Florida State Seminoles: Freddie Stevenson
First-quarter defense: Any criticism of Florida State's defense thus far is nitpicking, but that doesn't mean concerns don't exist, and the slow starts in each of the first two games are primary causes for pessimism. On the first four drives in each of their first two games, the Seminoles have allowed an average of 5.7 yards per play. After that, the average dips to just 3.1 yards per play. Bethune-Cookman might not have FBS talent, but in its three previous games against FBS foes, it scored first. That should give some extra incentive to the FSU defense to come out ready to play.
Keeping the streak alive: Through two games, Florida State's passing game has been stellar. Much of the credit goes to Winston, who is off to a remarkable start. But the players at the other end of those passes shouldn't be forgotten either. FSU receivers have yet to drop a pass -- in fact, they've hauled in two of Winston's five incompletions just barely out of bounds -- while corralling a handful of circus catches in big moments.
Freshman impact: Fisher was able to get significant reps for a number of freshmen in last week's win, including Ryan Green, Freddie Stevenson and Levonte Whitfield. That trend should continue against Bethune-Cookman, particularly if Florida State can build a big lead quickly. Thirteen true freshmen have seen action already, but Fisher said there has been some regression among the youngsters on the practice field. A little more game-day work might be just what they need to get their legs back under them.
A milestone win: Last week's win over Nevada boosted Fisher's record to 33-10 at Florida State, giving him the highest winning percentage in ACC history -- just ahead of Bobby Bowden's .764 mark. A win this week would add more history, giving Florida State its 500th win. Of course, the math is a bit tricky. Thanks to NCAA sanctions, only 488 of those count in the official record books, but nevertheless, a win against Bethune-Cookman would mark the 500th victory celebration for the school.
Jalen Ramsey is different. All he knows is what he has done before and what he expects to do again. He wasn't making guesses about his production. He knew.
"He came in saying it," Fisher said. "We all said, 'OK,' but when you're around him, you see a different guy. He's a mature guy."
Now that, Fisher said, is a lofty standard, even for Ramsey.
"He's a heck of a player now, but let's give him a break before we put him in Deion's category," Fisher said. "But size, speed, athleticism and very mature, very hard-working and very intelligent. He has a drive to be good, and he's very mature above his years. That's what allowed him to be able to do that, and he's done a tremendous job. He's going to be a heck of a football player."
But it's not just Ramsey exceeding early expectations. With an interception in his first game and five tackles -- including snuffing out a fake field-goal try -- in his second, he has made the biggest impact, but 12 other true freshmen have seen action for Florida State this season.
Defensive end Demarcus Walker started the opener along with Ramsey, meaning more true freshmen got starting nods in just one game in 2013 than did so in all of 2012.
Running backs Ryan Green and Freddie Stevenson both scored touchdowns against Nevada. That marked the first time two true freshmen reached the end zone for Florida State since Devonta Freeman and Nick O'Leary did it against Duke in 2011.
Five true freshmen have recorded a tackle so far, led by Ramsey's nine. That's just one fewer than did so in all of 2012.
Two more have caught passes, two others have seen work on the offensive line. For a team with sights set on a national championship, that's a lot of youth. In all, a higher percentage of Florida State's 2013 freshman signing class (65 percent) has seen action than in any other year since Fisher took over as head coach.
The way Fisher sees it, getting that group early playing time is a necessity.
"You can explain it to them a thousand ways," Fisher said, "but until they go out and make a mistake or make a play, it doesn't matter."
Last week's blowout win over Nevada gave a handful of the freshmen a chance to shine. Levonte Whitfield's circus catch along the sideline earned praise from Fisher. Green made the most of his late-game opportunities, racking up 78 yards on just five carries. Jesus Wilson worked in on punt-return duties, racking up 29 yards on two tries.
Two easy wins to open the season and an early bye week have helped Fisher ready his freshmen for battle. A date with an FCS foe this week should allow for additional playing time for some of the backups, too. The hope, Fisher said, is that the early experience will mean none of the 13 freshmen who has seen the field so far will be playing like freshmen by the time Florida State hits the meat of its schedule.
"That will help out a lot," receiver Christian Green said. "Them coming from high school to this level is definitely different. They're getting used to the game speed, how things go in a game."
Of course, not all freshmen are created equal, and there have already been some casualties. Stevenson practiced this spring at linebacker, but Fisher believes his future could be at fullback. Wilson Bell was FSU's most advanced freshman on the offensive line, but he went down with a knee injury against Nevada and could be headed for a medical redshirt. Seven other members of Florida State's 10th-ranked signing class appear destined for a redshirt, too.
