Florida State Seminoles: Nate Andrews

There were practices last year when Florida State’s secondary would surrender so many big plays that then-defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt would slump into Jimbo Fisher’s office and wonder whether he had a group ready to compete at a championship level.

The concerns lasted only as long as it took to put the film together, however. Once coaches got a second look at the busted plays and blown coverages, it became clear: It wasn’t about the secondary’s struggles. It was about how good Jameis Winston, Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and the offense were.

“You go look at film and there’s nobody going to make that throw but Jameis,” Fisher said. “Nobody’s going to make that catch but KB, Rashad.”

[+] EnlargeLevonte Whitfield
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Kermit Whitfield is a candidate to get the starting nod as Florida State's slot receiver.
As it turned out, Florida State had the nation’s best secondary last season. It also had arguably the country’s top passing attack, with a Heisman winner and two 1,000-yard receivers. The spring struggles on either side of the ball were a matter of that double-edged sword that comes from practicing against each other.

This spring, the situation was the same, but the struggles tended to appear more often on offense. Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are gone, taking 108 catches and 21 touchdowns with them, and it’s a relatively inexperienced group now taking the first-team reps. There’s a learning curve, but on the other side of the ball, FSU’s defensive backs haven’t pulled their punches.

Fisher raved about Jalen Ramsey and P.J. Williams, who have both developed into dominant DBs and core leaders of FSU’s 2014 defense. Tyler Hunter’s return from a neck injury has added a spark to summer drills, which began this week. Add in Nate Andrews, Ronald Darby, Marquez White -- Fisher said the depth of talent in the secondary is immense -- and it makes it that much tougher for the receivers to strut their stuff.

“Those guys came out and threw and caught the ball in the spring going against as good people as there is out there, consistently, daily,” Fisher said. “That’s the thing I’ve got to remember when I don’t think we’re doing as well.”

Still, it won’t be easy for Florida State to replace its departed offensive stars.

Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield each developed nicely this spring, Fisher said. They’ll likely jockey for reps in the slot, where Shaw was so consistently good a year ago.

On the outside, the Seminoles are in search of a physical presence that can pick up the slack left by the 6-foot-5 Benjamin. The top options are likely the two newest faces. Ermon Lane (6-2) and Travis Rudolph (6-0) took their first reps in seven-on-seven drills this week, showcasing an already advanced skill set. It was in the weight room, however, that Fisher said they’ve really shined. Both arrived on campus bigger and stronger than Fisher had expected, and he’s optimistic both can play a role on offense for FSU immediately.

And before the Seminoles’ passing game is knocked for having too much youth complementing Greene, Fisher is quick to point out that seniors Jarred Haggins and Christian Green return, along with tight end Nick O'Leary, who is back to 100 percent after an offseason motorcycle accident.

It’s true, the passing game is more of a work in progress than it was a year ago, according to Fisher. But even as his receivers were crushing the spirits of an equally talented defense last spring, there was still more growth to come. Greg Dent was last spring’s MVP, and he never took a snap in the fall thanks to off-field issues. Benjamin was inconsistent and hadn’t approached his potential. By season’s end, he was a star and Winston’s favorite weapon.

Things change, Fisher said. Players learn and develop and get better, and he’s got a group he believes will do all those things. And just as importantly, he has a Heisman quarterback to push them along.

“Skill guys can get much better over a summer if they really apply themselves because they can throw and catch and do things,” Fisher said. “And [Winston] knows what he’s doing, and he sets the tone in what goes on without a doubt.”
The 2013 signing class has already made its mark on the ACC, from Tyler Boyd and Stacy Coley shining on offense to Jalen Ramsey and Kendall Fuller starring on defense to Ryan Switzer racking up All-America honors on special teams. But for most players, the transition from high school to college takes a little time, and it’s not until Year 2 that they truly shine. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the best candidates for second-year stardom in the conference -- the players who didn’t quite hit the big time as true freshmen, but are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.

See our previous projections HERE.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesFlorida State receiver Jesus Wilson (3) could start as a sophomore in 2014.
Next up: Florida State

Class recap: Jimbo Fisher’s lowest-rated class since taking over as head coach (No. 9) still had plenty of impact on the Seminoles’ national title. Ramsey, Nate Andrews and Kermit Whitfield all played significant roles and made some big plays as freshmen, while several others contributed regularly as reserves.

Second-year star: WR Jesus Wilson (5-foot-9, 177 pounds)

Recruiting stock: A four-star recruit out of Miami, Wilson was ranked as the 62nd-best receiver nationally, with his size the primary knock on his game.

2013 in review: Wilson was one of three true freshmen receivers to play for Florida State last season, but his role was minimal. Aside from work on special teams, he caught just three passes all season -- one against Wake Forest and two in an 80-14 blowout of Idaho.

2014 potential: Wilson might not have shown much on Saturdays, but from the time he arrived on campus last summer, teammates raved about his work on the practice field. The transition to game days was complicated by the fact that FSU already had three talented receivers, all of whom topped 900 yards for the season. But Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin are gone, and of the receivers who remain on the roster, only Rashad Greene looks like a sure thing. Florida State does have a trio of highly regarded recruits arriving for the fall, but few positions require more time to adjust than receiver. Only two true freshmen (Boyd and Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell) tallied at least 54 receptions last season (the total both Shaw and Benjamin finished with). Wilson has now been with the program a full year, and his work this spring earned even more praise from coaches. He’s not guaranteed a starting job, but aside from Greene, he may already be the most refined of FSU’s receivers.

Also watch for: The Seminoles just keep reloading, and they have a ton of talented youngsters from the Class of 2013 worth keeping an eye on this season. Linebackers Matthew Thomas and E.J. Levenberry top the list, while Whitfield, defensive tackle Keith Bryant and tailback Ryan Green are among the others who figure to see an increase workload in 2014.

Florida State spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Florida State Seminoles:

1. Jalen Ramsey is a star in the making. Last season, Ramsey was overshadowed on his own defense with the likes of Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith demanding the headlines, but Ramsey was only a freshman. As a sophomore, several players point to Ramsey as being the defense’s leader, and he could be the best player on a defense that could have a half-dozen first-round picks in the next few seasons. He will move around to several positions in the secondary this fall.

