Florida State Seminoles: Charles Kelly
Charles Kelly is in his second year on staff but shifts from linebackers coach to the secondary while also adding the title of defensive coordinator, a position he’s never held for an entire season at the FBS level. In his stead coaching the linebackers is Bill Miller, who was hired away from Minnesota.
Early returns indicate Kelly, who received rave reviews when he was hired, has hit the ground running as the new leader of a defense that finished No. 1 in points per game during their 2013 championship run.
“He stays positive. He gets on you when you mess up but he explains it when you do,” cornerback Ronald Darby said. “If I’m going to do something, he asks why you did it, and if I explain why, he’s more understanding as a coach instead of ‘Shut up I don’t want to hear that!’ He’s a great coach.”
Despite switching defensive coordinators, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said not much has changed schematically. Kelly worked under 2013 coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and the players have said the changes have been minimal. The terminology and the scheme remain largely intact, which could foster an easier transition this season for a defense replacing its best player at every level of the unit.
Kelly said there will be small differences, though, simply because he and Pruitt are not clones of each other. Kelly said he will have his own identity, which is really just a mosaic of the knowledge he’s gained in his 23 seasons of coaching.
Over those 23 seasons, Kelly has coached nearly every position group, and that is not limited to just the defense. There are challenging aspects to that, but Kelly said a good coach is able to adapt to any position and it’s prepared him to coordinate the entire defense.
“I grew up wanting to be a coach, so if you can coach and communicate and teach, you should be able to coach any position,” Kelly said. “Coaching different positions, sometimes the personalities at positions are different, so it teaches you how to handle people differently.”
Kelly acknowledges the potential issues of adding a new coach in the mix, but he welcomes the addition of Miller, who began coaching in 1978 and has coached six first-round draft picks, including Ray Lewis.
“Change is good sometimes because it’s new blood, new ideas. It’s a different way of looking at things,” Kelly said. “When you’re the only one doing it, you get tunnel vision. When you trust people you work with, then you trust what they say.”
Helping facilitate a smooth transition for Miller is his familiarity with Fisher’s coaching philosophies. Fisher is a protégé of Nick Saban, and Miller was on Saban’s staff at Michigan State.
“There’s kind of an unwritten club of guys that worked for Nick Saban,” Miller said. “What helps me a lot is I’ve been in this defensive system before. Sal [Sunseri] and I were together at Michigan State, and having that kind of background and knowing what this system is all about has been a great aid to me.”
Fisher said E.J. Levenberry is working with the first team at linebacker, and the sophomore said during fall camp that Miller has helped him with his fundamentals.
Florida State held its first scrimmage this week, and throughout the defense the fundamentals were not lacking. Fisher was upbeat following the scrimmage, and defensive lineman Mario Edwards said the players are comfortable in the system. Any mistakes were attributed to tired legs, Edwards said.
“We know the defense,” Edwards said, “and we know where to be.”
Of course, seeing Bud Foster and Chad Morris on the list is no surprise. They have established themselves as among the most consistently good coordinators in the country. What is perhaps more interesting is who isn’t on the list: Namely, no one from the defending national champion. In fact, ex-Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (now at Georgia) does make the cut, but that is as close as the Seminoles got to landing a name on the list.
Given that Jimbo Fisher doesn’t employ an offensive coordinator and is on his third defensive coordinator in as many years, it is probably not a surprise, but as our Travis Haney noted during a recent trip to a Texas coaching clinic, FSU’s Charles Kelly has made a really good early impression since taking over for Pruitt.
Pruitt, quite fairly, received a lot of credit for last year’s championship defense, so now there are concerns about what his loss will mean for Florida State. Those concerns, however, are probably a bit misplaced.
First off, remember the chaos that followed the 2012 season at FSU? Seven assistants left the staff for other jobs, including both coordinators. Mark Stoops had engineered a defense that ranked in the top three nationally in consecutive years and was widely regarded as one of the best assistants in the country. Fisher couldn’t possibly replace all that, right?
