Florida State Seminoles: Ukeme Eligwe

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State had the No.1 pass defense in 2013. It’s hard to believe it, but the secondary could be even better in 2014, with four possible first-round picks starting in the backfield.

Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher knows what he is going to get out of his defensive backs. However, the front seven is looking for players to emerge to alleviate the burden of losing tackle Timmy Jernigan and linebacker Telvin Smith. The defensive line needs a handful of role players to complement the starters, and the linebacking corps doesn’t have a definitive first-team unit just yet.

“I want to see those [starting linemen] take responsibility, and I want to see the quality depth behind it so we can get a quality rotation,” Fisher said. “I know we have plenty of guys capable.

[+] EnlargeEddie Goldman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsEddie Goldman will start at defensive tackle, but Jimbo Fisher is hunting quality behind the junior.
“The leadership role at linebacker, Terrance [Smith] is there but who steps up at Mike linebacker? Who’s going to become the pass rushers, who’s going to be the DPR [designated pass rushers], who’s going to be the nickel ’backers, who’s going to be the first- and second-down ’backers?”

Standing at the podium for his first fall camp news conference, Fisher still displayed a palpable confidence as he elaborated on the defense’s questions, but he was cataloging them so he could return to them in another two weeks to see which have been answered.

Florida State has what looks to be a clearly defined set of starters on the defensive line with Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman, Nile Lawrence-Stample and Chris Casher. Defensive line inherently is a position that requires a bevy of fresh bodies, though, which is why Fisher is determined to uncover quality rotational players who will allow his starters to come off the field without the defense taking a step back.

There is no shortage of options behind Florida State’s starters. There are 10 backups along the line who are either freshmen or sophomores, and they average almost 6-foot-4 and 293 pounds. Keith Bryant, Justin Shanks and DeMarcus Walker were blue-chip recruits out of high school, and the defense needs those three to become primary rotational players with the idea they could be the starters in 2015. Florida State also brought in a number of freshmen, and Fisher said, physically, they already fit the Florida State defensive lineman archetype.

The luxury Fisher has is the younger players will all be able to learn from Edwards, who is in his second year in this defensive system but in his first as the unquestioned leader of the defensive line. The former No. 1 high school recruit, few players nationally are as physically gifted as Edwards.

“He’s so daggone big and athletic. He’s still 300 pounds, but we played a lot with those guys at LSU, 300-pound ends,” said Fisher, calling upon his days as an assistant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “When you can do a standing back flip and a run a 5-flat [in the 40-yard dash] and bend like he does, you don’t worry.”

Behind the defensive line, Smith returns as a starter in the linebacker corps, but it is a tossup as to who will partner with him. Ukeme Eligwe, who is recovering from a Lisfranc injury, E.J. Levenberry and Reggie Northrup all played at least 13 games last season, and Matthew Thomas was shelved after four games in 2013 to repair a balky shoulder and preserve his redshirt. Thomas was a five-star recruit and one of the top players during the spring. When a player has a good practice, Fisher likes to say he “flashed,” and routinely this spring Fisher said “No. 6 flashed,” referring to Thomas.

As Fisher balances each player’s talents and weaknesses, the potential deciding factor ultimately could boil down to chemistry. Fisher said it’s often overlooked, but certain players raise their level of play when lining up next to certain teammates.

“We’ll mix and match and also see who plays well together,” Fisher said. “Sometimes people don’t look at that. Some guys play better beside certain guys, and creating those packages is going to be critical.”
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Preseason camp begins with five days of heat acclimation, but that doesn't mean there is a nearly week-long grace period for Florida State. Not when the Seminoles are in pursuit of consecutive national championships.

New linebackers coach Bill Miller was already adjusted to head coach Jimbo Fisher's "attitude of domination" standard at the onset of the Seminoles' first practice of fall camp. When a freshman linebacker didn't perform a warm-up drill correctly, Miller sent him back to the front of a line with a not-so-subtle message to do it better next time.

"I liked the intensity of practice. It was very good competition, guys getting after each other, competing with each other, for the most part knowing what to do," Fisher said.

Although players were not in pads Monday, Fisher was encouraged by what he saw. With the mandated restriction on pads -- Florida State's first two-a-day will be Saturday -- the first day of practice was an opportunity for the Seminoles to work on alignments, assignments and execution.

Fisher expressed a little disappointment in how the passing game performed -- he called the quarterbacks' execution "very average" -- but he acknowledged it was the first time the group had a defensive line charging at them in four months. And when you return Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, there is little reason for long-term concern.

Once baseball season ended, Fisher forced Winston to take a couple of weeks off to ease the demands on his star player's body. The result was a Winston who is much fresher than he was entering the 2013 season and a smarter player under center. When Winston was kept from the field, he used it as an opportunity to fine-tune his mechanics.

"He was very anxious to get better fundamentally. He did a lot of film study with his footwork and working on his release and quickening things up," Fisher said.

Coupled with an energized Winston, the first few days of practice should go smoother this season because of the lack of roster turnover on the offense line and a defensive scheme that remains largely unchanged. The offensive line has five seniors and more than 100 starts among them, and new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly is executing the same defensive scheme as predecessor Jeremy Pruitt. Kelly was the Seminoles' linebackers coach in 2013. While Florida State has to replace defensive leaders Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith, there is a knowledge that should allow the new starters to transition quickly to their roles.

"It's the second year on defense of exactly the [same] system we're running, so I think the knowledge is increased," Fisher said. "The young guys will know more because the older guys can help them. Last year early, the older guys couldn't help them because they were learning it for the first time, too."

