Florida State Seminoles: Karlos Williams

Do you need a sign college football is close but still just a little too far away? The first preseason award watch lists were released Monday, a list of more than 70 players that could be the best in the country by season’s end.

It doesn’t matter if you have started only three games in your career and haven’t played a down since November 2012 -- there is a spot for you on the list.

That said, it’s college football and as ridiculous as these often are, I admit I enjoy looking at them. The watch lists for the Maxwell Award, given to the college player of the year, and Bednarik Award, given to the top defensive player, were released Monday. As the season progresses, the list will be pared down before a winner is announced in December.

Here is a look at the ACC players to make the cut and some justification for each player being on the list.

Maxwell Award

WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh: As a freshman last fall, Boyd was as good of a receiver as there was in the ACC. As the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver heading into the 2014 season, Boyd could put up monster numbers and follow in the footsteps of Pitt great Larry Fitzgerald.

[+] EnlargeJames Connor
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJames Conner set a Pitt record with 229 yards in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green.
QB Jacoby Brissett, NC State: This is not a knock on Brissett, but his inclusion is certainly puzzling considering he sat out all of 2013 after transferring from Florida, where he saw limited time as a starter and backup. However, the Wolfpack staff is high on Brissett leading the program’s turnaround, and Brissett was a blue-chip high school recruit.

WR Stacy Coley, Miami: Much like Boyd, Coley had a strong freshman season and is poised for a breakout sophomore campaign. One of the country’s elite recruits in 2013, Coley could make a national name for himself if he can build a connection with Miami’s quarterbacks, which have struggled with inconsistency and injury.

RB James Conner, Pitt: It’s almost unfair Conner was limited to just the Maxwell watch list Monday considering he is a two-way standout for the Panthers. Conner is already a huge fan favorite in the Steel City for his bruising and relentless running style, and he broke Tony Dorsett’s school bowl-game rushing record in December.

WR Jamison Crowder, Duke: Any time you catch more than 100 passes for more than 1,300 yards, you deserve to be on this list.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Johnson’s inclusion here is a credit to how dominant he was before the injury against Florida State and how woeful Miami looked after. If he can stay healthy, Johnson has the potential to be an elite back nationally.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: As the Cardinals’ leading returning receiver and now in Bobby Petrino’s offense, Parker should light up stat sheets this coming season.

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Seminoles’ receivers, but none of it includes Greene, who led the Noles in receiving in 2013. With Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw in the NFL, Greene will be looked upon to bail out Jameis Winston this fall.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Speaking of Winston, the Maxwell is about the only thing he did not win last season. Another spectacular season and it will be hard to ignore him again.

RB Karlos Williams, Florida State: Similar to Brissett, this is a bit of a projection pick, although Williams has done significantly more than Brissett. Williams was the third-string running back in 2013, but with his five-star talent base coupled with a senior-laden offensive line and Williams could set records in his final season in Tallahassee.

Reaction: While Brissett is obviously a surprise, overall it is hard to argue with much of the list. Williams' inclusion might be pushing it a little bit, although he certainly could be one of the best running backs in the country with his blend of size and speed. It's a positive sign for the ACC that several underclassmen are on the list, including special playmakers Boyd, Coley and Conner, who will all be true sophomores this fall. The biggest question is whether Winston will win the award if he performs the way most expect him to as a redshirt sophomore. AJ McCarron won the award last season over Winston, who was a semifinalist along with Johnny Manziel. Winston's off-the-field issues might have played a role, so it would be interesting to see if the Maxwell Award will continue to take those incidents into account.



Bednarik Award

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl win against Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: A semifinalist for the award last season, Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields. If he can show a little more consistency, he might win the award in 2014.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley is among the favorites to repeat as a finalist for this season's Bednarik Award.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second straight season this fall.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant impact player for the Blue Devils a season ago following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national championship. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Bednarik.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best.

DE Eli Harold, Virginia: Last season he finished sixth in the ACC with 15 tackles for loss, an impressive number. He could see his numbers improve drastically with five-star Andrew Brown now at defensive tackle.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the year.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but is as talented as they come.

DE/LB Norkeithus Otis, North Carolina: Otis is another player poised to possibly gain national recognition and it begins with his inclusion on this list. He had a very strong junior season with 6.5 sacks.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes’ defenses. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list.

Reaction: It was surprising Darby's name was not included on the list despite missing the spring. He could be the first cornerback taken in the NFL draft next year. The ACC is home to some of the country's best defensive backs with Williams, Fuller and Harris. Beasley is certainly one of the favorites coming into the season, but he was shut down by Florida State last season and will need to rebound against the Seminoles to make a push for the Bednarik as a senior. His sack numbers should be impressive once again, and if he can perform on the big stages, it might be the little extra that wins him the award this season. FSU's Edwards could be the best defensive lineman in the ACC and the country if he plays like he did against Auburn all season. What could hurt Edwards is he will not always be in a position to pile up sacks and tackles even when he is dominating opposing offensive linemen.
From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found HERE.

Next up: The running game

Best of the best: Florida State

There's plenty of competition for the top spot, but we're giving the edge to FSU's revamped ground game in spite of the losses of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. While the Seminoles said goodbye to two of their top runners, they return a senior-laden offensive line that has opened holes to the tune of 5.6 yards-per-carry last season, as well as a dynamic (if inexperienced) group of ball carriers. At the top of the depth chart, Karlos Williams tallied 730 yards and 11 TDs last season in a limited role, and his size/speed combination makes him as tough to bring down as any runner in the country. Behind him, Ryan Green and Mario Pender offer speedy alternatives, while true freshman Dalvin Cook oozes potential and could emerge as FSU's No. 2 option. Jimbo Fisher has made a point of distributing carries in recent years, so expect all four to see plenty of work.

Next up: Miami

It's easy enough to make a case for Georgia Tech (300 rush yards per game last year), Louisville (veteran offensive line and deep backfield) or Pitt (two 700-yard tailbacks returning), but we'll give the slight edge to Miami because there may be no more dynamic or productive runner in the conference than Duke Johnson. True, Johnson is coming off a severe ankle injury that cost him the final five games of 2013, but he's back and feeling good already, and he promises to be the foundation of the Canes' offense. With a healthy Johnson in the backfield last season, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry -- which would've been good for 13th nationally and third in the ACC.

