Florida State Seminoles: Karlos Williams

Florida State opens spring practice next week, and there are plenty of big questions waiting to be answered. But before Jimbo Fisher gets his chance to weigh in on those discussions, we’re taking a crack at finding the answers.

So far, we’ve looked at Jameis Winston's second act, Karlos Williams' emergence and life after Timmy Jernigan on D.

Next up: Who will be this spring’s surprise stars?

Jared Shanker tabs Matthew Thomas and Kermit Whitfield.

JS: Florida State fans need to keep an eye on Thomas this spring, and, unlike this time last year, it is for all the right reasons.

It is funny how much difference a year makes, as Thomas is poised to be one of the breakout players for the Seminoles this spring and a dark horse to be the team’s leading tackler in the fall. This time last year, he and his father were having second thoughts about FSU and eventually demanded Fisher release Thomas from his scholarship in favor of a transfer to USC.

Matthew Thomas
Courtesy of Florida StateMatthew Thomas has the physical ability to make a huge impact for the Seminoles in 2014.
Obviously Thomas stuck with Florida State, and he was an early contributor before a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season. Thomas racked up two tackles for a loss and a sack through the first four games.

Entering spring practice, the former five-star recruit and No. 1 outside linebacker is slated to compete for a starting role. Departed is Christian Jones, and the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Thomas has the physical presence to be an elite hybrid linebacker and edge rusher. Against the run and in coverage, there might not be a linebacker on FSU’s roster with better closing speed and pop at the point of impact.

Offensively, I’m very interested to see where Whitfield fits. If not for a late touchdown from Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, Whitfield would have been the hero for his kick return touchdown. Still, his break down the sideline for the 100-yard score offered a glimpse to the nation the dynamic running back/receiver that Whitfield is capable of becoming.

Whitfield scored on runs of 31 and 74 yards, respectively, the first two times he carried the ball last season. With his sub-4.4 speed, he is the game-breaking threat Florida State might need to rely heavily on as the offense receives a facelift with the departures of several key contributors at the skill positions. As a running back, receiver and returner, Whitfield is the kind of player with the ability to turn a seemingly small gain into a momentum-swinging touchdown from any point on the field. It has been a while since Florida State had a player like that.

David Hale looks for big things from Desmond Hollin and Dalvin Cook.

DH: The defensive line might be the biggest mystery for Florida State this spring for a myriad of reasons. The loss of Timmy Jernigan leaves a gaping hole in the middle. The shift from Jeremy Pruitt to Charles Kelly leaves open questions about how the scheme, which changed so dramatically up front in 2013, will look this season. Jones’ departure leaves FSU looking for a new edge rusher. Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman have shown promise, but can they take the next step?

But the way spring practices go, it’s not entirely clear we’ll get answers to any of those questions before the team takes off for the summer. Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch this spring is just how well the defensive linemen who served in small roles last season will take advantage of the opportunity to shine now. And if that’s the case, the player with the best head start might be Hollin.

A juco transfer last year, he came in at about 270 pounds, but Fisher said Hollin is now up to 290 -- meaning he could be a realistic fit inside as a potential replacement for Jernigan. He saw only limited action in 2013, racking up two sacks and 16 tackles, but his work in offseason conditioning and fourth-quarter drills has been exceptional, according to Fisher.

“Hollin has been off the charts,” Fisher said. “He’s running better than he’s ever run. I expect him to have a great year.”

It wouldn’t be the first time FSU had significant success with juco linemen, with Tank Carradine and Amp McCloud recent examples. Hollin has been in the system for a year and brings some versatility to a line still figuring out how to best deploy its personnel.

There will be strong competition on the line from Keith Bryant (another Fisher favorite), Nile Lawrence-Stample, Derrick Mitchell and a bevy of freshmen set to arrive this fall, but Hollin offers some significant intrigue this spring. Fisher has already set a high bar for Hollin with the heaps of praise he’s eagerly offered, and if he can make the leap this spring and gain an inside track on a starting job, he could turn out to be a breakout star in 2014.

On the other side of the ball, Cook arrived in January with plenty of hype. He’s as good a running back recruit as there was in the country. In his two months in Tallahassee, he has done little to change anyone’s mind. He’s already added some good weight, has flashed impressive speed and looks right at home in Florida State’s backfield. That’s a good sign considering the number of carries up for grabs this spring.

Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. combined for 254 rushing attempts in 2013, and while a significant portion of those might be chewed up by Karlos Williams, Cook could be in line for the lion’s share of the No. 2 tailback duties. He’s the new face this spring, but Ryan Green and Mario Pender come with their own share of questions, and both have struggled at times with blitz pickup and decision-making. Cook could easily leap past the veterans with a strong spring, and all initial reports are that he’s poised to make an instant impression.

Cook won't likely shine in scrimmage or the spring game, though. FSU has made a point of putting young running backs through the ringer in short-yardage drills during spring practice. As the team looks to develop young leaders, Cook will be given a chance to prove he belongs.
Florida State opens spring practice in just two weeks, and there are plenty of big questions waiting to be answered. Before Jimbo Fisher gets his chance to weigh in on those weighty discussions, however, we’re taking a crack at finding the answers.

On Monday, we looked at Jameis Winston’s follow-up to his Heisman season.

Next up: Will Karlos Williams emerge as one of the nation’s top runners?

Jared Shanker says Williams still has some work to do.

JS: There is no denying Williams’ physical traits. There is no argument from me that Williams is capable of being one of the most dominant running backs in the ACC and possibly the country.

I just need to see it first.

Considering his preseason switch from safety to running back, the 6-foot-1, 223-pound Williams did just about everything you could ask of him. He rushed for more than eight yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns serving as Devonta Freeman's and James Wilder Jr.'s backup.

