Florida State Seminoles: The Big Board

The Big Board: Winston vs. the blitz

September, 5, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The conventional wisdom before Jameis Winston took the field Monday was both simple and self-evident.

This was a redshirt freshman, taking the field for the first time in his college career. Those first snaps would come in an NFL stadium, jam-packed with hostile fans and on national television as the lone game on a Monday night. The conventional wisdom said Winston should be rattled, and the smart play for Pittsburgh would be to rattle him a little more.

The conventional wisdom after Monday's game looks much different. Yes, it's just one game, but it certainly appears that Florida State's freshman quarterback doesn't get rattled easily.

For the game Winston was an astounding 25-of-27 passing for 356 yards and four TDs (adding a fifth on the ground), but what's really astounding is the more pressure Winston faced in the game, the better he was.

Pitt brought an extra pass rusher on seven of Winston's 29 pass plays Monday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Winston thrived.

There are plenty of other numbers to underscore Winston's impressive performance. He was 6-of-7 with a touchdown on third-down passes, converting five of those plays for first downs. He was an impressive 16-of-17 for 307 yards and three touchdowns on passes of six yards or farther. His Total QBR was markedly better than any other freshman vs. a BCS-automatic qualifier team in the past decade.

But why compare a performance like that to other freshmen? What's perhaps most interesting about how Winston handled the pressure is to compare his game to his predecessor, EJ Manuel -- a fifth-year senior who went on to become the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft -- managed to do against the blitz.

(*Note: Against four pass-rushers, Manuel completed 71 percent of his throws and had a 14-to-6 TD:INT ratio, averaging 9.2 YPA.)

Yes, it's one game. But in that one game, Winston has already thrown one-third of the total touchdowns Manuel threw against the blitz in all of 2012.

After Monday's game, Winston was pushed to find flaws in his performance. There weren't many, but he noted that he was sacked twice. He doesn't like to be sacked, he said.

But both of those sacks came when Pitt rushed just four defenders, and neither were instances in which Winston obviously missed a chance to turn nothing into something. Instead, there was one play after another in which a Winston's pocket presence proved to be the difference in keeping a play alive and turning it into yards downfield.

When Winston was being recruited, numerous coaches and scouts wanted to peg him as an "athletic quarterback" -- insofar as he had the ability to run so they assumed he'd rely heavily on that option. Winston bristled at the notion. He was just a quarterback, as good a pocket passer as anyone else, in spite of his ability to pull the ball down and run.

So he worked on his pocket presence, again and again, refusing to run until he absolutely had to.

"He really wanted to be known as a pocket passer," said Mark Stephens, the defensive coordinator at Hueytown High during Winston's tenure. "A lot of kids that have that ability to run, that's first instinct is to take off and go, but Jameis made you play defense, and he's not a quarterback you can just pin your ears back and go at. He knew where his hots were. He knew where the secondary was positioned. If you're rolling your secondary, he could see that stuff. He kept you really honest. He's not a guy you can go out and go after down in and down out. He's going to burn you. He knew enough football ... he knew where people were going to be once the ball was snapped. That was the thing about defending him. He really made you play honest on defense and made you defend all 11 players, defend the entire field."

It's a lesson Pittsburgh learned on Monday, and it's likely a lesson that will be noticed by every defense that Florida State sees going forward.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The excitement was obvious throughout the spring, regardless of any attempts by Jimbo Fisher to downplay the significance.

Jeremy Pruitt had come from Alabama, fresh off consecutive national championships, and in spite of Fisher's claims that it would be business as usual on defense at FSU, it was clear that a whole lot of change was coming.

Jeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreJeremy Pruitt put the emphasis on stripping the ball and causing turnovers during FSU's spring practices.
"We're watching film of how Alabama ran it," linebacker Telvin Smith said this spring. "And I'm not knocking those guys, but I love this team and guys we've got running that defense, and I feel like we can really put something together."

And that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to enthusiasm about Pruitt's scheme.

The overriding theme of the spring on defense was pretty simple: Florida State would no longer be boring but consistent. This was going to be an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach that promised to pay big dividends for the Seminoles' athletic defenders.