But the bulk of the group already has dipped its toes into the water, and that's a crucial bit of early development in case Ramsey isn't the only one Florida State needs to throw into the deep end as the season progresses.
"They get that out of their system -- the nerves, the jitters," Fisher said. "Once they get out there, they realize it's football."
Winston isn't perfect ... but he's close: Sure, even the most optimistic fans had to expect a flubbed throw from the reshirt freshman eventually, but it was no less shocking when Winston lobbed a high throw down the middle of the field for an easy interception in the second quarter Saturday. But if there were questions about how Winston would respond to adversity, he answered them ardently against Nevada. After the pick, Winston was 13-of-13 passing for 184 yards and led six straight touchdown drives, including a picture-perfect two-minute drill before the half.
Jimbo Fisher knows what he's talking about: Nevermind that Fisher turned wide receiver Xavier Rhodes into an NFL first-round pick at corner. Or that he might do the same for defensive tackle-turned-offensive lineman Cameron Erving. Fisher's latest position swap may end up his best. Karlos Williams practiced just eight days at tailback after spending his career at safety, but he still turned his first carry into a 65-yard TD run and finished the game with eight carries for 110 yards.
Jeremy Pruitt can play it safe, too: After three years under Mark Stoops' conservative philosophy, the promise from Pruitt was lots of blitzing and lots of aggression. That still may be the case, but against Nevada, FSU's D didn't push the envelope much. The lone takeaway was gift-wrapped for Tyler Hunter, FSU had no sacks and just two tackles for loss before garbage time with the backups, and yet the uptempo Wolfpack still managed just 219 yards in the game. Nevada ran nearly 20 fewer plays than its season average, in spite of a sizable time-of-possession edge. And like the opener in Pittsburgh, FSU's D got better as the game wore on -- allowing Nevada just 76 yards on its final nine drives.
FSU has some depth: Sure, it was Nevada. And sure, the Wolfpack had their reserves in the game for much of the second half. But it's nevertheless rewarding for Fisher to see some of his younger players and reserves make some noise. Ruben Carter got the start at right guard for injured Tre Jackson and looked good. Freddie Stevenson and Ryan Green got their first touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Reggie Northrup and Ukeme Eligwe made some big plays on defense. In all, Florida State's eight touchdowns were scored by eight different players.
Of the 14 non-specialists Florida State added in 2012, only six saw action last year. Mario Edwards Jr. was the only freshman to start a game, and Ronald Darby and Eddie Goldman were the only others to see regular playing time.
The situation may not be dramatically different this year. Twenty-one freshmen were added to the roster, but aside from a small minority, there doesn't appear to be regular reps awaiting the bulk of the group. FSU's initial depth chart lists nine freshmen on the two-deep, though the playing time for each may be limited, and the roles for a few others may yet develop. As it stands though, here's our projections for early playing time for the Class of 2013.
The likely redshirts (4): QB John Franklin, OT Ira Denson, C Ryan Hoefeld, TE Jeremy Kerr
Fisher is never shy with praise for his players -- even those with virtually no shot at seeing a moment of playing time. That's been the case for Franklin, whom Fisher said has looked very good in practice throughout fall camp. Chalk it up to Fisher's desire to talk about any quarterback other than Jameis Winston, but it's nevertheless encouraging given that so many college coaches wanted Franklin as a receiver, not a QB.
Denson arrived overweight, and Hoefeld is still a touch lighter than line coach Rick Trickett would like, which means both are likely to spend the year prepping for the future. Kerr might have been a lock for early playing time given FSU's utter lack of depth at tight end, but a knee injury has kept him off the practice field for weeks.
The victims of numbers (4): DT Keith Bryant, OG Wilson Bell, DB Marquez White, S Nate Andrews
The reports on these four have been generally positive -- particularly Bell, who was well ahead of the other young linemen, according to Trickett -- but barring injuries, there's probably not much playing time to be had. It's possible one or two will find a role -- Andrews and White could make a special-teams impact -- but none are guaranteed to see action at all.
Levenberry and Thomas headline the current depth chart, where both are listed as the primary backups at the Mike and Will linebacker spots, respectively. Both offer immense promise. Thomas is the star of the group, and after an on-again, off-again spring in which he considered transferring to USC, the five-star recruit seems to be happy and comfortable in FSU's defense. Levenberry has also been a big hit with his coaches, and his size -- 6-3, 240 pounds -- has had Fisher drooling.
