Florida State Seminoles: Demarcus Walker

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.”

FSU room to improve: Defensive line

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
11:00
AM ET
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 preps 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.

Previously, we reviewed the running backs, linebackers and wide receivers.

Next up: Defensive line

Projected starters: Mario Edwards Jr. (Jr.), Eddie Goldman (Jr.), Nile Lawrence-Stample (RSJr.)

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsFSU's Mario Edwards Jr. has been a solid player, but he needs to take the next step and become a star.
Edwards and Goldman arrived in the Class of 2012 as two of the top-10 recruits in the nation, and they’ve both managed to make their marks already at Florida State. But while both have been solid performers thus far, 2014 marks a turning point when Goldman and Edwards need to take the next step forward and blossom into stars. The loss of Timmy Jernigan on the line is a major blow, and while Lawrence-Stample showed promise in 2013 and figures to be the next man up, a big chunk of Jernigan’s lost production will need to be filled by Edwards and Goldman this season.

Strength in numbers: Desmond Hollin (Sr.), Derrick Mitchell (RSJr.), Chris Casher (RSSo.), DeMarcus Walker (So.), Justin Shanks (RSSo.), Keith Bryant (RSFr.)

Florida State sent five defensive linemen to the NFL in 2013 and projects to add a couple more in this year’s draft, and while that’s an impressive array of talent coming from one place, it’s also sapped some of the depth at the position. But if there’s not a ton of veteran experience here, there’s still ample talent. Casher showed signs of a bright future in a limited role in 2013, finishing with 25 tackles (5 for a loss) and two sacks. Walker started two games as a true freshman. Bryant is well regarded by the coaching staff and could push for regular playing time in the middle of the line, too.

New on the scene: Demarcus Christmas (Fr.), Adam Torres (Fr.), Lorenzo Featherston (Fr.), Fredrick Jones (Fr.), Rick Leonard (Fr.), Derrick Nnadi (Fr.), Arthur Williams (Fr.)

The 2014 signing class was a boon for Florida State on both sides of the line of scrimmage. On the D line, FSU added seven new players, and there’s a legitimate possibility at least three or four could contribute immediately. That group is led by Christmas, who Fisher raved about, saying, “if he would’ve gone to more camps, he would be been the No. 1 or 2 player in the whole country.” Featherston and Nnadi figure to be in the mix when fall camp opens, too.

What to watch: While finding a replacement for Jernigan in the middle remains a top priority, FSU also will be looking to fill the hybrid role Christian Jones played throughout 2013, with Casher perhaps the top lineman in the mix. Edwards struggled with his weight throughout his first two years at Florida State, and now that he’s being looked at as a veteran leader on the D, it will be interesting to see how prepared he is this spring. Goldman and Lawrence-Stample both need to take a big step forward this spring, too, but FSU may benefit the most from the continued development of reserves like Walker, Shanks and Bryant. If they don’t earn the coaches’ attention now, there’s a massive group of freshmen on the way this summer who could steal plenty of playing time.

FSU depth chart breakdown: Defense

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
11:30
AM ET
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.
In 1984, Florida State hired Mickey Andrews as its defensive coordinator. For the next 26 seasons, he held the same role, only leaving after Bobby Bowden stepped aside as head coach following the 2009 season.

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

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

1. The move isn’t unprecedented

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

3. Pruitt wasn’t a star in 2012

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

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

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

4. It wasn’t about the money

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

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

5. Recruiting may be the key

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

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

Both Pruitt and Craig had exceptional relationships with high school coaches and players in Alabama, and that may be the toughest thing for Fisher to replace. Pruitt’s replacement will have his work cut out for him replacing several departing stars, but that work begins with finishing strong before signing day.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Telvin Smith is as enthusiastic a player as Florida State has on defense, but the man has priorities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In practice the following week, the starters were angry.

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

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

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

Sure, the starters would love to stay warm by staying on the field, but when the season is finally over, as many as eight more of FSU’s veteran defenders could be headed to the NFL, and the reps their understudies are getting now could mean another smooth transition for the defense in 2014.

FSU's young defenders making noise

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
1:00
PM ET
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."