Therein lies the issue for me: He was No. 3 on the Noles’ depth chart last season.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesFSU's Karlos Williams has all the tools, but can the former safety become one of the ACC's -- and the nation's -- best running backs?
As a converted safety, I would not expect Williams to jump Freeman or Wilder, and it speaks to the kind of player Williams is to still put up the numbers he did despite minimal collegiate experience at the position. He would not be the first complementary running back to move into a starting role and fail to reach heightened expectations. There is a difference between rushing seven or eight times in the second half when opponents have already accepted defeat compared to rushing against the No. 1 units of Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida. Clemson and Florida have two of the best defensive lines in the country, and Notre Dame has loaded up on the defensive front the last few recruiting classes.

If Williams rushes for more than 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns, I would not be surprised at all. Few players across the country are in the category of elite athlete Williams belongs to. It is just too early to already pencil Williams in for All-ACC honors with so few meaningful snaps in his career.

David Hale says Williams is ready to become a superstar.

DH: No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference last season had at least as many carries as Williams (91) and ran for more yards per rush (8.02). No running back in the country from any school had as many carries and scored with more regularity (a TD every 8.3 rushes) than Williams. And, it’s probably fair to say, no running back in the country opened 2013 with higher expectations from fans -- as a safety.

Such was the journey of the one-time five-star recruit in his junior season, which began at safety and ended with 730 rushing yards and the designation among many FSU fans as the Seminoles’ next great tailback.

From his first career carry -- a 65-yard touchdown against Nevada -- it was obvious Williams had star potential on offense. It was actually something Jimbo Fisher saw years before, but it took some convincing to push Williams to make the move from defense. And when he did, Williams was stuck behind two NFL-caliber runners on the depth chart, meaning the bulk of his work in 2013 came in the latter half of blowouts.

But that shouldn’t diminish what’s possible. Williams might have racked up yards against backups, but he also did it behind second-string linemen. He might have had just 18 first-half rushing attempts all season, but he also scored on three of them. He might have largely been a straight-line runner when he got the ball, but that didn’t make it any easier for defenders to bring him down.

Now with Freeman and Wilder gone, it’s Williams who figures to take over the FSU ground game. Given that he’ll be playing with a Heisman-winning quarterback and an offensive line likely to have five senior starters, the expectations are high for good reason. He’s got all the physical tools to be a star, and he has plenty of stars already surrounding him on offense.

So what’s the ceiling for Williams? If he maintains his 2013 average over the same number of carries Freeman got last season, he would finish 2014 with nearly 1,400 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Of course, maintaining those numbers will be difficult against stiffer competition, but remember that Williams will now have a full year of experience at the position under his belt when 2014 begins. And while he’s likely to endure more bumps and bruises in a larger role, he’ll also have a chance to get into a routine, to wear defenders down with his unique blend of size and speed.

In other words, the question marks surrounding Williams are largely about when he played in 2013, but there’s no doubt that what he did once he got on the field was spectacular. This season, Williams will get every chance to prove it was no fluke, and if he reaches those projected totals, Winston won’t be the only Heisman contender on Florida State’s offense.
Setting up spring in the ACC Atlantic.

Boston College

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
  • Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
  • Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Clemson

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
  • Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
  • Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Florida State

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
  • The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
  • Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Louisville

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
  • Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
  • New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
NC State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
  • The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
  • Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Syracuse

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
  • The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
  • Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Wake Forest

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
  • Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
  • The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.
It is officially time for Florida State to put its 2013 championship season behind and begin pursuit of another as spring practice is just two weeks away.

While many of the Seminoles’ top players will return to Doak Campbell Stadium this fall, graduation, early departures and transfers have left Jimbo Fisher searching for answers at a handful of positions. There is talent and depth across the board at nearly every position, but the FSU staff is hoping key replacements emerge this spring before being thrust into pivotal role this fall.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
AP Photo/Steve CannonThe big and speedy Karlos Williams (left) will have some help in the Seminoles backfield this season.
This week we look at five key position battles this spring, and Tuesday's focus is the competition at running back. The battle for the backup quarterback job was broken down Monday.

Position: Running back
Replacing: Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr.
Candidates: Karlos Williams, Mario Pender, Ryan Green and Dalvin Cook

Freeman finally broke the streak of 16 consecutive seasons without a 1,000-yard rusher at Florida State, rushing for 1,016 yards, becoming the first Florida State running back since Warrick Dunn in 1996 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Freeman promptly bolted early for the NFL just days later.

In another mild surprise, Wilder also declared for the NFL draft following his junior season. While Freeman received the bulk of the carries, Wilder was usually the one to give Freeman a chance to catch his breath on the sidelines before Williams would come in for mop-up duty in the second half. Combined, Freeman and Wilder tallied 1,579 yards and 22 touchdowns on 254 rushes.

With those two off to the NFL, along with receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, Jameis Winston could use a sound running game to alleviate the increased pressure he will certainly see from defenses. In 2013, Wilder averaged seven yards per carry and Freeman’s average was just shy of six yards. Without that solid run support, it could mean Winston and Florida State will see more second- and third-and-long situations.

Before the 2013 season, Williams was moved to running back from safety, and he now looks poised to be the starting tailback for the Noles going forward. But few offensive staffs rely on just a single running back, and Fisher has never given his top running back more than 28 percent of the team’s total carries in any of his first four seasons.

Athletically, the 6-foot-1, 223-pound Williams looks capable of handling the lion’s share of the carries, but Fisher will likely rely on a committee that could rotate as many as four players at the position. Redshirt sophomore Pender is back with the team after academics and injuries cost him his first two seasons. His RecruitingNation scouting report speaks glowingly of Pender, stating the 5-foot-10, 192-pound back can develop into an every-down player that can “run with patience or stick it downhill” as well as “turn the corner and take it the distance.” Few prospects boast the kind of speed Pender owns. He ran 10.61 in the 100-meter dash in high school. The eighth-ranked running back in the 2012 class, Pender is the only running back among the top 10 at the position from that cycle yet to take a snap.

The Noles have speed to burn at running back with Pender, sophomore Green and early enrollee Cook. Green was the No. 3-ranked athlete coming out of high school and was electronically timed at 4.45 in the 40-yard dash. As a freshman, Green saw action in 12 games and averaged 4.9 yards per carry on his 33 attempts. He figures to see an increased role in 2014 and could backup Williams, especially if Pender fails to see the field again.