Possible sleeper: North Carolina

Against FBS foes last season, North Carolina mustered a mere 148 yards per game on the ground -- good for 11th in the ACC. But that doesn't mean the ground game won't be a strength for the Tar Heels in 2014. In the early going, UNC mustered a meager 2.8 yards-per-carry and six TDs in its first seven games of the year (in which the Heels finished 2-5). After the calendar flipped to November, however, North Carolina's ground game flourished, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 13 times, while helping the Heels to a 5-1 finish. Now, T.J. Logan is back to lead a particularly deep corps of runners, and Marquise Williams is as good a threat to run as any QB in the league. If the offensive line can hold up, North Carolina's ground game should be vastly improved in 2014.

Potential problem: Virginia Tech

The Hokies' backfield was a disaster last season. Set aside the work of now-departed QB Logan Thomas, and the running backs tallied a mere 3.98 yards-per-carry last season and managed just 11 third-down conversions. Against FBS teams, Tech managed just 2.88 yards-per-carry, the ninth-worst mark in the nation. The eight teams that were worse had a combined record of 18-79. Now the Hokies add a first-year starter at quarterback, and the situation looks even more dire.

ACC's lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
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NFL.com put together a list of the 14 hottest names among coordinators in college football, with two ACC coaches making the cut.

Of course, seeing Bud Foster and Chad Morris on the list is no surprise. They have established themselves as among the most consistently good coordinators in the country. What is perhaps more interesting is who isn’t on the list: Namely, no one from the defending national champion. In fact, ex-Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (now at Georgia) does make the cut, but that is as close as the Seminoles got to landing a name on the list.

Given that Jimbo Fisher doesn’t employ an offensive coordinator and is on his third defensive coordinator in as many years, it is probably not a surprise, but as our Travis Haney noted during a recent trip to a Texas coaching clinic, FSU’s Charles Kelly has made a really good early impression since taking over for Pruitt.

Pruitt, quite fairly, received a lot of credit for last year’s championship defense, so now there are concerns about what his loss will mean for Florida State. Those concerns, however, are probably a bit misplaced.

First off, remember the chaos that followed the 2012 season at FSU? Seven assistants left the staff for other jobs, including both coordinators. Mark Stoops had engineered a defense that ranked in the top three nationally in consecutive years and was widely regarded as one of the best assistants in the country. Fisher couldn’t possibly replace all that, right?

Even in the wake of Stoops’ departure, fans clamored for a big name -- Foster, perhaps, or someone with NFL experience -- but he hired an obscure secondary coach from Alabama with just three years of college coaching on his resume. But he knew Pruitt, knew what he was capable of doing, knew the system he wanted to run, and the hire proved a stroke of genius.

So now, it’s a lot easier to believe Fisher knew what he was doing when he promoted Kelly from linebackers coach to DC, and the transition promises to be much smoother this time. Pruitt’s biggest impact on the team last season was the scheme he put in place, but that doesn’t figure to change much under Kelly. The players already know what they are doing, there is no change in vocabulary and virtually no change in the Xs and Os. Moreover, Kelly is as well-liked and respected as any coach on the staff. He will do just fine.

But that doesn’t mean there is no room for worries for Florida State’s defense. It’s just that losing Pruitt probably shouldn’t be the primary concern. The biggest void is the leadership lost with the departures of Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith. That was a rare breed of leaders that had been through the battles and suffered the losses that taught tough lessons -- lessons they continually reminded their younger teammates about during last season’s championship run. Finding voices on defense that carry as much weight in the locker room this year won’t be easy.

“I think it’s feeling comfortable taking on the roles of the guys who have left, that you feel comfortable stepping up and taking that responsibility,” Fisher told me this month. “All of them play hard, but what you have to have is guys stepping up and taking on the leadership. There’s a responsibility of how you have to conduct yourself as a teammate to affect the other guys on the team. That’s where teams grow, and summer and fall camp is so important.”

Fisher reeled off a bunch of names on the offensive side of the ball who will fill that role -- Rashad Greene, Cameron Erving, Karlos Williams, Tre Jackson, Josue Matias and, of course, Jameis Winston -- but the candidates on defense weren’t quite so established.

Fisher said sophomore Jalen Ramsey has been perhaps the most vocal leader throughout the spring and early summer, and fellow defensive backs P.J. Williams and Tyler Hunter have shouldered some of the leadership burden, too. The rest of the unit, though, is still developing.

“Last year’s team wasn’t on a journey. They were on a mission,” Fisher said. “They understood what they really wanted. The trial-and-error they had, they learned from their mistakes over time.”

Terrance Smith learned under Telvin Smith last season, but he’s not nearly as vocal as his predecessor. Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman “are growing into the role,” Fisher said, but they haven’t proven they are as good at galvanizing a group around them as Jernigan did last year.

FSU has ample talent on defense, and it should again have an exceptional coordinator calling the shots, but it’s just really difficult to replace the battle scars and lessons learned that Joyner, Brooks, Smith and Co. used to such great effect in 2013.

More links:

Analysis of ACC awards polls

June, 17, 2014
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In a series last week, the ACC blog broke down some of the early preseason candidates for several of the conference’s top postseason awards. Colleague Matt Fortuna gave a short brief on each of the candidates, listed a few honorable mentions and a SportsNation poll asked readers to vote on which candidate, if any, would win.

We asked for your prediction on who would be the conference offensive and defensive players of the year, offensive and defensive rookies of the year and coach of the year. With just about a week for fans to vote, here are the results from the polls.

ACC offensive player of the year

Results: QB Jameis Winston, Florida State (52 percent), RB Duke Johnson, Miami (19), Other (14), WR DeVante Parker, Louisville (12), WR Jamison Crowder, Duke (3).
Analysis: Winston is the overwhelming favorite in the poll, and his 33-percentage point lead over second-place Johnson is the widest gap among the five SportsNation polls. That is hardly a surprise, considering the Heisman winner returns and has yet to lose a game as a starter in his college career. Johnson is a reasonable second option, as the Miami running back will play a pivotal role for the Canes as they break in a new quarterback. If Miami can achieve double-digit wins this season, Johnson will be tough to beat.
Write-in votes: Gauging from the comments section, it seems as if readers had Seminoles running back Karlos Williams in mind when voting “other” for the most part. A third-string running back last season, the former five-star recruit will start as a senior in 2014. Many FSU fans are expecting Williams to easily surpass 1,000 yards.