Ranking the ACC's impact freshmen

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
10:30
AM ET


Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe is a throwback, and he's never been eager to play his freshmen too early. In his career at the helm of the Demon Deacons, just 22 true freshmen have seen action. And yet, in 2013, Grobe has already played 11 more.

It's a sign of the times that true freshmen are making an instant impact, and that's been particularly true in the ACC. And while virtually every program has seen some results from its Class of 2013 already, these five classes have produced the most through four weeks.

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesIn FSU's season opener, Jalen Ramsey became the Noles' first true freshman cornerback to start a game since Deion Sanders in 1986.
1. Pittsburgh: According to ESPN's rankings, Pitt had the 41st-ranked recruiting class last season, but few programs have gotten more production from their freshmen right off the bat than the Panthers. Pitt has played 12 true freshmen already this season, including two of the nation's best. Tailback James Conner ranks second in the ACC in rushing, and receiver Tyler Boyd has been electric, ranking fifth in the nation in all-purpose yards. Including receiver Scott Orndoff and kicker Chris Blewitt, freshmen have accounted for 70 percent of Pittsburgh's scoring this season.

2. Virginia Tech: The Hokies opened the season with two freshman defensive backs aiming to shut down the two-time defending champions. It was a major question mark, but Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller answered emphatically. Facyson has three interceptions and four passes defended so far, while Fuller has racked up 12 tackles, seven defended passes, six pass breakups and an interception. With the two freshmen starting all four games, Virginia Tech's passing defense ranks sixth in the nation.

3. NC State: Without starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell, the Wolfpack have had to find offense wherever they can, and two true freshmen have answered the call. Tailback Matt Dayes has racked up 143 yards on 37 carries so far, scoring three touchdowns. Meanwhile, receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling ranks in the top 15 in the ACC in receiving yards, yards per reception and yards per game.

4. Florida State: Jalen Ramsey became the first Florida State cornerback to earn a starting assignment as a true freshman since Deion Sanders in the opener, and he didn't disappoint, picking off Pitt QB Tom Savage for the Seminoles' first takeaway of the season. Ramsey ranks sixth on the team with 12 tackles, and he's recorded one of FSU's six sacks. Defensive end DeMarcus Walker earned a start, too, and Matthew Thomas has two tackles for loss. In all, 13 freshmen have seen the field for FSU.

5. Miami: The Hurricanes have yet to see significant contributions from a number of members of their 15th-ranked recruiting class, but the early results from Gus Edwards, Alex Figueroa and Stacy Coley have offered a glimpse of what's to come. Edwards has carried just 18 times, but he's scored on three of those runs, and his 7.3 yards-per-carry average ranks fourth in the ACC. Coley has just five catches, but one went for a touchdown, and Figueroa has eight tackles and a sack for a particularly tough Miami linebacking corps.

FSU freshmen get early work

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
9:00
AM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher knows better than to make any suppositions before he actually has seen his freshmen get to work. He has been around long enough, seen enough five-star recruits fail and enough two-star afterthoughts emerge to know it's all just an educated guess until the games begin.

Jalen Ramsey is different. All he knows is what he has done before and what he expects to do again. He wasn't making guesses about his production. He knew.

"He came in saying it," Fisher said. "We all said, 'OK,' but when you're around him, you see a different guy. He's a mature guy."

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJalen Ramsey is at the head of FSU"s 2013 class, but he's not the only one playing a major role.
Ramsey backed up his talk, turned in a dominant fall camp and became the first true freshman cornerback to crack the starting lineup for Florida State since Deion Sanders.

Now that, Fisher said, is a lofty standard, even for Ramsey.

"He's a heck of a player now, but let's give him a break before we put him in Deion's category," Fisher said. "But size, speed, athleticism and very mature, very hard-working and very intelligent. He has a drive to be good, and he's very mature above his years. That's what allowed him to be able to do that, and he's done a tremendous job. He's going to be a heck of a football player."

But it's not just Ramsey exceeding early expectations. With an interception in his first game and five tackles -- including snuffing out a fake field-goal try -- in his second, he has made the biggest impact, but 12 other true freshmen have seen action for Florida State this season.

Defensive end Demarcus Walker started the opener along with Ramsey, meaning more true freshmen got starting nods in just one game in 2013 than did so in all of 2012.