2. Florida State’s secondary might be the best in the country. While FSU’s talent in the defensive backfield begins with Ramsey it certainly does not end there. P.J. Williams was dominant in the spring game against No. 1 receiver Rashad Greene and is an elite college corner. Opposite him are Ramsey and Ronald Darby, who missed the entire spring. All three could be first-round picks. Nate Andrew is a up-and-coming star and also just a sophomore, and Tyler Hunter returns after a neck injury in 2013.

3. Sean Maguire is a capable backup for the Noles. The disclaimer certainly is that it came against the No. 2 defense in the spring game, but Maguire showed the type of tools to be an efficient quarterback should he be called upon this fall. As the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback for the first time in his college career, Maguire said he made his biggest strides to date this spring.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Will the wide receivers step up? Coach Jimbo Fisher is not leaving spring practice with a great feeling about his receivers. He expressed his frustration in the unit on multiple occasions, and the receivers struggled in the spring game. Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are off to the NFL, and Greene will need some help from the younger receivers. Elite high school talents Ermon Lane, Travis Rudolph and Ja'Von Harrison will enroll in the summer.

2. Can the running backs stay on the field? It was a similar feeling last spring for Fisher as he did not have any healthy running backs for the Garnet and Gold game in 2013 either. Karlos Williams was held for precautionary reasons, but backups Dalvin Cook, Ryan Green and Mario Pender all suffered injuries. Cook and Green are out until fall camp with shoulder injuries, and Pender missed his first two seasons with injury and academic issues.

3. What will the linebacker rotation look like? It will be very interesting to see how new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly pairs his linebackers with a fairly inexperienced group. Terrance Smith is a given as a starter, but who will flank him? Matthew Thomas might be too good to keep off the field, which could leave one remaining spot for a very talented unit.

One way-too-early prediction:

The Noles were an offensive juggernaut in 2013, but the offense will sputter some against quality defenses. The issue at receiver is one that will not be settled in the near future, and it could cost Florida State a game.

FSU spring spotlight: Tyler Hunter

February, 28, 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.

[+] EnlargeTyler Hunter
AP Photo/Steve CannonReturning from a season-ending neck injury has Tyler Hunter primed to return to his leadership role in FSU's secondary.
We’ve already discussed Nile Lawrence-Stample, Mario Pender, Christian Green and Reggie Northrup.

Last up: S Tyler Hunter

Credentials: In 2012, Hunter won the job as Florida State’s top nickel back, and he delivered solid results for a secondary that finished the year ranked as the country’s top pass defense. He was poised for even bigger things in 2013, winning the starting safety job in fall camp and getting off to a strong start on the field. In Week 3, however, Hunter suffered a potentially career-threatening neck injury making a tackle and he didn’t play again the rest of the season. Surgery repaired the damage, however, and Hunter insists he’s ready to get back on the field in 2014.

How he fits: Florida State lost perhaps its best defender in Lamarcus Joyner, but Hunter provides a perfect candidate to replace the All-American. Joyner moved from safety to corner in 2013, excelling in coverage at nickel and as a pass rusher, where he led Florida State with 5.5 sacks. Hunter lacks the top-end speed that Joyner had, but he’s still fast and would be comfortable at safety, corner or nickel (not to mention punt returner). Whether he fills a role similar to Joyner’s remains to be seen, but his combination of skills and experience gives FSU plenty of options.

Competition: Florida State’s secondary is jam-packed with talent, from young studs like Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews to established stars like Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams. What it’s potentially lacking -- and what the defense as a whole is missing without Joyner, Telvin Smith and Timmy Jernigan -- is an established veteran leader. Hunter set that tone last spring as the unquestioned leader of the defense, spending countless hours studying film of Jeremy Pruitt’s new scheme, then organizing seven-on-seven drills throughout the summer to ensure his teammates had the system down pat.

Outlook: For the past five years, Florida State’s defense has had the luxury of on-field leadership, courtesy of Lowndes County High. First it was Greg Reid. Then it was Telvin Smith. In 2014, Hunter is the heir apparent. He was integral in transitioning the Seminoles into Pruitt’s new defensive scheme last year, and he’ll play a similar key role as Charles Kelly takes over this spring. But more than just leadership, Hunter needs to provide impact on the field. With his neck injury behind him, he could easily slip into a hybrid role filled so nicely by Joyner last year, and he could establish himself as one of the ACC’s biggest impact players in what promises to be an exceptional secondary.

FSU instant impacts: Trey Marshall

February, 20, 2014
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Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher closed out his fifth consecutive 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.

In some seasons, such as 2011, the Seminoles relied heavily on new recruits. In others, such as 2012, only a select few played regularly.

This week, we’ll dig into the Class of 2014 to project which players among the newest group of Seminoles could make an instant impact on the field this season.

We’ve already looked at DT Demarcus Christmas, RB Dalvin Cook and the wide receivers.

Next up: DB Trey Marshall

The player: Florida State signed just two defensive backs in this year’s class, but Marshall is a potential standout. Similar to so many of Fisher’s recent acquisitions in the defensive backfield, Marshall has track speed combined with size (6-foot, 196 pounds) to allow for some versatility in the secondary, though he primarily worked at safety in high school. Like last year’s surprise star at defensive back, Nate Andrews, Marshall arrives with just a three-star pedigree, but his game play isn’t entirely reflected in his measurables. Marshall is already enrolled for the spring, giving him a leg up in learning the defense, and his track record as a punt returner in high school could pay immediate dividends for Florida State on special teams.

The need: In the secondary there aren’t a lot of obvious holes, but the same might have been said a year ago, and still, two true freshmen ended up getting regular playing time on a national championship team. While the scheme could certainly change a bit under new coordinator and defensive backs coach Charles Kelly, last year’s defense employed six DBs regularly, so even if Marshall can’t crack the starting lineup, he could get playing time. FSU also loses its first-string punt returner, Kenny Shaw, and will be looking for a replacement. Marshall has the speed and pedigree to land the job — particularly if he makes an impression this spring.

The competition: At safety, the competition is stiff. Andrews is in line for a bigger role after his breakout campaign in 2013. Jalen Ramsey certainly could slide back to cornerback, where he opened 2013, but his size and style make him a good fit at safety, and FSU already has two established stars at corner. Then there’s Tyler Hunter, who returns from a serious neck injury that cost him much of last season. He’s a veteran leader on the defense, and it would be a surprise if he wasn’t penciled in as a key contributor. Hunter also could vie for reps at punt returner, where Jesus Wilson and Rashad Greene also have experience.

