in 2014.

4. Managing the schedule.

If the knock on Florida State this season was that it wasn’t tested until the title game, the concern for 2014 might be that there are simply too many big tests. The Seminoles open in Dallas against Oklahoma State, but also have Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida before the season is out. If this title was a victory for the ACC’s legitimacy on a national stage, the 2014 slate for Florida State only underscores how much tougher winning the league will be going forward.

5. Handling the hype.

It’s one thing to win when no one is expecting it. Winning when everyone has you pegged as No. 1 is a whole other challenge. Florida State will enjoy its national championship now, but in 2014, everyone will be gunning for the Seminoles, and the media scrutiny will be immense. Can Winston go a full offseason as a Heisman winner and national champion and not waver from his commitment to getting better? Can the coaching staff maintain that same level of dedication from a group that already has a title on its résumé? There’s a reason so few teams repeat as champions. It’s really hard to do.

Takeaways fueling FSU's dominance

November, 18, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The play unfolded just as Jeremy Pruitt might’ve dreamed it up back in spring practice, with the lone exception being the personnel on the field. Florida State’s defense has been so dominant that the starters were already resting comfortably on the sideline by the time Dan Hicks became the 15th Seminole with a takeaway this season.

Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen takes the snap and fakes a handoff. Tight end Josh Parris comes over the middle, and Allen tosses a spiral in his direction. Hicks jumps on it, diving in front of Parris at the last second, swiping the ball from midair for the interception.

[+] EnlargeFSU/Wake Forest
AP Photo/Nell RedmondThe Seminoles have six defensive touchdowns, including this interception by Nate Andrews.
The sideline erupted, and Florida State’s offense marched back onto the field and, once again, the Seminoles’ defense was making it look easy.

"They're playing extremely well," Jimbo Fisher said. "They're very disciplined, flying to the ball, creating turnovers. We've got a lot of athletic guys that are being very physical and very disciplined."

When Pruitt arrived as defensive coordinator in January, his to-do list was extensive — evaluate personnel, adjust the scheme, shore up fundamentals. At the top of the list though was the one crucial variable that past Seminoles defenses had failed to master: Takeaways.

“As good as Florida State played defensively last fall,” Pruitt said upon arrival, “one of the things where we really could improve is getting turnovers."

Indeed, FSU’s defense had been among the best in the country two years running under former coordinator Mark Stoops, but it was hardly a turnover machine. In 2012, the Seminoles’ pass defense ranked tops in the country overall, but was tied for 65th in interceptions. FSU had one of the most disruptive defensive lines in the nation, but 103 other teams finished with as many forced fumbles as the Seminoles did.

A large portion of the formula for creating turnovers is luck, and that would even out, Pruitt believed. What he hoped to do was fix the rest of the formula by putting his best athletes in position to make more plays and instilling a mind-set to get after the football every chance they got.

Through 10 games this season, that formula is working perfectly.

“Once again, execution is the key," linebacker Reggie Northrup said. "We’re making sure everybody’s where they need to be, and we make stops like that.”

Florida State leads the nation with 19 interceptions. The FSU defense creates a takeaway once every 27 plays, the sixth-best mark in the nation and a marked improvement over last season's rate of once every 42 plays. In the Seminoles’ last five games alone, they’ve secured 18 takeaways -- a tally that would rank in the top 50 nationally for the entire season.

All that defensive success has helped key Florida State’s offensive explosion, too. For the year, FSU has scored 135 points off turnovers, tops in the nation and more than a quarter of all points the team has scored this year. The defense has already scored six touchdowns of its own, two more than it mustered during the entirety of Mark Stoops’ tenure. FSU's defensive efficiency rating -- a measure of a unit's contributions to opponent-adjusted scoring margins -- is tops in the nation, better even than Pruitt's former team, Alabama.

"It's crazy," tailback James Wilder Jr. said. "We joke around with them like, 'Y'all getting those interceptions, but stop scoring. You're keeping us off the field.' It's great. They're doing a great job. That shows how mature the defense is."

Of course, what has been most impressive about the aggressive approach to takeaways is that it hasn’t come at the cost of fundamentals. FSU is allowing 18 more yards per game than last season, but 3.5 fewer points. The secondary has been dominant, and the rushing defense, which struggled a bit early, is rounding into shape.