Running backs Ryan Green and Freddie Stevenson both scored touchdowns against Nevada. That marked the first time two true freshmen reached the end zone for Florida State since Devonta Freeman and Nick O'Leary did it against Duke in 2011.

Five true freshmen have recorded a tackle so far, led by Ramsey's nine. That's just one fewer than did so in all of 2012.

Two more have caught passes, two others have seen work on the offensive line. For a team with sights set on a national championship, that's a lot of youth. In all, a higher percentage of Florida State's 2013 freshman signing class (65 percent) has seen action than in any other year since Fisher took over as head coach.

The way Fisher sees it, getting that group early playing time is a necessity.

"You can explain it to them a thousand ways," Fisher said, "but until they go out and make a mistake or make a play, it doesn't matter."

Last week's blowout win over Nevada gave a handful of the freshmen a chance to shine. Levonte Whitfield's circus catch along the sideline earned praise from Fisher. Green made the most of his late-game opportunities, racking up 78 yards on just five carries. Jesus Wilson worked in on punt-return duties, racking up 29 yards on two tries.

Two easy wins to open the season and an early bye week have helped Fisher ready his freshmen for battle. A date with an FCS foe this week should allow for additional playing time for some of the backups, too. The hope, Fisher said, is that the early experience will mean none of the 13 freshmen who has seen the field so far will be playing like freshmen by the time Florida State hits the meat of its schedule.

"That will help out a lot," receiver Christian Green said. "Them coming from high school to this level is definitely different. They're getting used to the game speed, how things go in a game."

Of course, not all freshmen are created equal, and there have already been some casualties. Stevenson practiced this spring at linebacker, but Fisher believes his future could be at fullback. Wilson Bell was FSU's most advanced freshman on the offensive line, but he went down with a knee injury against Nevada and could be headed for a medical redshirt. Seven other members of Florida State's 10th-ranked signing class appear destined for a redshirt, too.

But the bulk of the group already has dipped its toes into the water, and that's a crucial bit of early development in case Ramsey isn't the only one Florida State needs to throw into the deep end as the season progresses.

"They get that out of their system -- the nerves, the jitters," Fisher said. "Once they get out there, they realize it's football."
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."


All spring and all summer, Florida State promised we would see a new-look defense come Week 1.

Well, the Noles delivered on those promises against Pittsburgh. Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt showed off new blitz packages designed for his athletic linebackers and cornerbacks in a 41-13 win over the Panthers on Monday night, allowing guys like linebacker Telvin Smith and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner to take on even bigger roles on the defense.

Smith was all over the field, making one punishing hit after another. He finished second on the team with eight tackles -- including two for loss. Joyner led the team with nine tackles and a team-high two sacks.

That is not a misprint. A defensive back led the Noles in sacks.

Rewind to last season: not one defensive back got a sack. Of the 36 total sacks the Noles notched in 2012, defensive linemen made 33 of them.

"Oh that was something that coach Pruitt emphasized on this offseason," Joyner said. "He said I was too much of a player with explosion not to come off the edge and try to make those kind of plays. That’s what this defense expects me to do. I was pretty successful with some of the guys doing their job allowing me to come off free."

The philosophy -- at least in Week 1 anyway -- was in stark contrast to last season, when the Seminoles rode the strength of their defensive front behind Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Florida State did not generate much of a pass rush against the Panthers from its defensive front, relying instead on the blitz packages to get after Pitt quarterback Tom Savage.

Considering the players Florida State has to replace up front, that does not come as a complete shock. Still, it was different.

"I love this defense," Smith said. "A lot of times I’m uncovered and guards can come hit me but I feel like I have an advantage with being quick and being fast. I’m trying to be more aggressive also. It’s just a transition to this defense."

With transition comes rocky patches, too. Pitt marched down the field on the opening drive, and found early success with its running backs rushing to the outside. But coach Jimbo Fisher praised his defense for not buckling.

On Pitt’s second possession, true freshman Jalen Ramsey came up with a huge interception to help swing the momentum back to the Noles. Florida State scored off the turnover. Terrence Brooks also got an interception that the Noles turned into a score just before halftime.

Fans are sure to see more of Ramsey, who joined defensive end DeMarcus Walker as the two true freshmen starters on defense. Joyner said Ramsey was a little rattled to start.