The prediction: Combine Marshall’s early arrival, blazing speed, experience on special teams and the small signing class in the secondary, and the case for immediate playing time is simple. The question then is how much playing time Marshall might get. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess. If he shines this spring for Kelly, there are reps to be won in the fall. Expecting a season similar to what Andrews produced last year (35 tackles, 8 passes defended, 7 takeaways) is probably shooting too high, but an impact on special teams and some success in dime situations on defense is within reach.

FSU depth chart breakdown: Defense

January, 31, 2014
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Last week, we previewed Florida State’s offensive depth chart for the spring. This week, we’ll dig into the defense.

The biggest question might be how similar the 2014 defensive scheme will look to 2013. Yes, promoting Charles Kelly certainly offers stability, but he’s also likely to want to put his own stamp on the unit rather than offering a shot-for-shot remake of Jeremy Pruitt’s system. With some significant transition in personnel and some major losses of talent, there’s room to tinker this spring. Here’s what we’ll be watching:

Defensive line

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsExpect Mario Edwards to have a bigger hand in things this fall on the Florida State defensive line.
Projected starters: Mario Edwards Jr. (Jr.), Nile Lawrence-Stample (RSJr.), Eddie Goldman (Jr.)
Backups: Desmond Hollin (Sr.), Chris Casher (RSSo.), DeMarcus Walker (So.), Derrick Mitchell (RSJr.), Keith Bryant (RSFr.), Justin Shanks (RSSo.)

Storylines: Replacing Timmy Jernigan is an impossible task, but expect plenty of hype for Lawrence-Stample this spring. He was one of Jimbo Fisher’s favorites last spring, and he’ll be counted on to step up even more this time around. The loss of Christian Jones as a hybrid rusher impacts the D line, too, and how Kelly plans to handle that role now should be interesting to watch. Edwards and Goldman are both five-star players with two years of experience under their belt, but now they’ll be looked to as leaders -- both on and off the field.

Status: B
If you want to include Jones as a defensive lineman, FSU is set to lose seven DLs to the NFL in a two-year span -- including two first-rounders in Bjoern Werner and, likely, Jernigan. That’s sapped some depth from the position, but Goldman and Edwards are as good as any D-linemen in the ACC and there’s plenty of talent behind them, too.

Linebacker

Projected starters: Reggie Northrup (Jr.), Terrance Smith (RSJr.), Matthew Thomas (So.)
Backups: E.J. Levenberry (So.), Ro'Derrick Hoskins (RSFr.), Nigel Terrell (RSSr.), Ukeme Eligwe (RSSo.), Kain Daub (Fr.)

Storylines: Smith is the only lock for a starting job here -- and even that might depend on your definition of “lock.” But while the unit is short on experience, it’s high on talent. The battle to replace Jones in the hybrid LB/DE position should be an interesting one, with Thomas offering perhaps the most upside, but Casher and Eligwe certainly in the mix, too. Northrup is the most experienced option to replace Telvin Smith, and he’s certainly capable of blossoming into a disruptive force, but Fisher raved about Levenberry throughout 2013, and that figures to be one of the more intriguing battles of spring camp. Add Daub to the mix as an early enrollee, and Kelly’s biggest problem here might be figuring out how to get enough snaps for all his talented linebackers.

Status: B
There’s plenty of talent here, but it’s impossible to replace the veteran savvy of Smith and Jones. By year’s end, this should be a terrific group, but there’s lots to be learned this spring.

Safety

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMISafety Jalen Ramsey will play a big role in the Seminoles secondary, which will be among the best in the nation.
Projected starters: Jalen Ramsey (So.), Nate Andrews (So.), Tyler Hunter (RSJr.)
Backups: Lamarcus Brutus (RSJr.), Keelin Smith (RSJr.), Tyrell Lyons (RSFr.)

Storylines: Ramsey and Andrews were exceptional as true freshmen, but the job now is to build on that progress under a new position coach. There’s little reason to believe that won’t happen. The bigger question mark at the moment is the health of Hunter, who is recovering from a neck injury that nearly ended his career. He was the leader of the secondary last spring and summer, and his impact on a young group could be huge again in 2014.

Status: A
Terrence Brooks was always undervalued, and he’ll be missed, but Hunter, Ramsey and Andrews projects as potentially the best trio of safeties in the nation.

Cornerback

Projected starters: P.J. Williams (Jr.), Ronald Darby (Jr.)
Backups: Marquez White (So.), Nick Waisome (Sr.), Colin Blake (RSSo.)

Storylines: Losing Lamarcus Joyner is a big blow, but there’s little to be concerned with here. Williams and Darby are both exceptional and figure to get even better in 2014. Darby was limited all season with a groin injury, so some downtime may be the priority for him. Waisome saw a ton of action in 2012 but largely disappeared in 2013. How he responds this spring might tell a lot about his future.

Status: A
It says a lot about the work Fisher, Pruitt and Mark Stoops have done over the past few years that FSU can lose a player of Joyner’s caliber and still likely have the best secondary -- and best pair of starting corners -- in the country.
Just a week remains until national signing day, and Florida State is on pace to add one of its deepest classes in years. Throughout Jimbo Fisher’s first four years on the job, he has managed to reel in plenty of talent. Here’s a look back at the top 10 signees who had the biggest immediate impact.

10. Christian Jones (LB, 2010): Played in all 14 games as a freshman, racking up 18 tackles with three sacks and added a forced fumble in a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina.

9. Lamarcus Joyner (DB, 2010): Played a limited role on defense but still accounted for 23 tackles and three passes defended. Blossomed into a weapon on special teams, racking up 329 yards on 16 kick returns.

8. Bjöern Werner (DE, 2010): Showed flashes of his brilliant future in a more limited role. Werner appeared in all 14 games, racking up 20 tackles, including six for a loss. He finished with 3.5 sacks.

[+] EnlargeLevonte Whitfield
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsKermit Whitfield wasn't a full-time player as a freshman, but he certainly made the most of his opportunities.
7. Nate Andrews (S, 2013): He started just one game for Florida State as a freshman, but his impact on defense was immense, leading the Seminoles with seven takeaways (four interceptions, three forced fumbles). He also racked up 35 tackles.

