Florida State Seminoles: Ryan Green
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.
See our previous projections HERE.
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.
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?
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’s spring camp came to a close on Saturday with the annual Garnet and Gold game, and now the Seminoles are prepping for a second straight national title.
The game is secondary compared to the rest of spring practices, so with that in mind, here are some of the biggest answers the 15 spring sessions presented.
In early March, Noles coach Jimbo Fisher noted how healthy his team was and how rare it is to have a squad almost entirely intact for spring practice. As the practices mounted, though, so did the injuries. The silver lining is that none of the injuries are expected to linger into preseason camp. Running backs Dalvin Cook and Ryan Green had shoulder surgery but will be 100 percent by around July. Nick O’Leary missed the final half of spring practices with a second motorcycle accident, but he avoided any serious injuries. There were a few concussions in camp, but Terrance Smith, who suffered one of them, was back for the spring game. The lone setback that could impact fall camp is the foot injury Ukeme Eligwe sustained, which Fisher hinted could be the dreaded Lisfranc injury, which has a tendency to persist for quite some time. The thought is he should be fine for August, though.
2. The secondary is among the best in the country.
Quarterback Jameis Winston said after the spring game that “we got the best [defensive] backs in the country.” He should know, having thrown against the unit for much of the spring and the entire Garnet and Gold game. The secondary of P.J. Williams, Jalen Ramsey, Nick Waisome and Tyler Hunter shut down the No. 1 offense’s passing attack the entire first half, and the unit was without sophomore Nate Andrews. Fisher said throughout the spring that Ramsey is a star-in-the-making and should become a nationally recognized name replacing Lamarcus Joyner. Ramsey showcased his skills by moving around at cornerback, safety and nickel during the game. Fisher and Winston are raving about freshman Trey Marshall, too. Williams is a star in his own right, shutting down No. 1 receiver Rashad Greene.
3. The receivers need to step up.
Speaking of Greene and the receivers, that position is probably the biggest weakness heading into the season. Fisher was upset with the production and consistency his receivers showcased through much of the spring, and the starting unit did not get any separation from the Noles’ secondary. Jesus Wilson has the potential to be a playmaker from the slot, but can he replace Kenny Shaw’s production? Isaiah Jones is 6-foot-4, but his production did not match that of departed 6-foot-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Levonte Whitfield announced himself to the world in the national title game, but he is still needs some refinement as a receiver. The coaches can spend two hours a week breaking down film with players during the offseason, and Fisher said that will be a critical step in Florida State’s development at receiver.
4. The talent is there at linebacker.
The Noles lose beloved figure Telvin Smith and consistent producer Christian Jones, but the depth at linebacker is there so those losses might not be felt all that much. Matthew Thomas is a budding star, and the former five-star recruit will not be kept off the field this fall. Terrance Smith is the leader of the unit and could be a viable replacement for Telvin Smith. Before Eligwe’s injury, Fisher voiced his opinion that Eligwe was having as good of a spring as any player. Reggie Northrup and E.J. Levenberry should each see significant snaps in the rotation, and Ro’Derrick Hoskins could be a dangerous third-down specialist from the position.
5. Sean Maguire is a quality backup for Noles.
Earlier this spring, Winston missed a practice to travel to Clemson with the baseball team, putting the pressure squarely on No. 2 quarterback Maguire to perform at a competent level. Following the practice, the third of the spring, Fisher was lukewarm on Maguire’s performance. But Maguire looked the part of a quality No. 2 option for Florida State during the spring game. The Noles got him in rhythm with three straight passes to the flats to open the game, and then Maguire dropped in a 26-yard touchdown on a post route over the defender. Maguire, a redshirt sophomore, said he made the most progress this spring than he’s ever made at any point in his college career.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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)
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.
With that in mind, we’re taking a quick run through the depth chart to see where Florida State stands in advance of spring practice. Up first, the offense.
Projected starter: Jameis Winston (RS-So.)
