FSU Seminoles: Lonnie Pryor
No. 9: TE Nick O'Leary
Pressure point: O'Leary arrived amid much hype, and for good reason. He's got the size to be a solid blocker, but his athleticism and pass-catching ability should make him a major mismatch against linebackers and defensive ends. Through two seasons, however, FSU hasn't enjoyed many fruits of those mismatches. The pressure to find more success as a junior will be ratcheted up even further in 2013. With fullback Lonnie Pryor gone, Jimbo Fisher has said he plans to use O'Leary at halfback and will scheme numerous sets with two tight ends. That's a potentially successful wrinkle to the FSU offense -- but only if O'Leary blossoms into the star he's been projected to become.
If he succeeds: Several potential stumbling blocks for FSU's offense could be instantly solved if O'Leary puts together an all-conference-caliber season. If O'Leary's blocking improves, he could help ease the loss of Menelik Watson on the right side. If he becomes a more consistent threat in the passing game, he could provide a valuable safety valve for a young quarterback. If he can avoid making dumb mistakes -- such as fumbling while trying to hurdle defenders -- he could supply the same type of consistency that made Pryor such a valuable part of FSU's offense. Those are all big ifs at the moment.
If he fails: Fisher raved about the progress of senior Kevin Haplea this spring, and the Penn State transfer at least provides FSU with a solid Plan B at tight end. Haplea will never be the receiving threat O'Leary already is, but after a year in the program, he's at least consistent as a blocker and can do enough in the passing game to be an asset. Still, Haplea is the safe option. O'Leary is the potentially explosive one. If O'Leary fails to develop, FSU misses out on a major weapon who could be even more valuable with a young quarterback running the show. More importantly, struggles from any of FSU's tight ends ties Fisher's hands in terms of scheme.
Projection: The first step in meeting expectations for O'Leary would be to simply stop making so many ugly plays. It's one thing to disappear in the offense (something O'Leary has done at times) but it's another to turn a potentially big play into a disastrous one (something O'Leary has become known for among frustrated fans). New tight ends coach Tim Brewster knows he has a potential gold mine in O'Leary, though, and those struggles in 2012 might have served to light a fire under a player who was No. 20 in the ESPN 150 in the 2011 class. O'Leary will be given plenty of chances to shine, and a solid step forward -- 30 catches, more looks in the red zone -- would be a welcome addition. Anything more, and FSU's offense could become a lot more dynamic than many are projecting.
It happens every year that a few relatively obscure names find their way into bigger roles, and as the Seminoles get set to start another summer NoleNation is counting down five under-the-radar players who could be in line for breakthrough seasons.
Next up: Kevin Haplea (Sr./TE)
Career arc: Florida State ended up No. 2 among Haplea's college choices coming out of high school, and the 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end landed instead at Penn State. After the NCAA sanctions that rocked the Penn State program, however, the doors were opened for players to transfer, and Haplea decided to give FSU another look.
Why he's overlooked: Haplea arrived in Tallahassee just days before the start of fall camp last season, and what followed was a whirlwind. An injury to Dan Hicks opened the door for Haplea to get on the field routinely, but he was never an integral part of the offense. Haplea's blocking was solid, but he caught just three passes for 15 yards.
Why he'll produce: For the past four years, Lonnie Pryor has been a fixture of FSU's offensive game plan at fullback, but his departure after the 2012 season likely opens the door to some different looks, and Jimbo Fisher said he's planning on employing more two tight end sets this season. That's good news for Haplea, who might already be FSU's best blocking tight end. But while the grunt work was always a solid niche for Haplea, he showed some athleticism during the spring, becoming a regular target in passing situations, too.
Projection: After a full year in the program, Haplea has clearly made some major strides, and Fisher raved about his spring performance. While Nick O'Leary and Christo Kourtzidis battled injuries, Haplea kept producing. It's unlikely he'll ever be the offensive weapon that O'Leary could be, but Haplea's consistency at the little things should earn him a hefty slice of playing time in 2013.