Cook, who was timed at 4.46, was No. 3 at his position in the 2014 cycle and enrolled in January following a flip from Florida. He is already on campus and can participate in spring drills. It would not be a surprise to see Cook have a significant role this coming season.

FSU spring spotlight: Mario Pender

February, 25, 2014
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Spring practice is just a few weeks away for Florida State, and while the defending national champs return plenty of talent to make another run at a title, there are still some big question marks looming as the Seminoles begin work on the 2014 season. With that in mind, we’re looking at the five most intriguing players to watch this spring and projecting how they might fit into Jimbo Fisher’s plans in the fall.

We’ve already discussed DT Nile Lawrence-Stample.

Next up: RB Mario Pender

Credentials: An ESPN 150 recruit out of Island Coast High (Cape Coral, Fla.) in 2012, Pender has blazing speed and projected as a big-play threat in the FSU offense. The problem, however, is that two years into his career, he’s yet to see the field. This spring marks Pender’s third in Tallahassee, marking him as something of a veteran in Fisher’s offense, but a groin injury cost him all of the 2012 season and academic issues sidelined him throughout 2013.

How he fits: A year ago, Pender appeared the heir apparent to Chris Thompson as Florida State’s speedy, big-play threat in the backfield, and he showed impressive burst throughout the spring. But his grades became a problem and he was bounced from the team during fall camp, which in turn pushed Fisher to swap Karlos Williams from safety to tailback. That move proved a stroke of genius, but now Williams is atop FSU’s depth chart without a clear second option. Sophomore Ryan Green is the only other tailback with game experience on the roster, meaning Pender -- along with early enrollee Dalvin Cook -- will be in prime position to win a significant share of the carries.

Competition: Williams projects as the clear starter entering spring practice, but Fisher has never relied heavily on just one running back. Throughout his first four seasons as FSU’s coach, his leading rusher has accounted for less than 28 percent of the Seminoles’ total carries. So even if Williams proves to be a bell cow, there could be as many as 350 carries left over for the other running backs on the roster. Cook’s early arrival this spring means Florida State will have three former ESPN 300 players vying for that work behind Williams, which should make for an intriguing competition.

Outlook: While Green and Cook have bright futures regardless of their work this spring, Pender’s situation is a bit more nebulous. He has ample talent, but even while he looked sharp last spring, he struggled with blitz pick-up, blocking and decision making. A season spent on the sidelines certainly didn’t help his development, and if he can’t lock down a significant role in 2014, it’s fair to wonder if Pender will ever make a serious impact for the Seminoles. Still, there’s reason for optimism. Cook is a burgeoning star, but he’s just two months removed from high school. Green showed promise in a small role in 2013, but he exhibits many of the same flaws as Pender did in the spring. That means it’s a legitimately open competition for carries, and of the four tailbacks on the roster -- including Williams -- none have been playing the position for FSU longer than Pender. At worst, he could develop into a nice change-of-pace/third-down back in 2014, and given the turnover at the position, Fisher will be happy to have some options.

FSU instant impacts: Dalvin Cook

February, 19, 2014
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Jimbo Fisher closed out his fifth straight top-10 recruiting class earlier this month, but as he’s shown in years past, that doesn’t necessarily mean a bevy of big contributions from the incoming freshmen.

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

This week, we’ll dig into the Class of 2014 to project which of the newest group of Seminoles project to make an instant impact on the field this season.

We’ve already looked at DT Demarcus Christmas and FSU’s wide receivers.

[+] EnlargeDalvin Cook
Miller Safrit/ESPNParticipating in spring practice could give ESPN 300 running back Dalvin Cook a leg up in FSU's running back carousel.
Next up: RB Dalvin Cook

The player: One of the top running backs in the country, Cook has all the tools to make an immediate impact. At 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, he could stand to add some weight, but as an early enrollee, he’ll have the luxury of an extra five months in FSU’s conditioning program, along with the experience gained during spring practice. As a senior at Miami Central in 2013, Cook rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and added 24 touchdowns en route to being named Mr. Florida Football. Like the man he’ll be looking to replace in Florida State’s offense, fellow Miami-area product Devonta Freeman, Cook shined when the spotlight was brightest in high school, rushing for 223 yards and four touchdowns in Central’s state championship win.

The need: The starting tailback job appears to be Karlos Williams' to lose after the former safety rushed for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns in reserve duty in 2013. But during Fisher’s four seasons as head coach, his leading running back has accounted for just 27.5 percent of the team’s rushing attempts, and the last time any single runner had more than 40 percent of FSU’s carries was 2007 (Antone Smith). With Freeman and James Wilder Jr. headed to the NFL, there figures to be a lot of carries available to the youngsters -- even if Williams establishes himself as something of a bell cow.

The competition: Williams has ample talent, as evidenced by his 8 yards-per-carry average last season, but he’s hardly a sure thing. Of his 91 career rushing attempts, 73 came in the second half of games and 80 came with FSU leading by at least 8 points. In other words, a bulk of Williams’ success came against worn-down or second-string defenses. Still, his 91 carries account for nearly 40 percent of the combined rushing attempts of FSU’s roster. No one has significant experience, leaving a mix of youngsters pushing to prove their ready. Ryan Green showed flashes last season, racking up 163 yards on 33 carries, but he must improve his blocking and do a better job of hitting holes when they open. Mario Pender returns after missing 2013 due to academics, and while his blazing speed should make for an interesting weapon, he’s yet to even make it through a fall camp during his two years in Tallahassee.

The prediction: Cook is hardly a finished product upon arrival, but by enrolling early, he’s got time to add some weight and refine his craft. He's an immense talent and, with limited experience around him, it’s easy to envision the freshman getting a significant slice of the pie this spring. If he wows coaches at this level the way he did in high school, he could push for something of an even share of the carries in an offense where Fisher has always preferred an array of options. Williams remains the heir apparent, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Cook matches those 91 carries Williams got in reserve duty last year -- and receives a good bit more.