ACC defensive player of the year

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThere are big expectations for Florida State's Mario Edwards, the No. 1 recruit in the 2012 class.
Results: DE Mario Edwards, Florida State (35), DE Vic Beasley, Clemson (34), Other (15), LB Denzel Perryman, Miami (13), S Anthony Harris, Virginia (3).
Analysis: Edwards narrowly edged Beasley, who could have been a first-round pick in last month’s NFL draft. Edwards, a junior and former No. 1 high school recruit, could be the first defensive lineman taken in next year’s draft. However, Edwards’ statistics could keep him from winning defensive player of the year. While he certainly could be the most dominant league defensive player, he likely won’t have the same sack numbers as Beasley, who had 13 a season ago, or 2013 winner Aaron Donald, who registered 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss as an interior lineman.
Write-in votes: Once again, the FSU voices were heard in the comment section, offering their thoughts on why sophomore defensive back Jalen Ramsey is the favorite on the Seminoles’ defense. Ramsey is going to fill the void in the backfield left by the departed Lamarcus Joyner, a Thorpe Award finalist in 2013.

ACC offensive rookie of the year

Results: Other (31), QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson (26), QB Kevin Olsen, Miami (24), RB Elijah Hood, North Carolina (16), QB Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina (3).
Analysis: This is definitely a difficult one to predict as there is an inherent unpredictability in the award, much more than any other postseason trophy. Other is probably the safe choice and I tend to agree with the readers. Olsen is a good pick if he is the Canes’ starter for the entire season. Watson, who was injured during spring camp, was the top quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class nationally. North Carolina could not afford to miss on Hood, who enrolled early and figures to be featured extensively in the UNC offense.
Write-in votes: With so many departures on the Clemson offense, one reader suggests redshirt freshman running back Wayne Gallman will win the award. He was a four-star recruit in the 2013 class.

ACC defensive rookie of the year

Results: CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson (36), DT Keith Bryant (33), Other (20), DT Andrew Brown (6), S Quin Blanding, Virginia (5).
Analysis: Alexander is a smart pick for rookie of the year on defense considering the reputation he had coming to Clemson before the 2013 season. The No. 4 player nationally in the 2013 recruiting class, Alexander redshirted as a freshman. He should get extensive playing time this upcoming season, though, and he has arguably the best defensive line in the ACC in front of him, which could force rushed and errant throws in his direction that are prime for interceptions. With the loss of Timmy Jernigan at defensive tackle for FSU, the Noles certainly will need someone at the position to step up. It remains to be seen if Bryant will be that person, and a strong summer would definitely help his cause as the Noles open up preseason camp in a little more than a month. Both Blanding and Brown are sleepers, especially if the Cavaliers can reach bowl eligibility.
Write-in votes: One commenter agrees with Fortuna that Florida State redshirt freshman linebacker Matthew Thomas could win this award. Thomas was spectacular in spring drills and could be a starter for the Noles this season.

ACC coach of the year

Results: Jimbo Fisher, Florida State (40), Dabo Swinney, Clemson (26), Other (22), Larry Fedora, North Carolina (7), Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh (5).
Analysis: The safe bet in the conference is to go with Fisher or Swinney. The two have Clemson and Florida State in a league of their own within the ACC. Both are coming off BCS bowl wins but have holes to fill on their 2014 teams. Swinney needs to overcome the losses of his starting quarterback, running back and star receiver. Fisher loses defensive leaders Jernigan, Joyner and Telvin Smith. I thought Fedora would receive more votes, considering the Heels are one of the favorites to win the division.

Kiper impressed by FSU talent

June, 11, 2014
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Surprise, surprise: Florida State is loaded with NFL talent on its roster.

Everyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to college football in the past year already knew this was true to some degree, but Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest rankings by position this week has made it increasingly obvious.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJameis Winston sits atop Mel Kiper's rankings for underclassman QBs.
Kiper ranked the top players at four different positions so far, and FSU has at least one player at every spot. Georgia and Michigan State each had one player at three different spots.

Kiper broke each position into two groups — graduating seniors, and underclassmen who could leave school after this fall. Jameis Winston led the underclassman quarterback group, though he has plenty of fine-tuning to do between now and next spring, as our Jeffri Chadiha notes in an interesting piece looking ahead to some potential top quarterback picks in the 2015 draft.

Two of Winston's underclassman teammates also check in favorably, with Mario Edwards listed at "5A" among defensive ends and Eddie Goldman listed at No. 3 among defensive tackles. The opening blurb describing Goldman is telling, with Kiper writing: "Another in the endless line of talent rolling through Tallahassee lately … "

Karlos Williams, meanwhile, is Kiper's No. 2 senior running back.

Other ACC players have impressed Kiper as well, with Clemson's Grady Jarrett checking in as the No. 4 senior defensive tackle and Miami's Duke Johnson listed as the "No. 5A" underclassman running back. But if the last name mentioned in the underclassmen quarterback category is any indication — that would be former FSU (and current Alabama) quarterback Jacob Coker, who has zero career college starts — that line of talent rolling through Tallahassee lately really is on another level.
The pros start picking in just a few hours, but we thought we’d have some fun by imagining a draft in the ACC, too. (OK, we actually stole the idea from our colleagues in the Big Ten.)

Here are the rules: Picks are in reverse order of last year’s standings. All players currently on an ACC roster are eligible to be selected (but no departing seniors or incoming freshmen). We prioritized team needs for the immediate future, but we also weighed the longterm possibilities of each player.

On to the draft…

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston is the clear-cut top player in the ACC and would immediately give Virginia the QB it has lacked for several seasons.
1. Virginia

The pick: QB Jameis Winston (FSU)

Sure, Virginia hopes it has its QB of the future in newly anointed starter Greyson Lambert, but how do you pass up a chance to add the Heisman Trophy winner to your offense? The Hoos have some young talent to put around Winston, and he’d make Virginia an instant contender. Just keep him out of the seafood section at the local Kroger.

2. NC State

The pick: WR Tyler Boyd (Pitt)

With new QB Jacoby Brissett ready to take over an offense that finally has some direction, the key for Dave Doeren will be ensuring there are some weapons in the passing game for Brissett to utilize. While NC State has plenty of young receivers hoping to make a name for themselves in 2014, Boyd is already established as one of the ACC’s best after 1,174 yards as a true freshman.