“He was very nervous at the beginning of the game and I told him, ‘Hey it’s just like high school. You go against Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene, two NFL receivers every day, Kenny Shaw. If you can do it against those guys, you can do it out here,’” Joyner said. “He took a deep breath and there was an interception the next drive.”

There is no question this defense remains a work in progress. Players said they felt comfortable in the scheme, but still believed they were doing too much thinking during the game as they get used to their new roles. Joyner says it is essential to get some technique and leverage issues squared away during practice this week.

All of that should get better over time. Still, Florida State did hold Pitt to under 300 yards total offense and only gave up 13 points.

“I thought we did pretty good but there’s still a lot more room for improvement,” Brooks said. “We messed up on some little things, they were able to get some plays out of that but just with more practice and reps, film study we’ll be fine.”

Could they be another Top 10 group by the time the season ends?

“We’ve got the same players that did it last year so we definitely have that mentality,” Smith said. “We set that standard last year and we’re going to try and do it again this year.”

What we learned: FSU 41, Pitt 13

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
2:00
PM ET
Remember the talk before Monday night about the overhyped quarterback and the obvious trap game circumstances in Pittsburgh? That talk didn't last long. Here's what we learned about Florida State in Week 1 instead ...

Believe the hype: Before it's all over, Jameis Winston will play in somewhere between 23 and 55 more games at FSU, so there's plenty of history left to be written before anyone crowns him as an all-time great. But as far as debuts go, they don't get much better than this. Winston was 25-of-27 passing for 356 yards and four TDs (there was a fifth on the ground), shattering even the most extreme expectations. Before the game, it was easy to wonder if all the hype was too much for a guy making his first start on the road amid massive expectations. Now, the only question is what he'll do for an encore.

The freshmen got to play: Winston wasn't the only freshman to make some noise Monday. Demarcus Walker and Jalen Ramsey both got starting nods on defense, with Ramsey hauling in a first-half interception and making four tackles. Roberto Aguayo connected on both of his field-goal attempts. Isaiah Jones and Ryan Green saw some late action as well. FSU got a chance to see a lot of youngsters Monday, and that bodes well moving forward.

The defense is a work in progress: There was plenty to like about how FSU played, forcing a couple of turnovers (and having their hands on a few more potential takeaways) while essentially shutting down Pitt's offense in the second half. But Pitt's Tom Savage isn't going to be the most challenging QB the defense faces all season, and still, the Seminoles' defense didn't get much pressure unless they brought the blitz. That's a bit of a concern, as were the numerous big plays Pitt made by getting outside the tackles. There's work to be done, and DC Jeremy Pruitt will no doubt be pushing the unit hard before Nevada arrives in Week 3, but at the end of the day, FSU still allowed just 297 total yards of offense.

Depth issues? What depth issues?: Maybe Florida State's limited depth chart at receiver and tight end will be an issue at some point down the road -- and certainly, one injury in either area could be a major problem -- but it was smooth sailing Monday. Nick O'Leary finally delivered a game that so many fans had assumed would be the norm when he arrived, becoming Winston's favorite end-zone target and catching three TDs. Meanwhile, the veteran receivers looked the part, as Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin combined for 17 catches, 293 yards and a touchdown.

Redshirt watch for FSU's freshmen

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:30
AM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State lost 11 starters to the NFL draft this spring, but that didn't necessarily turn the depth chart into a gold mine for the Seminoles' incoming freshmen. Of Jimbo Fisher's biggest accomplishments during his first four years on the job, none loom larger that the immense influx of talent on the roster -- meaning depth isn't a concern in most areas.

Of the 14 non-specialists Florida State added in 2012, only six saw action last year. Mario Edwards Jr. was the only freshman to start a game, and Ronald Darby and Eddie Goldman were the only others to see regular playing time.

The situation may not be dramatically different this year. Twenty-one freshmen were added to the roster, but aside from a small minority, there doesn't appear to be regular reps awaiting the bulk of the group. FSU's initial depth chart lists nine freshmen on the two-deep, though the playing time for each may be limited, and the roles for a few others may yet develop. As it stands though, here's our projections for early playing time for the Class of 2013.