There is a belief those younger players will crack the rotation and make an impact at some point in 2014, possibly for the Aug. 30 opener against Oklahoma State. Freshman receivers Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph, recovered from offseason foot surgery, look physically impressive, and there is an opportunity for playing time on the defensive line; the Seminoles have seven freshmen defensive linemen, and Fisher said "there's not one you'd throw back."

Linebacker Terrance Smith smiled when asked about the big bodies accompanying their new faces.

"This is probably the biggest group of freshmen we've had in a long time," he said. "Me as a linebacker, I'm not complaining because we got some big D-Linemen in front of me."

Notes: Sophomore receiver Jesus "Bobo" Wilson remains indefinitely suspended following a Monday meeting with Fisher. Wilson is practicing and should return during the season, but Fisher sounded as if Wilson will not play in the opener. ... Linebacker Ukeme Eligwe (Lisfranc injury) is not practicing, but Fisher said Eligwe is ahead of schedule. Nile Lawrence-Stample (shoulder surgery) is practicing but will be eased back into contact. ... A few players wrote on Twitter that Sunday would be their last day tweeting until the season ends. Fisher said it was a team initiative and he did not ask his team to quit social media until the season ended. However, Fisher did say Florida State does monitor what its players and the athletes it is recruiting say on social media.

FSU spring: What we learned

April, 14, 2014
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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.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher escaped the spring with a healthy roster.
1. FSU will be at full strength this fall.
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.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- No position on the Florida State roster has taken as many losses as the defensive line over the past two seasons.

Four linemen were drafted a year ago. Another, tackle Timmy Jernigan, is projected to become the second straight Florida State defensive lineman to be drafted in the first round. The last time Florida State had at least five defensive linemen selected in consecutive drafts was 1998-99.

At many programs, losing so many players would be a major cause for concern and, as you'd expect, the defensive line has drawn some of the biggest questions this spring and last. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, however, looks at the situation differently.

Rather than lament potential depth issues, Fisher looks at the pure talent he has available for this upcoming season -- and the versatility they provide. Though only three scholarship defensive ends were available during the spring, two of them were consensus top-10 players at their position out of high school -- Mario Edwards Jr. and Chris Casher.

[+] EnlargeEddie Goldman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State coaches are expecting junior Eddie Goldman to flourish as Timmy Jernigan's replacement at defensive tackle.
Both began learning every position along the line in order to take advantage of their athleticism. Edwards moved around some last season, but expects to do much more of that in 2014, not only to help with depth but to also give Florida State key matchup advantages.

“It’s kind of fun,” Edwards said. “The offense can’t pinpoint where I will be -- right or left side, inside or out. I feel I can go and play any one of the positions the coaches put me in at and be a factor.”

For Edwards, the process of not only becoming a master at his own position, but also learning several others, has meant more time studying the playbook and game tape. That has allowed the former No. 1 high school player in the country to feel even more comfortable with the defense.

The road has not necessarily been smooth for him. He was out of shape as a freshman, and last spring he had to learn an entirely new defensive scheme while following a strict diet and weight program. Edwards ended up starting, but he did not feel comfortable until midway through the season. That is when the results started to show.

Now that more of the pressure is on him to perform, Edwards says he is ready to dominate.

“I’d like to think this is a big year for me,” Edwards said. “I watched film of last year but not only was I looking at the good things I did, I looked at how many plays I left out there, just because I wasn’t aligned right, I wasn’t doing my job, I may have forgotten what I was supposed to do. I felt like I left tons of plays out there I could have made. This year, it’s reacting more than thinking.”

To help at end, Florida State might end up using linebackers Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe, whom Fisher called “dynamic rushers.” He did something similar with Christian Jones a year ago, and Jones thrived in that role.

Tackle Eddie Goldman, slated to replace Jernigan inside, was a five-star defensive tackle out of high school. Fisher said Goldman will end up being one of the team’s spring award winners because he has made such drastic improvement. Though not as powerful as Jernigan, Goldman is more athletic and a more natural pass rusher.

“Him and Mario -- it’s hard to handle them one-on-one,” Fisher said. “Eddie, his upside is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous how good he can be.”

Will he meet that potential this year?

“The way he’s playing right now? No doubt,” Fisher said.

Fisher also will play some of his true freshmen, the way he has done with guys such as Edwards, Jernigan and Casher. The Seminoles loaded up on the defensive line to make up for the heavy losses they have taken recently. Four of the seven players Florida State signed were rated four-star prospects out of high school. Two incoming ends -- Lorenzo Featherston and Rick Leonard -- are both 6-foot-7. They will not be tied exclusively to end, either.

“We like that hybrid guy, the versatility,” Fisher said. “You can go 3-4, 4-3, and create a matchup where they get locked on a back, where a back has to block them, that kind of stuff.”

Florida State took advantage of the versatility it had last season to great success. Despite more personnel losses, Fisher expects more of the same in 2014.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Fifth-year senior Cameron Erving walked off the practice field Saturday after one of the most interesting practices of his career. For those attending the afternoon practice, it was a bizarre sight watching Erving orchestrate the offensive line considering Florida State’s All-ACC left tackle is still only in his third year playing the position, and not once in his life had he previously snapped the ball. Erving, a potential first-round pick in 2015, would be the NFL’s tallest starting center at 6-foot-6.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJimbo Fisher moves players to other positions in part to make them better.
The odds that Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher would move his best offensive lineman out of one of football’s premium positions to play center are slim. It is the spring, and nearly the end of it, and Fisher said he is prepping for a worst-case scenario in which injuries force him to reshuffle his offensive line, which returns five players with starting experience.