6. Kermit Whitfield (KR, 2013): Whitfield touched the ball just 25 times as a freshman, but he made the most of his opportunities. He racked up 818 all-purpose yards (32.7 yards per play) and scored four times, including a dramatic kickoff return for a go-ahead touchdown in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

5. Ronald Darby (CB, 2012): Splitting time at corner, Darby tied for the team lead with eight pass breakups, recorded 22 tackles and forced a fumble en route to becoming a Freshman All-America selection.

4. Timmy Jernigan (DT, 2011): Despite coming off the bench all season in 2011, Jernigan was a force in the middle of a talented defensive line. He recorded 30 tackles, tops among FSU’s interior linemen, including six for a loss. He had 2.5 sacks and his three QB hurries ranked third on the team.

3. Jalen Ramsey (DB, 2013): The first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders, Ramsey made an about-face four games into the season, taking over at safety when Tyler Hunter went down with an injury. He finished third among DBs with 49 tackles (two for a loss), recorded a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception for the nation’s top secondary.

2. Devonta Freeman (RB, 2011): Injuries on the offensive line stymied FSU’s running game and injuries in the backfield thinned the depth chart, but Freeman still stepped up to rack up a team-high 579 rushing yards with eight touchdowns in 12 games. He went on to lead Florida State in rushing in all three seasons he spent in Tallahassee.

1. Rashad Greene (WR, 2011): Because of a midseason injury he appeared in just nine games, but Greene led FSU in catches (38), receiving yards (596) and receiving touchdowns (7). He was at his best when FSU needed him the most, hauling in a 56-yard TD against Oklahoma, racking up 98 yards and a score against Clemson and catching 12 passes for 163 yards against Wake Forest. He was named MVP of the Champs Sports Bowl after recording 99 yards against Notre Dame.

FSU's early 2014 power rankings

January, 21, 2014
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In the days after Florida State wrapped up its BCS National Championship run, we ran through our final Seminoles power rankings of 2013. But, of course, the football world moves quickly, and fans are already looking ahead to what could be in store for 2014. With that in mind, we’re taking an early crack at our preliminary power rankings for next season, with departing stars nixed from the countdown and emerging ones projected for 2014.

(Final 2013 ranking in parentheses.)

1. QB Jameis Winston (1): OK, this one was easy. Winston won the Heisman in his first season on the field, but expectations will be even higher for 2014. So what will he do for an encore? Having four-fifths of his offensive line back certainly makes the job a bit easier.

[+] EnlargeRonald Darby
AP Photo/Richard ShiroRonald Darby was excellent in 2013 despite being slowed by an injury. The 2014 season could be even better if he's healthy.
2. CB Ronald Darby (NR): Quietly, Darby was among the most dominant corners in the ACC in 2013, with quarterbacks avoiding him at all costs in spite of a groin injury that never completely healed. He figures to be 100 percent in 2014, meaning FSU could pair Darby and P.J. Williams in the secondary for arguably the best set of starting corners in the country -- even without Lamarcus Joyner in the mix.

3. WR Rashad Greene (4): Winston attempted 384 passes in 2013, and Greene was on the receiving end of more than 30 percent of those targets. He led FSU in receiving for the third straight season, catching 76 balls for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns. More importantly, the receivers responsible for 206 of Winston’s other targets are gone, putting Greene at the forefront of a revamped receiving corps.

4. RB Karlos Williams (NR): Among AQ-conference tailbacks with at least 90 carries in 2013, none rushed for more yards per carry (8.0) or scored with more frequency (one TD per 8.3 rushes) than Williams. With Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. gone, Williams is in prime position to become FSU’s second straight 1,000-yard rusher.

5. S Jalen Ramsey (8): In Week 1 of 2013, Ramsey became the first true freshman to start at corner for the Seminoles since Deion Sanders. Three weeks later, he moved to safety and didn’t miss a beat. Ramsey started every game and racked up 49 tackles while anchoring the nation’s top pass defense. With a year of experience under his belt, 2014 could be even better.

6. LT Cameron Erving (NR): The expectations have been monumental for Erving since he first switched from the D-line to left tackle, and while he hasn't exactly reached star status -- hence, his decision to return for his senior year -- he’s made significant strides each season. He’ll be the anchor of a veteran O-line in 2014 and potentially one of the best left tackles in the nation.

7. DE Mario Edwards Jr. (9): He tended to get overlooked a bit in 2013 because of Florida State’s myriad of defensive stars, but Edwards was exceptional in his first season as a full-time starter. He tied for second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss (the most among returning players) and had 3.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Perhaps as noteworthy, in the two games Edwards missed last season, opponents averaged 191 yards on the ground against FSU. In the 12 games he started, they averaged 113.

8. TE Nick O'Leary (NR): In 2013, O’Leary was FSU’s most reliable receiving target, catching 76 percent of the balls thrown his way while setting career highs in catches (33), yards (557) and touchdowns (seven). But O’Leary also only scored once after Nov. 1, and following his astonishing performance against Clemson (five catches, 161 yards), he didn’t have more than three grabs or 55 yards in a game the rest of the season -- including being held without a catch in the BCS title game. There’s room for O’Leary to improve, and with so much transition among FSU’s receivers, he figures to get plenty of chances to do it.

9. KR Kermit Whitfield (NR): He touched the ball just 25 times in 2013 and still racked up a whopping 818 all-purpose yards while scoring four touchdowns. Whitfield’s eight offensive touches figure to increase markedly next season as he steps in for Kenny Shaw as FSU’s top slot receiver, and his speed makes him a threat to score every time the ball is in his hands.

10. LB Matthew Thomas (NR): An injury cut Thomas’ 2013 season short after just five games of limited action as a true freshman, but he flashed the potential that made him a five-star recruit. Now, with Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, Thomas figures to land a starting job and blossom into a legitimate star.

Honorable mentions: DT Eddie Goldman, G Josue Matias, G Tre' Jackson, LB Terrance Smith, S Nate Andrews, CB P.J. Williams, K Roberto Aguayo
In 1984, Florida State hired Mickey Andrews as its defensive coordinator. For the next 26 seasons, he held the same role, only leaving after Bobby Bowden stepped aside as head coach following the 2009 season.

Four seasons later, Jimbo Fisher is about to hire his third defensive coordinator, and that’s a major concern for Florida State fans not used to such routine turnover. Jeremy Pruitt jumped for a job at Georgia just eight days after winning a national championship in his one and only season with the Seminoles. It leaves FSU in search of a new coordinator just weeks before signing day, and it leaves the Seminoles’ defense in a state of flux after Pruitt was so influential in revamping the scheme just a year ago.