This was the plan all along, but the speed with which Pruitt’s formula yielded results has surprised even his players. Still, it has been fun to watch it all click into place.

“It’s something exciting to see," tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "I love watching those guys make plays behind us.”
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The scenes flickered across the screen as Jimbo Fisher broke down the film on Sunday, and the Florida State coach breathed a sigh of relief.

The outcomes were just as he'd remembered. Boston College's rather mundane attack gashed the Seminoles' defense again and again, big chunks of yardage adding up to 34 points -- the most BC had scored in an ACC game in nearly four years.

Florida State still escaped with a win, thanks to another dynamic effort from Jameis Winston, but the defense was exposed, and the future schedule promised to be far less forgiving. Fisher assumed the worst, but the film eased his mind.

[+] EnlargeAndre Williams
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaBoston College rushed for 200 yards against the Seminoles, led by Andre Williams with 149.
"I wasn't as distraught as I thought I would be," Fisher said Monday, putting a happy face on an otherwise troubling effort. "It was more two or three individuals that caused all the problems."

There is ample room for big-picture concerns. Players admit to being slow to latch on to the subtleties of new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's defensive scheme. The aggressive approach has yielded a handful of big plays but also surrendered a few more to the opposition. The Seminoles' performance through four games has fans wondering if disaster looms just over the horizon, as the explosive offenses of Maryland and Clemson await.

Instead, what Fisher saw on film were a few minor glitches -- easily correctable mental errors. A few missed assignments here, a few sets of eyes focused on the wrong things there. Rather than panicking, Florida State's defense seems relieved.

“Those mistakes are going to help you," safety Terrence Brooks said. "It’s bad, but it also can be good for you, too. Those are things you know you’ve got to key in on. It’s just room for improvement.”

That's the upbeat spin. These are the raw numbers: Through four games, Florida State has coughed up 606 yards on the ground, nearly half the total its defense allowed in 14 games last year. Boston College amassed 397 total yards Saturday; only Clemson (2010 and 2011) managed more against FSU since the start of the 2011 season -- and the Tigers' high-flying attack gets its shot against the Seminoles in just three weeks. The defense has started slowly in every game, and as a result, FSU has trailed in three of four games. It's a particularly disconcerting picture given that this week's opponent, Maryland, has topped 500 yards of offense three times, is averaging better than 7 yards per play, has a dual-threat quarterback and one of the ACC's most explosive playmakers in receiver Stefon Diggs.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Brown
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyC.J. Brown is averaging 261 yards passing and 71 yards rushing through four games.
And yet, Florida State's players insist they're not worried. The fixes aren't physical failures, but rather mental miscues -- a product of new personnel seeing an increased workload, a handful of gimmick plays by the opposition and a continuing adjustment to Pruitt's new scheme.

"We had some little, stupid mental errors in that game -- letting our guys go, trying to do too much and getting out of gaps," Brooks said. "That’s the only reason they were able to get all those points they did get."

It's not an entirely unfair accounting. Two of Boston College's touchdowns came on nearly identical plays, when the offense shifted heavily to one side, then threw the opposite way. FSU's defense aggressively pursued the ball and left a receiver wide open.

Of course, Pruitt's approach also might be part of the problem. As FSU's players raved about the new scheme this offseason, the buzzword used again and again was "aggressive." Pruitt promised to turn the Seminoles' athletes loose to make plays, and the players loved the concept. It all sounded good until Boston College used that mindset against them.

"We’re a very aggressive defense, and we want to get to the ball fast," Brooks said. "That right there kind of killed us a little bit."

It's not that the scheme is flawed, however. Pruitt essentially is installing a defense similar to what Alabama used to win three of the past four national titles. There's a track record of success.

The difference is that when Pruitt took over as defensive backs coach at Alabama in 2010, that scheme was already in place, and the veterans already knew it well. At Florida State, it's all new, and the learning process requires time.

"When you come in during the spring and put in a new defense, especially as complex as this one, it’s not like you’re coaching a team full of guys that have already been in the system," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "It’s almost like you’re coaching a defense full of freshmen, technically. We’re all learning it."