"Center is like quarterback,” Fisher said. “You can move guards, tackles, receivers. Centers and quarterbacks, that's a learned profession and you have to have as many as you can. … We’re just doing things to develop backups and get other guys snaps.”

Through the spring, Fisher has mixed and matched his offensive line so his five starters have at least an elementary knowledge of playing more than one position on the line. It’s not limited to just the maulers up front either, as Fisher routinely cross-trains his linebackers and defensive backs.

Jalen Ramsey could play three positions in the secondary this fall. The same goes for defensive back Nate Andrews. Several Seminoles linebackers are receiving work at multiple positions.

Cross-training his players is not simply Fisher guarding against a series of injuries that would cause him to revamp his offensive line or back seven on defense. Fisher contends it makes a player better at his starting position. The constant formation and personnel changes opponents present necessitates a comprehensive awareness of the entire unit.

Redshirt sophomore Ukeme Eligwe is campaigning for a starting position this spring. He played in 13 games last season, mostly out of position at outside linebacker. A natural inside linebacker, he was uncomfortable and out of his element flanked to either side of the defense. But this spring he is once again playing inside linebacker and is doing so with a better appreciation and understanding of playing in the middle.

“Whatever the call is I know exactly what the outside man is doing and that makes it easier for me to know ‘I don’t have to go over here because he has the flats, and I can drop,’ so I’m glad I moved to the outside last year,” Eligwe said. “Now it’s a little easier. I know the defense a lot more.”

The 15 practices permitted during the spring are the optimal time for Fisher to explore. Coaches have a limited amount of hours of on-field practice time during the fall. Fisher said the hope is he can build a strong enough base in the spring that if and when a player is called upon in a meaningful situation, he can reach back into his library to bring forth the information he filed away five months earlier.

“It’s demanding on them because they have to learn quickly in a short amount of time, but in the long run it’s going to help. Right now you got to cram as much information as you can,” Fisher said. “If you’re familiar with something, it makes it easy to learn it once the package comes out.”

It would be na´ve to believe Fisher is not cramming that same information for his own use. He is interested to see how Ramsey works at nickelback or how Erving responds at center and whether it might give Florida State the best chance to win. The spring is meant for tinkering, but it also gives Fisher an opportunity to appraise his roster and formulate a way to get the best 11 players on the field.

“You don’t know a guy can do this [at a different position] and you can mix and match to get the best personnel on the field in different packages,” Fisher said. “… You’re always looking for that.”

FSU instant impacts: Kain Daub

February, 21, 2014
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Jimbo Fisher closed out his fifth straight top-10 recruiting class earlier this month, but as he’s shown in years past, that doesn’t necessarily mean a bevy of big contributions from the incoming freshmen.

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

This week, we 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, RB Dalvin Cook, DB Trey Marshall and FSU’s wide receivers.

Last up: LB Kain Daub

[+] EnlargeKain Daub
Courtesy of IntersportKain Daub's ability to contribute in several areas means he'll see the field for Florida State.
The player: A four-star prospect out of Jacksonville (Fla.) Sandalwood High, Daub arrives as one of the key members of FSU’s 2014 signing class. At 6-foot-4, 243 pounds, Daub excels as a pass rusher and run defender. While his skills in coverage still need some refinement, he’s got the versatility to work as either an inside backer or a pass rusher/OLB, depending on Florida State’s needs. During his final three years in high school, he racked up 22 sacks. As an early enrollee, he’ll be in the mix this spring with several jobs in the linebacking corps up for grabs.

The need: After three years of relative consistency at the position, Florida State’s linebacker corps is getting a nearly complete makeover in 2014. Gone are seniors Telvin Smith and Christian Jones, leaving only junior Terrance Smith with starting experience among the group. Last year’s position coach, Charles Kelly, is also moving to the secondary as he takes over as coordinator this year, and FSU has yet to officially announce his replacement. Fisher suggested Kelly will stick with a defensive scheme similar to the one Jeremy Pruitt ran in 2013, but that’s certainly not set in stone either -- meaning the amount of time FSU spends in a 3-4 vs. a 4-3 look isn’t entirely settled either.

The competition: There are a lot of job openings among the linebackers, but there’s also some stiff competition. It’s a deep group, despite being short on experience. Among the inside LBs, Reggie Northrup is the most experienced, having gained valuable reps in reserve duty in each of the past two seasons. E.J. Levenberry impressed as a true freshman in 2013, too. Among the outside linebackers/edge rushers, Ukeme Eligwe and Matthew Thomas both figure to push for playing time this spring. When fall camp opens, two more members of a talented signing class -- Jacob Pugh and Delvin Purifoy -- join the mix as well.

The prediction: Daub has a lot going for him in the battle for playing time at linebacker. His versatility as either an inside or outside LB provides FSU’s coaches with options. His arrival in time for spring practice gives him a chance to settle into the scheme. But more than anything, his pure talent should make him a player worth watching. Attrition sapped a lot of veteran talent from the linebacking corps for several years, but Florida State’s past two recruiting classes have restocked the coffers, meaning the competition will be stiff for Daub. But his lack of experience won’t be held against him, and his ability to contribute in several areas -- including on special teams -- puts him in good position to see the field routinely, even if a starting job isn’t in the cards.
Florida State has had one of the best defensive fronts in the nation in the last two seasons, but the Seminoles will have a major challenger to that claim when 2014 rolls around.