3. Wake Forest

The pick: RB Duke Johnson (Miami)

Things were so bad in the Wake Forest backfield when new coach Dave Clawson took over that he had to covert a receiver and a safety to tailback just to be able to practice. The rest of the offense could use some help, too, but Johnson is capable of making plays without a ton of talent around him. He could be a bell cow for the Deacons while they build the rest of the unit around him.

4. Pittsburgh

The pick: DE Vic Beasley (Clemson)

Pitt has plenty of firepower on offense (at least until we assumed Boyd would be swiped away by NC State), but it needs to find someone who can disrupt the other team’s QB now that Aaron Donald is headed to the NFL. Beasley led the league in sacks last year, and while he’d need to make some adjustments to fit Pitt’s scheme, he’s more than capable of making it work.

5. Boston College

The pick: DB Jalen Ramsey (FSU)

The Eagles finished dead last in the ACC in passing defense last season (268 yards allowed per game) but Ramsey would be an instant fix for a number of BC’s ills. He’s big enough to match up with physical receivers and versatile enough to play at either safety or corner.

6. Syracuse

The pick: DT Luther Maddy (Virginia Tech)

The biggest hole for Syracuse to fill this season is the one left by departing defensive tackle Jay Bromley. Maddy would bring experience and size to fill the void, not to mention 55 tackles (including 13.5 for a loss) from last season.

7. North Carolina

The pick: LT Cameron Erving (FSU)

With the loss of star tackle James Hurst and true freshman Bentley Spain likely to be pushed into the starting lineup, UNC was in rough shape on the line this spring. Erving could solve that problem quickly, and he’s established himself as perhaps the top returning O-lineman in the league.

8. Georgia Tech

The pick: DB Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)

A Fuller brother playing for someone other than the Hokies? That wouldn’t be right. But there’s no question Georgia Tech could use some help in the secondary. The Yellow Jackets finished 12th in the ACC in pass defense a year ago, allowing opponents to complete nearly 63 percent of their throws, and then lost top DB Jemea Thomas to boot. Fuller had six picks as a true freshman last year and should only get better with age.

9. Miami

The pick: QB Jacoby Brissett (NC State)

OK, so we just gave Brissett another weapon in the passing game for the Wolfpack earlier in the draft, and now we’re shipping him off to Miami? It’s probably best not to overthink this little exercise. In any case, Miami’s QB situation is a mess after Ryan Williams went down with an injury, and believe it or not, Brissett -- a South Florida native -- is probably the most polished option available in the ACC after Winston.

10. Virginia Tech

The pick: RB Karlos Williams (FSU)

The numbers for Tech’s running game were brutal last season, finishing 13th in the conference in rushing and converting a dismal 37 percent of its third-and-short attempts on the ground. Sure, some line help would improve the situation, but adding a big-bodied runner like Williams (8 yards per carry, 11 TDs last season) would add some instant credibility to the Hokies’ ground attack.

11. Duke

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Mauldin
AP Photo/Alex MenendezLorenzo Mauldin had 10 sacks in his junior season at Louisville in 2013.
The pick: DE Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville)

Duke wants to build off last year’s success, and it has a few playmakers on offense and in the secondary to make that happen. But the Blue Devils lost some talent in the trenches, including both starting defensive ends. Mauldin racked up 9.5 sacks last year for the Cardinals and is poised for an even bigger senior season.

12. Clemson

The pick: WR Rashad Greene (FSU)

Clemson thinks it has answers at QB and running back, but receiver is still a work in progress. Greene is a refined veteran with big-play ability who could immediately pick up where Sammy Watkins left off. And even better for Clemson, it means its defense wouldn’t have to face Greene when it takes on Florida State.

13. Louisville

The pick: DT Grady Jarrett (Clemson)

The Cardinals lost top sack master Marcus Smith, both starting inside linemen, and are in the process of transitioning to a 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Todd Grantham. So how about bringing in a big man in the middle who can get disrupt the backfield and stuff the run? Jarrett would fit the bill nicely after racking up 59 tackles, including 11 for a loss, last season.

14. Florida State

The pick: WR Quinshad Davis (UNC)

We’ve officially raided the Seminoles to a horrific extent, but let’s assume they’re going to battle with their roster intact. If there’s a major void without a real answer at this point, it’s FSU’s need for a tall, physical receiver who can go up for the jump balls Kelvin Benjamin snagged so often last year. Davis could be their guy after hauling in 10 touchdowns on 48 receptions last year. No returning ACC receiver caught more.
We’ve talked plenty about the myriad of quarterback battles going on around the ACC, but the conference actually returns five QBs who accounted for 2,000 yards of offense or more last season.

We wrote about the big-name receivers headed for the NFL draft, but the ACC also has three wideouts returning who accounted for 1,000 receiving yards in 2013, too.

But how about the tailbacks? How many 1,000-yard rushers from 2013 will be back again this season?

Believe it or not, the lone representative on that list is Virginia’s Kevin Parks, who racked up 1,031 yards on the ground for a team that didn’t win a single conference game.

The depth chart among returning running backs in the conference doesn’t get much better beyond Parks, either. Duke Johnson is probably the ACC’s best returning running back. He racked up 920 yards in eight games before getting hurt. Beyond that, only Louisville’s Dominique Brown, who played in the AAC last year, returns with at least 800 yards on the ground from 2013.

So, if there aren’t a ton of top tailbacks returning for 2014, which teams are poised for the most success on the ground this year?

I think the issue is, if we collectively agree that we're going to schedule up, we don't have to come up with a hard rule we have to go to nine games or everybody has to schedule one game against an SEC school. It's just a matter of getting everybody to agree to that.

-- FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox


If we break down the numbers by tailbacks only, Pittsburgh is the clear front runner. No ACC team’s returning running backs accounted for a higher percentage of its 2013 carries (76 percent) than Pitt’s, and thanks to the negative rushing totals courtesy of sacks, James Conner (799 yards), Isaac Bennett (776 yards) and Co. actually accounted for 106 percent of the Panthers’ rushing yards from 2013. (A neat trick that comes courtesy of Tom Savage's 76 carries for minus-208 yards.)

With Parks back for 2014 along with highly touted sophomore Taquan Mizzell, UVA’s returning backs account for 74 percent of last season's rushes, along with 91 percent of its yards. Of course, without star lineman Morgan Moses, those yards might be a bit tougher to come by this season.

Virginia Tech, NC State and Louisville all return running backs responsible for at least 50 percent of last season's ground gains, too (with Miami falling just short after swapping Dallas Crawford to the secondary).