"I love this defense," safety Terrence Brooks said. "It's amazing. A lot more blitzing, a lot more chances to make plays, moving guys around."

And, Brooks said, a lot more chances for takeaways.

Add it all up, and it sounds pretty good. The only problem, of course, is that Pruitt is at FSU because the Seminoles' last coordinator, Mark Stoops, was so successful that he landed a head coaching job.

The fact is, all that boring consistency on defense might have actually helped disguise just how successful Stoops' unit was during his tenure at Florida State.

The Seminoles finished second in the nation in total defense last season, sixth in scoring defense, third in rush D and first in passing defense.

But even with those gaudy totals, there was some criticism, which often started with takeaways.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Because Jimbo Fisher hasn't been entirely forthcoming about Florida State's quarterback race, there's been a wealth of assumptions on the part of the fan base.

In most cases, the tea-leaf reading hasn't been all that tough, but at a recent booster club event in Pensacola, Fisher had an interesting statement that might undermine at least one of those assumptions.

During the Q&A portion of the event, a fan asked Fisher to compare outgoing quarterback EJ Manuel with the presumed 2013 starter, Jameis Winston. His answer was a bit surprising.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesFSU coach Jimbo Fisher said quarterback Jameis Winston might throw better than EJ Manuel.
"Jameis is a very talented young man," Fisher said. "He and EJ are different. EJ might run a little better and be a hair bigger. I think Jameis throws the ball a little better overall."

What's so surprising is that Fisher's analysis is at odds with the popular perception that Manuel's greatest asset was his high completion percentage, while Winston has the athleticism to allow FSU to open up its offense.

As Winston's case to become the starting quarterback has grown, so have the arguments from fans who think Fisher can embrace a more wide-open style that allows his quarterback to run with the ball early and often. In fact, the comparisons between Winston and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel have already begun -- even if they're not entirely fair.

But what Fisher's assessment of Winston's athleticism indicates is something that probably should have been fairly obvious even before: His offense isn't going to change, regardless of which player is starting at quarterback.

Even if you want to argue with Fisher's assumption that Manuel was the better athlete, it's worth noting that QB runs were never a big part of Florida State's game plan. Here's the breakdown during Fisher's six years as offensive coordinator, which included seasons with Drew Weatherford, Christian Ponder and Manuel.

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The Big Board: Few immediate impacts 

January, 31, 2013
The final push to add to the incoming Class of 2013 is on, and Jimbo Fisher and his plethora of new assistant coaches have been hard at work trying to hold on to the commitments they already have while adding a few late surprises, too.

The final results should all be known Wednesday. But really, that's just the beginning.

Once national signing day is over, the focus again turns to the field. Since Fisher took the helm at FSU in 2010, there haven't been too many incoming freshmen to make a particularly big impact on game days.

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The Big Board: Mobile QBs 

January, 23, 2013
Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker, Jameis WinstonIcon SMI, US Presswire, Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesClint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston will compete to be the next Florida State quarterback this spring.

Now that the dust has settled from a prolonged coaching search and the departures of a few key juniors, the attention of Florida State fans will no doubt turn to what promises to be the dominant storyline from now until -- well, really, there's no end in sight.

For Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles, the next few months (at least) will be all about the quarterback, and in what might be both a blessing and a curse, there is no shortage of contenders for the job.

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The Big Board: Rebuilding the D 

December, 17, 2012
Florida State hasn't made it official, and Jimbo Fisher has remained coy on the subject, but it certainly appears the Seminoles will have a new defensive coordinator soon, with all signs pointing to Fisher hiring Alabama defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt.

The hire would come as a minor surprise, given Pruitt's lack of experience as a coordinator and the 3-4 base defense run at Alabama, but he's a rising star in the profession and a strong recruiter. That could loom large given the amount of turnover Florida State figures to endure on defense this offseason.

In addition to the coaching staff, which must replace Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot -- as well as linebackers coach Greg Hudson, who could move to an administrative position -- FSU will be looking to revamp the bulk of its defense.