Division rival Clemson has the potential to have one of the best defensive lines in school history, thanks to returning all of its starters -- including sack master Vic Beasley. So that leads us to this question: Which team will have the best defensive front in the ACC this upcoming season? Andrea Adelson and David Hale let the debate begin.

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Which team will have the best defensive line in the ACC in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,741)

Andrea says Clemson

The moment Beasley decided to return to Clemson was the moment the Tigers became the favorite to field the best defensive line in the ACC next season.

Now, this is not to slight Florida State, which has dominated up front over the last two seasons. But the Seminoles have key players to replace again. Clemson, on the other hand, returns every starter on the defensive line, plus its top four backups. All told, eight linemen return who played at least 292 snaps a year ago.

Those top eight combined for 65 tackles for loss -- more than half the single-season school-record 122 tackles for loss Clemson had in 2013. They also combined for 26 of the team’s 38 sacks.

Beasley, of course, leads the returning group after making 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a season ago, one of the top performances of any defensive end in the country. Had he decided to leave for the NFL, Clemson would have still had plenty of talent returning.

But with him, the Tigers could potentially have the deepest, most talented group of defensive linemen at the school since the 1981 national championship team featured future NFL players Jeff Bryant, William Perry, Andy Headen and Dan Benish in the starting lineup.

Clemson could potentially go 10 deep along the defensive line, especially when you consider the return of Carlos Watkins, expected to be healthy after missing most of last season following a car accident. That means the Tigers have the ability to rotate frequently and keep players fresh, perhaps more than they did last season.

Fresh players mean fresh legs, and fresh legs mean getting into the backfield at a much better clip. Last season, Beasley, starting tackle Grady Jarrett (11), starting end Corey Crawford (10.5) and backup end Shaq Lawson each finished with 10 or more tackles for loss. Now think about some of the best defensive fronts in college football. Florida State has zero defensive linemen returning with double-digit tackles for loss. Alabama? Zero. LSU? Zero. Stanford? Zero. Virginia Tech? One. Michigan State? One. Ohio State? Two.

Clemson leads them all.

Such an experienced group, with the ability to get into the backfield and get after the quarterback, should only get better with another year under Brent Venables, who is entering his third season as defensive coordinator. As Beasley told colleague Heather Dinich after he announced his decision to return, “I feel like we can be the best in the country.”

And, yes, that means the defense could emerge as the strength of this team.

David says Florida State

The track record for Florida State’s defensive front speaks for itself. During the past three seasons, only Alabama has had more success defending the run than Florida State, which has allowed just 2.8 yards per carry since the start of the 2011 season. Those Seminoles teams sent eight players from the front seven to the NFL -- and that number figures to increase by at least four this year -- yet the unit has seen little decline in production. With new personnel, a new scheme and new coaches last season, FSU’s first-team defense didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until the national championship game.

Of course, that’s all in the past, and 2014 comes with some significant questions for Florida State.

Throughout the three-year run of success for the FSU front seven, Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Timmy Jernigan have been anchors. All are gone now, and that means some significant vacancies on the defensive front, both in terms of on-field talent and off-field leadership. It means there will be questions surrounding the unit for the next few months, but it doesn’t mean the Seminoles don’t have answers.

Of the projected two-deep in the front seven, FSU projects to feature as many as 12 former ESPN 300 recruits. The talent is exceptional.

Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman were both top-10 recruits in 2012, and both have two years of experience under their belts. Edwards, in particular, took big steps forward throughout 2013, turning in perhaps his best game against Auburn’s up-tempo ground attack in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

The linebacker group lacks significant experience, but Terrance Smith is a physical clone of Telvin Smith, and he performed admirably after stepping into a starting role last season. Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe are both former elite recruits who project nicely in the hybrid role Jones handled so successfully in 2013.

Kain Daub, Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi lead a stellar 2014 recruiting class that could make an instant impact.

That’s not to say Florida State is prepared to move forward without Jernigan’s presence up front or Telvin Smith’s leadership in the middle of the field without missing a beat. There will be hiccups as the new group gets its feet wet and Edwards and Goldman learn to be leaders. But similar concerns existed a year ago when Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine bolted for the NFL, and after some early missteps, Florida State again proved to be one of the fiercest defensive fronts in the country.

And, of course, the Seminoles have another weapon in this debate, too. No position group succeeds in a vacuum, and FSU’s front seven gets a major boost from a secondary that projects to again be the best in the nation. If the Seminoles’ defensive backs continue to make teams one-dimensional and continue to provide time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback, the odds of FSU’s front seven making a smooth transition into 2014 get even better.

FSU room to improve: Linebacker

February, 11, 2014
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The celebration of a BCS championship victory is in the rearview mirror for Florida State, and Jimbo Fisher, Jameis Winston and Co. have already turned their attention toward adding another trophy in 2014. So as Florida State prepares for spring practice, we’re digging into the biggest questions, position battles and storylines facing the defending national champs.

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

Matthew Thomas
Courtesy of Florida StateMatthew Thomas, who showed promise in 2013 before an injury, could be in line for a big role in 2014.
Previously, we reviewed the running backs.

Next up: Linebackers

Projected starters: Terrance Smith (RS Jr.), Reggie Northrup (Jr.), Matthew Thomas (RS Fr.)