Manuel's athleticism made him a popular prospect for teams looking to exploit the option offense, and his strong arm and experience in Fisher's pro-style scheme made him a viable option in more traditional sets. In the end, that was enough to convince the Buffalo Bills to take Manuel with the 16th overall selection in Thursday's NFL draft -- the first quarterback taken.
"You think about the journey, when I was a little kid, the ups and down," Manuel said after the selection. "I'm just so happy."
"I knew she was doing what she had to do to get better," Manuel said before the draft. "Football is a special part of my life, but having my mom for a lot longer, that's what's really important to me. I'm just happy she'll be there."
Manuel's surprising early selection is another boon for Fisher, too, who has become a guru for creating NFL quarterbacks. Manuel's predecessor, Christian Ponder, went 12th overall in the 2011 draft, and former protege at LSU, JaMarcus Russell, was a top overall selection in 2007.
"I'm extremely happy for EJ," Fisher said in a statement released by the school. “He’s a tremendous young man who has been a great representative of Florida State University. He’s worked extremely hard to get to this goal. He’s one of the main reasons that this program has been able to get back to national prominence because of the sacrifices he’s made through his career as well as his development as a player. I’m extremely happy for him and his family. This couldn’t have happen to a better group of people.”
Florida State's return to national prominence was on display throughout the first round of Thursday's draft, even after Manuel was selected.
Defensive tackle Bjoern Werner went 25th overall to the Indianapolis Colts, while the Minnesota Vikings took cornerback Xavier Rhodes with the 26th pick. Both players were juniors who departed FSU a year early.
Werner was pegged as a potential top-five selection late in the season after leading the ACC with 13 sacks, but his stock dipped slightly following an underwhelming performance at the combine.
Rhodes, who came to FSU as a wide receiver before Fisher convinced him to switch to cornerback, might have been a first-round pick a year ago had a bowl-game injury not derailed his plans. He returned for 2012 and helped Florida State's secondary to a No. 1 ranking in the nation in pass defense.
"We were laughing about the day when he didn't want to move over to corner," Fisher said. "He was mad at me for a couple of months. But it's funny how you go back and reminisce when things work out like that."
The three first-round selections were the most for Florida State since 2006, when four Seminoles were taken. They had just three first rounders in the six drafts since.
FSU figures to have at least two more players go in tonight's second round. Right tackle Menelik Watson and defensive end Cornelius Carradine are widely projected as early second-round talent.
As many as a half-dozen more Florida State players could fill out the later rounds of the draft, including fullback Lonnie Pryor, linebacker Vince Williams, kicker Dustin Hopkins and defensive end Brandon Jenkins.
That would mark a massive shift in Florida State's NFL prospects after a dry spell in recent years. FSU has had just 11 players selected in all in the last four drafts prior to this year.
"Hopefully we can do that every year as we establish ourselves as a program," Fisher said. "We've revamped the type of recruiting we're doing and identified certain types of athletes we thought were difference makers and great kids. We've come a long way."
The senior, who transferred from Penn State just days before the start of fall camp last season, has impressed new tight ends coach Tim Brewster with his ability to do all the little things necessary at the line of scrimmage.
While Chad Abram looks to have the fullback spot locked up, he may not offer the same versatility that Pryor brought to the FSU offense a year ago, and Jimbo Fisher has hinted that he could look to use starting tight end Nick O'Leary as a halfback and potentially run a lot more two- and three-tight end sets.
That could mean a good bit more work for Haplea, who is finding his footing in Year 2 with the program. Fisher said Haplea has caught more passes during the past few days of practice than he did all of last season.
O'Leary is still the starter at the position, and he's outpaces his competition in terms of potential by a strong margin. But while Haplea has excelled at the fundamentals, O'Leary is still working on the nuance of his position and hoping to overcome some ugly mistakes he made in 2012.
"He's a guy that's got tremendous talent, but he needs to understand that the details of the game are very important," Brewster said. "The fundamental aspects of tight end play, all the little things are important. It's not about the big picture, it's about seeing the little picture, the little things involved in every play."