Even in the wake of Stoops’ departure, fans clamored for a big name -- Foster, perhaps, or someone with NFL experience -- but he hired an obscure secondary coach from Alabama with just three years of college coaching on his resume. But he knew Pruitt, knew what he was capable of doing, knew the system he wanted to run, and the hire proved a stroke of genius.
So now, it’s a lot easier to believe Fisher knew what he was doing when he promoted Kelly from linebackers coach to DC, and the transition promises to be much smoother this time. Pruitt’s biggest impact on the team last season was the scheme he put in place, but that doesn’t figure to change much under Kelly. The players already know what they are doing, there is no change in vocabulary and virtually no change in the Xs and Os. Moreover, Kelly is as well-liked and respected as any coach on the staff. He will do just fine.
But that doesn’t mean there is no room for worries for Florida State’s defense. It’s just that losing Pruitt probably shouldn’t be the primary concern. The biggest void is the leadership lost with the departures of Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith. That was a rare breed of leaders that had been through the battles and suffered the losses that taught tough lessons -- lessons they continually reminded their younger teammates about during last season’s championship run. Finding voices on defense that carry as much weight in the locker room this year won’t be easy.
“I think it’s feeling comfortable taking on the roles of the guys who have left, that you feel comfortable stepping up and taking that responsibility,” Fisher told me this month. “All of them play hard, but what you have to have is guys stepping up and taking on the leadership. There’s a responsibility of how you have to conduct yourself as a teammate to affect the other guys on the team. That’s where teams grow, and summer and fall camp is so important.”
Fisher reeled off a bunch of names on the offensive side of the ball who will fill that role -- Rashad Greene, Cameron Erving, Karlos Williams, Tre Jackson, Josue Matias and, of course, Jameis Winston -- but the candidates on defense weren’t quite so established.
Fisher said sophomore Jalen Ramsey has been perhaps the most vocal leader throughout the spring and early summer, and fellow defensive backs P.J. Williams and Tyler Hunter have shouldered some of the leadership burden, too. The rest of the unit, though, is still developing.
“Last year’s team wasn’t on a journey. They were on a mission,” Fisher said. “They understood what they really wanted. The trial-and-error they had, they learned from their mistakes over time.”
Terrance Smith learned under Telvin Smith last season, but he’s not nearly as vocal as his predecessor. Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman “are growing into the role,” Fisher said, but they haven’t proven they are as good at galvanizing a group around them as Jernigan did last year.
FSU has ample talent on defense, and it should again have an exceptional coordinator calling the shots, but it’s just really difficult to replace the battle scars and lessons learned that Joyner, Brooks, Smith and Co. used to such great effect in 2013.
- Injured Miami quarterback Ryan Williams said he is still aiming to be ready for the opener, writes the Miami Herald.
- Sports on Earth wants to know if Miami can finally have a breaththrough in the ACC this season.
- Athlon put together a list of 20 defensive players on the rise for 2014, with a number of well-regarded ACC names on the list.
- Florida State has a pair of ESPY nominations, writes the Tallahassee Democrat.
- Syracuse assistant coach Bobby Acosta had some good stories from the recruiting trail for The Post-Standard.
- RamblinWreck.com talked with senior associate athletics director Ryan Bamford about the difficulty of filling out Georgia Tech’s schedule each year. It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes of how the schedule is put together and the difficulties of bringing in top-tier opponents.
- TigerNet writes that, while Clemson’s first three games (including at Georgia and FSU) have everyone talking, it might be the Tigers’ next three contests (at home against UNC, NC State and Louisville) that defines the season.
- And lastly, if you’re like me and going through “Game of Thrones” withdrawal, allow this to brighten your weekend TV viewing.
Griffin brings up a terrific point. Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but Florida State blew the doors off that notion. Are the Seminoles going to go unbeaten again? ACC reporter Andrea Adelson and Florida State reporter Jared Shanker debate the odds.