But while the timing is certainly not ideal for Florida State, the loss isn’t necessarily devastating.

1. The move isn’t unprecedented

During the BCS era, five coordinators departed their schools immediately after winning a national championship. Granted, all left for better gigs (either the NFL or a head-coaching job), but in each case, the team didn’t suffer a dramatic decline after they waved goodbye.


While coordinators are crucial in running the daily routine of practice, the head coach is usually the one setting the philosophical tone, and the players generally determine how good it all looks on the field.

It’s distinctly possible Florida State can’t repeat its defensive dominance in 2014, but it’s far more likely that any decline will be due to the losses of Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Lamarcus Joyner -- not Pruitt.

2. Pruitt didn’t “turn around” FSU’s defense

This notion has been bandied about a bit since Pruitt left for Georgia, but it’s not entirely accurate.

Yes, Pruitt completely revamped the defensive scheme at Florida State, shifting heavily toward a 3-4 set and bringing a more aggressive approach that moved the onus from the front four under Mark Stoops to a dominant secondary in 2013. The results were stellar, and Pruitt certainly deserves some credit for the marked uptick in takeaways, but his job was hardly about rebuilding a unit from scratch.


Pruitt inherited a very good defensive unit from Stoops. So good, of course, that it landed Stoops a head-coaching job in the SEC (yes, Kentucky… but it’s still the SEC). Pruitt did an excellent job of covering for the losses of several key veterans from 2012 (Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine), but he also had the luxury of a veteran-laden unit that had already accomplished a lot at the college level.

3. Pruitt wasn’t a star in 2012

Fans are rightfully concerned about losing a rising star in the coaching ranks who had enjoyed so much success this season, but it’s worth remembering that Pruitt wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk hire when Fisher brought him on board.

Stoops’ departure after the 2012 regular season was widely anticipated. He’d become a hot commodity. The search for his replacement was followed closely, but few of the pundits prognosticating a hire had Pruitt on their radar. At the time, Pruitt was an assistant on a national-championship team, but he’d had just three years of sideline experience under his belt, he’d never been a coordinator at the college level, and he was coaching Nick Saban’s position group. The concern at the time was that he was simply a product of Saban’s genius, not a burgeoning star.

Of course, Pruitt proved those doubters wrong in 2013, but the point is worth remembering: Fisher saw his potential long before everyone else did. There’s little reason to think FSU’s head coach can't pry another rising star from the ranks of anonymity this time.

4. It wasn’t about the money

Yes, Pruitt is getting a nice raise at Georgia, but that’s not why he left. He admitted during his press conference in Athens that he didn’t give Florida State a chance to counter, and whatever his reasons for leaving -- and we’re not interested in speculating until Fisher or Pruitt or someone else associated with FSU wants to talk on the record -- it’s worth remembering that FSU is in a far better position financially today than it was when it hired Pruitt last year.

Would Florida State have matched Georgia’s offer? It’s impossible to say for sure now, but there’s every indication the school would have. [Ed. note: FSU associate AD Monk Bonasorte confirmed Thursday that FSU was prepared to match UGA's offer.] Fisher inked his new deal (even when deep-pocketed Texas was on the prowl) to stay, and he made bumps in salary for his assistants a key part of those negotiations. Fisher’s tenure has been built on understanding the importance of the support staff around him, and he’s made great strides to ensure the resources are there for Florida State to be competitive on the national stage -- both on the field and with the checkbook. Oh, and a national championship doesn’t hurt either.

5. Recruiting may be the key

Where Florida State should be concerned is in the area of recruiting. Not only is Pruitt’s departure coming at a tenuous time on the recruiting trail (signing day is Feb. 5), but he was also a key salesman for the Seminoles during his 13 months on the job.

Pruitt came on board full-time after last year’s national championship game and still helped FSU close on Jalen Ramsey, Nate Andrews and DeMarcus Walker -- three players who were only tangentially on FSU’s radar beforehand. He’s also adept at recruiting the state of Alabama, a crucial battleground for FSU that took a big hit after Dameyune Craig departed for Auburn following the 2012 season.

Both Pruitt and Craig had exceptional relationships with high school coaches and players in Alabama, and that may be the toughest thing for Fisher to replace. Pruitt’s replacement will have his work cut out for him replacing several departing stars, but that work begins with finishing strong before signing day.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For the second time in as many years, Florida State is looking to replace a defensive coordinator who bolted for the SEC.

ESPN reports that Jeremy Pruitt has accepted a job as the defensive coordinator at Georgia, leaving Florida State after just one year on the job and one more national championship on his resume.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
Fred Kfoury III/Icon SMIJeremy Pruitt not only revamped FSU's defense but his role in recruiting should not be overlooked.
Jimbo Fisher hired Pruitt to replace Mark Stoops in December 2012 after Stoops took the head-coaching job at Kentucky. At the time, it seemed a risky hire. Pruitt had spent just three years as an assistant at the college level, running the secondary at Alabama. Prior to that, he’d been an off-field assistant for Nick Saban and coached the defense at Hoover (Ala.) High School.

It turned out, the hire was a stroke of genius for Fisher. Pruitt restructured Florida State’s defense, moving more heavily to a 3-4 scheme that helped mask a litany of departures on the defensive line. He also integrated a more aggressive approach that allowed Florida State ramp up its takeaway numbers. The Seminoles led the nation in interceptions, passing defense and scoring defense in 2013.

Where Florida State goes from here is a big question, particularly with national signing day just three weeks away.

Defensive line coach Sal Sunseri is an obvious candidate. He was defensive coordinator at Tennessee, and he worked extensively with Pruitt while both were assistants at Alabama. He would provide some stability for the current Florida State defense, as would linebackers coach Charles Kelly, who served as Georgia Tech's interim defensive coordinator in 2012.

But Fisher might not be overly concerned with stability, as he showed with his hiring of Pruitt last year.

Money could play a role in a hire, too. Pruitt earned a base salary of $540,000 at Florida State, though that was expected to increase — both with bonuses from this year’s national-title run and increases in compensation Fisher reportedly negotiated in his latest round of contract talks.