Both Thomas and Levenberry figure to play, but they may not be alone. Freddie Stevenson was an early enrollee and has drawn praise from teammates. Lyons and Hoskins could figure in the special-teams mix, too.
Florida State has just two established veteran linebackers, and both will be gone at year's end. The Seminoles need to start developing some depth there, which is good news for the entire group.
The special-teams stalwarts (4): DE Davarez Bryant, DE Desmond Hollin, RB Ryan Green, WR Levonte Whitfield
Fisher's history suggests skill-position players who can contribute on special teams will get a chance as freshmen, even if there isn't much of a role beyond that. FSU allowed P.J. Williams, Reggie Northrup and Christo Kourtzidis to do it last year, which means Green, Bryant and others could do the same in 2013, even if a wealth of scrimmage snaps aren't there. Hollin, a juco transfer, probably stands the best shot at a bigger role, and Bryant has actually worked in some at tight end, too. Whitfield figures to be in the mix as a kick returner early, but he is a potential weapon as a slot receiver on offense, too.
The best bets to play (4): CB Jalen Ramsey, DE DeMarcus Walker, WR Jesus Wilson, WR Isaiah Jones
Fisher was impressed with his freshman wideouts from the outset, but now it's a necessity that at least one or two contributes heavily. FSU lost three senior receivers for the season, which means there should be ample playing time to go around. Wilson has wowed teammates since the summer, and he figures to be first up, Jones also turns up on FSU's two-deep, backing up Rashad Greene at the X position.
Walker's progression was hindered a bit during the spring when NCAA compliance issues kept him off the practice field. Still, he spent long hours in the film room and coach's office, and his teammates have raved about his football IQ. Given the relative depth issues at defensive end combined with a depth chart with little or no game experience, Walker has as good a shot as anyone at getting playing time early.
Unlike the rest of this group, the numbers don't exactly favor Ramsey. The FSU secondary is stacked with talent, but that's only more of a testament to how good Ramsey has looked during fall camp. He spent the first few weeks working with the No. 1 defense while Darby nursed an injury, and he appears to have established himself as a legitimate threat to contribute. He opens the season No. 2 on the depth chart behind Lamarcus Joyner, and that's a role that could expand as the season progresses.
The candidates: Mario Edwards Jr. (So.), Dan Hicks (RSSr.), Giorgio Newberry (RSSo.), Chris Casher (RSFr.), DeMarcus Walker (Fr.), Davarez Bryant (Fr.), Desmond Hollin (Jr.)
The situation: Florida State lost three top pass rushers to the NFL from last year's team, leaving a major void in a key area. Edwards appears all but certain to earn one of the two starting jobs after closing out 2012 in that role. On the opposite side, however, things are up for grabs. Newberry figured to be the top candidate entering spring practice, but Hicks -- nine months removed from ACL surgery -- made a big push. Walker might have been in the mix, too, but NCAA eligibility issues kept him on the sideline after he enrolled early.
The projection: Hicks' strong spring vaulted him to the top of the depth chart for now, and it's clear he's ready to play a sizable role after being shuffled to tight end a year ago. Odds are, however, this will be an area of some mixing and matching early on, with Hicks, Newberry and Casher all likely to see playing time alongside Edwards.
The candidates: Terrance Smith (RSSo.), Reggie Northrup (So.), Ukeme Eligwe (RSFr.), Nigel Terrell (RSJr.) and five incoming freshmen
The situation: Seniors Telvin Smith and Christian Jones offer a formidable pairing atop the depth chart, but the rest of the linebacker position remains in flux. None of the candidates have any significant experience, and while Terrance Smith looked to take an early lead as the starter on the strong side throughout the spring, there are endless possibilities on how the two-deep at each position might shake out.
The projection: Because FSU will run a majority of its defensive plays in nickel and dime sets, there may not be a need for a third linebacker routinely. Still, the coaching staff knows it needs to develop depth behind its two seniors, and identifying a pecking order is crucial. Northrup, Smith and Eligwe are likely the top contenders for regular playing time, but freshman Freddie Stevenson was an early enrollee who impressed this spring, and freshman Matthew Thomas might have more upside than anyone at the position.
The candidates: Jameis Winston (RSFr.), Jacob Coker (RSSo.), Sean Maguire (RSFr.)