After years of stability at linebacker, Florida State undergoes a massive transition in 2014, with Smith the lone holdover among the starters. Smith started in nine of the final 10 games of the season in 2013 and finished fourth on the team with 59 tackles. He has a similar body type and playing style to Telvin Smith, but he lacks the experience. Meanwhile, Thomas projects as perhaps the best option to replace Jones in the hybrid rusher/backer role, and Northrup is the most experienced of an incredibly green group filling out the starting lineup.

Strength in numbers: E.J. Levenberry (So.), Ro’Derrick Hoskins (RS Fr.), Nigel Terrell (RS Sr.), Ukeme Eligwe (RS So.)

There’s ample talent here, but these players haven't accrued serious playing time. Levenberry figures to push Northrup after turning in some impressive late-game performances in 2013. Meanwhile, Eligwe has a ton of upside and could fit in several roles for Charles Kelly’s new defense. The problem is, all that talent is still somewhat of a mystery. FSU's linebackers have a combined 176 career tackles, with 12.5 for a loss -- numbers rivaled by Telvin Smith's past two seasons alone.

New on the scene: Kain Daub (Fr.), Jacob Pugh (Fr.), Delvin Purifoy (Fr.)

Daub is an early enrollee and an ESPN 300 member. The extra experience this spring could put him in the mix for regular reps or, perhaps, a starting job at inside linebacker. Purifoy could push for playing time on the outside, too, after racking up 102 tackles as a senior at Pensacola Catholic. Pugh starred locally at Godby High in Tallahassee, and even he can’t be written off as an immediate contributor.

What to watch: With two longtime starters departed and a host of young talent on the roster for the spring, few position groups will warrant as much close attention for FSU as the linebackers. Terrance Smith projects as the only sure thing in the group -- and even that is far from set in stone -- and to add some extra intrigue to the depth-chart shuffling, FSU has yet to hire a linebackers coach after shifting Charles Kelly to the secondary when he was promoted to defensive coordinator. There’s virtually nothing settled here, but there’s so much potential among the young players that it ought to be plenty of fun for FSU to see how it all shakes out.

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.

FSU's young defenders making noise

September, 25, 2013
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Jalen RamseyAP Photo/Keith SrakocicFreshman cornerback Jalen Ramsey jumped right in to a starting spot, beating out veterans Nick Waisome and Ronald Darby in the process.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Throughout the 68-yard dash, Telvin Smith never looked back. Seconds earlier, he'd stepped in front of a pass from Bethune-Cookman quarterback Quentin Williams, and a path cleared ahead of him as he charged to the end zone.

It was only after Smith crossed the goal line that he realized he wasn't alone. Two steps behind him was fellow linebacker Matthew Thomas, who'd kept pace with Smith step for step throughout the return.

"I turned around and he's standing right next to me," Smith said. "That's what the coaches and myself love about him."

That was hardly the only highlight of the game for Thomas, who dropped Bethune's quarterback in the backfield twice in a span of five plays in the third quarter. In a game in which Jimbo Fisher criticized his defense for ceding too much ground to an overmatched opponent, Thomas stood out.

That's been a theme of the early season for Florida State's defense. It's a unit in transition, having lost a bevy of veterans to the NFL draft and its coordinator to Kentucky. Changes have come at nearly every turn, and the youngest Seminoles are taking advantage.

"They're stepping up," Smith said. "The best man is going to play, and right now, they're proving themselves to be the best man. The young guys are coming. They're on our toes."

It's not just Thomas making an impact.

Jalen Ramsey become the first FSU cornerback to start as a true freshman since Deion Sanders, then delivered the Seminoles' first interception of the season against Pittsburgh. He's sixth on the team so far with 12 tackles, including one sack.

Demarcus Walker got a start in the opener, too, and he's seen consistent work on the defensive line ever since. Chris Casher, a redshirt freshman, racked up 10 tackles -- including two for a loss -- against Bethune-Cookman and was named FSU's defensive player of the week. Second-year players P.J. Williams and Mario Edwards Jr. are now established starters, and a handful of other youngsters are getting regular reps on defense, too.

Fisher was so pleased with the work of his young defensive backs that he felt comfortable flipping veteran Karlos Williams from safety to tailback. Casher, Thomas and sophomore Eddie Goldman have helped pick up the slack for FSU's pass rush after its top three defensive ends all left for the NFL. Overall, nearly half of Florida State's tackles this season have come from defenders with zero previous starting experience.

"The platform is even because new [defensive coordinator], new philosophy, and you have to learn it," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "Experience on the football field, those young guys haven't had it, but with their talent level and where they're coming in, it's good to see them playing and be able to play fast."

Of course, it's easy enough to chalk up the early success for the freshmen and sophomores to the lack of quality competition on the field, but Fisher said this isn't a passing fad. Florida State's schedule gets markedly tougher in October, and rather than shuffling the young defenders to the sidelines for the big games, he wants to ensure they're ready to play when it counts.

"Ability is never the issue," Fisher said. "It's about technique and assignments and getting playing time to be able to relax on the field and do what you do, taking it from the practice field to the game field. You see that more and more, you feel more comfortable. We're going to keep developing all those guys."

Ramsey already appears to have a starting job locked up moving forward, beating out junior Nick Waisome, who started all 14 games last season, and Ronald Darby, a freshman All-American in 2012. Fisher raved about Ramsey's combination of speed and physicality, but said it's the freshman's football acumen that has set him apart.

Thomas is a bit more of a work in progress. He's flashed potential, but he's spent much of his first few months on campus simply soaking in all he can about how to do his job.

"He's observing a lot of stuff," Smith said. "He's taking it in, and he's going to erupt when he gets the chance."

Fisher sees it coming, too.