Fisher said O'Leary continues to mature, and he hopes to see the junior tight end blossom into a dominant force this season. There have been some encouraging signs this spring, but O'Leary remains a work in progress.
"If he gets those little things, he's really tough to handle," Fisher said. "The details are more refined, and that's the challenge for him right now."
Up next, a position that was a disaster in 2011 but the foundation of last season's offense: Running Backs
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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.
Previously: Cornerback, Wide Receivers and Tight Ends, Defensive Tackles
2012 recap: It's tough to overstate how much Florida State's ground game improved from 2011, with the Seminoles nearly doubling their total rushing yards and finishing the season with five players who averaged better than 5 yards per carry. Overall, Florida State finished fourth nationally, averaging 5.62 yards per rush. Chris Thompson was well on his way to becoming the first FSU runner to top 1,000 yards since 1996, but his season ended in Week 9 with a torn ACL. James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman teamed up to handle the job the rest of the way -- usually successfully -- and figure to do the same again in 2013.
Departures: Thompson toyed with the idea of appealing the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility after his Week 9 injury, but he eventually abandoned that plan and is focused on rehabbing his knee and making a go of it in the NFL. His loss is big, but Freeman and Wilder proved to be able substitutes. At fullback, things aren't quite so clear cut. Lonnie Pryor departs after four seasons as a starter, and there's no obvious replacement waiting in the wings.
Arrivals: FSU figures to finally get its first look at Mario Pender, who redshirted in 2012 after undergoing groin surgery at the start of fall practice. Pender's rehab went smoothly, but he still won't be a regular practice participant until spring workouts get going. Meanwhile, FSU added another dynamic weapon to its backfield on national signing day with four-star athlete Ryan Green. Like Thompson, Green is a home-run threat with great speed. In what should be something of an unsettled backfield, he could see action immediately.
Biggest question mark: There are no questions about Wilder's ability, but it's still unclear whether he'll ever blossom as a superstar runner. Wilder had a productive 2012 season, rushing for 652 yards and 11 touchdowns, but even after Thompson's injury, he didn't emerge as an every down back. Wilder's size and strength make him a weapon, particularly in short-yardage situations, but his affinity for contact also means the bumps and bruises can accumulate over the course of the season. Add a myriad of off-field issues, and the question marks continue to pile up. The most likely scenario for 2013 is that Wilder again splits time with Freeman as co-starters, but there's also the chance that Wilder blossoms into a star -- and maybe even managed to put an end to that ongoing drought of 1,000-yard backs.
Breakout star: The backfield is probably a bit too crowded for any one runner to become a superstar, but Wilder may be the best bet to make the leap. Of course, Freeman has had two straight solid seasons and won't have to worry about taking a backseat to Thompson this time around, while Pender and Green certainly possess the talent to take the job and run with it, too. In other words, there's a ton of talent, but just one football to go around.
Projected 2013 starter: Freeman and Wilder
When it comes to recruiting, coaches must think long-term. It's not just about which holes must be filled immediately, but rather where the needs might be in two or three years.
With that in mind, NoleNation writers David Hale and Corey Dowlar are going position by position, looking at what FSU has on its roster now and who might provide reinforcements down the line, projecting starters and evaluating the depth through 2015.
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That won't be the case this year as a rash of departures from both assistant coaches and underclassmen mean the signing class is still in flux and the depth chart has plenty of spots up for grabs.
So, as the Seminoles' spring kicks into high gear, here are the five departures that have left the biggest voids that will need to be filled over the next few months.
Coming: FSU has a deep reserve of QB talent in Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston. The question is which one of them can take over the job on a full-time basis. Trickett enters spring practice atop the depth chart, but Coker and Winston have too much talent to cede the job without a fight.
2. Right tackle
Going: Menelik Watson's time at Florida State amounted to only about eight months, but he made his presence felt. The junior college transfer anchored FSU's offensive line in 2012, and since announcing his intentions to enter the NFL draft -- something of a surprise to FSU coaches -- his profile has steadily increased. Several recent mock drafts have Watson as a first-round selection.