The likely redshirts (4): QB John Franklin, OT Ira Denson, C Ryan Hoefeld, TE Jeremy Kerr

Fisher is never shy with praise for his players -- even those with virtually no shot at seeing a moment of playing time. That's been the case for Franklin, whom Fisher said has looked very good in practice throughout fall camp. Chalk it up to Fisher's desire to talk about any quarterback other than Jameis Winston, but it's nevertheless encouraging given that so many college coaches wanted Franklin as a receiver, not a QB.

Denson arrived overweight, and Hoefeld is still a touch lighter than line coach Rick Trickett would like, which means both are likely to spend the year prepping for the future. Kerr might have been a lock for early playing time given FSU's utter lack of depth at tight end, but a knee injury has kept him off the practice field for weeks.

The victims of numbers (4): DT Keith Bryant, OG Wilson Bell, DB Marquez White, S Nate Andrews

The reports on these four have been generally positive -- particularly Bell, who was well ahead of the other young linemen, according to Trickett -- but barring injuries, there's probably not much playing time to be had. It's possible one or two will find a role -- Andrews and White could make a special-teams impact -- but none are guaranteed to see action at all.

Matthew Thomas
Courtesy of Florida StateAfter considering transferring to USC before ever playing a snap for FSU, LB Matthew Thomas has settled into the Seminoles' defense.
The linebackers (5): Ro'Derrick Hoskins, Tyrell Lyons, E.J. Levenberry, Matthew Thomas, Freddie Stevenson

Levenberry and Thomas headline the current depth chart, where both are listed as the primary backups at the Mike and Will linebacker spots, respectively. Both offer immense promise. Thomas is the star of the group, and after an on-again, off-again spring in which he considered transferring to USC, the five-star recruit seems to be happy and comfortable in FSU's defense. Levenberry has also been a big hit with his coaches, and his size -- 6-3, 240 pounds -- has had Fisher drooling.

Both Thomas and Levenberry figure to play, but they may not be alone. Freddie Stevenson was an early enrollee and has drawn praise from teammates. Lyons and Hoskins could figure in the special-teams mix, too.

Florida State has just two established veteran linebackers, and both will be gone at year's end. The Seminoles need to start developing some depth there, which is good news for the entire group.

The special-teams stalwarts (4): DE Davarez Bryant, DE Desmond Hollin, RB Ryan Green, WR Levonte Whitfield

Fisher's history suggests skill-position players who can contribute on special teams will get a chance as freshmen, even if there isn't much of a role beyond that. FSU allowed P.J. Williams, Reggie Northrup and Christo Kourtzidis to do it last year, which means Green, Bryant and others could do the same in 2013, even if a wealth of scrimmage snaps aren't there. Hollin, a juco transfer, probably stands the best shot at a bigger role, and Bryant has actually worked in some at tight end, too. Whitfield figures to be in the mix as a kick returner early, but he is a potential weapon as a slot receiver on offense, too.

The best bets to play (4): CB Jalen Ramsey, DE DeMarcus Walker, WR Jesus Wilson, WR Isaiah Jones

Fisher was impressed with his freshman wideouts from the outset, but now it's a necessity that at least one or two contributes heavily. FSU lost three senior receivers for the season, which means there should be ample playing time to go around. Wilson has wowed teammates since the summer, and he figures to be first up, Jones also turns up on FSU's two-deep, backing up Rashad Greene at the X position.

Walker's progression was hindered a bit during the spring when NCAA compliance issues kept him off the practice field. Still, he spent long hours in the film room and coach's office, and his teammates have raved about his football IQ. Given the relative depth issues at defensive end combined with a depth chart with little or no game experience, Walker has as good a shot as anyone at getting playing time early.

Unlike the rest of this group, the numbers don't exactly favor Ramsey. The FSU secondary is stacked with talent, but that's only more of a testament to how good Ramsey has looked during fall camp. He spent the first few weeks working with the No. 1 defense while Darby nursed an injury, and he appears to have established himself as a legitimate threat to contribute. He opens the season No. 2 on the depth chart behind Lamarcus Joyner, and that's a role that could expand as the season progresses.

Seminoles in preparations for Pitt

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
11:00
AM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher finally put the biggest question of fall camp to rest Friday, officially naming Jameis Winston his starting quarterback. But if Winston's position on the depth chart finalized one lingering issue, a handful of other questions remain as the Seminoles begin their final week of preparation for the season opener at Pittsburgh.