AA gives Florida State a 25 percent chance of going undefeated.
First, strength of schedule. Florida State trades in Nevada and Idaho (combined 5-19 last season) for Oklahoma State and Notre Dame (combined 19-7 a year ago). Not to mention trading Atlantic Division teams Maryland (7-6) for Louisville (12-1). Not only are the teams better, but there will be a cumulative effect of playing much tougher competition.
With the exception of the BC game, Florida State never had reason to play its starters for a full game during the regular season last fall. But that is not going to be the case in 2014. More playing time means more wear and tear on the starters, and more wear and tear on the starters means you need to rely on your backups to play many more meaningful minutes.
This leads to my second point. Florida State lacks depth on its offensive and defensive lines, and that could be a problem. The biggest concern should rest with the defensive front, where the Seminoles lost a ton of talent early to the NFL and was therefore low on players in the spring. Depth is vital, most especially late in games, when the big guys up front start to get gassed. What happens against high-tempo teams such as Oklahoma State and Louisville if the depth is lacking and the game is on the line?
Finally, what will Winston do for an encore with the spotlight shining even brighter than last season? Florida State needs a much more mature, much more focused Winston in 2014. He doesn’t have a Kelvin Benjamin to bail him out in the end zone. He has no 1,000-yard back returning. There are terrific players around him, and Winston has to learn how to trust them all from the outset while the media dissects every move he makes.
We saw what a focused Winston can do under that glare of the end of the BCS national championship game. But we also saw what do-it-all-myself Winston can do under that glare in the first three quarters of that game, too.
I still believe Florida State has as good a shot as any team in America to make the College Football Playoff. I just don’t think the Seminoles make it there unscathed.
Jared Shanker gives Florida State a 35 percent chance of going undefeated.
Florida State is looking to become the first team in college football history to go 15-0 and to win the inaugural College Football Playoff. The good news for the Seminoles is, unlike in previous seasons, going undefeated is not required to win the 2014 national championship.
The Noles, as a potentially unanimous preseason No. 1, will have the most leeway when it comes to suffering a loss and still being in the discussion for one of the four playoff seeds. Looking at the 2014 schedule, its roster and trying to account for the multitude of unknowns every season presents, it is hard to see Florida State going through another season undefeated.
As AA pointed out first, the schedule is tougher this fall. While Oklahoma State is rebuilding, coach Mike Gundy has that program in good enough shape that an upset of the defending champions in Week 1 would not be a total shock. The Fighting Irish are on the schedule, and whether it is Everett Golson or Malik Zaire taking snaps, both look capable of leading an offense and the Irish into a playoff berth. Bobby Petrino is tearing Louisville down and rebuilding it in his own image, but any Thursday night road game presents unique challenges.
Injuries are also the great unknown for every team, and Florida State remained relatively healthy throughout the 2013 season. Winston avoided significant injury last season, and with arguably the country’s best starting offensive line in front of him, he again could go the entire season without any major bumps. However, the nature of the position often leaves quarterbacks vulnerable, and there is no telling how FSU would fare if it is without Winston for any amount of time.
Even a healthy Winston could see a decline in production this fall with new faces throughout his receiver corps. Rashad Greene returns, but no longer is Benjamin or Kenny Shaw around to redirect double teams. The revamped unit showed some flashes during the spring game, but there is reason to worry about whether the receivers will step up in the fall. Several talented freshmen enter the fold this summer, and while freshmen across the country are making earlier impacts than ever before, it is still premature to expect Ermon Lane, Ja’Von Harrison or Travis Rudolph to replicate Benjamin’s or Shaw’s numbers immediately.
What Florida State does have is as much talent as just about any team in the country. Only Alabama has recruited better the past few years, and the Noles are loaded with talent from top to bottom. However, a decent portion of that talent is inexperienced. Certainly those new faces could exceed their predecessors' production, but it will not happen overnight. Defensively, breaking in coordinator Charles Kelly could add to the early-season learning curve as that side of the ball adjusts to a handful of new starters and is without vocal leaders Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith.