Coming: The obvious answer at right tackle would be Bobby Hart, who started eight games there as a freshman before being relegated to a reserve role last season. Hart's maturity, attitude and relationship with line coach Rick Trickett have all been called into question at times, however, making him anything but a safe bet to win the job. Further complicating matters, FSU lost one of its top recruits in Austin Golson, leaving just two commitments in what was supposed to be a big offensive line class.
Bjoern Werner: Though he was a four-star recruit according to ESPN, he was only the 24th-ranked defensive end in the Class of 2010. What Werner turned into will possibly be the highest draft choice at the position this spring in the NFL draft. Werner, known for his ability to play against the run as well as the pass, has NFL general managers jostling for a shot at him. He''s almost certain be the highest-drafted player from Germany.
Xavier Rhodes: Rhodes, the nation's No. 61 wide receiver prospect in the Class of 2009, didn't even end up at the position once at Florida State. Moved to cornerback, Rhodes enjoyed a nice career for himself as one of the ACC's top cornerbacks thanks to his combination of size and speed. Rhodes recently declared he will forgo his senior season and head to the NFL.
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Here’s a look at those who are scheduled to be in Tallahassee.
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But as the sun sets on 2012 and the preparations for 2013 begin, here are five more players who didn't exactly earn raves last season but could prove to be significant contributors for Florida State in the season to come.
Kelvin Benjamin (So./WR)
Background: It's somewhat odd that, after more than a year of continuous hype, Benjamin appears to be flying a bit below the radar now. Chalk it up to a rather disappointing finish to 2012. After racking up 25 touches for 476 yards and four TDs in his first nine games, Benjamin mustered just seven catches for 52 yards and no scores over the final five.
Sometimes, the biggest decisions float under the radar at the time, and it's only in retrospect that we figure out what really defined the season. With that in mind, here are the five decisions that probably made the biggest impact on the 2012 ACC champions.
1. West Virginia waves goodbye
The rumors started last December and by February it was official: West Virginia backed out of its scheduled non-conference trip to Tallahassee, leaving FSU scrambling for an opponent. The result was a horrific game against lowly Savannah State -- one that mercifully wasn't played to completion due to weather -- and months of bemoaning a weak schedule.
Thanks to two games against FCS foes and another down season in the ACC, the Seminoles were lambasted as untested and its conference title (and 12 wins) felt somewhat hollow, given that only Clemson and Florida provided legitimate obstacles in the minds of many fans.
2. Moving Cameron Erving, benching Bobby Hart
When the 2011 season ended, Erving was a prospect on the defensive line and Hart was ensconced as the starter at right tackle. By the end of spring practice, a lot had changed.
The young and talented Hart found himself in line coach Rick Trickett's doghouse, and by the time fall practice began, he had been moved inside to guard and was working with the second-team offense. That opened up room for Menelik Watson, a junior college transfer who blossomed into a star.
Erving was swapped from offense to defense -- with a little convincing -- and although he had his ups and downs this season, he provided a marked improvement in protecting EJ Manuel's blind side.
With Erving and Watson working the edges, FSU shaved 14 sacks off its total from 2011 and kept Manuel healthy enough to start all 14 games.
The numbers don't always tell the whole story, but these numbers shed some light on some of the biggest reasons Florida State won 12 games and its first ACC title in seven years, and also why those other two games got away.
First up: 40.
That's the number of rushing touchdowns by Florida State this season -- double its total from a year ago.
Florida State's offense might have lacked some consistency, but this year's unit was markedly improved, and that started with the ground game. Only four other teams in the country boasted a bigger increase in rushing touchdowns from 2011 to 2012 than Florida State, and even with the loss of starter Chris Thompson in Week 8, the Seminoles still finished with the third highest yards per carry of any team in the nation (5.62).
It's hard to quantify the impact the improved ground game had on FSU's offense this year, but across the board the differences were staggering.
Essentially with just three additional running plays per game, FSU doubled its ground gains in 2012.