Backups: Sean Maguire (RS-So.) and John Franklin III (RS-Fr.)
Returning the Heisman winner makes life easy for FSU’s offense, but Winston’s health will be watched closely.
Projected starters: Cameron Erving (RS-Sr.), Tre Jackson (Sr.), Austin Barron (Sr.), Josue Matias (Sr.), Bobby Hart (Sr.)
Backups: Sterling Lovelady (Sr.), Ira Denson (RS-Fr.), Ruben Carter (RS-Jr.), Wilson Bell (RS-Fr.), Ryan Hoefeld (RS-Fr.), Kareem Are (Fr.), Stephen Gabbard (Fr.)
Storylines: Barron steps in for Stork in the only noteworthy departure from the line. Barron has starting experience, and if he wins the job, FSU will have five senior starters -- meaning lofty expectations for the unit. Erving and Bell played well on the edges last year, but both could make further strides. The improvement for youngsters such as Bell, Hoefeld and Are will be crucial for both depth in 2014 and managing a massive overhaul in 2015.
The starting lineup might be the best in the country, but developing depth for the future will be crucial this spring.
Projected starters: Karlos Williams (Sr.) and Freddie Stevenson (So.)
Backups: Mario Pender (RS-So.), Ryan Green (So.), Dalvin Cook (Fr.), Cameron Ponder (Sr.)
Storylines: Williams was a revelation in his first season as a tailback, but for all his success, 70 of his 91 carries came in late-game, blowout situations. Pender returns after sitting out two years because of injuries and academics, but he provides ample speed and a knowledge of the system. Green showed flashes of potential as a freshman but must improve his blocking and decision-making this spring. Cook could be the wild card. He’s an immense talent, and by enrolling early, he’ll have a leg up on getting touches in the fall.
With a ton of talent, this group could easily turn this grade to an A by the end of the spring.
Projected starters: Rashad Greene (Sr.), Christian Green (RS-Sr.), Kermit Whitfield (So.)
Backups: Isaiah Jones (So.), Jarred Haggins (RS-Sr.), Jesus Wilson (So.)
Storylines: FSU must replace Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, who accounted for nearly 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns between them. The current group, aside from Greene, has combined for just 34 catches, 441 yards and no touchdowns in the past two seasons. After a solid 2011 season, Green has virtually disappeared and must show he’s still capable of making an impact. Haggins returns from a knee injury and figures to be limited in spring practice, but he could provide a solid veteran influence. Whitfield is a budding star thanks to his blazing speed, but FSU will need to see marked improvement from both Jones and Wilson in order to make up for the depth this unit lost.
Without any established depth behind Greene, this is the one area of the offense where Florida State has a lot of work to do this spring.
Projected starter: Nick O’Leary (Sr.)
Backups: Kevin Haplea (RS-Sr.), Giorgio Newberry (RS-Jr.), Jeremy Kerr (RS-Fr.)
Storylines: O’Leary had a breakthrough 2013, but with two of FSU’s top three receivers gone, he figures to see even more looks this year. Haplea returns from a knee injury that cost him all of 2013 and will likely take it slow entering spring practice. Newberry’s stint at tight end after moving from defensive end wasn’t entirely smooth, and he’s been vocal that he’s not enamored with staying at the position.
O’Leary figures to be among the top tight ends in the country this season, and getting the veteran Haplea back for blocking situations adds to the unit’s depth and versatility.
The ACC has lost 10 players who have decided to forgo their final seasons of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. It’s not a mass exodus, but their departures definitely leave some holes. Florida State is losing some talent, but Clemson arguably has the biggest shoes to fill, as the Tigers are losing their top two receivers from 2013, including All-American Sammy Watkins. With spring football around the corner, there will be plenty of competition throughout the league, but based on what we know now, here is the best guess at who the replacements will be for each of the ACC’s early entrees:
Leaving: Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin
Leaving: North Carolina C Russell Bodine
The replacement: Lucas Crowley. As a freshman, Crowley made his collegiate debut against rival NC State. He played 11 snaps and graded out at 90 percent. An encouraging sign for UNC fans should be Crowley’s performance against Pitt, where he played a respectable game opposite All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He played 66 snaps at center in that game and had five knockdowns.