Jernigan insists his teammates have bought in, but the learning process has come more quickly for some. Fisher praised Jernigan's work against BC, saying the junior played perhaps the best game of his career. Eddie Goldman earned raves, too, and linebacker Telvin Smith earned player of the week honors in the ACC after finishing with 10 tackles.

So where are the problems?

Fisher did his best to avoid criticizing specific players, though the absence of senior Christian Jones from his synopsis was noteworthy. Dan Hicks was burned for a touchdown, as well, though he was noticeably overmatched in his assignment. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and safety Tyler Hunter sat out for the second straight game against BC, too, and there are no assurances they'll be ready this week.

But to hear Fisher's analysis, there's no cause for alarm. It's not a matter of a flawed scheme, a too-steep learning curve or a lack of personnel. It's simply about getting the little things right.

Florida State's players are convinced of that, too, and the film from Boston College only burnished that optimism. But even so, this week's practices come with a mandate for improvement.

"Having that happen with these good teams that have mobile quarterbacks, people who can run and pass better, better receivers," Brooks said, "it’s just more of a problem at that point."

Week 5 helmet stickers

September, 29, 2013
There's a case to be made all three of Florida State's helmet stickers should be going to one player, but we'll still spread the wealth around a bit. Here goes:

QB Jameis Winston: There were problems all over the field for Florida State on Saturday, and in truth, Winston wasn't exactly perfect either -- particularly early. But while the defense and special teams struggled throughout, Winston rebounded to deliver a superb overall performance. Winston completed 17 of 27 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns, while adding another 96 yards on the ground, not including yardage lost to sacks. Winston now has accounted for 14 touchdowns in four games for FSU.

The big three receivers: Kelvin Benjamin flubbed a route early and got an earful from Jimbo Fisher, but he rebounded nicely with his first career 100-yard game. Meanwhile, Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene combined for eight catches, 183 yards and three touchdowns. Shaw's touchdown grab came on a miraculous 55-yard Hail Mary throw from Winston as time expired in the first half. Overall this season, Greene, Shaw and Benjamin have accounted for 77 percent of FSU's receiving yards.

The makeshift secondary: It was hardly a solid day by the defense, and the front seven in particular struggled badly. Boston College ran wild, but the secondary -- playing without starting safety Tyler Hunter -- didn't look too bad. The lone long passing play came when a tailback badly beat Dan Hicks downfield, but the secondary looked decent. Jalen Ramsey recorded seven tackles and made some exceptional plays on the ball in his first start at safety. P.J. Williams stepped in for Ramsey at corner and returned an interception for a TD. Meanwhile, freshman Nate Andrews saw the most playing time of his young career and had a TD-saving tackle and an interception to seal the game.

Hat tips to: Telvin Smith had 10 tackles, including two for a loss. Roberto Aguayo still hasn't missed a kick in his career. Karlos Williams racked up his fourth rushing touchdown of the season.

Seminoles in preparations for Pitt

August, 26, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher finally put the biggest question of fall camp to rest Friday, officially naming Jameis Winston his starting quarterback. But if Winston's position on the depth chart finalized one lingering issue, a handful of other questions remain as the Seminoles begin their final week of preparation for the season opener at Pittsburgh.

Here's a quick rundown of what's left on Florida State's preseason to-do list:

Developing receivers: A knee injury will keep Jarred Haggins on the sideline all season, meaning Florida State is now down three senior wide receivers. Add in a finger injury that has limited junior Rashad Greene for the past week, and a position that figured to be among the deepest on the Seminoles' roster is now a major concern. Greene should be fine for the start of the season, but it's apparent that Florida State will still need to rely on a trio of freshmen to step up. Fisher has raved about Jesus Wilson throughout camp, and Levonte Whitfield and Isaiah Jones have talent to spare, but the transition to the college game is rarely a seamless one.

Dan Hicks
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDefensive end Dan Hicks, who missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, is still wearing No. 6. So is cornerback Nick Waisome. One of them will have to change numbers before next Monday.
Grasping the defense: The response from players has been universally upbeat, but even the most optimistic of Florida State's defenders admit there's still work to be done in learning Jeremy Pruitt's new defensive scheme. Florida State ranked in the top three nationally in total defense in each of the past two seasons, and there's enough buzz among the returning players to think this year's unit could be even better, but Pruitt's scheme is a challenge. The team has worked extensively on mastering the nuance throughout fall camp, but when the season begins next week, Pruitt said fans might see a more watered-down version. "When it comes to game week, we're only going to call what they know," Pruitt said. "You throw a lot of stuff at them, hope part holds, and as the season progresses, you pull out what you need each week."

