Florida State Seminoles: Eddie Goldman
Spring start: March 12
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
- Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
- Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
- Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
- Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Spring start: March 19
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
- The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
- Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 11
What to watch:
- Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
- Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
- New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
- The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
- Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
- The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
- Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Spring start: March 25
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
- Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
- The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.
Division rival Clemson has the potential to have one of the best defensive lines in school history, thanks to returning all of its starters -- including sack master Vic Beasley. So that leads us to this question: Which team will have the best defensive front in the ACC this upcoming season? Andrea Adelson and David Hale let the debate begin.
The moment Beasley decided to return to Clemson was the moment the Tigers became the favorite to field the best defensive line in the ACC next season.
Now, this is not to slight Florida State, which has dominated up front over the last two seasons. But the Seminoles have key players to replace again. Clemson, on the other hand, returns every starter on the defensive line, plus its top four backups. All told, eight linemen return who played at least 292 snaps a year ago.
Those top eight combined for 65 tackles for loss -- more than half the single-season school-record 122 tackles for loss Clemson had in 2013. They also combined for 26 of the team’s 38 sacks.
Beasley, of course, leads the returning group after making 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a season ago, one of the top performances of any defensive end in the country. Had he decided to leave for the NFL, Clemson would have still had plenty of talent returning.
But with him, the Tigers could potentially have the deepest, most talented group of defensive linemen at the school since the 1981 national championship team featured future NFL players Jeff Bryant, William Perry, Andy Headen and Dan Benish in the starting lineup.
Clemson could potentially go 10 deep along the defensive line, especially when you consider the return of Carlos Watkins, expected to be healthy after missing most of last season following a car accident. That means the Tigers have the ability to rotate frequently and keep players fresh, perhaps more than they did last season.
Fresh players mean fresh legs, and fresh legs mean getting into the backfield at a much better clip. Last season, Beasley, starting tackle Grady Jarrett (11), starting end Corey Crawford (10.5) and backup end Shaq Lawson each finished with 10 or more tackles for loss. Now think about some of the best defensive fronts in college football. Florida State has zero defensive linemen returning with double-digit tackles for loss. Alabama? Zero. LSU? Zero. Stanford? Zero. Virginia Tech? One. Michigan State? One. Ohio State? Two.
Clemson leads them all.
Such an experienced group, with the ability to get into the backfield and get after the quarterback, should only get better with another year under Brent Venables, who is entering his third season as defensive coordinator. As Beasley told colleague Heather Dinich after he announced his decision to return, “I feel like we can be the best in the country.”
And, yes, that means the defense could emerge as the strength of this team.
David says Florida State
The track record for Florida State’s defensive front speaks for itself. During the past three seasons, only Alabama has had more success defending the run than Florida State, which has allowed just 2.8 yards per carry since the start of the 2011 season. Those Seminoles teams sent eight players from the front seven to the NFL -- and that number figures to increase by at least four this year -- yet the unit has seen little decline in production. With new personnel, a new scheme and new coaches last season, FSU’s first-team defense didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until the national championship game.
Of course, that’s all in the past, and 2014 comes with some significant questions for Florida State.
Throughout the three-year run of success for the FSU front seven, Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Timmy Jernigan have been anchors. All are gone now, and that means some significant vacancies on the defensive front, both in terms of on-field talent and off-field leadership. It means there will be questions surrounding the unit for the next few months, but it doesn’t mean the Seminoles don’t have answers.
Of the projected two-deep in the front seven, FSU projects to feature as many as 12 former ESPN 300 recruits. The talent is exceptional.
Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman were both top-10 recruits in 2012, and both have two years of experience under their belts. Edwards, in particular, took big steps forward throughout 2013, turning in perhaps his best game against Auburn’s up-tempo ground attack in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
The linebacker group lacks significant experience, but Terrance Smith is a physical clone of Telvin Smith, and he performed admirably after stepping into a starting role last season. Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe are both former elite recruits who project nicely in the hybrid role Jones handled so successfully in 2013.
Kain Daub, Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi lead a stellar 2014 recruiting class that could make an instant impact.
That’s not to say Florida State is prepared to move forward without Jernigan’s presence up front or Telvin Smith’s leadership in the middle of the field without missing a beat. There will be hiccups as the new group gets its feet wet and Edwards and Goldman learn to be leaders. But similar concerns existed a year ago when Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine bolted for the NFL, and after some early missteps, Florida State again proved to be one of the fiercest defensive fronts in the country.