Leaving: Clemson DB Bashaud Breeland
The replacement: Garry Peters. He was one of Clemson’s rising stars at cornerback in 2012, but an injury last season set him back. He still played in 10 games and enters this fall with 54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 12 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 33 games (five starts) in his career.
Leaving: Clemson WR Martavis Bryant
The replacement: Mike Williams. The true freshman played in all 13 games and started three, finishing 2013 with 20 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. His first career start came against Wake Forest, and Williams had a 14-yard touchdown. As a prep, he was rated the No. 3 player in South Carolina by ESPN.com. Williams has a lot of potential, and the Tigers will need him to reach it quickly.
Leaving: North Carolina TE Eric Ebron
The replacement: Jack Tabb. He played in 10 games at tight end and on special teams, and he also saw some time at linebacker. He finished with six catches for 116 yards and 10 tackles. UNC also signed two tight ends in the 2014 class, including one, Brandon Fritts, who enrolled in January. The other, Avery Edwards, is regarded as the top TE in North Carolina.
Leaving: Florida State RB Devonta Freeman
The replacement: Ryan Green. He played in all 12 games (no starts), and finished with 163 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries. He showed some explosiveness in his limited playing time, as six of his carries went for 10 yards or more. His blocking and ability to take advantage of open holes still need to improve.
Leaving: Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan
The replacement: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He played in 13 games and started six alongside Jernigan at defensive tackle. He finished the season with 15 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He also had two quarterback hurries. He made his first career start against Pitt and had a season-high three tackles against both Boston College and Maryland. He had one tackle in the national championship game.
Leaving: Syracuse RB Jerome Smith
The replacement: Prince-Tyson Gulley. He was granted a fifth season of eligibility and as of now is expected to play this fall. Gulley qualified for a medical hardship waiver because he broke his collarbone in 2011 and played just four games. He was third on the team in rushing in 2013 and finished with 456 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries. He also had 15 catches and one receiving touchdown.
Leaving: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
The replacement: Charone Peake. Watkins was one of a kind, and his record-setting production nearly impossible to duplicate, but Peake is the next man up. He was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver before he tore his ACL during a simple non-contact drill in practice on Sept. 10. Prior to the injury, Peake had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, second only to Watkins in both receptions and yards. In 2012, Peake had 25 receptions for 172 yards and two scores.
Leaving: Florida State RB James Wilder Jr.
The replacement: Karlos Williams. He moved from safety to tailback in Week 2 and finished his first season at the position with 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who scored once every 8.3 carries.
Karlos Williams rarely practiced in the two-back set all season until the ACC championship game in December. In fact, for the bulk of the season, Williams barely touched the football in the first half. But when Florida State clobbered Duke to assure a second straight conference title, Williams was a crucial cog.
“I’m just trying to catch on and learn as much as possible and learn very, very fast,” Williams said. “I do feel myself growing, getting better but it’s also a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Williams finished his inaugural season at tailback with a 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who punched in a touchdown once every 8.3 carries.
Still, Williams had a niche role. He had just 18 first-half touches all year. He had limited work in close games, with 70 of his 91 carries coming with FSU ahead by at least 15. He ran the ball 10 times or more in just three games, all blowouts.
For all of his 2013 success, Williams was a work in progress.
“People laugh at me because I’m very, very athletic, but I don’t have a lot of moves,” Williams said of his running style. “I’m a straight-line speed guy. So if I kind of stop, it’s kind of hard to start up again.”
Williams’ limitations weren’t often on display in 2013, but that figures to change going forward. If last season was about getting the offensive convert acquainted with his new job, 2014 will be a far more immersive experience.