Perhaps as impressive as the overall running game was the depth. Take away the yardage lost to sacks, and Florida State had five runners -- Lonnie Pryor (8.0), Thompson (7.5), EJ Manuel (6.4), Devonta Freeman (6.0) and James Wilder Jr. (5.8) -- rack up at least 45 carries and average at least 5.5 yards per rush.
Of course, plenty of credit goes to the offensive line, with the Orange Bowl providing a prime example. Of the 243 yards FSU gained on the ground against Northern Illinois, 196 of them came before contact was made with a defender (81 percent), and runners went untouched on all three touchdown runs.
On the one hand, Florida State won 12 games, an ACC title, a BCS bowl. On the other hand, it was never really close to competing for a national title -- as so many had predicted -- and the losses to NC State and Florida were both aggravating for various reasons.
The same is true for a number of the star performers. To put together our final FSU power rankings for the year, weighing expectations against performance is a must. So, with that in mind, here's how our final rankings for the season shook out. (Previous rankings in parentheses.)
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It wasn't exactly the easy win so many predicted, but Florida State's size and speed advantage helped the Seminoles outlast upstart Northern Illinois 31-10 to win their first Orange Bowl since 1996.
Record-setting NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch found no room to work, and Florida State's dominant defense showed few flaws in its first game without departed coordinator Mark Stoops, while EJ Manuel accounted for 321 yards of offense and two touchdowns to lead the Seminoles.
It was over when: Xavier Rhodes forced a fumble from Da'Ron Brown on a second-down run with 11:15 left to play in the game. Northern Illinois had just converted a fourth-and-1 and was driving in hopes of cutting FSU's lead to seven, but the fumble was the dagger that ended any hopes of an upset. The play was reviewed, but officials ruled the ball was coming out of Brown's grip before his knee hit the ground, and the Seminoles quickly capitalized on the turnover with a Lonnie Pryor touchdown.
Game ball goes to: Pryor. The senior fullback has toiled in the shadows for four years at Florida State, earning immense respect within the locker room but relatively little fanfare outside it. Tuesday's game was different. While the rest of the FSU running game struggled, Pryor was brilliant. He opened the scoring with a 60-yard touchdown run -- the longest of his career -- and put the icing on the cake with his 37-yard touchdown after NIU's fourth-quarter fumble.
Turning point: There were plenty, but NIU's two turnovers were killer. The fumble by Brown was the last straw, but a third-quarter interception by Terrence Brooks squelched another promising Huskies drive. Brooks picked off Lynch at the FSU 13-yard line to protect a slim seven-point lead.
Stat of the game: Lynch entered the game as one of the most dynamic offensive players in college football, but he found out yards are far tougher to come by against Florida State. Coming into the game, Lynch had racked up 1,771 rushing yards -- fourth most in the nation -- and was averaging 6.5 yards per carry. But Christian Jones, Telvin Smith, Vince Williams and the FSU linebacking corps was exceptional, hitting him repeatedly and giving him nowhere to run. Lynch had bragged earlier in the week that NIU planned to wear FSU down late, but the opposite was true, and the junior quarterback finished with just 44 yards rushing on 23 carries, while completing just 36 percent of his throws.
Unsung hero: It's tough to call Manuel an unsung hero, but in a season in which he's earned just as much criticism as praise -- and maybe more -- he wrapped up a five-year career at Florida State with a solid performance. Manuel completed 27 of 39 passes for 296 yards through the air and added another 26 rushing with a touchdown. He missed a few passes -- something his critics will be happy to note -- but he connected on far more. When the FSU offense needed him, he made the throws he had to make. Manuel never lived up to his immense promise at FSU, but he was surely a very good quarterback, and he ends his career as an Orange Bowl champion and winner of four straight bowl games.
What it means: Northern Illinois shrugged off the legions of doubters and proved an unexpectedly competitive opponent, but in the end, Lynch and the Huskies simply didn't have enough to make a late charge. For Florida State, it was yet another inconsistent performance in a season that has been filled with them. But it was also the school's first BCS win in 12 years, and it marked just the second time in program history that FSU has won 12 games in a season.