Since arriving on campus in June, Thomas has already packed on nearly 25 pounds to his frame, but it hasn't slowed him down.

"He's gotten faster," Fisher gushed.

Walker and Casher are following a similar path, too, though they've had longer to learn the ropes.

Casher has been sidelined for the better part of the past two years -- first because of an eligibility issue his senior year in high school, then because of a knee injury that cost him nearly all of 2012. Walker arrived this spring to get a jump start on his college career, but an issue with the NCAA Clearinghouse meant he didn't practice with the team at all.

The down time might have been a blessing, however, as both were eager to learn.

"They came in with their eyes open and their notepad ready, listening to the older guys," Smith said.

That's been a trademark of the Class of 2013 in particular. When Joyner arrived in 2010, Florida State was in the midst of a culture change in the locker room that took a while to take hold. The latest batch of freshmen, however, look right at home from Day 1.

"Those guys are coming in here with the same talent level that guys took two to three years to develop," Joyner said.

That's exactly what Fisher wants to see. He doesn't promise playing time to his recruits, he said, but he offers opportunity. This latest crop of Seminoles was prepared when that opportunity arrived.

"When you get here, you get an opportunity, and if you're the best player, you're going to play," Fisher said. "A play don't care who makes it, and there isn't an age limit on being a good player."

What we learned: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
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It's tough to take too much from a 54-6 win over an FCS foe, but there were a few lessons to be gleaned from Florida State's dominance of Bethune-Cookman.

The receivers aren't perfect: Against Bethune-Cookman, Jameis Winston threw nine incomplete passes, nearly doubling his season total from the first two games of the season. Indeed, Winston wasn't nearly as crisp as he'd looked down the stretch just a week ago, when he completed his final 13 throws, but a good bit of the blame goes to the receivers. FSU's receivers hadn't dropped a pass all season, but Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw all allowed potentially easy touchdown throws slip through their fingers. None of it ended up mattering all that much -- aside from Winston's completion percentage plummeting 10 points -- but it was a reminder that, as good as the group had been in the early going, there's still room to get better.

FSU's young defenders are going to be good: There won't be many games this year when Terrance Smith, Matthew Thomas, Ukeme Eligwe and Co. get as many snaps as they did Saturday against Bethune-Cookman, but the blowout win for Florida State -- coupled with the absence of Christian Jones, Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr. -- offered a glimpse into what the talented cast of youngsters might one day become. In his first career start, Smith finished with a game-high 12 tackles. Thomas was a beast coming off the edge, recording a sack and two TFLs. Eligwe had six stops, Reggie Northrup and E.J. Levenberry each had five, and Chris Casher made 10 tackles, including two for a loss. For all the defensive success, however, Bethune-Cookman still mustered 18 first downs -- far too many by Jimbo Fisher's estimation. The group has talent, but it's a work in progress.

The biggest lessons are yet to come: What could FSU learn, really, from a game against a clearly overmatched FCS opponent? Three of the Seminoles' starting defenders sat out. Winston was on the bench midway through the third quarter. The tempo of the game never quite clicked, and the score was still out of hand by the half. These first three games have offered a glimpse at what FSU could be, but the Seminoles have yet to be truly tested. That should change moving forward, with an Oct. 5 date against undefeated Maryland looming, and a trip to Clemson awaiting on Oct. 19.

Week 4 helmet stickers

September, 22, 2013
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Florida State's blowout win over Bethune-Cookman was far more of a showcase for the reserves than the starters, but more than a few of those backups turned in exceptional performances, and a couple of them earned helmet stickers.

RB Devonta Freeman: Florida State has rushed for 643 yards in the past two games, so there's been plenty of accolades to go around for the ground game. Still, no one has looked better than Freeman, who has topped 100 yards in each game -- all of which came while the starters were still in. Freeman is averaging 9.8 yards per carry this season, has scored twice and, perhaps most notably, none of his 28 rushing attempts have lost yardage.

LB Terrance Smith: Making the first start of his career, Smith was all over the field in the early going. He finished with a team-high 12 tackles and recorded one of Florida State's three sacks. Playing for suspended senior Christian Jones, Smith looked perfectly comfortable in the role. The 12 tackles were two more than his career total from his first two seasons at Florida State.

The freshmen defenders: They didn't look perfect, but Florida State's freshmen defenders provided some quality performances with four starters out for the majority of the game. Chris Casher racked up 10 tackles, including two for a loss. Ukeme Eligwe had six tackles. E.J. Levenberry had five. Matthew Thomas finished with three tackles -- two for a loss -- and a sack. Jalen Ramsey recorded a sack, too, and forced a fumble. In all, freshmen accounted for 33 of FSU's 85 team tackles.

Hat tips to: Telvin Smith returned an interception for a touchdown, FSU's first defensive score of the year. Karlos Williams followed up on his stellar debut at tailback with another impressive performance, rushing for 83 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries. Kenny Shaw had 89 receiving yards and would've topped 100 if he could've hung onto a throw along the sideline that would've gone for an easy score.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The experiment was effectively over before the game even started.

It's not that Nevada posed much of a threat to begin with. Florida State entered Saturday's game as a five-touchdown favorite. But there was some intrigue, thanks to the Wolfpacks' up-tempo, pistol offense that promised to give an untested FSU defense a taste of what might be waiting on that crucial Oct. 19 showdown with Clemson.

Only the test never materialized. About an hour before kickoff, Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo tweeted the news that he'd miss the game, and the Wolfpack offense that took the field didn't look anything like the frenetic, fast-paced unit that had averaged 84 plays per game since the start of the 2012 season.