The situation: What was a wide-open, four-man race this spring now looks to be Winston's job to lose. He was impressive throughout spring practice, dominated the spring game and has enjoyed immense hype and enthusiasm from the fan base ever since. Still, Fisher has been quick to point out that nothing is set in stone at the position yet, and Coker, who endured a foot injury that limited him this spring, figures to keep the pressure on Winston as fall camp begins.
The projection: In spite of Fisher's pronouncements, it would be a shock if anyone other than Winston got the starting nod in Week 1. By all indications, the redshirt freshman has continued to develop this summer, has handled all the publicity with aplomb, and his potential is undeniable.
The candidates: Lamarcus Joyner (Sr.), Nick Waisome (Jr.), Ronald Darby (So.), Tyler Hunter (Jr.), P.J. Williams (So.) and others
The situation: This falls under the category of good problems to have, but FSU's wealth of talent in the secondary is causing at least some confusion on the depth chart. Joyner switches from safety to corner this year, leaving five talented and experienced corners vying for limited playing time alongside presumptive starters at safety Terrence Brooks and Karlos Williams. The versatility of the group -- particularly Joyner, Hunter and P.J. Williams -- offers some options for new DC Jeremy Pruitt, but finding enough playing time for all the talent on the roster may be a tall order.
The projection: There is likely to be a healthy dose of mixing and matching this year, with Karlos Williams getting reps at linebacker, Joyner, Hunter and P.J. Williams shifting between corner, nickel and safety, and other options like Keelin Smith and Colin Blake vying for reps, too. Still, Joyner is the unquestioned leader, so his playing time should be secure, and Darby, Waisome and Hunter will likely grab the lion's share of what remains.
The candidates: Kelvin Benjamin (RSSo.), Christian Green (RSJr.), Willie Haulstead (RSSr.), Levonte Whitfield (Fr.), Jarred Haggins (Sr.), Isaiah Jones (Fr.), Jesus Wilson (Fr.)
The situation: Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw have a firm grip on starting jobs, but injuries, defections and suspensions have seriously limited FSU's depth in the passing game. Fisher needs at least one or two more receivers to step up into bigger roles, with none looming larger than the uber-talented Benjamin. Green and Haulstead -- afterthoughts a year ago -- are aiming for comeback seasons, while Whitfield's speed makes him an immediate threat, and Wilson has garnered early praise for his work in summer seven-on-seven drills.
The projection: Benjamin is perhaps the biggest wild card on Florida State's roster. His talent is immense, but he's had difficulty showing consistency during his first two years in Tallahassee. If he blossoms into a star in 2013, it would be a huge boon to the Seminoles' offense, but don't be surprised if at least one of the freshmen manages to make some noise, too.
Next up: No. 34 Reggie Northrup
Where he's at: Northrup saw plenty of action last season on special teams and garnered praise as one of FSU's hardest hitters, but he's in a position in 2013 to expand on that role by refining his skill set. Even during his brilliant outing against Boston College, Northrup was hardly putting on a clinic for well-coached technique. Instead, he's spent this spring developing a better understanding of his role rather than relying on his immense natural ability. He'll open fall camp as the No. 2 weakside linebacker, and he'll get the chance to learn behind a potential NFL first-rounder in Christian Jones.
What's to come: As mentioned in discussions of Terrance Smith, Freddie Stevenson and Markuss Eligwe, there are plenty of young, inexperienced talent at linebacker for FSU, but there are relatively few snaps to be shared by them in 2013. Jones and Telvin Smith are the veterans, and they'll be on the field a lot. The strongside linebacker position faces an increasingly diminished role in FSU's defense. That means as many as nine reserve linebackers will be fighting for what's left. Northrup isn't guaranteed a lion's share of those scraps, but for now he appears to be in the best position to win them. And if he can add some more substantive experience in 2013, he could be amassing games similar to that Boston College performance with regularity in 2014.
1. QB Jameis Winston: No surprise here, but Winston could end up being the single most significant piece to FSU's puzzle in 2013.
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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 counted down five under-the-radar players who could be in line for breakthrough seasons.
Next up: Reggie Northrup (So./LB)
Career arc: A solid recruit out of Jacksonville, Northrup found his way onto the field in a limited role as a freshman in 2012, shining on special teams while making a few big plays in late-game situations at weakside linebacker. For the season, Northrup finished with 10 tackles, including six in a dominant second-half performance against Boston College.