The odds of going undefeated being at 35 percent are still the highest in the country potentially, but that is not where I would put my money if I was a betting man. I’m much more inclined to believe Florida State enters the playoff as a one-loss team.
“He’d supposed to be back in a certain day and he’d be a day late,” Burgess said. “With him, it was always, 'I got a chance to work a little bit longer.'
"... The thing that was obvious about Coach Kelly was he’d work. He put the hours in that are needed to be put in, and not everybody will do that. You got to have the people not looking at a clock all the time."
This was almost two decades ago, but Burgess’ name could easily have been substituted with any coach Kelly has worked under since 1990. Those who know Kelly well all say the same thing: Florida State could not have made a better hire at defensive coordinator than Kelly.
When Jeremy Pruitt left after one season as the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator for Georgia, it was the first time since 2008 that the defensive coordinator of the team with the No. 1 scoring defense left for another job. Kelly immediately stood out as the top in-house candidate, and coach Jimbo Fisher promoted Kelly from linebackers coach shortly after Pruitt departed. Fisher and several players said there are few, if any, changes from what the Noles ran under Pruitt to what they will run under Kelly.
The players already like what they have seen from their new leader. Sophomore defensive back Nate Andrews said Kelly finds a teaching moment every time he comes off the field.
“He teaches as you go along,” Andrews said. “If you mess up on the field, you come to the sideline [and] he’ll teach you, 'This is what you did wrong' or 'This is what you did right.'”
“Kelly will also coach the secondary. He was a defensive back at Auburn and the position most of his former coaches believes suits him best. Defensive coordinator at a BCS school was the natural progression for Kelly, who has coached nearly every position on the field. Most importantly, he quickly adjusted to each new job title, whether it was running backs or linebackers.
[Kelly] knows the game as good as anyone. He's going to recruit harder than anybody. He watches tape constantly. His work ethic is second to none.” Troy assistant head coach Shayne Wasden, who played with Kelly at Auburn and coached with him at Eufaula (Ala.) High School.
“The good, outstanding coaches can coach any position and probably should be able to,” said former Central Phenix City (Ala.) High School coach Wayne Trawick, who hired Kelly as a junior varsity coach in 1990. “You can’t be a good DB coach without knowing routes and you can’t be a good linebackers coach if you can’t understand offensive blocking scheme. A good young coach won’t just study the position he’s coaching if he wants to move up … and he can coach any position.”
Al Groh and Kelly sat across from the hall from each other at Georgia Tech from 2010-12. It was a high-traffic area, Groh said, as he and Kelly alternated between each other’s offices exchanging ideas. It isn’t always easy for a head coach or coordinator to solicit suggestions from position coaches, but Groh said he made a special exception for Kelly, whose ideas were worth considering.
It wasn’t until Groh left Atlanta that he fully realized how much teaching was ingrained in Kelly. Groh, serving as a TV analyst at ESPN, was sitting in one of Kelly’s linebackers meetings a few days before a Florida State game. At Georgia Tech, Kelly’s role was coaching special teams and the secondary.
“He did an excellent job of coaching linebackers, like it was his all-time position,” Groh said.
Shayne Wasden, the head coach while Kelly was at Eufaula (Ala.) High School, might know Kelly best. They were teammates at Auburn and Wasden called Kelly shortly after being named head coach. He offered Kelly the defensive coordinator position, and rarely gave that side of the ball another thought. He never had to. He called Kelly a “grinder” and doubts anyone was going to outwork him on defense. Wasden knew there was not a better teacher for his defense, either, a vital aspect for a high school program.
Teaching is what Kelly does, even away from the football field. He was a math teacher and directed the alternate school at Eufaula, and he tutored students in math after practice, even the alternate students, who are usually kept apart from the general student body and are lightly taught during the day.