Depth at tight end: Fisher tried to put a happy face on the situation when camp opened, but the lack of depth at tight end remains a major concern. Giorgio Newberry made the switch from defensive end just a week before camp began, and while he's got the size to do the job, he's definitely a work in progress. Freshman Jeremy Kerr remains sidelined with a knee injury, and Fisher continues to tinker with options, using freshman defensive end Davarez Bryant at tight end during practice last week. While Fisher is eagerly toying with his options, the fact remains that starter Nick O'Leary is going to need to shoulder the burden for a thin group behind him.

Two for six: It's perhaps the silliest debate of camp, but the implications could be significant. When defensive end Dan Hicks switched from tight end this spring, he kept his old uniform number. The problem, however, is that cornerback Nick Waisome was already wearing the No. 6 jersey. Since then, neither player has been willing to give it up, meaning FSU can't use Hicks and Waisome -- both projected starters -- on the field at the same time. Fisher said he's leaving it up to the players to decide, likely in hopes one would be mature enough to choose playing time over a jersey number, but thus far neither player has caved.

Playing time for rookies: The freshman receivers figure to be necessities on offense this season, but beyond that, it's tough to tell where the rest of the newcomers fit in. Running back Ryan Green, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive end DeMarcus Walker are among the most impressive freshmen of the fall, but Fisher said he wouldn't be surprised if the great majority of this year's class avoids a redshirt. Aside from Kerr, quarterback John Franklin and a couple of the offensive linemen, virtually every member of the Class of 2013 remains in the mix for playing time.

Secondary shake-up: It's a good problem to have, but Florida State's logjam of talent in the defensive backfield still leaves some question marks as the season approaches. When Lamarcus Joyner shifted from safety to corner, the questions about playing time began, and Pruitt has been quiet about potential answers. Joyner, Waisome, Ramsey, Ronald Darby and a slew of others are in the mix for regular reps, and Fisher has hinted that the Seminoles' defensive backs will be rotating early and often.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Dan Hicks galloped around the practice fields as Florida State opened fall camp Tuesday, no signs of the knee injury that ended his 2012 season a year ago -- almost to the day.

A lot has changed since the injury. Back then, he was a third-string tight end, moved from defensive end after three years because of a logjam of talented pass rushers. In the 12 months since, he's had surgery, recovered and swapped positions again, returning to his original place on the roster after a stampede of talented ends departed for the NFL. His lone mementos to a lost season are the scar on his knee and the No. 6 on his jersey, which now conflicts with the uniform worn by cornerback Nick Waisome.

Dan Hicks
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDan Hicks has played in 27 career games at defensive end, but missed all of 2012 with a knee injury.
A year ago, Hicks was such a luxury that he wasn't needed on the defensive line, and he wasn't missed at tight end. Now, the fifth-year senior would rank as the second-most accomplished player on Florida State's roster at either position.

"Dan's had a tremendous summer," Jimbo Fisher said this week. "His conditioning has no signs of anything that's gone on."

That's good news for Florida State, which finds itself in a remarkably tenuous situation on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

In praising Hicks' physique, Fisher was offering an explanation for moving third-year sophomore Giorgio Newberry from defensive end to tight end -- the same swap Hicks made last year. It was a move Fisher said was first discussed weeks ago, but one that was made a necessity when senior Kevin Haplea succumbed to a knee injury and sophomore Christo Kourtzidis opted to transfer, leaving the Seminoles with just two scholarship tight ends.

But if Fisher was filling a need on offense, he also was robbing from a position on defense that lacked veteran experience to spare.

Newberry was no one's idea of a success story thus far. Physically, he's intimidating and his potential seemed high, but through two full years in the program, he'd yet to develop as a pass rusher. Still, he played in every game last season, which made him a rarity among FSU’s defensive ends.