And, of course, the Seminoles have another weapon in this debate, too. No position group succeeds in a vacuum, and FSU’s front seven gets a major boost from a secondary that projects to again be the best in the nation. If the Seminoles’ defensive backs continue to make teams one-dimensional and continue to provide time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback, the odds of FSU’s front seven making a smooth transition into 2014 get even better.
This week, we’ll dig into the Class of 2014 to project which of the newest group of Seminoles project to make an instant impact on the field this season.
The player: A four-star defensive tackle from Bradenton, Fla., Christmas arrives with the full complement of physical tools. At 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, Christmas has the size to be a force in the middle of the line right now, but his long reach and wide frame provide room to develop, too. He racked up 39 tackles, 20 QB hurries and three sacks as a senior at Bradenton Manatee. He wasn’t the most hyped recruit coming out of high school, but Fisher insists that’s because he was overlooked. “If Christmas would have gone to some [more] camps, he would have been the No. 1 or 2 player in the whole country,” Fisher said on signing day.
The need: For the past three years, Timmy Jernigan served as one of the most disruptive interior linemen in the nation for Florida State, excelling as a backup in Mark Stoops’ 4-3 scheme and a starter in Jeremy Pruitt’s 3-4 defense. But Jernigan is headed to the NFL, and FSU now needs to find a bruiser for the middle of the line to stuff the run and disrupt the pocket with the same consistency Jernigan exhibited.
The competition: The heir apparent at the position is Nile Lawrence-Stample, who had a strong spring in 2013 and saw significant reps throughout the season. Youngsters Keith Bryant and Justin Shanks will be in the mix this spring as well, though neither has any significant playing time to his credit. Eddie Goldman, a starter throughout 2013, provides some versatility that could open up additional options for new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly. And, of course, defensive tackle was a top priority on the recruiting trail, so Christmas is just one of five incoming freshmen at the position. Don't be surprised if others -- Derrick Nnadi, in particular -- make a run as serious playing time, too.
The prediction: Jernigan is an irreplaceable talent, and setting expectations that high would be too much to ask of any player. But Florida State is in good shape with Lawrence-Stample as the heir apparent and Christmas arriving this fall to push for the job. While the odds still favor the veteran to win a starting role, the loss of four top interior linemen in the past two seasons means ample playing time will be available in Kelly’s rotation, even if Christmas opens his career as a backup. That, after all, is how Jernigan earned his stripes his first two seasons, and he still managed to be a force for Florida State in that role. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Christmas emerged as a similarly productive bench player this year. “Everybody we asked,” Fisher said, “the first guy to come out of their mouth was Demarcus Christmas. Everybody. I never had so many coaches tell me he was the best player. Even coaches from Miami and the players in Miami. When guys in Miami give you credit ... they don't give nobody credit.”
This week, we’ll look at the five position groups with the biggest question marks looming in advance of spring practice.
Previously, we reviewed the running backs, linebackers and wide receivers.
Next up: Defensive line
Projected starters: Mario Edwards Jr. (Jr.), Eddie Goldman (Jr.), Nile Lawrence-Stample (RSJr.)
Strength in numbers: Desmond Hollin (Sr.), Derrick Mitchell (RSJr.), Chris Casher (RSSo.), DeMarcus Walker (So.), Justin Shanks (RSSo.), Keith Bryant (RSFr.)
Florida State sent five defensive linemen to the NFL in 2013 and projects to add a couple more in this year’s draft, and while that’s an impressive array of talent coming from one place, it’s also sapped some of the depth at the position. But if there’s not a ton of veteran experience here, there’s still ample talent. Casher showed signs of a bright future in a limited role in 2013, finishing with 25 tackles (5 for a loss) and two sacks. Walker started two games as a true freshman. Bryant is well regarded by the coaching staff and could push for regular playing time in the middle of the line, too.
New on the scene: Demarcus Christmas (Fr.), Adam Torres (Fr.), Lorenzo Featherston (Fr.), Fredrick Jones (Fr.), Rick Leonard (Fr.), Derrick Nnadi (Fr.), Arthur Williams (Fr.)
The 2014 signing class was a boon for Florida State on both sides of the line of scrimmage. On the D line, FSU added seven new players, and there’s a legitimate possibility at least three or four could contribute immediately. That group is led by Christmas, who Fisher raved about, saying, “if he would’ve gone to more camps, he would be been the No. 1 or 2 player in the whole country.” Featherston and Nnadi figure to be in the mix when fall camp opens, too.