Teaching is an essential trait for Kelly, who is saddled with replacing some of the Seminoles' biggest stars. Lamarcus Joyner, Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith are all likely to be picked in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, and they were arguably the defense's three most vocal leaders.
“[Kelly] knows the game as good as anyone. He’s going to recruit harder than anybody. He watches tape constantly. His work ethic is second to none," said Wasden, now the assistant head coach at Troy. "He's done well everywhere he's been. They'll be really good on defense. I don’t know if [Florida State] could have hired a better [coach]."
Carla in Houston writes: Just curious: How do you think the ACC will be viewed going into next year? Will the committee be impressed by a team doing well in-conference, or is the ACC still thought to be weak? On one hand we have Florida State, THE national champion! Boy it feels good to say that! The Seminoles were unstoppable this year and have a Heisman winner to prove it. Not to forget Clemson, who finally seemed to break its big-game curse! But the rest of the conference worries me. Virginia Tech underperforming yet again? Miami face planting? Georgia Tech being unable to move the national radar for another year? We have Louisville coming in so that will be a plus, but even that might not be enough. I am worried the ACC will start being viewed as a Top heavy conference, where beating Florida State and Clemson is the *only* way a team can get respect. Thoughts?
HD: Carla, I think you nailed it. It IS a top-heavy conference right now, and expectations are even lower this year for Clemson with the departures of Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd. The ACC took a HUGE step forward last season with FSU winning the national title and going 2-0 in BCS bowls while the SEC went 0-2 in its BCS bowls. There was plenty to brag about, but in order to get more respect from the selection committee, it's going to have to go deeper. Look at how many teams the SEC and Pac-12 had ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25, and the ACC's 0-4 record overall against the Pac-12. Teams like Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have to improve so that the ACC's league schedule isn't dismissed as easy.
Colby Lanham in Clemson, SC writes: What do you think of the three-way quarterback battle between Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly, and Deshaun Watson? Do you think Stoudt has a legitimate shot and do you think Watson redshirts? Also, who emerges at running back? Perhaps C.J. Davidson, Tyshon Dye or Wayne Gallman?
HD: Stoudt should have the upper hand entering the beginning of the season because he has the most experience. He did well when he was put in the lineup last season. His 79.7 percent completion percentage was the best in the country among QBs with at least 50 passes. With Clemson playing at Georgia and at Florida State within the first three games of the season, you want an experienced QB. Still, coach Dabo Swinney has said that he's not afraid to play two QBs if necessary. Kelly can really run -- even better than Boyd -- and that is an important dimension in Chad Morris’ offense. Watson is a four-star recruit with a lot of talent, but that's a lot to ask of a true freshman. Look at all the records Boyd set and the 32 wins he had. But he redshirted his first season.
As far as running back is concerned, Dye was doing very well in the preseason this year until he had a back problem. Davidson got some opportunities in the bowl game and probably has the most breakaway speed among the running backs. Don’t count out Zac Brooks, who can catch the ball out of the backfield and that is important in the Morris offense. There is a lot of time between now and the Georgia game -- 15 spring practices and 29 more in August. Ask me again then.
Josh in Tallahassee writes: In a league where coaches are everything, how concerned should our Noles be with Kelly at DC? I feel like talent will make up for a lot of it but how much? Will there be a dropoff on defense?
HD: I don't think FSU fans should be too concerned. First, I think it was a smart move because of how much transition there has been at the coordinator position, with this being the Noles' third coordinator in as many years. Keeping a familiar face who knows the terminology, the system and the players will save a lot of offseason headaches and potential in-season growing pains. Also, it's important to remember that coach Jimbo Fisher wanted to hire a DC with a good working knowledge of the secondary to help scheme against spread offenses. Kelly was a DB in college and has extensive coaching experience at the position. Kelly's foundation also stems from knowledge of Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, which continues what Fisher was looking for all along when he hired Jeremy Pruitt. So, while the defensive staff came unraveled a bit with Pruitt's departure, I think Kelly was the best option to keep Fisher's philosophies tied together.