All-ACC defensive ends Bjoern Werner, Brandon Jenkins and Cornellius Carradine were all selected in this year's NFL draft, which meant Florida State would be looking to fill a massive void at the position. Only Newberry and Mario Edwards Jr., who opened last season with a redshirt before injuries eventually forced him into the starting lineup, saw the field in 2012.

And yet Fisher said he's confident there is talent to spare.

"I feel very good about where we're at defensive end-wise," he said. "You've got to play both sides of the ball, and we've got just as many inexperienced guys at tight end. There was no apprehension whatsoever. It's something we would've done either way."

That might be true, but there's no avoiding the obvious numbers. Last season, in just 12 games, Carradine finished with 80 tackles, including 13 for a loss, and 11 sacks -- stats that dwarf the combined career totals of every member of FSU's current depth chart at defensive end.

Only Edwards and Hicks have seen serious game action. Redshirt freshman Chris Casher hasn't played in two full years after sitting out his senior season in high school and going down with an injury in his first game of 2012. Freshman Demarcus Walker figured to get an early start on his career by enrolling this spring, but NCAA eligibility issues kept him off the field during spring practice. Tuesday's start to fall camp represented the first official practice session of his career at Florida State. The same is true for fellow freshman Davarez Bryant and junior college transfer Desmond Hollin.

But Fisher insists he's not worried about the lack of experience.

"You have a great group of guys there that we feel very comfortable with the size and speed and the things we do," he said.

When the games begin though, establishing the pass rush may be more about scheme than personnel. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has implemented a blitz-heavy approach that players have embraced. He also comes from a 3-4 base system at Alabama, and the Seminoles could certainly employ those looks more often in 2013. Pruitt isn't just planning to throw his rookie pass rushers into the deep end of the pool, either. He's mixing and matching, finding alternative options in unlikely spots.

"In the spring we had some packages with me actually playing some D-end and coming off the edge a little bit," senior linebacker Christian Jones said. "And we're blitzing a lot more this year."

Like Newberry's move to tight end, the new approach to the pass rush was likely to a necessity regardless of the surprises Florida State has faced this summer. Werner, Jenkins and Carradine were the backbone to Mark Stoops' highly ranked defenses the past two seasons, and changes were required in the wake of their departures.

Giorgio Newberry
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreGiorgio Newberry's size could make him a valuable asset as a blocking tight end.
"The key to the game on both sides is the guys that put their hand in the dirt, and that's why we could play the way we did last year was the D-line," Fisher said. "But I think we've got just as good a group [in 2013]. I like our group better. I really do."

Optimism is easy to find this time of year, but Florida State has already walked the tight rope that comes with having limited options at key positions.

For now, Newberry fills the Seminoles' biggest hole. Hicks' health and the emerging Edwards, who has dramatically improved his physique from a year ago, offer possibilities in another significant area of concern.

Not all choices are supposed to be easy, and Newberry's move was the best option Fisher had, and FSU’s pass rush will make due with what's left.

"[If we weren't satisfied] we'd have tried to find something else to do," Fisher said, "but I felt very comfortable with those guys."

FSU's fall camp position battles

August, 4, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State opens fall camp this week, and while the bulk of the starting lineup appears firmly in place, there are a handful of key position battles to watch as the Seminoles set their sights on the season opener in Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards Jr.
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDefensive end Mario Edwards Jr. was the No. 1 high school prospect in the nation in the Class of 2012.
Defensive end

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.

Defensive back

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.

Wide receiver

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.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State had 10 players finish in the top four at their position in preseason All-ACC balloting, which should underscore the significant amount of talent Jimbo Fisher is bringing back for the 2013 season. But while Lamarcus Joyner, Timmy Jernigan and Christian Jones provide a strong foundation, and Karlos Williams, Mario Edwards Jr. and Jameis Winston offer ample potential for the future, the most interesting portion of the Seminoles' roster might be the players in the middle -- established veterans whose potential still far outweighs their production.

As FSU gets set to open fall camp next week, we're looking at five players approaching a make-or-break season. Another marginal year could mean they're labeled career disappointments, while big seasons could push the Seminoles to a second straight conference championship.