Instead, Florida State's defense was subjected to slogging, methodical snooze. Nevada ran 26 fewer plays than its season average, in spite of a sizable edge in time of possession. The Wolfpack usually ran a play every 21 seconds of possession time, but against FSU, they averaged a snap every 32 seconds. In the end, the Nevada offense looked baffled, and the FSU defense remained something of a mystery.

"They were trying to shorten the game a little bit, try not to get as many at-bats and eat the clock," Jimbo Fisher said. "But I thought the defense did a really nice job and made some nice adjustments. The defense has played very solidly."

[+] EnlargeJoyner
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesLamarcus Joyner gets a sack, which has been a rarity so far this season for Florida State.
It's tough to nitpick a defense that allowed just 511 yards and 20 points in its first two games, both against FBS opponents. And yet, questions linger.

Through two games, Florida State's supposedly aggressive new attack under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has amassed just three sacks, two of which came from cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. Despite bringing the blitz on half of Nevada's passing plays Saturday -- against two backup quarterbacks, to boot -- the Seminoles didn't record a sack. (In fairness, one potential sack was overturned because Timmy Jernigan continued pursuit after his helmet came off.)

More often, Florida State has been burned on the blitz. When rushing five or more defenders this year, FSU has allowed the opposition to complete 64 percent of its passes. Both of the touchdowns FSU has allowed came vs. the blitz. When just four defenders rush, however, the opposition completes just 47 percent of its passes and has thrown two interceptions, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Florida State has mustered just 10 tackles for loss thus far, a number bettered by 93 other FBS teams. Of the four TFLs the Seminoles managed against Nevada, two came late in a blowout game from backup defenders.

In both of its games, Florida State's defense has finished strong. But it's still tough to ignore that two supposedly overmatched offenses marched down the field for extended early drives. On the first four drives of the game, Pittsburgh and Nevada averaged 5.7 yards per play. Throughout the remainder of the game, that average dipped to just 3.1 yards per play.

"We've got to come out a little faster," corner P.J. Williams said. "We're letting teams [move], especially in the running. … We know the defense, but we've got to execute it better. It's different going against them in practice than when you go into the game."

That the FSU defense remains a work in progress at this point isn't really a surprise. A half-dozen regulars missed spring practice, and the shakeups on the depth chart have continued since then. Fisher announced Monday that defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. would likely miss this week's game against Bethune-Cookman after surgery on his hand, leaving a trio of freshmen -- Chris Casher, DeMarcus Walker and Ukeme Eligwe -- to pick up the slack.

Edwards' absence may not last beyond this week, Fisher said, and Bethune-Cookman doesn't figure to provide much of a challenge for the defense anyway. But therein lies the problem.

That Oct. 19 date still lingers on the horizon, a game that is likely to define Florida State's season. Between now and then, Florida State plays an FCS opponent, a Boston College team that ranks 121st nationally in plays per game this year, and resurgent Maryland, the final tune-up before high-flying Clemson.

After Nevada downshifted its up-tempo attack, the Terrapins likely represent the only opportunity Florida State's defense will have to test its mettle against an offense with a modicum of the firepower Clemson possesses. That certainly figures to add some intrigue to the game, but it isn't likely to have too many Florida State fans feeling entirely comfortable in the interim.

"These last couple games, coming in with this new defense and just learning, we can do better," Williams said. "It has a lot to do with the new defense."

What we learned: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
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After Jameis Winston's dynamic debut against Pitt, Florida State fans had to wait an interminable two weeks for his encore. The wait actually ended up lasting through most of the first half, but once Winston and FSU got going, things escalated quickly. Here's what we learned along the way ...

Winston isn't perfect ... but he's close: Sure, even the most optimistic fans had to expect a flubbed throw from the reshirt freshman eventually, but it was no less shocking when Winston lobbed a high throw down the middle of the field for an easy interception in the second quarter Saturday. But if there were questions about how Winston would respond to adversity, he answered them ardently against Nevada. After the pick, Winston was 13-of-13 passing for 184 yards and led six straight touchdown drives, including a picture-perfect two-minute drill before the half.

Jimbo Fisher knows what he's talking about: Nevermind that Fisher turned wide receiver Xavier Rhodes into an NFL first-round pick at corner. Or that he might do the same for defensive tackle-turned-offensive lineman Cameron Erving. Fisher's latest position swap may end up his best. Karlos Williams practiced just eight days at tailback after spending his career at safety, but he still turned his first carry into a 65-yard TD run and finished the game with eight carries for 110 yards.

Jeremy Pruitt can play it safe, too: After three years under Mark Stoops' conservative philosophy, the promise from Pruitt was lots of blitzing and lots of aggression. That still may be the case, but against Nevada, FSU's D didn't push the envelope much. The lone takeaway was gift-wrapped for Tyler Hunter, FSU had no sacks and just two tackles for loss before garbage time with the backups, and yet the uptempo Wolfpack still managed just 219 yards in the game. Nevada ran nearly 20 fewer plays than its season average, in spite of a sizable time-of-possession edge. And like the opener in Pittsburgh, FSU's D got better as the game wore on -- allowing Nevada just 76 yards on its final nine drives.

FSU has some depth: Sure, it was Nevada. And sure, the Wolfpack had their reserves in the game for much of the second half. But it's nevertheless rewarding for Fisher to see some of his younger players and reserves make some noise. Ruben Carter got the start at right guard for injured Tre Jackson and looked good. Freddie Stevenson and Ryan Green got their first touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Reggie Northrup and Ukeme Eligwe made some big plays on defense. In all, Florida State's eight touchdowns were scored by eight different players.