Christopher Evans in Melbourne, FL writes: Do you think, with the addition of Louisville to the Atlantic Division, the ACC might re-organize the two conferences for travel and strength of team purposes? I understand the roller coaster that is college football when it comes to the ups and downs of teams, but with Clemson, Louisville, and Florida State all in the Atlantic, would it be smart to make an adjustment, even if it has Clemson going Coastal and Georgia Tech going into the Atlantic Division? Atlantic:1) Florida State2) Louisville3) Miami or Virginia4) Syracuse5) Pittsburgh6) Boston College7) Georgia TechCoastal:1) Duke2) NC State3) North Carolina4) Virginia Tech5) Clemson6) Wake Forest7) Miami or Virginia
HD: First, if the ACC makes any changes to its divisions, it won't happen until 2015 at the earliest. Second, the ACC is considering the possibility of doing away with the divisions entirely, as the NCAA reconsiders its requirements for conferences to have title games. Scheduling and realignment continue to be on the agenda for next week's winter meetings, but I don't think they would change just because the Atlantic Division is top-heavy. It would be more to enhance the title game.
His surroundings are new, his teammates are new and the playbook is new. For the first time, the game is moving fast enough that Thomas' five-star body struggles to keep pace.
"He's still young and trying to get the college feel and know that he can't just beat people with speed," senior Telvin Smith said. "But he's going to be a great linebacker."
On national signing day, Thomas' letter of intent slithered through a fax machine in Jimbo Fisher's office, securing Florida State the crown jewel of its 2013 recruiting class. Thomas would later claim that decision came under duress -- pressure from family, he said -- and by early May he was looking for a way out, telling the Miami Herald, that he planned to attend USC or Georgia instead.
The firestorm erupted, the will-he-or-won't-he debates raged. The footage of his signing day announcement was parsed like the Zapruder film, with his malaise practically inviting fans to read between the lines for a deeper meaning. He posted a photo on Instagram of himself wearing a USC ski cap, and Florida State fans assumed the worst.
Thomas didn't speak to the media after his initial statements. His high school coaches pled ignorance. Fisher and Florida State's coaching staff scrambled to reopen the lines of communication, but the drama lasted for six weeks with few concrete answers.
When the dust settled, the saga ended just as it began, with Thomas reluctantly choosing Florida State. A few days later, Thomas added a photo of his new FSU student ID card on Instagram with the caption, "It is what it is."
"He didn't really want to sit out a year and due to the fact that he committed to Florida State on signing day, the downside was if he wanted to decommit, he'd lose eligibility," said Billy Thomas, Matthew's father and the most vocal member of his camp throughout the recruiting saga. "He wanted to go to school, and he wanted to play football. So as he thought about it, he was like, 'Well, I guess it's not that bad.'"
What happened between signing day and Thomas' enrollment might never be fully explained, but all parties agree on a basic storyline.
Thomas wavered in the waning days before signing day between a handful of top schools. His mother pushed hard for Florida State, wanting him to remain closer to home. During his announcement interview , he repeated again and again that his decision was about family.
By May, however, reality set in, and Thomas had second thoughts. Fisher agreed to a release, Thomas would have to sit out a year before he could play at another school, and Florida State had no intentions of saying goodbye gracefully.
"You were always worried, but I felt very confident about it because of our relationship," Fisher said. "It was just opening up the lines of communication."
Fisher and his staff kept in contact with Thomas. Fisher had endured his share of recruiting drama in his years as a coach, though he admits this situation -- three months after signing day -- was unique.
Florida State players called regularly, urging Thomas to follow through on his commitment, too. Several players had built a rapport with Thomas throughout his recruitment, and they offered reminders of why he'd wanted to play for the Seminoles in the first place.
As the clock ticked toward the start of summer enrollment and his options dwindled, Thomas eventually relented.