Here's a quick rundown of what's left on Florida State's preseason to-do list:

Developing receivers: A knee injury will keep Jarred Haggins on the sideline all season, meaning Florida State is now down three senior wide receivers. Add in a finger injury that has limited junior Rashad Greene for the past week, and a position that figured to be among the deepest on the Seminoles' roster is now a major concern. Greene should be fine for the start of the season, but it's apparent that Florida State will still need to rely on a trio of freshmen to step up. Fisher has raved about Jesus Wilson throughout camp, and Levonte Whitfield and Isaiah Jones have talent to spare, but the transition to the college game is rarely a seamless one.

Dan Hicks
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDefensive end Dan Hicks, who missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, is still wearing No. 6. So is cornerback Nick Waisome. One of them will have to change numbers before next Monday.
Grasping the defense: The response from players has been universally upbeat, but even the most optimistic of Florida State's defenders admit there's still work to be done in learning Jeremy Pruitt's new defensive scheme. Florida State ranked in the top three nationally in total defense in each of the past two seasons, and there's enough buzz among the returning players to think this year's unit could be even better, but Pruitt's scheme is a challenge. The team has worked extensively on mastering the nuance throughout fall camp, but when the season begins next week, Pruitt said fans might see a more watered-down version. "When it comes to game week, we're only going to call what they know," Pruitt said. "You throw a lot of stuff at them, hope part holds, and as the season progresses, you pull out what you need each week."

Depth at tight end: Fisher tried to put a happy face on the situation when camp opened, but the lack of depth at tight end remains a major concern. Giorgio Newberry made the switch from defensive end just a week before camp began, and while he's got the size to do the job, he's definitely a work in progress. Freshman Jeremy Kerr remains sidelined with a knee injury, and Fisher continues to tinker with options, using freshman defensive end Davarez Bryant at tight end during practice last week. While Fisher is eagerly toying with his options, the fact remains that starter Nick O'Leary is going to need to shoulder the burden for a thin group behind him.

Two for six: It's perhaps the silliest debate of camp, but the implications could be significant. When defensive end Dan Hicks switched from tight end this spring, he kept his old uniform number. The problem, however, is that cornerback Nick Waisome was already wearing the No. 6 jersey. Since then, neither player has been willing to give it up, meaning FSU can't use Hicks and Waisome -- both projected starters -- on the field at the same time. Fisher said he's leaving it up to the players to decide, likely in hopes one would be mature enough to choose playing time over a jersey number, but thus far neither player has caved.

Playing time for rookies: The freshman receivers figure to be necessities on offense this season, but beyond that, it's tough to tell where the rest of the newcomers fit in. Running back Ryan Green, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive end DeMarcus Walker are among the most impressive freshmen of the fall, but Fisher said he wouldn't be surprised if the great majority of this year's class avoids a redshirt. Aside from Kerr, quarterback John Franklin and a couple of the offensive linemen, virtually every member of the Class of 2013 remains in the mix for playing time.

Secondary shake-up: It's a good problem to have, but Florida State's logjam of talent in the defensive backfield still leaves some question marks as the season approaches. When Lamarcus Joyner shifted from safety to corner, the questions about playing time began, and Pruitt has been quiet about potential answers. Joyner, Waisome, Ramsey, Ronald Darby and a slew of others are in the mix for regular reps, and Fisher has hinted that the Seminoles' defensive backs will be rotating early and often.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Dan Hicks galloped around the practice fields as Florida State opened fall camp Tuesday, no signs of the knee injury that ended his 2012 season a year ago -- almost to the day.

A lot has changed since the injury. Back then, he was a third-string tight end, moved from defensive end after three years because of a logjam of talented pass rushers. In the 12 months since, he's had surgery, recovered and swapped positions again, returning to his original place on the roster after a stampede of talented ends departed for the NFL. His lone mementos to a lost season are the scar on his knee and the No. 6 on his jersey, which now conflicts with the uniform worn by cornerback Nick Waisome.

Dan Hicks
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDan Hicks has played in 27 career games at defensive end, but missed all of 2012 with a knee injury.
A year ago, Hicks was such a luxury that he wasn't needed on the defensive line, and he wasn't missed at tight end. Now, the fifth-year senior would rank as the second-most accomplished player on Florida State's roster at either position.