Why he's overlooked: With two veterans clearly entrenched in starting jobs at linebacker and a massive group of young and untested talent behind them, there's a clear line of demarcation in the group between the big names and the players flying under the radar. And while Northrup is one of the few reserves with playing experience, it's also possible he'll be upstaged by one of the five incoming freshmen, including highly regarded Matthew Thomas.
Why he'll produce: Northrup's game wasn't entirely refined last year, but his athleticism and ability to find the football were obvious. He was a missile on special teams, and his work ethic and energy at linebacker impressed teammates. He's also versatile enough to back up Christian Jones on the weakside or step in on the strongside when FSU is in its base 4-3 set. Considering both Jones and Telvin Smith will be gone after the season, there's ample reason for Jeremy Pruitt and new LBs coach Charles Kelly to make sure a few of those young linebackers get some much-needed experience now.
Projection: Even with the starting strongside job open, Northrup isn't guaranteed much, and there promises to be stiff competition even for backup roles from Terrance Smith, Freddie Stevenson and Thomas. Still, it's in FSU's interest to find ways to get as many of the young LBs on the field as possible, and Northrup's playing experience in 2012 could certainly give him a leg up.
While punt return practice amounted to only about a week of work this spring, the two primary candidates to see work were the two players who bookended last season with the job -- Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw. Both remain in competition for the role this season.
"You've still got other guys that will be in there, too, but punts are more about catching the ball than running," Fisher said.
His caution comes with ample evidence, as FSU fumbled away a myriad of punts last season, eventually costing Greene and, later, Tyler Hunter the job. That left things up to Shaw to close out the season, and he proved to be relatively effective. His 12.4 yard average trailed both Greene and Hunter, who both averaged better than 15, but Shaw never put the ball on the ground.
"When they gave me the job, I tried to do my best, and the coaches say I did a heck of a job," Shaw said.
But whether it's a job Shaw keeps remains to be seen. He's got a leg up now, but aside from Mario Pender, he's had little competition.
That may change in the fall when a bevy of potential return men join the fray. Hunter and Ronald Darby will both return from injuries that cost them the spring and could join the mix, along with speedster Marvin Bracy and incoming freshmen Ryan Green and Jalen Ramsey.
Perhaps the most intriguing candidate, however, is Lavonte Whitfield, whose combination of game-breaking speed and soft hands make him a good fit as FSU's next great punt returner.
"He's very natural at punt returns," Fisher said. "That sucker, punts will come down and lay right as his feet, and he'll scoop them up and go. He's got some tenacity to him."
For all of FSU's miscues in the punt return game a year ago, matching the production of 2012's return men may not be easy.
Florida State's average of 14.49 yards per return ranked eighth in the nation, and the Seminoles were one of just five teams to return three punts for touchdowns for the season.
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With that in mind, we're going to go position-by-position looking at Florida State's strengths and weaknesses as the Seminoles prepare for the start of spring practice.
Previous entires can be found HERE.
Next up: Linebacker
Up next, a position where the scheme might be as much in question as the personnel: Linebacker.
Current scholarship linebackers (11): Reggie Northrup (So.), Terrance Smith (RSSo.), Nigel Terrell (RSJr.), Christian Jones (Sr.), Markus Uligwe (RFr.), Telvin Smith (Sr.), Matthew Thomas (Fr.), Freddie Stevenson (Fr.), Tyrell Lyons (Fr.), E.J. Levenberry (Fr.), Ro'Derrick Hoskins (Fr.)
Potential early departures: FSU brings a talented group of five freshmen into the fold this season, and several -- Thomas in particular -- have NFL potential, but at this point, none of the younger players have enough experience to appear likely to leave early.
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As it is virtually every year on national signing day, there were some big hits for Florida State, and there were a few tough misses, too. Overall, Jimbo Fisher and his new-look coaching staff have to consider the Class of 2013 a big win given the immense chaos that has ensued with six assistants leaving since Dec. 1. Most key commitments held strong, and a few late arrivals turned a solid class into one that cracked the top 10 in ESPN's national rankings.
Of course, rankings aren't everything. A lot of the success or failure of a class is based on a team's needs, and on that front, there were also a few highlights and a few noticeable problems. Here's how it breaks down.
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In a matter of just a few weeks, the four-star prospect will forego his final semester in high school to enroll early at Florida State and begin his collegiate career. Last week, head coach Jimbo Fisher paid Stevenson an in-home visit to clear up any logistical hypotheticals.
"It was exciting," Stevenson said. "They were making sure I had everything ready for January, since I am going to be enrolling in January. They were also talking about how important it was for me to enroll early."
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