Wilder has announced he’s headed to the NFL. While the school has yet to make Freeman’s decision official, he’s expected to follow suit. That leaves Williams as the lone veteran in Florida State’s backfield.
As the prognosticators look ahead to 2014, Florida State’s offense gets high marks for all its returning talent, led by quarterback Jameis Winston. But the turnover in the ground game will be immense.
Freeman led the Seminoles in rushing in each of the past three seasons. Wilder was as good a short-yardage back as Florida State has had in recent years. With that duo leading the charge, only two teams have averaged more yards per carry (not including sacks) against FBS foes since the start of 2012 than Florida State (6.31 yards per rush).
Now it will be up to Williams to prove he’s capable of a bigger workload, but he’ll have some help.
Ryan Green didn’t see much action in 2013, but he flashed some explosive talent. Six of his 33 carries went for 10 yards or more, but Green still needs to work on his blocking and his ability to hit holes when they open.
It’s possible Mario Pender could fill the void as well, but his first two years at Florida State have been a disaster. Pender has exceptional speed and enjoyed a nice spring in 2013, but he’s yet to see action in a game. A groin pull kept him on the sidelines as a true freshman in 2012 and academic issues forced him off the team in 2013. He’s back practicing with the Seminoles now, however, and Fisher said he hopes the academic and injury issues are in the past.
Perhaps the most exciting option for FSU, however, is Dalvin Cook, a five-star recruit who spurned Florida at the last moment and is expected to practice with the Seminoles this spring.
It’s a talented group, but it’s not an experienced one, and that’s what makes Williams so crucial to Florida State’s hopes in 2014. With fullback Chad Abram moving on, too, Williams’ 18 first-half carries represent the only significant snaps any member of FSU’s current backfield has in a close game.
But Fisher had a plan when he pushed Williams to make the move to running back in September, and the benefits of that decision are just now becoming clear. For Williams, it’s now just a matter of proving he’s the right man for the job.
“It’s progressing,” he said. “Slowly but surely.”
First on the docket for FSU will be identifying which star players will be returning for next season. Running back James Wilder Jr. is entering the draft, according to a source, and more decisions will trickle in before the Jan. 15 deadline. Here are our best guesses at what’s to come — and who might step in for departing underclassmen.
Why he’d leave: Entering the season, Jernigan was Florida State’s top-rated underclassman by most draft experts, and that standing never changed. Jernigan was dominant all season, and his impact was never more noticeable than in the national title game. When he was on the field, Auburn found no running room between the tackles. When he was out of the game, the Tigers moved the ball with ease on the ground.
Next up: Nile Lawrence-Stample took a big step forward this season, gaining valuable playing time in the defensive line rotation. He started six games and finished with 15 tackles. Florida State has five current defensive tackle commitments, so it’s certainly possible one of the incoming freshmen could make a big impact early — as Jernigan did in 2011 — but Lawrence-Stample is the safest bet to step in full time.
WR Kelvin Benjamin (redshirt sophomore)
Why he’d leave: Benjamin was projected as a star from the moment he arrived on campus, but it took him a while to get acclimated. He enjoyed a breakthrough 2013 season, finishing with 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns, including the game-winner in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. Some of his game could still use some refinement — as evidenced by two big drops vs. Auburn — but his physical skills already peg him as a likely first-rounder.
Next up: Kermit Whitfield certainly projects as Florida State’s next big-play receiver after an electric season as a freshman, but he fits more in the slot. Replacing Benjamin’s size and physicality isn’t an easy task, but 6-4 freshman Isaiah Jones figures to have the best chance. He saw limited playing time this year, catching two balls for 31 yards.
RB Devonta Freeman (junior)
Next up: Karlos Williams showed plenty of promise this season after moving from safety in Week 2, finishing with 748 rushing yards in reserve duty. He’s largely a straight-ahead runner, but his combination of size and speed makes him a weapon. FSU will still need to develop depth, likely with Mario Pender or Ryan Green, but could get a boost from four-star commit Dalvin Cook.