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The Big Board: Distributing the ball 

December, 12, 2012
Among the myriad talking points entering the season that offered heaps of optimism for the 2012 Seminoles was the deep and diverse group of receivers and the potential damage Florida State's aerial assault might inflict on opposing defenses.

The case for FSU's receivers was air tight: Rashad Greene would be a year older and healthy for a full season after missing four games in 2012; Kelvin Benjamin would be on the field and his size would make him a huge weapon; Willie Haulstead would finally return from a concussion that kept him out all of 2011 after being the team's leading receiver in 2010; juniors Kenny Shaw, Jarred Haggins and Greg Dent were ready to come into their own.

Really, the only question was how EJ Manuel would manage to find enough footballs to ensure all these weapons were given sufficient opportunities to make plays.

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The Big Board: Manuel's struggles 

December, 6, 2012
The general sentiment as Florida State's offense slumped through a dismal second half against Georgia Tech in last week's ACC championship game was that those 30 minutes of ugly football were eerily reminiscent of the scoreless half against NC State that ended with the Seminoles' first loss of the season.

E.J. Manuel
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Getty ImagesEJ Manuel's masterful skill season has taken a bit of a hit recently, as he has struggled against some of the best defenses on Florida State's schedule.
While fans flooded Twitter and message boards with those concerns, the players were saying the same things on the sideline.

"You just have flashbacks in those moments," safety Lamarcus Joyner said, "but you always remind yourself championships are not given away."

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The Big Board: Managing missed tackles 

November, 28, 2012
The mantra for any defense preparing for Georgia Tech's triple option is the same: Stay on your assignments, mind your gaps, don't try to do too much.

Cornellius Carradine
Mark Goldman/Icon SMIThe loss of defensive end Cornellius Carradine will be felt against Georgia Tech's tricky triple-option offense.
For an FSU defense that hasn't faced a true option team in years, that may be a tall order, but it's also not its only concern.

As Florida racked up rushing yards and converted nearly half its third-down tries last week, one problem continued to haunt the Seminoles: Missed tackles.

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The Big Board: FSU's punting problems 

November, 21, 2012

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The narrative for Saturday's game has already been sketched out by most fans and pundits, and the rationale is reasonable.

Both teams have stellar defensive units, and last year's ugly 21-7 FSU win provides the template for how this year's game will unfold. The Seminoles have the luxury of a more stable quarterback situation, but Florida's defensive front will be the most athletic EJ Manuel has faced. The Gators will put the onus on their running game, but FSU rarely allows much on the ground.

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The Big Board: Plan C on punt returns 

November, 14, 2012
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It's been three-and-a-half months since Greg Reid left Florida State, and his legacy still looms large.

[+] EnlargeKenny Shaw
AP Photo/Phil SearsKenny Shaw might be the next Florida State player to get an opportunity to be the Seminoles' punt returner.
The loss has been minimal in the secondary. Ronald Darby and Nick Waisome have proven to be capable replacements, and the defense has chugged along with few setbacks worth noting. On special teams, however, there remains a gaping void caused by Reid's absence.

Florida State will head to Maryland this week with yet another new plan for fixing the disaster that has been the punt return game, a situation where Jimbo Fisher has asked relatively little, and the results have still fallen short.

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The Big Board: Looking for takeaways 

November, 6, 2012
Two weeks before the season started, Jimbo Fisher lamented the hype his defense had earned. He preached caution, noting that it would be nearly impossible for any unit to live up to the level of expectations that surrounded Florida State's defense at the time.

[+] EnlargeLamarcus Joyner
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreLamarcus Joyner's interception against Boston College is one of few turnovers the Seminoles have forced this season.
Three months later, Fisher's conservative projections appear unnecessary. Florida State's defense has largely lived up to those lofty expectations.

The Seminoles are tops in the nation in total defense, allowing just 227 yards per game. They're third in scoring defense and rushing defense, with top-ranked Alabama the only team ahead in both categories. No team in the country has allowed fewer passing yards per attempt, and the 77 percent success rate on third down isn't just the best mark in the nation, but a number that matches up as one of the best in recent history.