Nick O'Leary (Jr./TE)

[+] EnlargeNick O'Leary
Elsa/Getty ImagesNick O'Leary has considerable talent, but mental mistakes have held the junior back.
O'Leary arrived as perhaps the best tight end prospect ever to attend Florida State, but his first two years have been rather pedestrian -- 33 catches, 416 yards, three touchdowns and a handful of bone-headed miscues. With backup Kevin Haplea done for the year with an ACL injury and Christo Koutzidis' decision to transfer, there's no margin for error for O'Leary in his junior season. He'll be a crucial part of both the running game as a blocker and a valuable asset for a new quarterback as a safety valve in the passing game.

Giorgio Newberry (RS So./DE)

At 6-foot-6, 280 pounds with good athleticism and mobility, Newberry is a physical beast that has tantalized coaches and fans for two full years. What he hasn't done is provide much actual impact on the field. He opened last season as part of FSU's rotation at defensive end, but even after two starters succumbed to season-ending injuries, his playing time remained limited. He showed some flashes of improvement this spring, but still appears to be behind Dan Hicks on the depth chart.

Kelvin Benjamin (RSSo./WR)

Perhaps no player on Florida State's roster has enjoyed as much hype and excitement as Benjamin through the past two seasons. He's been a practice-field star, making acrobatic catches and using his sizable frame to push defenders around downfield. The problem, Fisher said, is that Benjamin has worried too much about making those same highlight-reel plays on game day rather than focus on doing the little things right. Coaches and teammates have assured Benjamin is making strides this offseason, and that could be crucial for a receiving corps in need of a viable No. 3 option with senior Greg Dent suspended indefinitely.

Bobby Hart (Jr./RT)

Hart's mental lapses have been well documented, and he spent virtually all of 2012 in line coach Rick Trickett's dog house. That trend might have continued into 2013 had Menelik Watson not bolted for the NFL, but as it stands, Hart appears the heir apparent at right tackle -- for better or worse. He showed good signs of improved play and, perhaps as important, improved maturity this spring. If he can live up to his recruiting pedigree as a junior, Florida State could have one of the top lines in the country.

Terrance Smith (RS So./LB)

Florida State appears in good shape at the top of the linebacker depth chart, with Jones and Telvin Smith both among the ACC's best. Beyond the two seniors, however, there's virtually no experienced depth. That's where Terrance Smith steps in. He's entering his third season on defense and has played in 15 games already -- though largely on special teams. He spent the spring working with the first-team defense on the strong side, and while he might not be the most talented of the young linebackers, he's the oldest and can help set the tone for the rest of the group.
Throughout the summer, Nole Nation will be counting down the 40 players we're projecting to make the biggest impact on the Seminoles' 2013 season, taking into consideration everything from experience to potential to their spot on the current depth chart.

Next up: No. 23 Dan Hicks

Position/Class: DE/Redshirt senior.

What he's done: Hicks turned in two solid seasons as a reserve defensive end in 2010 and 2011, backing up Brandon Jenkins and tallying 34 tackles (7.5 for a loss) and two sacks. But with FSU enjoying an abundance of pass rushers and a crunch at tight end, Hicks was moved to offense before the 2012 season. Whether the move would've been a positive for Hicks remains a mystery. He tore his ACL in fall camp and missed the season, and by the time spring practice arrived in 2013, he was back at his old position.

Where he's at: The return to defensive end for Hicks makes a lot of sense. FSU lost three veteran ends to the NFL this offseason, and Hicks brings a level of experience that the rest of the group lacks. Still, he wasn't immediately pegged for a starting job. It took a stellar performance during spring practice to turn heads, but by the time FSU wrapped up its annual Garnet and Gold Game, the senior appeared safely in position to win a spot atop the depth chart.

What's to come: Hicks has more experience than any of his colleagues at defensive end, but even he's new to the system being put in place by Jeremy Pruitt and Sal Sunseri. Still, no one appeared to grasp the scheme quicker this spring than Hicks, and after a star-crossed four years in Tallahassee, he was clearly eager to make up for lost time. His size and strength should make him a capable replacement for the departed Jenkins, and even if he shares reps with Giorgio Newberry or Chris Casher, Hicks figures to post career highs across the board and potentially develop into one of the better pass rushers in the conference.
Throughout the summer, Nole Nation will be counting down the 40 players we're projecting to make the biggest impact on the Seminoles' 2013 season, taking into consideration everything from experience to potential to their spot on the current depth chart.