The bottom of the list might be even more intriguing. Wake Forest’s stable of running backs is a mess, but that’s been well documented. The rest of the bottom six, however, include BC (which lost a Heisman finalist) and the top four offenses in the league from 2013 (Florida State, Clemson, Duke and Georgia Tech).

In other words, the best offenses lost big-time runners, and the shakiest (aside from Wake) have talent returning. So, does that mean there’s reason for some serious shakeups in the ACC’s offensive standings?

Not necessarily.

Yes, the ground game is essential for most teams to succeed. Of the 10 teams that played in BCS bowl games last season, seven returned a tailback who rushed for at least 500 yards in 2012.

But the ground game isn’t defined entirely by the men toting the rock. FSU returns four starters on a veteran offensive line, along with a Heisman-winning quarterback. That should provide some room for its relatively green stable of running backs to roam.

And, of course, just because there’s talent departing doesn’t mean there isn’t more waiting in the wings. Florida State’s returning running backs (Karlos Williams and Ryan Green) averaged 7 yards per carry in reserve roles last season. Georgia Tech’s averaged 5.9, and Duke’s averaged 5.8 (QB Brandon Connette’s departure is the biggest blow to the Blue Devils’ ground attack). Even Clemson has cause to be excited about its rushing game in 2014 with the development of C.J. Davidson and Zac Brooks and the debut of uber-talented redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman.

The veteran presence in the backfield for Pitt, Virginia and NC State should offer some hope to teams in need of some offensive optimism, but it’s also a likely scenario that FSU, Clemson, and others will supply a few names to the ACC’s rushing leaderboard in 2014, too.
Florida State opens spring practice next week, and there are plenty of big questions waiting to be answered. But before Jimbo Fisher gets his chance to weigh in on those discussions, we’re taking a crack at finding the answers.

So far, we’ve looked at Jameis Winston's second act, Karlos Williams' emergence and life after Timmy Jernigan on D.

Next up: Who will be this spring’s surprise stars?

Jared Shanker tabs Matthew Thomas and Kermit Whitfield.

JS: Florida State fans need to keep an eye on Thomas this spring, and, unlike this time last year, it is for all the right reasons.

It is funny how much difference a year makes, as Thomas is poised to be one of the breakout players for the Seminoles this spring and a dark horse to be the team’s leading tackler in the fall. This time last year, he and his father were having second thoughts about FSU and eventually demanded Fisher release Thomas from his scholarship in favor of a transfer to USC.

Matthew Thomas
Courtesy of Florida StateMatthew Thomas has the physical ability to make a huge impact for the Seminoles in 2014.
Obviously Thomas stuck with Florida State, and he was an early contributor before a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season. Thomas racked up two tackles for a loss and a sack through the first four games.

Entering spring practice, the former five-star recruit and No. 1 outside linebacker is slated to compete for a starting role. Departed is Christian Jones, and the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Thomas has the physical presence to be an elite hybrid linebacker and edge rusher. Against the run and in coverage, there might not be a linebacker on FSU’s roster with better closing speed and pop at the point of impact.

Offensively, I’m very interested to see where Whitfield fits. If not for a late touchdown from Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, Whitfield would have been the hero for his kick return touchdown. Still, his break down the sideline for the 100-yard score offered a glimpse to the nation the dynamic running back/receiver that Whitfield is capable of becoming.

Whitfield scored on runs of 31 and 74 yards, respectively, the first two times he carried the ball last season. With his sub-4.4 speed, he is the game-breaking threat Florida State might need to rely heavily on as the offense receives a facelift with the departures of several key contributors at the skill positions. As a running back, receiver and returner, Whitfield is the kind of player with the ability to turn a seemingly small gain into a momentum-swinging touchdown from any point on the field. It has been a while since Florida State had a player like that.

David Hale looks for big things from Desmond Hollin and Dalvin Cook.

DH: The defensive line might be the biggest mystery for Florida State this spring for a myriad of reasons. The loss of Timmy Jernigan leaves a gaping hole in the middle. The shift from Jeremy Pruitt to Charles Kelly leaves open questions about how the scheme, which changed so dramatically up front in 2013, will look this season. Jones’ departure leaves FSU looking for a new edge rusher. Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman have shown promise, but can they take the next step?

But the way spring practices go, it’s not entirely clear we’ll get answers to any of those questions before the team takes off for the summer. Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch this spring is just how well the defensive linemen who served in small roles last season will take advantage of the opportunity to shine now. And if that’s the case, the player with the best head start might be Hollin.

A juco transfer last year, he came in at about 270 pounds, but Fisher said Hollin is now up to 290 -- meaning he could be a realistic fit inside as a potential replacement for Jernigan. He saw only limited action in 2013, racking up two sacks and 16 tackles, but his work in offseason conditioning and fourth-quarter drills has been exceptional, according to Fisher.

“Hollin has been off the charts,” Fisher said. “He’s running better than he’s ever run. I expect him to have a great year.”

It wouldn’t be the first time FSU had significant success with juco linemen, with Tank Carradine and Amp McCloud recent examples. Hollin has been in the system for a year and brings some versatility to a line still figuring out how to best deploy its personnel.

There will be strong competition on the line from Keith Bryant (another Fisher favorite), Nile Lawrence-Stample, Derrick Mitchell and a bevy of freshmen set to arrive this fall, but Hollin offers some significant intrigue this spring. Fisher has already set a high bar for Hollin with the heaps of praise he’s eagerly offered, and if he can make the leap this spring and gain an inside track on a starting job, he could turn out to be a breakout star in 2014.

On the other side of the ball, Cook arrived in January with plenty of hype. He’s as good a running back recruit as there was in the country. In his two months in Tallahassee, he has done little to change anyone’s mind. He’s already added some good weight, has flashed impressive speed and looks right at home in Florida State’s backfield. That’s a good sign considering the number of carries up for grabs this spring.

Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. combined for 254 rushing attempts in 2013, and while a significant portion of those might be chewed up by Karlos Williams, Cook could be in line for the lion’s share of the No. 2 tailback duties. He’s the new face this spring, but Ryan Green and Mario Pender come with their own share of questions, and both have struggled at times with blitz pickup and decision-making. Cook could easily leap past the veterans with a strong spring, and all initial reports are that he’s poised to make an instant impression.