"Dan's had a tremendous summer," Jimbo Fisher said this week. "His conditioning has no signs of anything that's gone on."

That's good news for Florida State, which finds itself in a remarkably tenuous situation on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

In praising Hicks' physique, Fisher was offering an explanation for moving third-year sophomore Giorgio Newberry from defensive end to tight end -- the same swap Hicks made last year. It was a move Fisher said was first discussed weeks ago, but one that was made a necessity when senior Kevin Haplea succumbed to a knee injury and sophomore Christo Kourtzidis opted to transfer, leaving the Seminoles with just two scholarship tight ends.

But if Fisher was filling a need on offense, he also was robbing from a position on defense that lacked veteran experience to spare.

Newberry was no one's idea of a success story thus far. Physically, he's intimidating and his potential seemed high, but through two full years in the program, he'd yet to develop as a pass rusher. Still, he played in every game last season, which made him a rarity among FSU’s defensive ends.

All-ACC defensive ends Bjoern Werner, Brandon Jenkins and Cornellius Carradine were all selected in this year's NFL draft, which meant Florida State would be looking to fill a massive void at the position. Only Newberry and Mario Edwards Jr., who opened last season with a redshirt before injuries eventually forced him into the starting lineup, saw the field in 2012.

And yet Fisher said he's confident there is talent to spare.

"I feel very good about where we're at defensive end-wise," he said. "You've got to play both sides of the ball, and we've got just as many inexperienced guys at tight end. There was no apprehension whatsoever. It's something we would've done either way."

That might be true, but there's no avoiding the obvious numbers. Last season, in just 12 games, Carradine finished with 80 tackles, including 13 for a loss, and 11 sacks -- stats that dwarf the combined career totals of every member of FSU's current depth chart at defensive end.

Only Edwards and Hicks have seen serious game action. Redshirt freshman Chris Casher hasn't played in two full years after sitting out his senior season in high school and going down with an injury in his first game of 2012. Freshman Demarcus Walker figured to get an early start on his career by enrolling this spring, but NCAA eligibility issues kept him off the field during spring practice. Tuesday's start to fall camp represented the first official practice session of his career at Florida State. The same is true for fellow freshman Davarez Bryant and junior college transfer Desmond Hollin.

But Fisher insists he's not worried about the lack of experience.

"You have a great group of guys there that we feel very comfortable with the size and speed and the things we do," he said.

When the games begin though, establishing the pass rush may be more about scheme than personnel. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has implemented a blitz-heavy approach that players have embraced. He also comes from a 3-4 base system at Alabama, and the Seminoles could certainly employ those looks more often in 2013. Pruitt isn't just planning to throw his rookie pass rushers into the deep end of the pool, either. He's mixing and matching, finding alternative options in unlikely spots.

"In the spring we had some packages with me actually playing some D-end and coming off the edge a little bit," senior linebacker Christian Jones said. "And we're blitzing a lot more this year."

Like Newberry's move to tight end, the new approach to the pass rush was likely to a necessity regardless of the surprises Florida State has faced this summer. Werner, Jenkins and Carradine were the backbone to Mark Stoops' highly ranked defenses the past two seasons, and changes were required in the wake of their departures.

Giorgio Newberry
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreGiorgio Newberry's size could make him a valuable asset as a blocking tight end.
"The key to the game on both sides is the guys that put their hand in the dirt, and that's why we could play the way we did last year was the D-line," Fisher said. "But I think we've got just as good a group [in 2013]. I like our group better. I really do."

Optimism is easy to find this time of year, but Florida State has already walked the tight rope that comes with having limited options at key positions.

For now, Newberry fills the Seminoles' biggest hole. Hicks' health and the emerging Edwards, who has dramatically improved his physique from a year ago, offer possibilities in another significant area of concern.

Not all choices are supposed to be easy, and Newberry's move was the best option Fisher had, and FSU’s pass rush will make due with what's left.

"[If we weren't satisfied] we'd have tried to find something else to do," Fisher said, "but I felt very comfortable with those guys."

FSU's fall camp position battles

August, 4, 2013
8/04/13
9:00
AM ET
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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

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.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

ACC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12