Next up: No. 25 Giorgio Newberry

Position/Class: DE/Redshirt sophomore.

What he's done: After sitting out the 2011 season as a redshirt, Newberry figured to be a central player in Florida State's rotation at defensive end in 2012. When the season started, he appeared well on his way to securing that job, too. He opened as the primary backup for Bjoern Werner, and in his debut against Murray State, Newberry forced a fumble and recovered another. But it was mostly downhill from there. He finished the season with just 13 tackles, saw playing time diminish as the season went along, and by the time Cornellius Carradine went down with an ACL injury in December, it was Mario Edwards Jr., not Newberry, who was the clear choice to replace him.

Where he's at: If Newberry's progress in 2012 proved to be a bit disappointing, he earned a significant reprieve this year when Werner departed early for the NFL, leaving both starting defensive ends spots vacant. Edwards again appears to have a firm grip on one, but Newberry entered the spring as the leading contender for the other job. It was clear from the outset that new ends coach Sal Sunseri saw promise in Newberry, and he rode the sophomore hard throughout spring practice. Whether the added motivation worked, however, remains to be seen. By spring's end, it was Dan Hicks who had turned in the more impressive performance, but plenty of hope remains that Newberry can step up this fall.

What's to come: Newberry has plenty of natural talent, and his combination of size (6-foot-6, 275 pounds) means coaches will always be intrigued with what he might be capable of doing. This spring, he got a chance to test his skills in coverage, too, and that appears to be a role he could excel in. But the promise of Newberry's future has never been in doubt. What's troubling is how few steps he's taken toward achieving it. Sunseri praised Newberry's work ethic this spring, and with more time to study under the new defensive coaching staff, perhaps things click for him when fall camp begins. Regardless, he won't have the luxury of learning on the sideline in 2013. Ready or not, Newberry will be asked to play a significant role on a unit thin on experienced pass rushers.
Throughout the summer, Nole Nation will be counting down the 40 players we're projecting to make the biggest impact on the Seminoles' 2013 season, taking into consideration everything from experience to potential to their spot on the current depth chart.

Next up: No. 28 Chris Casher

Position/Class: DE/RSFr.

What he's done: It's been two years since Casher took a meaningful snap on the football field. His senior season in high school was derailed by eligibility issues after transferring schools, and a knee injury ended his 2012 campaign at FSU after just a few reps. That's meant a good deal of rust for the talented defensive end, but he was healthy throughout spring practice and managed to show some flashes of potential under new position coach Sal Sunseri.

Where he's at: There's no doubting Casher's talent, and at 6-foot-4, 248 pounds, he's got a good blend of speed and strength. But corralling all that talent into a productive season is going to be a challenge thanks to all the downtime the past two years. Casher was solid this spring, and he benefitted from new DC Jeremy Pruitt's system that asked him to drop into coverage more and occasionally work as a stand-up rusher in a 3-4 set. Those are all things that complement Casher's skill set and allowed him to make a strong enough impression that playing time seems likely this fall. Still, he's behind Mario Edwards Jr., Dan Hicks and Giorgio Newberry at defensive end, and he'll face a challenge from two new freshmen this fall.

What's to come: Pruitt's scheme fits Casher perfectly, and that should work to his advantage this fall. Edwards appears secure in a job on one side of the line, and Hicks had a strong enough spring to vault to the top of the class on the other. But Casher's athleticism might make him a slightly better fit long-term, and the slow development of Newberry opens the door to an expanded role. Still, simply getting back on the field and contributing in any way in 2013 would be a big step forward for Casher. At a minimum, he'll see action as a reserve end and on special teams, and his future remains bright.
When summer workouts began a year ago, players like Menelik Watson, Demonte McAllister and Nick Waisome were flying under the radar with little in the way of expectations. By season's end, however, they were among Florida State's most productive players.

It happens every year that a few relatively obscure names find their way into bigger roles, and as the Seminoles get set to start another summer NoleNation is counting down five under-the-radar players who could be in line for breakthrough seasons.

First up: Dan Hicks (Sr./DE)

Career arc: A two-star recruit out of high school, Hicks saw limited action at defensive end in 2010 and 2011, registering 34 tackles and two sacks. After the 2011 season, he was shifted to tight end, but a knee injury during fall camp ended his season. He switched back to defense this spring.