FSU room to improve: Special teams

February, 14, 2014
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The celebration of a BCS championship victory is in the rearview mirror for Florida State, and Jimbo Fisher, Jameis Winston and Co. have already turned their attention toward adding another trophy in 2014. So as Florida State 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 defensive line, running backs, linebackers and wide receivers.

Last up: Special teams

Projected starters: Roberto Aguayo (K/RS So.), Cason Beatty (P/Jr.), Kermit Whitfield (KR/So.), Jesus Wilson (PR/So.)

[+] EnlargeRoberto Aguayo
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State kicker Roberto Aguayo was nearly perfect on field goals (21 of 22), converted on all 94 PATs and could force touchbacks with his kickoffs.
Special teams are something of a broad category, and in several areas, Florida State was a monster in 2013. Whitfield was a revelation in the kick return game, racking up 36.4 yards per return, including two touchdowns. Aguayo was just as impressive in his first year as the team’s kicker, connecting on 21 of 22 field goals. But in other areas, there was an obvious shortcoming. Kenny Shaw handled the bulk of punt return duties, and while he was consistent, he was rarely great. He averaged 9.7 yards per return -- down about 5 yards from the team’s average in 2012. Meanwhile, Beatty continued to struggle in his second year as the team’s punter, finishing last in the ACC in net punting (35.4 yards/punt) in 2013, with his struggles particularly exposed in the BCS title game.

Strength in numbers: Karlos Williams (Sr.), Ryan Green (So.), Rashad Greene (Sr.)

Williams was a fixture in the kick return game throughout the past three seasons, but with his new role as the starting tailback (and only RB with much experience), it remains a question how much Fisher will utilize him on special teams. Greene was a playmaker as a punt returner in 2012 but muffs forced him to the bench. With Shaw gone, he could get another look this year. While there’s a plethora of speed throughout FSU’s roster that could find a role in the return game, Green is among the top options among the younger players.

New on the scene: Ja'Von Harrison (Fr.), Trey Marshall (Fr.)

Fisher’s focus on recruiting speed at the skill positions means there are plenty of options in the return game both on the current roster and among the new faces inked in the Class of 2014. Harrison and Marshall are among the top choices and both figure to get a look on scrimmage downs and coverage teams as well, adding some incentive to forego a redshirt.

What to watch: The battle to replace Shaw as punt returner should make for some interesting battles both in spring and fall camp, but Florida State has so much talent on the roster that the options are plentiful. The bigger question is how much Fisher will rely on veterans in those jobs -- particularly Williams and Greene -- given their significant roles on scrimmage downs. The one area where Florida State has a real concern and, likely, no clear alternative on special teams is at punter, where Beatty showed only minimal improvement in his second full year as the starter. It’s possible Fisher could give a look to a walk-on, and he at least gave some lip service to QB J.J. Cosentino's history punting (a highly unlikely scenario for myriad reasons), but odds are it’s Beatty’s job still, regardless of his previous struggles. In 2013, the punting woes were easily overcome by an avalanche of blowout wins (FSU averaged 3.0 punts per game, fewest in the nation), but as the schedule improves in 2014, that’s a luxury the Seminoles can’t assume they’ll have again this season.

FSU room to improve: Running backs

February, 10, 2014
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The celebration of a BCS championship is in the rear-view mirror for Florida State, and Jimbo Fisher, Jameis Winston and Co. already have 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.

First up: Running back

Projected starter: Karlos Williams (Senior)

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesKarlos Williams is FSU's leading returning rusher, but there are some concerns about his durability.
The potential upside for Williams is off the charts. No player from an AQ-team with as many carries as Williams (91) rushed for more yards per attempt in 2013 as he did, and no running back with at least 50 rushes found the end zone more efficiently than Williams (once every 8.3 carries). But after FSU enjoyed both depth and experience at tailback the past two seasons, Williams does come with a few concerns. He didn’t start playing tailback until the second game of the 2013 season, and he has carried the ball just 11 times with FSU leading by seven points or less. How he’ll hold up to a full season as the featured back against first-team defenders is still an open question.

Strength in numbers: Mario Pender (RS-So.), Ryan Green (So.), Freddie Stevenson (So.), Cameron Ponder (Sr.)

Like Williams, the rest of FSU’s depth chart at tailback has little experience carrying the ball in a close game. Williams had 18 rushes in the first half of games last season. No one else on the roster had even one. But like with Williams, those numbers are more of an unanswered question than a definitive statement. Green’s elusiveness makes him a valuable weapon, but he must improve his blocking and blitz pickup before he’s a regular contributor. Pender missed each of his first two seasons (groin injury, academic issues) but he knows the system and has speed to burn. Assuming he stays eligible, he’ll have a role in FSU’s game plan.

New on the scene: Dalvin Cook, Jonathan Vickers

Cook is the big wild card in the running back mix. He’s supremely talented, rated as the third-best running back in the 2014 class by ESPN. He already has enrolled, giving him the luxury of a full spring to get acquainted with FSU’s offense. Fisher wants to distribute carries among a handful of backs, which means Cook will get his chance to play -- and play often. When the dust settles this fall, it’s certainly possible Cook emerges as Florida State’s most complete back.

What to watch: Perhaps no position group can take a bigger step forward this spring than the running backs. Williams must show he’s a more refined runner rather than simply relying on his rare combination of size and speed if he’s to inherit bell-cow status. Green still has plenty of developing to do, too, and while he’s a weapon with the ball in his hands, he’ll need to do a better job of hitting holes and picking up blitzes. Cook, of course, will be the most intriguing figure of the spring. If he makes a comfortable transition to the college level, it’s entirely possible FSU once again will have a two-headed tailback attack as good as any team in the ACC.
It was an off-hand comment from Jimbo Fisher on national signing day that first drew the attention of Florida State fans, but Jameis Winston added validity to the notion on Thursday, saying he planned to play two more years in Tallahassee before heading to the NFL.