Cook won't likely shine in scrimmage or the spring game, though. FSU has made a point of putting young running backs through the ringer in short-yardage drills during spring practice. As the team looks to develop young leaders, Cook will be given a chance to prove he belongs.
Florida State opens spring practice in just two weeks, and there are plenty of big questions waiting to be answered. Before Jimbo Fisher gets his chance to weigh in on those weighty discussions, however, we’re taking a crack at finding the answers.

On Monday, we looked at Jameis Winston’s follow-up to his Heisman season.

Next up: Will Karlos Williams emerge as one of the nation’s top runners?

Jared Shanker says Williams still has some work to do.

JS: There is no denying Williams’ physical traits. There is no argument from me that Williams is capable of being one of the most dominant running backs in the ACC and possibly the country.

I just need to see it first.

Considering his preseason switch from safety to running back, the 6-foot-1, 223-pound Williams did just about everything you could ask of him. He rushed for more than eight yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns serving as Devonta Freeman's and James Wilder Jr.'s backup.

Therein lies the issue for me: He was No. 3 on the Noles’ depth chart last season.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesFSU's Karlos Williams has all the tools, but can the former safety become one of the ACC's -- and the nation's -- best running backs?
As a converted safety, I would not expect Williams to jump Freeman or Wilder, and it speaks to the kind of player Williams is to still put up the numbers he did despite minimal collegiate experience at the position. He would not be the first complementary running back to move into a starting role and fail to reach heightened expectations. There is a difference between rushing seven or eight times in the second half when opponents have already accepted defeat compared to rushing against the No. 1 units of Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida. Clemson and Florida have two of the best defensive lines in the country, and Notre Dame has loaded up on the defensive front the last few recruiting classes.

If Williams rushes for more than 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns, I would not be surprised at all. Few players across the country are in the category of elite athlete Williams belongs to. It is just too early to already pencil Williams in for All-ACC honors with so few meaningful snaps in his career.

David Hale says Williams is ready to become a superstar.

DH: No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference last season had at least as many carries as Williams (91) and ran for more yards per rush (8.02). No running back in the country from any school had as many carries and scored with more regularity (a TD every 8.3 rushes) than Williams. And, it’s probably fair to say, no running back in the country opened 2013 with higher expectations from fans -- as a safety.

Such was the journey of the one-time five-star recruit in his junior season, which began at safety and ended with 730 rushing yards and the designation among many FSU fans as the Seminoles’ next great tailback.

From his first career carry -- a 65-yard touchdown against Nevada -- it was obvious Williams had star potential on offense. It was actually something Jimbo Fisher saw years before, but it took some convincing to push Williams to make the move from defense. And when he did, Williams was stuck behind two NFL-caliber runners on the depth chart, meaning the bulk of his work in 2013 came in the latter half of blowouts.

But that shouldn’t diminish what’s possible. Williams might have racked up yards against backups, but he also did it behind second-string linemen. He might have had just 18 first-half rushing attempts all season, but he also scored on three of them. He might have largely been a straight-line runner when he got the ball, but that didn’t make it any easier for defenders to bring him down.

Now with Freeman and Wilder gone, it’s Williams who figures to take over the FSU ground game. Given that he’ll be playing with a Heisman-winning quarterback and an offensive line likely to have five senior starters, the expectations are high for good reason. He’s got all the physical tools to be a star, and he has plenty of stars already surrounding him on offense.

So what’s the ceiling for Williams? If he maintains his 2013 average over the same number of carries Freeman got last season, he would finish 2014 with nearly 1,400 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Of course, maintaining those numbers will be difficult against stiffer competition, but remember that Williams will now have a full year of experience at the position under his belt when 2014 begins. And while he’s likely to endure more bumps and bruises in a larger role, he’ll also have a chance to get into a routine, to wear defenders down with his unique blend of size and speed.

In other words, the question marks surrounding Williams are largely about when he played in 2013, but there’s no doubt that what he did once he got on the field was spectacular. This season, Williams will get every chance to prove it was no fluke, and if he reaches those projected totals, Winston won’t be the only Heisman contender on Florida State’s offense.
Setting up spring in the ACC Atlantic.

Boston College

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.
Clemson

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.
Florida State

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.
Louisville

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.
NC State

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.
Syracuse

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.
Wake Forest

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.
It is officially time for Florida State to put its 2013 championship season behind and begin pursuit of another as spring practice is just two weeks away.

While many of the Seminoles’ top players will return to Doak Campbell Stadium this fall, graduation, early departures and transfers have left Jimbo Fisher searching for answers at a handful of positions. There is talent and depth across the board at nearly every position, but the FSU staff is hoping key replacements emerge this spring before being thrust into pivotal role this fall.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
AP Photo/Steve CannonThe big and speedy Karlos Williams (left) will have some help in the Seminoles backfield this season.
This week we look at five key position battles this spring, and Tuesday's focus is the competition at running back. The battle for the backup quarterback job was broken down Monday.

Position: Running back
Replacing: Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr.
Candidates: Karlos Williams, Mario Pender, Ryan Green and Dalvin Cook

Freeman finally broke the streak of 16 consecutive seasons without a 1,000-yard rusher at Florida State, rushing for 1,016 yards, becoming the first Florida State running back since Warrick Dunn in 1996 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Freeman promptly bolted early for the NFL just days later.

In another mild surprise, Wilder also declared for the NFL draft following his junior season. While Freeman received the bulk of the carries, Wilder was usually the one to give Freeman a chance to catch his breath on the sidelines before Williams would come in for mop-up duty in the second half. Combined, Freeman and Wilder tallied 1,579 yards and 22 touchdowns on 254 rushes.

With those two off to the NFL, along with receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, Jameis Winston could use a sound running game to alleviate the increased pressure he will certainly see from defenses. In 2013, Wilder averaged seven yards per carry and Freeman’s average was just shy of six yards. Without that solid run support, it could mean Winston and Florida State will see more second- and third-and-long situations.

Before the 2013 season, Williams was moved to running back from safety, and he now looks poised to be the starting tailback for the Noles going forward. But few offensive staffs rely on just a single running back, and Fisher has never given his top running back more than 28 percent of the team’s total carries in any of his first four seasons.