"Basically Jimbo told him, 'You're going to lose eligibility, and we want you as our five-star recruit,” Billy Thomas said. “‘You committed to us and we committed to you.' Once [Matthew] thought about it, he was like, 'OK, I think that might be the right fit for me.'"
Fisher doesn't allow freshmen to speak with the media, so Matthew's side of the story remains under wraps, but even within Florida State's locker room, it isn't discussed.
"It has never been mentioned with me," linebackers coach Charles Kelly said. "The one thing I don't do and Coach Fisher doesn't do -- the past is the past. We're looking forward. I've always had a good relationship with Matthew, and if you'd been watching him since he's gotten here, you'd have never known that stuff went on. You'd have had no idea."
It's not that his teammates weren't curious. They'd seen the reports and heard the rumors just like everyone else.
"At one point in time, you couldn't help but follow it," Smith said.
Smith didn't pry, but he felt a need to take Thomas under his wing and make sure the new freshman felt at home.
The two players found they had a lot in common, and Smith eagerly shared stories of his own anxious moments before arriving at Florida State.
"I let him know I was in the same position," Smith said. "I gave him that blanket and let him know everything was going to be alright."
Around the locker room, Thomas has been welcomed with open arms. A majority of players waver on their commitment at some point, Fisher said, so there was empathy for Thomas' plight.
It has helped, too, that Thomas hasn't lamented his situation. Instead, he's embraced the opportunity and has impressed coaches from the outset.
"Matthew's come in, he's worked really hard, just been a good teammate, been soaking up a lot in the meetings," Kelly said. "I couldn't ask Matthew to work any harder than what he has."
With just two veteran linebackers on the roster, Thomas is poised to see action early this year, and Fisher said he's already making a push for regular playing time.
"When you're in the middle linebacker where he's at and all the stuff that's happening, the multiplicity of things happening is much greater," Fisher said. "And he's really learning. He can run and play."
Thomas has acclimated well off the field, too.
The recruiting chaos was the elephant in the room in the early going, but those memories have faded. Thomas was quiet when he first arrived, but he's come out of his shell and found comfort in his surroundings.
"He's fitting in well, and he's starting to open up," Smith said. "He's starting to be Matthew Thomas."
Next up: Special teams.
Fact or Fiction: With Dustin Hopkins gone, Florida State can expect to regress on special teams in 2013.
The case for: It's not that a kicker makes or breaks a special teams unit, but if any program understands the significance of the position, it's Florida State -- a school with several seasons defined by kicks, both made and missed.
Stepping into the role will be freshman Roberto Aguayo, who certainly has an impressive enough leg -- he drilled three kicks of longer than 50 yards in the spring game -- but no experience. And even Hopkins wasn't a star as a freshman, converting 70 percent of his tries. The pressure will be high for Aguayo, and that's hardly an ideal situation for a freshman.
Beyond the kicking game, last year's special teams units set an awfully high standard. FSU ranked 16th nationally in kick return average (24.65 yards) and led the nation in total punt return yards (536). The Seminoles were one of just five teams with three punt-return TDs, and their coverage unit allowed the seventh-fewest returned punts in the country.
The case against: From Hopkins' big season to big returns by Lamarcus Joyner or Rashad Greene to the strong coverage units all around, it's easy to applaud the work of FSU's special teams in 2012. But for all the success, there were some glaring failures, too.
Freshman punter Cason Beatty struggled mightily at times, and FSU finished with the 11th-worst net punting average of any team in the country. Worse yet, two of Beatty's kicks were blocked, including a disastrous boot late in the game against NC State that directly contributed to an FSU loss. Beatty showed progress late in the season, however, and it stands to reason that he'll improve dramatically in Year 2. Simply moving to the middle of the pack in the ACC would be a vast improvement.