Recruiting will be another key piece to the puzzle. Pruitt stepped in as one of Florida State’s top recruiters, helping the Seminoles land several key late additions to their 2013 signing class, including Nate Andrews, FSU’s leader in interceptions, and Jalen Ramsey, a freshman All-American, after just a few weeks on the job.

Fisher was forced to replace seven assistant coaches during a three-month frenzy following the end of the 2012 regular season, and he said at the time that he keeps a running list of top candidates for every job.

“I have those lists, and I know what my process is going to be,” Fisher said last year.

Now, less than 13 months later, Fisher is digging into his lists once again.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State fans will be tearing the wrapping paper off presents tonight and tomorrow, but the Seminoles have already unwrapped a handful of surprises this year. Here’s a look at five of the biggest gifts Florida State got in 2013 en route to a berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game:

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin has finally lived up to his hype.
Joyner, Jones return: OK, so this was more of a late Christmas present from 2012, but when Lamarcus Joyner and Christian Jones announced in January they’d return for their senior seasons, it set the tone for what this year’s defense would be. Florida State lost all four of its starting D-linemen in the draft, taking 28.5 of the 36 sacks the Seminoles had in 2012 with them. The big question entering 2013 was who would provide the pass rush, and it turned out, Joyner and Jones were up to the task. Joyner switched from safety to corner and has wreaked havoc on corner blitzes this season. Jones moved from weakside linebacker to edge rusher and has provided a spark to a defensive line in transition. Together, they have seven sacks this season -- matching their combined career totals from their first three years in Tallahassee.

Winston is a star: This wasn’t a surprise, of course. Jameis Winston was pegged for stardom from the moment he arrived at Florida State. But who could’ve predicted just how good he’d be? From his astonishing debut against Pitt to his four-TD performance in the ACC championship game, Winston was a dynamic playmaker, mature passer and locker room leader. In August, his name was a trendy pick as a dark horse Heisman contender. By December, he was the runaway winner. Winston replaced a quarterback who went in the first round of the NFL draft, and he’s exceeded EJ Manuel’s production in every facet -- something we didn’t exactly anticipate before the season began.

Benjamin emerges: The long wait for Kelvin Benjamin to blossom into a star finally came to an end this year, thanks to the redshirt sophomore’s improved maturity. Benjamin always had the tools, of course. He made so many miraculous plays in practice that teammates spoke about his exploits as the stuff of legend. But on Saturdays, he hadn’t done much in his first two years at Florida State. Down the stretch in 2012, Benjamin was almost a non-factor -- catching just seven passes for 52 yards and no touchdowns in his final five games. This year, however, he’s gotten better each week, and he’s become perhaps the most dangerous receiver in the nation in the final weeks of the season. In his last five games this year, he’s caught 25 passes for 481 yards and nine TDs, including at least one in each game.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State
AP Photo/Nell RedmondFreshman DB Nate Andrews is FSU's leader in interceptions.
Freshmen in the secondary: Florida State had the best secondary in the nation last year, and the depth figured to be even better this season. With stars like Joyner, Ronald Darby and Terrence Brooks and emerging talent like Tyler Hunter and P.J. Williams, there didn’t figure to be much room for the true freshmen to make much of an impact. As it turned out, Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews performed too well to keep off the field. Ramsey became the first true freshman to start at corner for Florida State since Deion Sanders in Week 1, then when Hunter went down with a neck injury against Bethune-Cookman, Ramsey switched to safety and has started each of the final 10 games. Andrews emerged as FSU’s top DB off the bench and has turned his limited playing time into big rewards, leading the Seminoles in interceptions. For the season, FSU’s true freshmen have a combined for seven interceptions, five forced fumbles and 13 passes defended.

The other Smith: For the past two seasons, Telvin Smith had been the most vocal player on the field for Florida State’s defense. Meanwhile, the more reserved Terrance Smith flew beneath the radar. In 2013, both Smiths emerged as impact defenders. Telvin Smith, a senior, leads Florida State in tackles and has continued to be the emotional leader of the group, but when Jones moved to the defensive line midway through the season, Terrance Smith got his chance to shine, too. He’s now third on the team in tackles (55), has an INT, four passes defended and two sacks. Since Terrance Smith became a full-time starter, Florida State has allowed just 2.8 yards per rush.

Stocking stuffers: Karlos Williams moved from safety to tailback in Week 2, and while he’s only had 14 first-half carries this year, he’s been dominant when he’s touched the ball, racking up 705 yards and 11 TDs; Roberto Aguayo hasn’t had to make a big kick all season thanks to an average margin of victory of 43 points for FSU, but he’s missed just one this season en route to All-America status; Kermit Whitfield’s role hasn’t been huge, but he’s averaging 31 yards per touch.

FSU in position to reload for 2014

December, 18, 2013
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For the past four seasons, Florida State’s seniors have worked to rebuild a program that was mired in mediocrity when they arrived. The project was a resounding success, but after the VIZIO BCS National Championship on Jan. 6, they’ll be gone. If 2013 gave the seniors a chance to take that final step toward a title, it also offered a glimpse at what’s to come, and Florida State appears well stocked to weather the inevitable losses.

Out: Lamarcus Joyner, CB

[+] EnlargeTyler Hunter
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsTyler Hunter could replace cornerback Lamarcus Joyner for the Seminoles in 2014.
After moving from safety to corner, Joyner proved he was one of the nation’s top defenders, leading FSU in sacks and finishing second in tackles.

In: Tyler Hunter, DB

Joyner is a huge loss, but Hunter is well prepared to step into the vacancy. His 2013 season was cut short by a neck injury, but he knows the defense well and his combination of size and speed allows him to fit well at safety, corner and nickel. Replacing Joyner is impossible, but Hunter could be in for a huge 2014.

Out: Terrence Brooks, S

He has been an under-the-radar performer since he arrived at FSU as a three-star recruit, but Brooks has been consistently good at safety for two years.

In: Nate Andrews, S

Brooks found a perfect protégé in the similarly underrated Andrews, and the relationship has already paid dividends. Andrews started just one game, but he leads the Seminoles with seven takeaways (four INTs, three forced fumbles) and is second on the team with eight passes defended.

Out: Telvin Smith, LB

For the past two years, there has been no louder voice in the locker room than Smith, and in 2013, he blossomed on the field, too, leading FSU in tackles.