What to watch: While finding a replacement for Jernigan in the middle remains a top priority, FSU also will be looking to fill the hybrid role Christian Jones played throughout 2013, with Casher perhaps the top lineman in the mix. Edwards struggled with his weight throughout his first two years at Florida State, and now that he’s being looked at as a veteran leader on the D, it will be interesting to see how prepared he is this spring. Goldman and Lawrence-Stample both need to take a big step forward this spring, too, but FSU may benefit the most from the continued development of reserves like Walker, Shanks and Bryant. If they don’t earn the coaches’ attention now, there’s a massive group of freshmen on the way this summer who could steal plenty of playing time.
(Final 2013 ranking in parentheses.)
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): OK, this one was easy. Winston won the Heisman in his first season on the field, but expectations will be even higher for 2014. So what will he do for an encore? Having four-fifths of his offensive line back certainly makes the job a bit easier.
3. WR Rashad Greene (4): Winston attempted 384 passes in 2013, and Greene was on the receiving end of more than 30 percent of those targets. He led FSU in receiving for the third straight season, catching 76 balls for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns. More importantly, the receivers responsible for 206 of Winston’s other targets are gone, putting Greene at the forefront of a revamped receiving corps.
4. RB Karlos Williams (NR): Among AQ-conference tailbacks with at least 90 carries in 2013, none rushed for more yards per carry (8.0) or scored with more frequency (one TD per 8.3 rushes) than Williams. With Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. gone, Williams is in prime position to become FSU’s second straight 1,000-yard rusher.
5. S Jalen Ramsey (8): In Week 1 of 2013, Ramsey became the first true freshman to start at corner for the Seminoles since Deion Sanders. Three weeks later, he moved to safety and didn’t miss a beat. Ramsey started every game and racked up 49 tackles while anchoring the nation’s top pass defense. With a year of experience under his belt, 2014 could be even better.
6. LT Cameron Erving (NR): The expectations have been monumental for Erving since he first switched from the D-line to left tackle, and while he hasn't exactly reached star status -- hence, his decision to return for his senior year -- he’s made significant strides each season. He’ll be the anchor of a veteran O-line in 2014 and potentially one of the best left tackles in the nation.
7. DE Mario Edwards Jr. (9): He tended to get overlooked a bit in 2013 because of Florida State’s myriad of defensive stars, but Edwards was exceptional in his first season as a full-time starter. He tied for second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss (the most among returning players) and had 3.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Perhaps as noteworthy, in the two games Edwards missed last season, opponents averaged 191 yards on the ground against FSU. In the 12 games he started, they averaged 113.
8. TE Nick O'Leary (NR): In 2013, O’Leary was FSU’s most reliable receiving target, catching 76 percent of the balls thrown his way while setting career highs in catches (33), yards (557) and touchdowns (seven). But O’Leary also only scored once after Nov. 1, and following his astonishing performance against Clemson (five catches, 161 yards), he didn’t have more than three grabs or 55 yards in a game the rest of the season -- including being held without a catch in the BCS title game. There’s room for O’Leary to improve, and with so much transition among FSU’s receivers, he figures to get plenty of chances to do it.
9. KR Kermit Whitfield (NR): He touched the ball just 25 times in 2013 and still racked up a whopping 818 all-purpose yards while scoring four touchdowns. Whitfield’s eight offensive touches figure to increase markedly next season as he steps in for Kenny Shaw as FSU’s top slot receiver, and his speed makes him a threat to score every time the ball is in his hands.
10. LB Matthew Thomas (NR): An injury cut Thomas’ 2013 season short after just five games of limited action as a true freshman, but he flashed the potential that made him a five-star recruit. Now, with Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, Thomas figures to land a starting job and blossom into a legitimate star.
Honorable mentions: DT Eddie Goldman, G Josue Matias, G Tre' Jackson, LB Terrance Smith, S Nate Andrews, CB P.J. Williams, K Roberto Aguayo
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.
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.
Auburn’s offensive line: We’ve broken down all of the matchups this week, but as Auburn center Reese Dismukes put so eloquently Thursday, “You can have all the pretty boys you want, but whoever wins the line of scrimmage all day is usually going to be who wins the football game.” If that’s the case, the Tigers are in good shape. They feature one of the most dominant offensive lines in the country. It’s the reason they’re in Pasadena, Calif.