LT Cameron Erving (redshirt junior)
Why he’d leave: Erving has hovered near the top of the offensive tackle draft boards since the end of 2012, and in his second season since moving from the defensive line, he showed significant progress. Still, it’s a deep draft at the position, and there were moments — including against Auburn’s impressive defensive front Monday — when he showed some flaws.
Next up: Florida State brought in two potentially strong replacements last year in Ira Denson and Wilson Bell. Injuries hampered the progress for both during the season, however, which makes Erving’s decision potentially crucial for the stability of the line going into 2014.
G Tre Jackson and G Josue Matias (juniors)
Why they’d leave: Matias and Jackson might be among the top underclassmen at the position, but both could benefit from another year working with line coach Rick Trickett.
Next up: Florida State has struggled to recruit on the line the past few years, which makes depth — particularly on the interior — a significant concern. The Seminoles have a solid class coming in for 2014, but the loss of more than one of their underclassmen on the line would be a serious concern.
TE Nick O’Leary (junior)
Why he’d leave: O’Leary made huge strides this season, developing into one of Jameis Winston’s favorite targets and a legitimate red-zone threat. He’s an adept route-runner, a sure-handed receiver and his blocking game has developed nicely. But with Florida State's receiving corps in transition, O’Leary could be in a position to post huge numbers in 2014 if he sticks around.
Next up: Kevin Haplea returns from a knee injury next year, but he’s more of a blocking tight end than a true replacement.
WR Rashad Greene (Jr./WR)
Why he’d leave: What more can Greene accomplish at Florida State? He’s been the team’s most reliable receiver for three consecutive seasons. He became the Seminoles’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Anquan Boldin this year. He’s quick, a great route-runner, and he has good hands. He does everything well, and his quarterbacks have taken notice. The problem for Greene is that he lacks the obvious physical skills that make scouts drool, so his draft value might not reflect his on-field contributions.
Next up: It would be a surprise if Greene left, but it would also be a huge blow to Florida State’s offense. Winston was a star this season in part because of an exceptional group of receivers, but the group will get a major makeover in 2014. The Seminoles need Greene to help ease the transition.
First-quarter defense: Any criticism of Florida State's defense thus far is nitpicking, but that doesn't mean concerns don't exist, and the slow starts in each of the first two games are primary causes for pessimism. On the first four drives in each of their first two games, the Seminoles have allowed an average of 5.7 yards per play. After that, the average dips to just 3.1 yards per play. Bethune-Cookman might not have FBS talent, but in its three previous games against FBS foes, it scored first. That should give some extra incentive to the FSU defense to come out ready to play.
Keeping the streak alive: Through two games, Florida State's passing game has been stellar. Much of the credit goes to Winston, who is off to a remarkable start. But the players at the other end of those passes shouldn't be forgotten either. FSU receivers have yet to drop a pass -- in fact, they've hauled in two of Winston's five incompletions just barely out of bounds -- while corralling a handful of circus catches in big moments.
Freshman impact: Fisher was able to get significant reps for a number of freshmen in last week's win, including Ryan Green, Freddie Stevenson and Levonte Whitfield. That trend should continue against Bethune-Cookman, particularly if Florida State can build a big lead quickly. Thirteen true freshmen have seen action already, but Fisher said there has been some regression among the youngsters on the practice field. A little more game-day work might be just what they need to get their legs back under them.
A milestone win: Last week's win over Nevada boosted Fisher's record to 33-10 at Florida State, giving him the highest winning percentage in ACC history -- just ahead of Bobby Bowden's .764 mark. A win this week would add more history, giving Florida State its 500th win. Of course, the math is a bit tricky. Thanks to NCAA sanctions, only 488 of those count in the official record books, but nevertheless, a win against Bethune-Cookman would mark the 500th victory celebration for the school.
Paul Finebaum: Sophomore Slump for Jameis Winston?
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