In: Reggie Northrup, LB

Northrup hasn’t started a game in his two seasons at Florida State, but when he’s been on the field, he has proven to be a big-play defender. He has 46 tackles this season, and he has a skill set to both play the run and in coverage. Terrance Smith is FSU’s only returning linebacker with starting experience, but there’s ample depth at the position, led by Northrup.

Out: Christian Jones, OLB

Jones' move from traditional linebacker to edge rusher was a turning point for Florida State’s defense, helping to seal the edge and add another dynamic pass rusher to the D line.

In: Matthew Thomas, OLB

An injury ended Thomas’ season after just five games, but his potential is immense. He had two tackles for loss in his limited playing time, and his athleticism and strength could make for a smooth transition into the role Jones defined so well in 2013.

Out: Kenny Shaw, WR

Always a reliable option in the slot, Shaw blossomed as a senior and is on pace for 1,000-yard season while also handling punt return duties.

In: Levonte Whitfield, WR

Whitfield may lack Shaw’s consistency, but his big-play potential is through the roof. He racked up 646 total yards and three TDs on just 21 touches (an average of 31 yards per touch) as a runner, receiver and kick returner. It was valuable experience as a freshman, and Whitfield should be an excellent fit in the slot in 2014.

Out: Bryan Stork, C

As Florida State’s line developed from disaster in 2011 to dominant in 2013, Stork was the centerpiece. The veteran leader of the group has been the foundation for the unit’s growth.

In: Austin Barron, C

Losing Stork is big, but Barron is no rookie. He has six career starts already under his belt, and he has worked routinely with the first-team line during practices this season while Stork has nursed a foot injury.

Out: The underclassmen

No one has made it official that they’re leaving, and with so much talent on the roster, plenty of Florida State’s draft-eligible underclassmen could decide to come back for what figures to be another big season in 2014. Of the group, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan -- widely considered a first-round selection -- is the most likely to depart. Beyond that, tailbacks Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., receiver Kelvin Benjamin, tight end Nick O’Leary, and lineman Cameron Erving will all have big decisions to make.

In: The next regime

Replacing Jernigan will be a tough task, but Nile Lawrence-Stample (14 tackles, 2 QB hurries) took some big steps in 2013. Karlos Williams (705 yards, 11 touchdowns) is ready to pick up the slack if either tailback leaves, while Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones will see their workload at receiver increase in 2014. Kevin Haplea returns from a knee injury, though he’s unlikely to match O’Leary’s productivity in the passing game. Wilson Bell earned rave reviews before an injury ended his season, but he could step into a vacancy at tackle should one arise in 2014.

Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
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Florida State wrapped up a perfect regular season with yet another blowout win. For the first time in a month, however, Jameis Winston and the starters got to stick around for the second half, making it a bit easier to hand out helmet stickers.

Winston: He hasn’t had to play often in the fourth quarter this season, but he got nearly a full game’s worth of work Saturday. He used the extra playing time to add to his Heisman campaign, completing 19 of 31 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns. The competitive first half only underscored the fact that Winston hasn’t simply beaten up on overmatched foes this year. When Florida State is leading by 14 or fewer points or trailing, Winston is completing 73 percent of his passes, averaging 12 yards per attempt with 19 touchdowns and six INTs.

WR Kelvin Benjamin: Nine catches, 212 yards, three touchdowns… and yet, it could’ve been so much more for the sophomore receiver. Benjamin had two big drops and Winston narrowly overthrew him on another wide-open play, turning what might’ve been a historic day into simply the eighth-best receiving yardage total in school history. Benjamin became the first FSU receiver to top 200 yards since Craphonso Thorpe had 217 against Notre Dame in 2003.

DE Christian Jones: He had just five tackles, but two went for a loss and Jones was a beast coming off the edge, tormenting Florida QB Skyler Mornhinweg and keeping the ground game from getting to the outside. Mornhinweg continuously looked to his check-down targets under pressure -- often from Jones -- and the Gators’ ground game had just 28 yards on 23 carries, aside from one 50-yard run by Trey Burton.

Hat tips to: James Wilder Jr. continues to look sharp since returning from a concussion on Nov. 2. He had 63 yards on 10 carries. Terrence Brooks and Mario Edwards Jr. each had two TFLs. Edwards also forced a fumble and had a sack. Nate Andrews forced his sixth turnover of the season.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Telvin Smith is as enthusiastic a player as Florida State has on defense, but the man has priorities.

On the field, Smith had been a bundle of energy on an afternoon highlighted by his 79-yard interception return for a touchdown. By the second half, however, he was stuck on the sideline in a uniform still caked with sweat, and it was cold.

[+] EnlargeLevenberry
AP Photo/Steve CannonLinebacker E.J. Levenberry has 38 tackles for the Seminoles this season.
So when freshman E.J. Levenberry copied Smith’s first-quarter pick-six with one of his own midway through the fourth quarter, Smith wanted to celebrate. It’s just that those sideline heaters provided too much comfort to abandon.

“I stayed by the heater,” Smith said, “but I was ecstatic.”

This has become commonplace for Florida State of late. Veterans on the sideline, huddling for warmth, while the youngsters rack up valuable playing experience throughout the entirety of the second half.

In four of the Seminoles’ last five games, the starters haven’t played more than a series in the second half. Meanwhile, Levenberry and the rest of Florida State’s young defenders are getting a nearly even split with the starters when it comes to game-day reps.

That’s not ideal for stars like Smith, Lamarcus Joyner and Timmy Jernigan, who’ve lost out on valuable opportunities to pad their stats. But when it comes to building a foundation for the future, it’s been a perfect scenario for Florida State.

“The young guys are growing and making big contributions, so we’re adding depth and creating competition in practice,” coach Jimbo Fisher said.

Florida State lost seven defensive starters to the NFL draft from last season, but the talent Fisher had recruited in years past allowed coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to plug in a new batch of defenders with little drop-off. Where concerns persisted, at least initially, was the depth.

FSU’s two-deep to open the season included 12 first- or second-year players on defense, including a handful of players who few outside the program expected to see significant action this year.

As it turns out, Levenberry, Nate Andrews, DeMarcus Walker and others have been second-half stalwarts, and they’ve got the numbers to prove it. Andrews leads the team with four interceptions. Levenberry, Reggie Northrup and Jalen Ramsey all rank among FSU’s top 10 in tackles. Four of the nine fumbles forced by FSU’s defense this year are by freshmen.