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The Big Board: Bye week blunders 

November, 2, 2012
Through a month of fall camp and nine weeks of games, Florida State eagerly awaited some time off, but few players were naive enough to assume the bye week would represent much of a vacation.

With a Thursday night game against Virginia Tech looming, and FSU's place atop the Atlantic Division standings hanging in the balance, there didn't figure to be much time to deviate from the preparations.

"I feel like it's not a break because of the Thursday game, but you've just got to be tough," Nick Waisome said before FSU dominated Duke in the last of nine straight games without an off week. "It's part of the game."

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the first half of Saturday's win over Miami, Rashad Greene fumbled a punt.

It was Greene's third fumble of the season in his first year as the full-time punt returner, and while none have cost Florida State a game, it proved to be one too many for Jimbo Fisher.

"The punt returns we've got to get fixed. We've had too many there," Fisher said. "We'll see if [Greene] can catch it, and if not, you've got to swap and put somebody else in there."

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The Big Board: FSU going deep

October, 17, 2012
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The first pass EJ Manuel threw against Boston College was a 35-yarder from the back of his own end zone that sailed just over the head of Rodney Smith down the sideline.

[+] EnlargeEj Manuel and Jimbo Fisher
Melina Vastola/US PresswireEJ Manuel had a solid game throwing downfield against Boston College.
Five of the next eight passes Manuel threw were deep balls, too, including a 77-yard touchdown to Kenny Shaw and a 42-yard deep ball to Jarred Haggins.

It was a stark contrast from a week earlier, when Manuel rarely looked downfield and Florida State's offense sputtered in the second half, failing to score as NC State engineered a dramatic, come-from-behind win.

"I wanted to be aggressive as a quarterback, and I told that to Coach Fisher," Manuel said. "I told him I wanted to attack these guys and allow our receivers to make plays. He opened it up for us, and we had a great game."

A week after earning heavy criticism for his conservative approach against NC State, Fisher called easily the most aggressive passing game of the season.

Manuel attempted 10 passes of 20 yards or more in Saturday's win over BC, according to ESPN Stats and Info. If we factor out his final three throws against NC State -- desperate downfield attempts in the final seconds -- Manuel had attempted just 19 throws of 20 yards or more in the first six games of the season combined.

But the difference in Saturday's outcome wasn't just about scheme or play-calling. The big offensive numbers against Boston College were built upon better protection up front and better execution from the quarterback.

"It's going through those reads, being able to take a five-step drop, hitch up and throw the ball downfield," Manuel said. "It takes time. I told those guys in the huddle, 'Give me a second-and-a-half and we'll get this ball down the field.' "

So, why did it all work so well against Boston College after things went so horribly wrong against NC State?

Protection -- particularly from the two tackle positions -- was crucial.

"When you go short corners and you have two guys that can handle the corners, it becomes a much easier task to do things and get the ball more vertical and get the ball down the field," Fisher said. "No matter how you say you want to throw the ball down the field, you have to have time. And you say, well, block them all up -- but then you end up double covered. You have to get your guys out and block."

We wrote last week about how NC State thwarted Fisher's attempts at an effective passing game, and the numbers against Boston College illustrate the alternative.

It's all fairly intuitive in retrospect, but the numbers speak to the importance of the offensive line in aggressive play-calling. The bottom line: Manuel's best games have come when he's faced the least pressure.

(*Courtesy ESPN Stats and Info.)

The big plays early set a perfect precedent, and BC made the rest of the game fairly easy for the offense. There were few blitzes, as BC chose to keep extra players in coverage, and that opened the door for both Manuel and the FSU running game.

Boston College represented something of a perfect storm for FSU -- improved blocking, better throws from the quarterback, a soft pass rush and some aggressive play-calling. Add it all up, and it was a recipe for a huge offensive performance.

The question now is whether Miami -- which has its share of problems in the secondary -- chooses BC's approach or the more aggressive style that worked for NC State. More importantly, what happens to Florida State when it faces a team (such as Florida) that can do both?


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