The plan comes as a surprise to many outsiders, given Winston’s status as a likely first round pick in the 2015 draft -- and, perhaps, the first selection overall. But for Winston, it’s not entirely unreasonable.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesIf Jameis Winston sticks to his plan to play two more years at FSU, the ramification could be far-reaching.
The Heisman Trophy winner doesn’t mind going against conventional wisdom, with his return to the baseball team this spring providing the perfect context. Since his recruitment, Winston has insisted he wants to be a two-sport star, playing both football and baseball professionally before his career is over. That’s part of what brought him to Florida State in the first place. After his exceptional 2013 football season, it seemed reasonable he’d shift his focus entirely toward football and avoid the risk of injury on the baseball field. For Winston, however, that was never a consideration.

Winston will take a similar approach toward his decision regarding the NFL draft. Baseball remains a priority for him, and if staying through the 2015 football season allows him to continue to develop on the diamond, it’s entirely possible he’ll stick around. And for now, that appears to be the plan.

But what would it mean for FSU to have Winston in garnet and gold for an extra year? A few key points to keep in mind:

The depth chart

If Winston planned to leave for the NFL as soon as he’s eligible, that would’ve meant a chance for Jacob Coker to start for Florida State in 2015, but clearly that possibility wasn’t enough to keep him in Tallahassee. Coker plans to transfer to Alabama at the end of this semester, and given Winston’s plans to stick around for two more years, Fisher understood Coker’s rationale.

"He wants to graduate and he wants to play. He's got two years left and he's a year behind Jameis. Could he battle again? Yes. But I understand,” Fisher said. “I’m very supportive of it. I think the guy is a good player. I think he's going to be a good quarterback and we had a great conversation about it.”

Should Winston stay, it also makes FSU’s one-quarterback haul on signing day a little easier to tolerate. Treon Harris, a longtime FSU commit, flipped to Florida on Wednesday, leaving J.J. Cosentino as Florida State’s lone QB signing. That might be a concern if Winston departs following the 2014 season, but another year for the Heisman winner allows FSU to pad its QB depth with next year’s recruiting class, too.

While Sean Maguire likely will be the No. 2 for Florida State in 2014 and 2015, Cosentino also gets an extra year to develop his skills, too, and Fisher said the QB from Western Pennsylvania has ample upside when his time finally arrives.

The recruiting buzz

Winston’s plans to stay through 2015 actually might have hurt Florida State’s hopes of inking two quarterbacks in this year’s signing class, but just the notion that the star QB will be in Tallahassee for two more seasons is certainly a big selling point for other offensive talent.

FSU already inked three top receivers this year in Ermon Lane, Travis Rudolph and Ja'Von Harrison, along with highly touted running back Dalvin Cook. The opportunity to spend two years playing with Winston was certainly alluring.

But even the notion that Winston might be back for 2015 provides Fisher with another selling point on the recruiting trail this coming year. If Class of 2015 recruits believe he’ll be around for their freshman season, it’s one more reason to think FSU is a great landing spot.

“I also think getting them here and getting them to play with him is tremendous, especially when we have a need at that position,” Fisher said of his wide receiver recruiting. “Those guys have a chance to make an impact and be able to play with him.”

The 2015 season

Winston’s return for his redshirt junior campaign would mean a lot to a Florida State offense that figures to endure a massive overhaul in 2015. Of the 10 other projected offensive starters this season, as many as nine figure to be gone in 2015, including the entirety of the offensive line.

That’s perhaps a reason for Winston to reconsider his plan moving forward. While his talent and football acumen certainly won’t diminish with an extra year in college, the risk of injury is a real concern, and with five new starters on the offensive line in 2015, the potential for an injury diminishing his draft stock becomes all the more likely.

But if Winston does come back in 2015, it allows for some stability for an offense that will be saying goodbye to Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and Karlos Williams, among others.

The reality

The problem with all this supposition about Winston’s future is that he’s still 11 months away from having to commit to any definitive decision, and a lot can happen in that time. While Winston might be completely sincere in his plan to stay through 2015 now, the lure of first round money in the NFL and the risk of spending another year playing two sports in college could certainly change his mind. If he does, FSU is still in good shape with Maguire and Cosentino. If he doesn't, the Seminoles fans get an extra year with a once-in-a-lifetime player.

At this point, there’s no reason for Winston to offer any possibility other than his stated commitment to remain at Florida State. But what Winston and Fisher believe today doesn’t matter all that much. If his plans haven’t changed by January 2015, however, it’s an enormous boon for Florida State.

FSU depth chart breakdown: Offense

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
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A lot has changed for Florida State in the few weeks since Jimbo Fisher hoisted that crystal trophy above his head in Pasadena, Calif. Stars have departed, several incoming freshmen have arrived and the Seminoles are already at work with an eye toward repeating in 2014.

With that in mind, we’re taking a quick run through the depth chart to see where Florida State stands in advance of spring practice. Up first, the offense.

Quarterback

Projected starter: Jameis Winston (RS-So.)
Backups: Sean Maguire (RS-So.) and John Franklin III (RS-Fr.)

[+] EnlargeWinston Sacked
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKeeping Jameis Winston upright will be a key for Florida State, especially with Jacob Coker transferring.
Storylines: Winston plans to play baseball again this spring, which means at least some concerns about injury. Jacob Coker is transferring, leaving Maguire as Winston’s top backup. He had only limited playing time in 2013 and will need to continue to improve this spring. Franklin has great athleticism, but questions linger about whether he’ll stick at QB for the long haul.

Status: A
Returning the Heisman winner makes life easy for FSU’s offense, but Winston’s health will be watched closely.

Offensive line

Projected starters: Cameron Erving (RS-Sr.), Tre Jackson (Sr.), Austin Barron (Sr.), Josue Matias (Sr.), Bobby Hart (Sr.)
Backups: Sterling Lovelady (Sr.), Ira Denson (RS-Fr.), Ruben Carter (RS-Jr.), Wilson Bell (RS-Fr.), Ryan Hoefeld (RS-Fr.), Kareem Are (Fr.), Stephen Gabbard (Fr.)