“Just to see them grow from when they first got here to now -- and to know what they're going to become -- that's just tremendous,” Smith said.

Of course, the progress for FSU’s young defenders hasn’t been without a few growing pains.

The Seminoles’ starters smothered NC State in the first half of a blowout win, then took a seat on the bench for the entirety of the second half. Those latter 30 minutes looked ugly. The Wolfpack rushed for just 39 yards on 21 carries against the starters in the first half. In the second half, they tallied 149 yards on 21 carries against the second-string defense. In the first half, NC State averaged 2.3 yards per play. In the second, 6.1. In the first half, FSU pitched a shutout. In the second, the Seminoles were outscored 17-7.

In practice the following week, the starters were angry.

"You've got to look at it like it's your only shot, you're a starter when you get on that field,” Smith said. “Don't take plays off, don't slack off just because you're not on the field at the first snap of the game. Because that snap means just as much as this snap. And I think they really bought into it and now obviously you're seeing they're playing harder."

In the past three games, FSU’s backups have allowed just 13 points total and accounted for five takeaways, five sacks and two touchdowns, playing nearly all of the second half in each game.

The playing time for the backups has paid dividends. FSU has 23 interceptions this year, tops in the nation. But more impressive is that they’ve been made by 16 different players. Twenty-five players have recorded at least 10 tackles, 16 have recorded a sack and 26 have a tackle for loss.

Sure, the starters would love to stay warm by staying on the field, but when the season is finally over, as many as eight more of FSU’s veteran defenders could be headed to the NFL, and the reps their understudies are getting now could mean another smooth transition for the defense in 2014.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The truth is, Telvin Smith had tried to avoid his friend, at least on Saturdays. Seeing Tyler Hunter before a game jangled his nerves, jumbled his focus. It was too emotional.

Before the Boston College game, Hunter’s anguish rattled the entire team, Smith said. Since then, eye contact is dangerous, a trigger for all the emotions they’ve worked to suppress. But when Smith wandered into the players’ lounge before the Seminoles’ showdown with Miami earlier this month, finding Hunter slumped in a chair, head in hands, he couldn’t help but put an arm around his friend and promise things would get better.

[+] EnlargeTyler Hunter
AP Photo/Steve CannonDespite a season-ending injury Tyler Hunter remains a leader for the FSU secondary.
“He’s coping with it, but I know it’s definitely tough for him,” Smith said.

This wasn’t how the season was supposed to go for Hunter. No one embraced defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s new system with more ferocity than he had, spending countless hours studying game film and teaching his teammates the intricacies of the scheme. He’d organized FSU's seven-on-seven drills over the summer, mentored his young teammates in advance of fall camp, then nailed down the starting safety job with little fanfare.

And then with one seemingly insignificant hit against Bethune-Cookman in September, it was all over.

“It’s still hard for me,” Hunter said. “Seeing them make all those plays in the secondary, wishing I was out there and knowing I could be making plays, too. It’s hard for me to watch every week.”

Hunter was born with a condition called cervical spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spine near the neck. Over the course of his career, enough big hits had left the area vulnerable. Against Bethune-Cookman, the ticking time bomb finally exploded.

It wasn’t that Hunter was in pain, he said. In the immediate aftermath of the hit, he assumed he’d miss just a week or two of action. It felt like a stinger, some numbness in his hands and legs that wouldn’t dissipate. An MRI revealed the extent of the damage, though, and doctors initially wondered if Hunter would ever play again.

“The doctor showed me the MRI, and it was just — I don’t know,” Hunter said. “It looked bad.”

That was a low point, but eventually Hunter made his way to Chicago, where he met with Dr. Julian Bailes, who recommended a surgical procedure to remove some of the discs and fuse a metal plate to strengthen the area.

Hunter now has a jagged scar on the front of his neck and a second chance at playing the game he loves.

“He kept his mind positive," Smith said. "He’s staying with it. He’ll be back, give all he’s got and lead this team again.”

Still, Hunter won’t be able to return to the field until the spring, and even then, he expects his contact to be limited. Now, he’s stuck on the sideline, tossing footballs during warmups and serving as a de facto coach during the game.

It’s hardly an ideal role, but it’s one he’d prepared for long before the injury.

When Pruitt took over for Mark Stoops in January, Hunter was rehabbing another surgery. A knee injury kept him off the field during spring practice, but Hunter was ravenous in the film room.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a guy who was in the office studying more on his own,” Jimbo Fisher said.

Hunter would arrive on campus around 1 each afternoon, then spend the next six to seven hours studying the playbook or watching game film — usually from Pruitt’s old stomping grounds in Alabama.

“What we did in the spring, there was a lot of messing up going on, so I couldn’t really watch that,” Hunter said.

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIFreshman safety Jalen Ramsey has emerged as a playmaker for an opportunistic FSU defense.
By the summer, those mistakes began to disappear, and it was largely because Hunter was so adept at mentoring the rest of the group. What Hunter learned from the film he passed along to his teammates. He noticed the potential in freshmen Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews, and he made them a priority.

Hunter was the wise, old scholar. Ramsey and Andrews were his eager students.

“At first they struggled with the system, but just watching them in seven-on-sevens, I knew they had ability to get out and be able to play,” Hunter said.

Ramsey opened the season as the starter at corner, but when Hunter went down, he slid to safety and has been nearly flawless. Andrews saw his role expand after Hunter’s injury, too, and he now leads the team with four interceptions.

Even without Hunter in the lineup, Florida State leads the nation in passing defense and interceptions. For Hunter, that offers both reward and heartache.

“He’s like having another coach. He knows it all inside and out, and those guys ask a lot of questions,” Fisher said. “But at the same time, you’re disappointed to not be out there with your teammates because of the competitor in you.”

It’s hard knowing what this year might’ve been, Hunter said, but he doesn’t feel alienated. The emotions overwhelm him at times, and his teammates have been there to pick him up again. Smith scribbles Hunter’s name on his gloves before games, and the freshmen pat him on the back afterward, his reward for their job well done.

Florida State’s success this season was built on a selfless approach, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said, and no one has embodied that more than Hunter. It’s hard to see him struggle with his emotions on game day, but it’s been inspiring, too.

“Every second in the locker room on game days, we can look him in the eye and see he wants to be out here as much as us,” Joyner said. “And even though he’s not, we still have the spirit of Tyler Hunter out there with us.”

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