From a pure talent standpoint, sophomore left tackle Greg Robinson has emerged as the best player on this Auburn offensive line. He started last year but was still relatively unknown heading into this season. He’s quickly become a star in the SEC, and he continues to improve his draft stock with every game.
Junior Chad Slade doesn’t get the notoriety, but he’s been as solid as it gets for the Tigers. He moved from right tackle to right guard and hasn’t missed a beat. The other two spots are taken by a pair of redshirt freshman, Alex Kozan and Avery Young. Kozan was named to the freshman All-SEC team for his play at left guard.
If Auburn wants to knock off No. 1 Florida State, this is the matchup it has to win. The Tigers have rushed for an average of 402 yards over the past four games, and it’s in no small part due to the play of the offensive line.
Florida State’s defensive line: This is a much different defensive front than what the Seminoles ran in three years under Mark Stoops. When Jeremy Pruitt took over at defensive coordinator this season, he had four new starters on the line and completely revamped the scheme. It’s been something of a work in progress all season, but the Seminoles believe the unit is playing its best football now.
Jernigan is a beast in the middle of the line, and he’ll be a huge challenge for an Auburn team that wants to play physical and run between the tackles. Seminoles opponents are averaging just 3.1 yards per rush between the tackles and fewer than 9 percent of runs up the middle go for 10 yards or more. Jernigan also leads FSU’s defensive linemen in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (10.5).
Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr. add plenty of size to the mix on the D-line, too, while Christian Jones and FSU’s safeties will be counted on to seal the edge, which is where the defense is far more vulnerable. Across the board, Auburn’s O-line figures to be as big a physical challenge as Florida State has faced all season, and with the tempo that the Tigers run, it could be tough for FSU to substitute as often as it would like.
There’s ample talent on the line for Florida State, but this figures to be as tough a matchup as the unit has faced.
Ostendorf: Edge Auburn
Hale: Slight edge for Auburn
(Last week’s rankings in parentheses.)
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): Here’s the list of quarterbacks since 2000 to have two games in the same season with at least 15 completions in which they completed at least 90 percent of their throws: Winston. That’s it. That’s the list.
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Four more tackles, 1.5 more sacks. Joyner is making a strong case to be named the ACC’s defensive player of the year.
3. DT Timmy Jernigan (5): Of course, if Joyner’s not the ACC’s top defender, maybe Jernigan deserves the honor. He had six tackles (one for a loss) all in the first half, and he now has 37 tackles on the season. While he was in the game, Syracuse had five yards rushing on 18 carries.
4. RB Devonta Freeman (3): A few weeks ago, Freeman’s quest for 1,000 yards looked like a sure thing. After two blowouts in which he’s carried just 10 times, he now needs to average 75 yards a game to make 1,000.
5. WR Rashad Greene (4): He’s suffering a similar fate as Freeman. He’s had just 87 receiving yards in his last two games -- a total he’s topped in a single game five times this season. Still, Greene is just 140 yards shy of 1,000 for the year.
6. LB Telvin Smith (6): Four tackles, one for a loss, and a pass break-up -- Smith’s draft stock is rising by the week.
7. DE Christian Jones (10): His move to the line has been huge, and he finished with four tackles (one for a loss) against Syracuse.
8. S Jalen Ramsey (7): Three tackles, a QB hurry, and another terrific performance from one of the country’s most consistent true freshmen.
9. TE Nick O’Leary (NR): His third-quarter touchdown reception from Sean Maguire made O’Leary Florida State’s record holder for career TDs by a tight end.
10. S Terrence Brooks (9): He returned from a concussion with four tackles as FSU’s secondary was once again dominant.
Honorable mentions: DB Nate Andrews, WR Kermit Whitfield, RB James Wilder Jr., WR Kelvin Benjamin, WR Kenny Shaw, RB Karlos Williams, DT Eddie Goldman
1. QB Jameis Winston (Previous rank: No. 1): If the worst game of Winston’s career is a 27-point win in which he throws for 325 yards, Florida State fans won’t be too concerned.
3. RB Devonta Freeman (6): Yes, Freeman racked up an impressive 176 yards of offense and three TDs, but here’s another area his impact was felt: Winston was 10-of-11 for 183 yards on play-action against Miami.