Storylines: Barron steps in for Stork in the only noteworthy departure from the line. Barron has starting experience, and if he wins the job, FSU will have five senior starters -- meaning lofty expectations for the unit. Erving and Bell played well on the edges last year, but both could make further strides. The improvement for youngsters such as Bell, Hoefeld and Are will be crucial for both depth in 2014 and managing a massive overhaul in 2015.

Status: A
The starting lineup might be the best in the country, but developing depth for the future will be crucial this spring.

Running backs/Fullbacks

Projected starters: Karlos Williams (Sr.) and Freddie Stevenson (So.)
Backups: Mario Pender (RS-So.), Ryan Green (So.), Dalvin Cook (Fr.), Cameron Ponder (Sr.)

Storylines: Williams was a revelation in his first season as a tailback, but for all his success, 70 of his 91 carries came in late-game, blowout situations. Pender returns after sitting out two years because of injuries and academics, but he provides ample speed and a knowledge of the system. Green showed flashes of potential as a freshman but must improve his blocking and decision-making this spring. Cook could be the wild card. He’s an immense talent, and by enrolling early, he’ll have a leg up on getting touches in the fall.

Status: B
With a ton of talent, this group could easily turn this grade to an A by the end of the spring.

Wide receivers

Projected starters: Rashad Greene (Sr.), Christian Green (RS-Sr.), Kermit Whitfield (So.)
Backups: Isaiah Jones (So.), Jarred Haggins (RS-Sr.), Jesus Wilson (So.)

Storylines: FSU must replace Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, who accounted for nearly 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns between them. The current group, aside from Greene, has combined for just 34 catches, 441 yards and no touchdowns in the past two seasons. After a solid 2011 season, Green has virtually disappeared and must show he’s still capable of making an impact. Haggins returns from a knee injury and figures to be limited in spring practice, but he could provide a solid veteran influence. Whitfield is a budding star thanks to his blazing speed, but FSU will need to see marked improvement from both Jones and Wilson in order to make up for the depth this unit lost.

Status: C+
Without any established depth behind Greene, this is the one area of the offense where Florida State has a lot of work to do this spring.

Tight end

Projected starter: Nick O’Leary (Sr.)
Backups: Kevin Haplea (RS-Sr.), Giorgio Newberry (RS-Jr.), Jeremy Kerr (RS-Fr.)

Storylines: O’Leary had a breakthrough 2013, but with two of FSU’s top three receivers gone, he figures to see even more looks this year. Haplea returns from a knee injury that cost him all of 2013 and will likely take it slow entering spring practice. Newberry’s stint at tight end after moving from defensive end wasn’t entirely smooth, and he’s been vocal that he’s not enamored with staying at the position.

Status: A
O’Leary figures to be among the top tight ends in the country this season, and getting the veteran Haplea back for blocking situations adds to the unit’s depth and versatility.

The ACC has lost 10 players who have decided to forgo their final seasons of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. It’s not a mass exodus, but their departures definitely leave some holes. Florida State is losing some talent, but Clemson arguably has the biggest shoes to fill, as the Tigers are losing their top two receivers from 2013, including All-American Sammy Watkins. With spring football around the corner, there will be plenty of competition throughout the league, but based on what we know now, here is the best guess at who the replacements will be for each of the ACC’s early entrees:

Leaving: Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Jones
AP Photo/Phil SearsIsaiah Jones (right) caught only two passes as a freshman, but Kelvin Benjamin's departure means he'll have to play a bigger role.
The replacement: Isaiah Jones. He is 6-foot-4, but he lacks Benjamin's physical strength (he weighs about 35 pounds less). Christian Green also could be an answer after playing sparingly the past two seasons. He's 6-foot-2 and known for his speed. He had 26 catches for 450 yards as a freshman in 2011 but has just 16 catches for 190 yards in the two seasons since. As far as a true red zone target and receiver who can win the jump balls, tight end Nick O'Leary will likely get the bulk of the throws that went to Benjamin in 2013.

Leaving: North Carolina C Russell Bodine

The replacement: Lucas Crowley. As a freshman, Crowley made his collegiate debut against rival NC State. He played 11 snaps and graded out at 90 percent. An encouraging sign for UNC fans should be Crowley’s performance against Pitt, where he played a respectable game opposite All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He played 66 snaps at center in that game and had five knockdowns.

Leaving: Clemson DB Bashaud Breeland

The replacement: Garry Peters. He was one of Clemson’s rising stars at cornerback in 2012, but an injury last season set him back. He still played in 10 games and enters this fall with 54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 12 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 33 games (five starts) in his career.

Leaving: Clemson WR Martavis Bryant

The replacement: Mike Williams. The true freshman played in all 13 games and started three, finishing 2013 with 20 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. His first career start came against Wake Forest, and Williams had a 14-yard touchdown. As a prep, he was rated the No. 3 player in South Carolina by ESPN.com. Williams has a lot of potential, and the Tigers will need him to reach it quickly.

Leaving: North Carolina TE Eric Ebron

The replacement: Jack Tabb. He played in 10 games at tight end and on special teams, and he also saw some time at linebacker. He finished with six catches for 116 yards and 10 tackles. UNC also signed two tight ends in the 2014 class, including one, Brandon Fritts, who enrolled in January. The other, Avery Edwards, is regarded as the top TE in North Carolina.

Leaving: Florida State RB Devonta Freeman

The replacement: Ryan Green. He played in all 12 games (no starts), and finished with 163 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries. He showed some explosiveness in his limited playing time, as six of his carries went for 10 yards or more. His blocking and ability to take advantage of open holes still need to improve.

Leaving: Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan

The replacement: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He played in 13 games and started six alongside Jernigan at defensive tackle. He finished the season with 15 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He also had two quarterback hurries. He made his first career start against Pitt and had a season-high three tackles against both Boston College and Maryland. He had one tackle in the national championship game.