Athletically, the 6-foot-1, 223-pound Williams looks capable of handling the lion’s share of the carries, but Fisher will likely rely on a committee that could rotate as many as four players at the position. Redshirt sophomore Pender is back with the team after academics and injuries cost him his first two seasons. His RecruitingNation scouting report speaks glowingly of Pender, stating the 5-foot-10, 192-pound back can develop into an every-down player that can “run with patience or stick it downhill” as well as “turn the corner and take it the distance.” Few prospects boast the kind of speed Pender owns. He ran 10.61 in the 100-meter dash in high school. The eighth-ranked running back in the 2012 class, Pender is the only running back among the top 10 at the position from that cycle yet to take a snap.

The Noles have speed to burn at running back with Pender, sophomore Green and early enrollee Cook. Green was the No. 3-ranked athlete coming out of high school and was electronically timed at 4.45 in the 40-yard dash. As a freshman, Green saw action in 12 games and averaged 4.9 yards per carry on his 33 attempts. He figures to see an increased role in 2014 and could backup Williams, especially if Pender fails to see the field again.

Cook, who was timed at 4.46, was No. 3 at his position in the 2014 cycle and enrolled in January following a flip from Florida. He is already on campus and can participate in spring drills. It would not be a surprise to see Cook have a significant role this coming season.

FSU spring spotlight: Mario Pender

February, 25, 2014
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Spring practice is just a few weeks away for Florida State, and while the defending national champs return plenty of talent to make another run at a title, there are still some big question marks looming as the Seminoles begin work on the 2014 season. With that in mind, we’re looking at the five most intriguing players to watch this spring and projecting how they might fit into Jimbo Fisher’s plans in the fall.

We’ve already discussed DT Nile Lawrence-Stample.

Next up: RB Mario Pender

Credentials: An ESPN 150 recruit out of Island Coast High (Cape Coral, Fla.) in 2012, Pender has blazing speed and projected as a big-play threat in the FSU offense. The problem, however, is that two years into his career, he’s yet to see the field. This spring marks Pender’s third in Tallahassee, marking him as something of a veteran in Fisher’s offense, but a groin injury cost him all of the 2012 season and academic issues sidelined him throughout 2013.

How he fits: A year ago, Pender appeared the heir apparent to Chris Thompson as Florida State’s speedy, big-play threat in the backfield, and he showed impressive burst throughout the spring. But his grades became a problem and he was bounced from the team during fall camp, which in turn pushed Fisher to swap Karlos Williams from safety to tailback. That move proved a stroke of genius, but now Williams is atop FSU’s depth chart without a clear second option. Sophomore Ryan Green is the only other tailback with game experience on the roster, meaning Pender -- along with early enrollee Dalvin Cook -- will be in prime position to win a significant share of the carries.

Competition: Williams projects as the clear starter entering spring practice, but Fisher has never relied heavily on just one running back. Throughout his first four seasons as FSU’s coach, his leading rusher has accounted for less than 28 percent of the Seminoles’ total carries. So even if Williams proves to be a bell cow, there could be as many as 350 carries left over for the other running backs on the roster. Cook’s early arrival this spring means Florida State will have three former ESPN 300 players vying for that work behind Williams, which should make for an intriguing competition.

Outlook: While Green and Cook have bright futures regardless of their work this spring, Pender’s situation is a bit more nebulous. He has ample talent, but even while he looked sharp last spring, he struggled with blitz pick-up, blocking and decision making. A season spent on the sidelines certainly didn’t help his development, and if he can’t lock down a significant role in 2014, it’s fair to wonder if Pender will ever make a serious impact for the Seminoles. Still, there’s reason for optimism. Cook is a burgeoning star, but he’s just two months removed from high school. Green showed promise in a small role in 2013, but he exhibits many of the same flaws as Pender did in the spring. That means it’s a legitimately open competition for carries, and of the four tailbacks on the roster -- including Williams -- none have been playing the position for FSU longer than Pender. At worst, he could develop into a nice change-of-pace/third-down back in 2014, and given the turnover at the position, Fisher will be happy to have some options.

FSU instant impacts: Dalvin Cook

February, 19, 2014
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Jimbo Fisher closed out his fifth straight top-10 recruiting class earlier this month, but as he’s shown in years past, that doesn’t necessarily mean a bevy of big contributions from the incoming freshmen.

Some seasons, such as 2011, Florida State relied heavily on the new recruits. Others, such as 2012, only a select few saw routine playing time.

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.

We’ve already looked at DT Demarcus Christmas and FSU’s wide receivers.

[+] EnlargeDalvin Cook
Miller Safrit/ESPNParticipating in spring practice could give ESPN 300 running back Dalvin Cook a leg up in FSU's running back carousel.
Next up: RB Dalvin Cook

The player: One of the top running backs in the country, Cook has all the tools to make an immediate impact. At 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, he could stand to add some weight, but as an early enrollee, he’ll have the luxury of an extra five months in FSU’s conditioning program, along with the experience gained during spring practice. As a senior at Miami Central in 2013, Cook rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and added 24 touchdowns en route to being named Mr. Florida Football. Like the man he’ll be looking to replace in Florida State’s offense, fellow Miami-area product Devonta Freeman, Cook shined when the spotlight was brightest in high school, rushing for 223 yards and four touchdowns in Central’s state championship win.

The need: The starting tailback job appears to be Karlos Williams' to lose after the former safety rushed for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns in reserve duty in 2013. But during Fisher’s four seasons as head coach, his leading running back has accounted for just 27.5 percent of the team’s rushing attempts, and the last time any single runner had more than 40 percent of FSU’s carries was 2007 (Antone Smith). With Freeman and James Wilder Jr. headed to the NFL, there figures to be a lot of carries available to the youngsters -- even if Williams establishes himself as something of a bell cow.

The competition: Williams has ample talent, as evidenced by his 8 yards-per-carry average last season, but he’s hardly a sure thing. Of his 91 career rushing attempts, 73 came in the second half of games and 80 came with FSU leading by at least 8 points. In other words, a bulk of Williams’ success came against worn-down or second-string defenses. Still, his 91 carries account for nearly 40 percent of the combined rushing attempts of FSU’s roster. No one has significant experience, leaving a mix of youngsters pushing to prove their ready. Ryan Green showed flashes last season, racking up 163 yards on 33 carries, but he must improve his blocking and do a better job of hitting holes when they open. Mario Pender returns after missing 2013 due to academics, and while his blazing speed should make for an interesting weapon, he’s yet to even make it through a fall camp during his two years in Tallahassee.