4. WR Rashad Greene (3): One of just six ACC receivers averaging more than 90 receiving yards per game this year.
5. LB Telvin Smith (4): Four tackles, including one for a loss, in the win over Miami.
6. DT Timmy Jerngian (5): Four tackles and he sat on a guy vs. the Hurricanes. Jernigan has been an absolute beast in the middle all season for Florida State.
7. S Terrence Brooks (7): He left early with concussion symptoms, but coach Jimbo Fisher said Brooks appeared fine in the locker room after the game. He made his impact early anyway, finishing with six tackles, including a big sack, in the early going.
8. LT Cameron Erving (9): Thoroughly dominated Anthony Chickillo throughout and helped open running lanes against a stout front seven for Miami.
9. DE Christian Jones (7): Continues to look like a strong addition in his new role coming off the edge.
10. DE Mario Edwards Jr. (NR): The biggest difference for FSU’s defensive line the past few weeks has been a healthy Edwards, who finished Saturday with four tackles, including two for a loss.
Honorable mentions: TE Nick O’Leary, WR Kenny Shaw, WR Kelvin Benjamin, LB Terrance Smith, DT Eddie Goldman
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): The back-and-forth scoring decision on a throw to Kelvin Benjamin was finally ruled an interception. That kept Winston from topping three touchdowns and 300 yards for his fifth straight game against an ACC foe. He finished with 292.
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Four tackles, a TFL, a pass breakup and a QB hurry. Not bad for 30 minutes of work.
3. WR Rashad Greene (4): Greene has now scored in six of seven games this year and 10 of Florida State’s last 13 overall.
4. LB Telvin Smith (3): Six tackles, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and a QB hurry. Also not bad for 30 minutes of work.
5. DT Timmy Jernigan (5): Three tackles, including one for a loss against NC State. Jernigan continues to eat up interior linemen, opening things up for FSU’s linebackers.
6. RB Devonta Freeman (6): 12 carries, 92 yards and two touchdowns, and Freeman is well on his way to snapping that ridiculous 17-year drought without a 1,000-yard rusher.
7. S Terrence Brooks (NR): Brooks is quietly becoming one of FSU’s premier defenders. He racked up the defensive hat trick Saturday, picking off a pass, forcing a fumble and recording a TFL.
8. LB Christian Jones (7): His new role rushing off the edge has made all the difference. Jones had four tackles, a sack and a QB hurry against NC State. He has 3.5 TFLs in the last two games after just one in his first four games.
9. LT Cameron Erving (8): Easy day for Winston means a big day for the O line, and Erving was exceptional once again.
10. WR Kenny Shaw (9): Shaw had just three catches for 44 yards against NC State, both season lows, but he’s still on pace to top 1,000 yards for the year.
Honorable mentions: TE Nick O’Leary, WR Kelvin Benjamin, DT Eddie Goldman, RB Karlos Williams, CB Ronald Darby
Florida State is 6-0 and has played as well as any team in the country.
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): We're running out of adjectives to describe how great he's been, but here's a stat that helps: Winston has accounted for 23 touchdowns in six games so far. E.J. Manuel, the first QB taken in this past April's NFL draft, recorded his 23rd touchdown for FSU last season ... in Game No. 12.
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (5): It's fair to say the new defensive scheme agrees with Joyner. He recorded eight tackles, a sack and forced three take-aways, including a tempo-setter on Clemson's first offensive play. He's on pace for 77 tackles and seven sacks this season.
3. LB Telvin Smith (6): It's possible there were three or four guys wearing No. 22 jerseys on the field Saturday. That's about the only way to explain how Smith managed to be in on virtually every play. He finished with 11 tackles, including one for a loss.
4. WR Rashad Greene (4): In three career games vs. Clemson, Greene has 20 catches, 280 yards and four touchdowns.
5. DT Timmy Jernigan (3): His sack Saturday was his lone tackle, but Jernigan flat out ate up Clemson's interior line, opening up room for Smith and the other linebackers to have a field day.
6. RB Devonta Freeman (2): Quiet day for the FSU running game, as Freeman finished with 84 yards on 21 carries. The bulk of his production came on a handful of long runs, but there was little room the bulk of the time. That's a slight concern for FSU, which is averaging just 4.1 ypc against ACC teams. Take away Freeman's 17-yarder and Winston's 18-yarder Saturday, and the Noles managed just 3.3 ypc (not counting sacks).