FSU's fall camp position battles

August, 4, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State opens fall camp this week, and while the bulk of the starting lineup appears firmly in place, there are a handful of key position battles to watch as the Seminoles set their sights on the season opener in Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards Jr.
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDefensive end Mario Edwards Jr. was the No. 1 high school prospect in the nation in the Class of 2012.
Defensive end

The candidates: Mario Edwards Jr. (So.), Dan Hicks (RSSr.), Giorgio Newberry (RSSo.), Chris Casher (RSFr.), DeMarcus Walker (Fr.), Davarez Bryant (Fr.), Desmond Hollin (Jr.)

The situation: Florida State lost three top pass rushers to the NFL from last year's team, leaving a major void in a key area. Edwards appears all but certain to earn one of the two starting jobs after closing out 2012 in that role. On the opposite side, however, things are up for grabs. Newberry figured to be the top candidate entering spring practice, but Hicks -- nine months removed from ACL surgery -- made a big push. Walker might have been in the mix, too, but NCAA eligibility issues kept him on the sideline after he enrolled early.

The projection: Hicks' strong spring vaulted him to the top of the depth chart for now, and it's clear he's ready to play a sizable role after being shuffled to tight end a year ago. Odds are, however, this will be an area of some mixing and matching early on, with Hicks, Newberry and Casher all likely to see playing time alongside Edwards.

Linebacker

The candidates: Terrance Smith (RSSo.), Reggie Northrup (So.), Ukeme Eligwe (RSFr.), Nigel Terrell (RSJr.) and five incoming freshmen

The situation: Seniors Telvin Smith and Christian Jones offer a formidable pairing atop the depth chart, but the rest of the linebacker position remains in flux. None of the candidates have any significant experience, and while Terrance Smith looked to take an early lead as the starter on the strong side throughout the spring, there are endless possibilities on how the two-deep at each position might shake out.

The projection: Because FSU will run a majority of its defensive plays in nickel and dime sets, there may not be a need for a third linebacker routinely. Still, the coaching staff knows it needs to develop depth behind its two seniors, and identifying a pecking order is crucial. Northrup, Smith and Eligwe are likely the top contenders for regular playing time, but freshman Freddie Stevenson was an early enrollee who impressed this spring, and freshman Matthew Thomas might have more upside than anyone at the position.

Quarterback

The candidates: Jameis Winston (RSFr.), Jacob Coker (RSSo.), Sean Maguire (RSFr.)

The situation: What was a wide-open, four-man race this spring now looks to be Winston's job to lose. He was impressive throughout spring practice, dominated the spring game and has enjoyed immense hype and enthusiasm from the fan base ever since. Still, Fisher has been quick to point out that nothing is set in stone at the position yet, and Coker, who endured a foot injury that limited him this spring, figures to keep the pressure on Winston as fall camp begins.

The projection: In spite of Fisher's pronouncements, it would be a shock if anyone other than Winston got the starting nod in Week 1. By all indications, the redshirt freshman has continued to develop this summer, has handled all the publicity with aplomb, and his potential is undeniable.

Defensive back

The candidates: Lamarcus Joyner (Sr.), Nick Waisome (Jr.), Ronald Darby (So.), Tyler Hunter (Jr.), P.J. Williams (So.) and others

The situation: This falls under the category of good problems to have, but FSU's wealth of talent in the secondary is causing at least some confusion on the depth chart. Joyner switches from safety to corner this year, leaving five talented and experienced corners vying for limited playing time alongside presumptive starters at safety Terrence Brooks and Karlos Williams. The versatility of the group -- particularly Joyner, Hunter and P.J. Williams -- offers some options for new DC Jeremy Pruitt, but finding enough playing time for all the talent on the roster may be a tall order.

The projection: There is likely to be a healthy dose of mixing and matching this year, with Karlos Williams getting reps at linebacker, Joyner, Hunter and P.J. Williams shifting between corner, nickel and safety, and other options like Keelin Smith and Colin Blake vying for reps, too. Still, Joyner is the unquestioned leader, so his playing time should be secure, and Darby, Waisome and Hunter will likely grab the lion's share of what remains.

Wide receiver

The candidates: Kelvin Benjamin (RSSo.), Christian Green (RSJr.), Willie Haulstead (RSSr.), Levonte Whitfield (Fr.), Jarred Haggins (Sr.), Isaiah Jones (Fr.), Jesus Wilson (Fr.)

The situation: Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw have a firm grip on starting jobs, but injuries, defections and suspensions have seriously limited FSU's depth in the passing game. Fisher needs at least one or two more receivers to step up into bigger roles, with none looming larger than the uber-talented Benjamin. Green and Haulstead -- afterthoughts a year ago -- are aiming for comeback seasons, while Whitfield's speed makes him an immediate threat, and Wilson has garnered early praise for his work in summer seven-on-seven drills.

The projection: Benjamin is perhaps the biggest wild card on Florida State's roster. His talent is immense, but he's had difficulty showing consistency during his first two years in Tallahassee. If he blossoms into a star in 2013, it would be a huge boon to the Seminoles' offense, but don't be surprised if at least one of the freshmen manages to make some noise, too.

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Fisher: Winston's Choice Won't Be A Surprise
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said that Jameis Winston's decision to remain in college or leave for the NFL will not be a surprise either way.
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