Why he's overlooked: Hicks' history doesn't exactly inspire much enthusiasm, and after a lost season in 2012 he was largely forgotten. While the move back to defensive end offered an opportunity for playing time at his original position, he's also competing against more prized prospects like Mario Edwards Jr., Giorgio Newberry and Chris Casher.

Why he'll produce: It might have been a full year since Hicks last competed at defensive end, but he looked the part of an experienced veteran during spring practice. Fisher raved after the spring game that no one on the defensive line had played so consistently well as Hicks, and where he once appeared to add depth at a position in transition, he's now a serious contender to win a starting job.

Projection: Hicks' star might never eclipse that of Newberry or Casher, but Fisher and new defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri don't care much about pedigree. When it comes to production, Hicks has impressed, and whether he ends up the starter, he'll get regular reps and should provide valuable experience at a position without much of it elsewhere.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Spring practice arrived with some significant questions, and it ended with at least a slightly clearer indication of some answers. This week, we'll take a look at five of the biggest question marks of the spring and decipher what we learned and how much further the Seminoles have to go before the season kicks off.

Next up: The defensive line

The question: Five former starters are gone, likely all headed to the NFL, so what will become of Florida State's once-vaunted defensive line without Bjoern Werner, Cornellius Carradine and Co.?

Timmy Jernigan
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreTimmy Jernigan moves into the starting lineup at defensive tackle, having already proved himself as a backup.
The possibilities: The interior of the line appears to be in good hands with Timmy Jernigan stepping into a starting role, freshman Eddie Goldman getting a crack at a bigger job, and veterans like Demonte McAllister and Jacobbi McDaniel around to provide stability. On the edge, there are bigger questions as Mario Edwards Jr. looks to live up to his recruiting hype, Dan Hicks returns to defense, and Giorgio Newberry and Chris Casher work to establish themselves.

What we learned this spring: Perhaps the biggest lesson of the spring wasn't about who would fill the void on the defensive line but rather how new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt planned to scheme around it.

It's not that the pass-rush responsibilities will be shifted completely away from the defensive ends, and technically speaking, FSU isn't moving toward the 3-4 base defense Pruitt ran at Alabama, but there have clearly been some marked changes to the scheme.

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FSU's spring winners and losers 

April, 15, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- While Jimbo Fisher won't be etching anything into stone after Saturday's spring game, there were clearly a few players who took big leaps forward during the past month and a few more who saw significant opportunities slip away.


Jameis Winston, QB

The performance: Winston entered the spring third on the depth chart, but tops in potential. He didn't disappoint. By spring's end, he was splitting first-team reps with Clint Trickett and dominated FSU's spring game, solidifying his place as the fan's choice for the starting job even if Fisher hasn't made anything official.

What comes next: Heisman? National championship? The Hall of Fame? With Winston, there doesn't appear to be such a thing as setting the bar too high. Fisher might be trying to temper expectations, but that's likely a lost cause. Winston still has plenty of work to do before he reaches the vast heights predicted for him, but he's only burnished his resume during the past month. What comes next for him though? "It's baseball season," he said after Saturday's spring game.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For all the buzz about new schemes and aggressive tweaks to the defense, odds are Saturday's Garnet and Gold game will feature a relatively vanilla approach as Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt winds down the spring.

The quarterback battle has been the hottest topic in years among Florida State fans, but coach Jimbo Fisher has yet to draw any lines of demarcation on the depth chart, and he insists the four men vying for the job will again rotate reps Saturday.

Kelvin Benjamin
Melina Vastola/US PresswireKelvin Benjamin could be the player to produce the big plays in Saturday's Garnet and Gold game.
And after four weeks of intensity, the battle scars are showing. As many as a dozen key members of the 2013 Seminoles team won't be available for the spring game due to injuries.

So, what's there to be excited about as Florida State's spring practice comes to a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion? Actually, there's still plenty worth watching, even if some of the biggest curiosities will remain just that until fall camp begins in August. Here's a rundown of some of the most noteworthy items of intrigue on display Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium.

The QBs, of course

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Haskins, McElwain Shine At IMG Regional
Recruiting reporter Derek Tyson breaks down top performers from the IMG Southeast Regional tournament in Bradenton, Fla.