7. LB Christian Jones (NR): This was the breakthrough game Jones was looking for in FSU's new defensive scheme. The 3-5-3 FSU ran much of Saturday is perfectly suited to his skill set, and Jones responded with eight tackles, including two for a loss and one QB hurry.
9. WR Kenny Shaw (7): He was overshadowed by his fellow receivers Saturday, but Shaw's body of work this season is still exceptional.
10. TE Nick O'Leary (NR): Five catches, 161 yards. That's not a line you'll see from tight ends at FSU often. It included a 94-yard reception and one of the biggest hits an FSU offensive player has delivered in a long time.
Last week's rankings in parentheses.
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): Seven more touchdowns, another acrobatic escape act turned highlight-reel TD, and another big win. Ho-hum. But how about these numbers: This season, on the final drive of the first half and first drive of the second half, Winston is 26-of-30 for 493 yards and seven touchdowns. FSU has scored on all 10 drives, including nine TDs.
2. RB Devonta Freeman (5): It has been 17 years since an FSU runner went over 1,000 yards. Freeman is currently on pace for 1,001.
4. WR Rashad Greene (3): There may not be another player in the country who so easily floats under the radar after putting up 108 yards on four catches.
5. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Just one tackle, but he got solid pressure on Maryland quarterbacks throughout and forced a fumble.
6. LB Telvin Smith (6): The success from the D line opened things up for Smith, who created significant chaos in the Maryland backfield. He finished with five tackles and a PBU.
7. WR Kenny Shaw (4): What's a guy have to do to get a 100-yard game? Shaw has been between 89 and 96 each time out this year.
8. S Terrence Brooks (8): No one played with more ferocity Saturday than Brooks, who has come into his own as a force in the FSU secondary.
9. DB Jalen Ramsey (7): Another strong performance from the freshman in his new role at safety. Given the concerns about Tyler Hunter's neck injury, Ramsey's presence looms large with Clemson on the horizon.
10. WR Kelvin Benjamin (10): Fisher pushed Benjamin to do the little things better this year. He has responded, as evidenced by his five-catches, 60 yards and two TDs against Maryland.
Honorable mentions: Tackles Cameron Erving and Bobby Hart, DTs Jacobbi McDaniel and Eddie Goldman, DE Chris Casher, RB Karlos Williams, K Roberto Aguayo, CB P.J. Williams.
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.
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.
"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."
It was only after Smith crossed the goal line that he realized he wasn't alone. Two steps behind him was fellow linebacker Matthew Thomas, who'd kept pace with Smith step for step throughout the return.
"I turned around and he's standing right next to me," Smith said. "That's what the coaches and myself love about him."
That was hardly the only highlight of the game for Thomas, who dropped Bethune's quarterback in the backfield twice in a span of five plays in the third quarter. In a game in which Jimbo Fisher criticized his defense for ceding too much ground to an overmatched opponent, Thomas stood out.
That's been a theme of the early season for Florida State's defense. It's a unit in transition, having lost a bevy of veterans to the NFL draft and its coordinator to Kentucky. Changes have come at nearly every turn, and the youngest Seminoles are taking advantage.
"They're stepping up," Smith said. "The best man is going to play, and right now, they're proving themselves to be the best man. The young guys are coming. They're on our toes."
It's not just Thomas making an impact.
Jalen Ramsey become the first FSU cornerback to start as a true freshman since Deion Sanders, then delivered the Seminoles' first interception of the season against Pittsburgh. He's sixth on the team so far with 12 tackles, including one sack.
Demarcus Walker got a start in the opener, too, and he's seen consistent work on the defensive line ever since. Chris Casher, a redshirt freshman, racked up 10 tackles -- including two for a loss -- against Bethune-Cookman and was named FSU's defensive player of the week. Second-year players P.J. Williams and Mario Edwards Jr. are now established starters, and a handful of other youngsters are getting regular reps on defense, too.
Fisher was so pleased with the work of his young defensive backs that he felt comfortable flipping veteran Karlos Williams from safety to tailback. Casher, Thomas and sophomore Eddie Goldman have helped pick up the slack for FSU's pass rush after its top three defensive ends all left for the NFL. Overall, nearly half of Florida State's tackles this season have come from defenders with zero previous starting experience.
"The platform is even because new [defensive coordinator], new philosophy, and you have to learn it," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "Experience on the football field, those young guys haven't had it, but with their talent level and where they're coming in, it's good to see them playing and be able to play fast."