The prediction: Cook is hardly a finished product upon arrival, but by enrolling early, he’s got time to add some weight and refine his craft. He's an immense talent and, with limited experience around him, it’s easy to envision the freshman getting a significant slice of the pie this spring. If he wows coaches at this level the way he did in high school, he could push for something of an even share of the carries in an offense where Fisher has always preferred an array of options. Williams remains the heir apparent, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Cook matches those 91 carries Williams got in reserve duty last year -- and receives a good bit more.

FSU room to improve: Special teams

February, 14, 2014
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The celebration of a BCS championship victory is in the rearview mirror for Florida State, and Jimbo Fisher, Jameis Winston and Co. have already turned their attention toward adding another trophy in 2014. So as Florida State preps for spring practice, we’re digging into the biggest questions, position battles and storylines facing the defending national champs.

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 defensive line, running backs, linebackers and wide receivers.

Last up: Special teams

Projected starters: Roberto Aguayo (K/RS So.), Cason Beatty (P/Jr.), Kermit Whitfield (KR/So.), Jesus Wilson (PR/So.)

[+] EnlargeRoberto Aguayo
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State kicker Roberto Aguayo was nearly perfect on field goals (21 of 22), converted on all 94 PATs and could force touchbacks with his kickoffs.
Special teams are something of a broad category, and in several areas, Florida State was a monster in 2013. Whitfield was a revelation in the kick return game, racking up 36.4 yards per return, including two touchdowns. Aguayo was just as impressive in his first year as the team’s kicker, connecting on 21 of 22 field goals. But in other areas, there was an obvious shortcoming. Kenny Shaw handled the bulk of punt return duties, and while he was consistent, he was rarely great. He averaged 9.7 yards per return -- down about 5 yards from the team’s average in 2012. Meanwhile, Beatty continued to struggle in his second year as the team’s punter, finishing last in the ACC in net punting (35.4 yards/punt) in 2013, with his struggles particularly exposed in the BCS title game.

Strength in numbers: Karlos Williams (Sr.), Ryan Green (So.), Rashad Greene (Sr.)

Williams was a fixture in the kick return game throughout the past three seasons, but with his new role as the starting tailback (and only RB with much experience), it remains a question how much Fisher will utilize him on special teams. Greene was a playmaker as a punt returner in 2012 but muffs forced him to the bench. With Shaw gone, he could get another look this year. While there’s a plethora of speed throughout FSU’s roster that could find a role in the return game, Green is among the top options among the younger players.

New on the scene: Ja'Von Harrison (Fr.), Trey Marshall (Fr.)

Fisher’s focus on recruiting speed at the skill positions means there are plenty of options in the return game both on the current roster and among the new faces inked in the Class of 2014. Harrison and Marshall are among the top choices and both figure to get a look on scrimmage downs and coverage teams as well, adding some incentive to forego a redshirt.

What to watch: The battle to replace Shaw as punt returner should make for some interesting battles both in spring and fall camp, but Florida State has so much talent on the roster that the options are plentiful. The bigger question is how much Fisher will rely on veterans in those jobs -- particularly Williams and Greene -- given their significant roles on scrimmage downs. The one area where Florida State has a real concern and, likely, no clear alternative on special teams is at punter, where Beatty showed only minimal improvement in his second full year as the starter. It’s possible Fisher could give a look to a walk-on, and he at least gave some lip service to QB J.J. Cosentino's history punting (a highly unlikely scenario for myriad reasons), but odds are it’s Beatty’s job still, regardless of his previous struggles. In 2013, the punting woes were easily overcome by an avalanche of blowout wins (FSU averaged 3.0 punts per game, fewest in the nation), but as the schedule improves in 2014, that’s a luxury the Seminoles can’t assume they’ll have again this season.

FSU room to improve: Running backs

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
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The celebration of a BCS championship is in the rear-view mirror for Florida State, and Jimbo Fisher, Jameis Winston and Co. already have turned their attention toward adding another trophy in 2014. So as Florida State preps for spring practice, we’re digging into the biggest questions, position battles and storylines facing the defending national champs.

This week, we’ll look at the five position groups with the biggest question marks looming in advance of spring practice.

First up: Running back

Projected starter: Karlos Williams (Senior)

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesKarlos Williams is FSU's leading returning rusher, but there are some concerns about his durability.
The potential upside for Williams is off the charts. No player from an AQ-team with as many carries as Williams (91) rushed for more yards per attempt in 2013 as he did, and no running back with at least 50 rushes found the end zone more efficiently than Williams (once every 8.3 carries). But after FSU enjoyed both depth and experience at tailback the past two seasons, Williams does come with a few concerns. He didn’t start playing tailback until the second game of the 2013 season, and he has carried the ball just 11 times with FSU leading by seven points or less. How he’ll hold up to a full season as the featured back against first-team defenders is still an open question.

Strength in numbers: Mario Pender (RS-So.), Ryan Green (So.), Freddie Stevenson (So.), Cameron Ponder (Sr.)

Like Williams, the rest of FSU’s depth chart at tailback has little experience carrying the ball in a close game. Williams had 18 rushes in the first half of games last season. No one else on the roster had even one. But like with Williams, those numbers are more of an unanswered question than a definitive statement. Green’s elusiveness makes him a valuable weapon, but he must improve his blocking and blitz pickup before he’s a regular contributor. Pender missed each of his first two seasons (groin injury, academic issues) but he knows the system and has speed to burn. Assuming he stays eligible, he’ll have a role in FSU’s game plan.

New on the scene: Dalvin Cook, Jonathan Vickers

Cook is the big wild card in the running back mix. He’s supremely talented, rated as the third-best running back in the 2014 class by ESPN. He already has enrolled, giving him the luxury of a full spring to get acquainted with FSU’s offense. Fisher wants to distribute carries among a handful of backs, which means Cook will get his chance to play -- and play often. When the dust settles this fall, it’s certainly possible Cook emerges as Florida State’s most complete back.

What to watch: Perhaps no position group can take a bigger step forward this spring than the running backs. Williams must show he’s a more refined runner rather than simply relying on his rare combination of size and speed if he’s to inherit bell-cow status. Green still has plenty of developing to do, too, and while he’s a weapon with the ball in his hands, he’ll need to do a better job of hitting holes and picking up blitzes. Cook, of course, will be the most intriguing figure of the spring. If he makes a comfortable transition to the college level, it’s entirely possible FSU once again will have a two-headed tailback attack as good as any team in the ACC.

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