Those impressive returns in 2012 were nearly offset by some ugly plays, too, including three special-teams turnovers that led to a yearlong carousel of punt returners. Greene lost his job, replaced by Tyler Hunter, who flubbed the gig and was replaced by Kenny Shaw. Add in an astonishing 18 special-teams penalties last season and there were simply too many mental miscues that should be easily corrected in 2013.
Perhaps the best reason for optimism this year, however, is the sheer quantity of talent. All of last year's top return men are back, and speedy freshman Levonte Whitfield will be added to the mix. New special teams coordinator Charles Kelly has top athletes playing on the return and coverage units. After a year of mental breakdowns, special teams will be a focus across the board.
Really, the success and failure of FSU's special teams in 2013 might be a matter of perspective. There's a strong chance that, on the whole, the unit will be more consistent than it was a year ago, with better performances from Beatty and fewer costly mental breakdowns.
But the story of last year's special teams group wasn't about the handful of flubs but the numerous highlights, and FSU will be hard pressed to repeat that success. Hopkins was as reliable as anyone in the country -- he connected on 21 of 22 kicks at one point -- and his ability to successfully kickoff directionally, rather than simply boot touchbacks, was a distinct advantage for FSU.
In the end, the drop-off in production probably won't be overwhelming, but there's little chance the Seminoles will go the whole season without missing Hopkins in one or two crucial moments. Given that the offense will be trotting out a freshman quarterback as well, odds are those special teams plays will loom even larger than they did in 2012.
This week's targets: Florida State commitment Delvin Purifoy (Pensacola, Fla./Catholic) was visited by his future position coach, Charles Kelly. Purifoy is the nation's No. 6 outside linebacker and No. 106 prospect overall in the ESPN150. The nation's No. 2 wide receiver, Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian), said that he had two Seminoles coaches come by to check in on him. He's teammates with safety Mattrell McGraw who also holds a Florida State offer.
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It happens every year that a few relatively obscure names find their way into bigger roles, and as the Seminoles get set to start another summer NoleNation counted down five under-the-radar players who could be in line for breakthrough seasons.
Next up: Reggie Northrup (So./LB)
Career arc: A solid recruit out of Jacksonville, Northrup found his way onto the field in a limited role as a freshman in 2012, shining on special teams while making a few big plays in late-game situations at weakside linebacker. For the season, Northrup finished with 10 tackles, including six in a dominant second-half performance against Boston College.
Why he's overlooked: With two veterans clearly entrenched in starting jobs at linebacker and a massive group of young and untested talent behind them, there's a clear line of demarcation in the group between the big names and the players flying under the radar. And while Northrup is one of the few reserves with playing experience, it's also possible he'll be upstaged by one of the five incoming freshmen, including highly regarded Matthew Thomas.
Why he'll produce: Northrup's game wasn't entirely refined last year, but his athleticism and ability to find the football were obvious. He was a missile on special teams, and his work ethic and energy at linebacker impressed teammates. He's also versatile enough to back up Christian Jones on the weakside or step in on the strongside when FSU is in its base 4-3 set. Considering both Jones and Telvin Smith will be gone after the season, there's ample reason for Jeremy Pruitt and new LBs coach Charles Kelly to make sure a few of those young linebackers get some much-needed experience now.
Projection: Even with the starting strongside job open, Northrup isn't guaranteed much, and there promises to be stiff competition even for backup roles from Terrance Smith, Freddie Stevenson and Thomas. Still, it's in FSU's interest to find ways to get as many of the young LBs on the field as possible, and Northrup's playing experience in 2012 could certainly give him a leg up.
But upon closer examination, if there were some gripes, they probably revolved around the linebacker position.
Well, Jimbo Fisher and Co. are on a mission to change that. And it looks like they're on the right track.
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This was a little different than practices he's been to in the past. A lot of that is due to the new man in charge on defense, Jeremy Pruitt.
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With that in mind, we're going to go position-by-position looking at Florida State's strengths and weaknesses as the Seminoles prepare for the start of spring practice.
Previous entires can be found HERE.
Next up: Linebacker
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