Of course, it's easy enough to chalk up the early success for the freshmen and sophomores to the lack of quality competition on the field, but Fisher said this isn't a passing fad. Florida State's schedule gets markedly tougher in October, and rather than shuffling the young defenders to the sidelines for the big games, he wants to ensure they're ready to play when it counts.
"Ability is never the issue," Fisher said. "It's about technique and assignments and getting playing time to be able to relax on the field and do what you do, taking it from the practice field to the game field. You see that more and more, you feel more comfortable. We're going to keep developing all those guys."
Ramsey already appears to have a starting job locked up moving forward, beating out junior Nick Waisome, who started all 14 games last season, and Ronald Darby, a freshman All-American in 2012. Fisher raved about Ramsey's combination of speed and physicality, but said it's the freshman's football acumen that has set him apart.
Thomas is a bit more of a work in progress. He's flashed potential, but he's spent much of his first few months on campus simply soaking in all he can about how to do his job.
"He's observing a lot of stuff," Smith said. "He's taking it in, and he's going to erupt when he gets the chance."
Fisher sees it coming, too.
Since arriving on campus in June, Thomas has already packed on nearly 25 pounds to his frame, but it hasn't slowed him down.
"He's gotten faster," Fisher gushed.
Walker and Casher are following a similar path, too, though they've had longer to learn the ropes.
Casher has been sidelined for the better part of the past two years -- first because of an eligibility issue his senior year in high school, then because of a knee injury that cost him nearly all of 2012. Walker arrived this spring to get a jump start on his college career, but an issue with the NCAA Clearinghouse meant he didn't practice with the team at all.
The down time might have been a blessing, however, as both were eager to learn.
"They came in with their eyes open and their notepad ready, listening to the older guys," Smith said.
That's been a trademark of the Class of 2013 in particular. When Joyner arrived in 2010, Florida State was in the midst of a culture change in the locker room that took a while to take hold. The latest batch of freshmen, however, look right at home from Day 1.
"Those guys are coming in here with the same talent level that guys took two to three years to develop," Joyner said.
That's exactly what Fisher wants to see. He doesn't promise playing time to his recruits, he said, but he offers opportunity. This latest crop of Seminoles was prepared when that opportunity arrived.
"When you get here, you get an opportunity, and if you're the best player, you're going to play," Fisher said. "A play don't care who makes it, and there isn't an age limit on being a good player."
The receivers aren't perfect: Against Bethune-Cookman, Jameis Winston threw nine incomplete passes, nearly doubling his season total from the first two games of the season. Indeed, Winston wasn't nearly as crisp as he'd looked down the stretch just a week ago, when he completed his final 13 throws, but a good bit of the blame goes to the receivers. FSU's receivers hadn't dropped a pass all season, but Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw all allowed potentially easy touchdown throws slip through their fingers. None of it ended up mattering all that much -- aside from Winston's completion percentage plummeting 10 points -- but it was a reminder that, as good as the group had been in the early going, there's still room to get better.
FSU's young defenders are going to be good: There won't be many games this year when Terrance Smith, Matthew Thomas, Ukeme Eligwe and Co. get as many snaps as they did Saturday against Bethune-Cookman, but the blowout win for Florida State -- coupled with the absence of Christian Jones, Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr. -- offered a glimpse into what the talented cast of youngsters might one day become. In his first career start, Smith finished with a game-high 12 tackles. Thomas was a beast coming off the edge, recording a sack and two TFLs. Eligwe had six stops, Reggie Northrup and E.J. Levenberry each had five, and Chris Casher made 10 tackles, including two for a loss. For all the defensive success, however, Bethune-Cookman still mustered 18 first downs -- far too many by Jimbo Fisher's estimation. The group has talent, but it's a work in progress.
The biggest lessons are yet to come: What could FSU learn, really, from a game against a clearly overmatched FCS opponent? Three of the Seminoles' starting defenders sat out. Winston was on the bench midway through the third quarter. The tempo of the game never quite clicked, and the score was still out of hand by the half. These first three games have offered a glimpse at what FSU could be, but the Seminoles have yet to be truly tested. That should change moving forward, with an Oct. 5 date against undefeated Maryland looming, and a trip to Clemson awaiting on Oct. 19.
Five Programs Expecting 2014 Boost
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35