Leaving: Syracuse RB Jerome Smith

The replacement: Prince-Tyson Gulley. He was granted a fifth season of eligibility and as of now is expected to play this fall. Gulley qualified for a medical hardship waiver because he broke his collarbone in 2011 and played just four games. He was third on the team in rushing in 2013 and finished with 456 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries. He also had 15 catches and one receiving touchdown.

Leaving: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins

The replacement: Charone Peake. Watkins was one of a kind, and his record-setting production nearly impossible to duplicate, but Peake is the next man up. He was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver before he tore his ACL during a simple non-contact drill in practice on Sept. 10. Prior to the injury, Peake had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, second only to Watkins in both receptions and yards. In 2012, Peake had 25 receptions for 172 yards and two scores.

Leaving: Florida State RB James Wilder Jr.

The replacement: Karlos Williams. He moved from safety to tailback in Week 2 and finished his first season at the position with 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who scored once every 8.3 carries.

FSU's early 2014 power rankings

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
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In the days after Florida State wrapped up its BCS National Championship run, we ran through our final Seminoles power rankings of 2013. But, of course, the football world moves quickly, and fans are already looking ahead to what could be in store for 2014. With that in mind, we’re taking an early crack at our preliminary power rankings for next season, with departing stars nixed from the countdown and emerging ones projected for 2014.

(Final 2013 ranking in parentheses.)

1. QB Jameis Winston (1): OK, this one was easy. Winston won the Heisman in his first season on the field, but expectations will be even higher for 2014. So what will he do for an encore? Having four-fifths of his offensive line back certainly makes the job a bit easier.

[+] EnlargeRonald Darby
AP Photo/Richard ShiroRonald Darby was excellent in 2013 despite being slowed by an injury. The 2014 season could be even better if he's healthy.
2. CB Ronald Darby (NR): Quietly, Darby was among the most dominant corners in the ACC in 2013, with quarterbacks avoiding him at all costs in spite of a groin injury that never completely healed. He figures to be 100 percent in 2014, meaning FSU could pair Darby and P.J. Williams in the secondary for arguably the best set of starting corners in the country -- even without Lamarcus Joyner in the mix.

3. WR Rashad Greene (4): Winston attempted 384 passes in 2013, and Greene was on the receiving end of more than 30 percent of those targets. He led FSU in receiving for the third straight season, catching 76 balls for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns. More importantly, the receivers responsible for 206 of Winston’s other targets are gone, putting Greene at the forefront of a revamped receiving corps.

4. RB Karlos Williams (NR): Among AQ-conference tailbacks with at least 90 carries in 2013, none rushed for more yards per carry (8.0) or scored with more frequency (one TD per 8.3 rushes) than Williams. With Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. gone, Williams is in prime position to become FSU’s second straight 1,000-yard rusher.

5. S Jalen Ramsey (8): In Week 1 of 2013, Ramsey became the first true freshman to start at corner for the Seminoles since Deion Sanders. Three weeks later, he moved to safety and didn’t miss a beat. Ramsey started every game and racked up 49 tackles while anchoring the nation’s top pass defense. With a year of experience under his belt, 2014 could be even better.

6. LT Cameron Erving (NR): The expectations have been monumental for Erving since he first switched from the D-line to left tackle, and while he hasn't exactly reached star status -- hence, his decision to return for his senior year -- he’s made significant strides each season. He’ll be the anchor of a veteran O-line in 2014 and potentially one of the best left tackles in the nation.

7. DE Mario Edwards Jr. (9): He tended to get overlooked a bit in 2013 because of Florida State’s myriad of defensive stars, but Edwards was exceptional in his first season as a full-time starter. He tied for second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss (the most among returning players) and had 3.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Perhaps as noteworthy, in the two games Edwards missed last season, opponents averaged 191 yards on the ground against FSU. In the 12 games he started, they averaged 113.

8. TE Nick O'Leary (NR): In 2013, O’Leary was FSU’s most reliable receiving target, catching 76 percent of the balls thrown his way while setting career highs in catches (33), yards (557) and touchdowns (seven). But O’Leary also only scored once after Nov. 1, and following his astonishing performance against Clemson (five catches, 161 yards), he didn’t have more than three grabs or 55 yards in a game the rest of the season -- including being held without a catch in the BCS title game. There’s room for O’Leary to improve, and with so much transition among FSU’s receivers, he figures to get plenty of chances to do it.

9. KR Kermit Whitfield (NR): He touched the ball just 25 times in 2013 and still racked up a whopping 818 all-purpose yards while scoring four touchdowns. Whitfield’s eight offensive touches figure to increase markedly next season as he steps in for Kenny Shaw as FSU’s top slot receiver, and his speed makes him a threat to score every time the ball is in his hands.

10. LB Matthew Thomas (NR): An injury cut Thomas’ 2013 season short after just five games of limited action as a true freshman, but he flashed the potential that made him a five-star recruit. Now, with Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, Thomas figures to land a starting job and blossom into a legitimate star.

Honorable mentions: DT Eddie Goldman, G Josue Matias, G Tre' Jackson, LB Terrance Smith, S Nate Andrews, CB P.J. Williams, K Roberto Aguayo
The ACC enters 2014 with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, and Jameis Winston certainly figures to be the favorite to repeat. But as the past two years have shown, the next winner isn’t usually on everyone’s radar in January, and the ACC won’t have any shortage of candidates for the award in 2014. These are the top contenders.

1. Jameis Winston, QB, FSU
[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesFSU QB Jameis Winston is the defending winner and is set up well to make a run at a second Heisman.
Winston won the award as a redshirt freshman in 2013, and while he’ll have to deal with a long offseason of scrutiny and far higher expectations for 2014, he’ll also have the luxury of an exceptional offense around him. Four-fifths of Winston’s offensive line will be back, as will his top receiving target (Rashad Greene) and his favorite short-yardage target (Nick O’Leary). Winning the award twice is a tough task (as Johnny Manziel proved last year) but Winston figures to have ample weapons around him to make another run at it.

2. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
Johnson’s 2013 season was cut short by a broken ankle in early November, but he figures to be recovered in time to start the 2014 season, and he’ll be looking to make up for lost time. Johnson averaged 6.3 yards per carry before the injury. Among AQ-conference running backs returning for 2014, only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon had as many carries as Johnson and rushed for a higher average. Johnson’s skills aren’t limited to the ground game either. He caught 27 passes as a freshman and has nearly 1,300 kickoff return yards for his career.

3. Karlos Williams, RB, FSU
When the 2013 season opened, Williams was a backup safety at Florida State. When it ended, he’d racked up nearly 800 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns as a running back. The transition came after FSU’s opener, and Williams proved himself a natural. The only drawback was the competition in the backfield, where he was forced to split carries with Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. In 2014, however, Williams will be alone atop the depth chart, and his numbers suggest a big year is in store. No AQ-conference back with at least 90 carries averaged more per rush than Williams (8.0) or scored as often (touchdown every 8.3 carries).

4. Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke
Pop quiz: Who is the only receiver from an AQ conference with 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons who will return for 2014? It was Crowder, of course. For the past two years, he’s been one of the nation’s top pass catchers, but he’s rarely gotten much acclaim. He’s one of just four players returning for 2014 who tallied 1,800 all-purpose yards in 2013, and with QB Anthony Boone returning to lead Duke’s potent offense, Crowder could finish off his career with a bang.

5. Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson
The road to the Heisman is an uphill climb, even for the best defensive players. Just ask Beasley’s cross-state neighbor Jadeveon Clowney. But Beasley’s decision to return for his senior campaign means he’ll be among the most likely defensive players to earn consideration, and his numbers from 2013 -- 13 sacks (third nationally) and 23 tackles for losses (fourth nationally) -- certainly make a case that he’s a worthy contender.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. spent the season trying to convince coach Jimbo Fisher to name Florida State’s two-back set after them. “Wild and Free” they proposed it be called, a nickname that offered ample cache but never really caught on in practice. They ran it a few times a game, and it worked well enough to keep at it, but Fisher was never quite so impressed that he embraced the moniker. Besides, he had plans to add a third element.

Karlos Williams rarely practiced in the two-back set all season until the ACC championship game in December. In fact, for the bulk of the season, Williams barely touched the football in the first half. But when Florida State clobbered Duke to assure a second straight conference title, Williams was a crucial cog.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesKarlos Williams made the move to running back this season and posted 730 yards on just 91 carries.
This was the plan for Williams. The move from safety to tailback in Week 2 was a renovation project for the former five-star recruit, but Fisher always had a grand design in mind. It just took some time for Williams to figure out the nuance of his new position.

“I’m just trying to catch on and learn as much as possible and learn very, very fast,” Williams said. “I do feel myself growing, getting better but it’s also a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Williams finished his inaugural season at tailback with a 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who punched in a touchdown once every 8.3 carries.

Still, Williams had a niche role. He had just 18 first-half touches all year. He had limited work in close games, with 70 of his 91 carries coming with FSU ahead by at least 15. He ran the ball 10 times or more in just three games, all blowouts.

For all of his 2013 success, Williams was a work in progress.

“People laugh at me because I’m very, very athletic, but I don’t have a lot of moves,” Williams said of his running style. “I’m a straight-line speed guy. So if I kind of stop, it’s kind of hard to start up again.”

Williams’ limitations weren’t often on display in 2013, but that figures to change going forward. If last season was about getting the offensive convert acquainted with his new job, 2014 will be a far more immersive experience.

Wilder has announced he’s headed to the NFL. While the school has yet to make Freeman’s decision official, he’s expected to follow suit. That leaves Williams as the lone veteran in Florida State’s backfield.

As the prognosticators look ahead to 2014, Florida State’s offense gets high marks for all its returning talent, led by quarterback Jameis Winston. But the turnover in the ground game will be immense.

Freeman led the Seminoles in rushing in each of the past three seasons. Wilder was as good a short-yardage back as Florida State has had in recent years. With that duo leading the charge, only two teams have averaged more yards per carry (not including sacks) against FBS foes since the start of 2012 than Florida State (6.31 yards per rush).

Now it will be up to Williams to prove he’s capable of a bigger workload, but he’ll have some help.

Ryan Green didn’t see much action in 2013, but he flashed some explosive talent. Six of his 33 carries went for 10 yards or more, but Green still needs to work on his blocking and his ability to hit holes when they open.

It’s possible Mario Pender could fill the void as well, but his first two years at Florida State have been a disaster. Pender has exceptional speed and enjoyed a nice spring in 2013, but he’s yet to see action in a game. A groin pull kept him on the sidelines as a true freshman in 2012 and academic issues forced him off the team in 2013. He’s back practicing with the Seminoles now, however, and Fisher said he hopes the academic and injury issues are in the past.

Perhaps the most exciting option for FSU, however, is Dalvin Cook, a five-star recruit who spurned Florida at the last moment and is expected to practice with the Seminoles this spring.

It’s a talented group, but it’s not an experienced one, and that’s what makes Williams so crucial to Florida State’s hopes in 2014. With fullback Chad Abram moving on, too, Williams’ 18 first-half carries represent the only significant snaps any member of FSU’s current backfield has in a close game.

But Fisher had a plan when he pushed Williams to make the move to running back in September, and the benefits of that decision are just now becoming clear. For Williams, it’s now just a matter of proving he’s the right man for the job.

“It’s progressing,” he said. “Slowly but surely.”

Best and worst of ACC bowl season

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
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The ACC had a record 11 teams make bowl games. Did you have a hard time keeping them all straight? We got you covered, with a look back at the best and worst of bowl season in the ACC.

[+] EnlargeLevonte Whitfield
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsKermit Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return was one of two big special teams plays for Florida State in the national title game.
Best game: Florida State 34, Auburn 31. The biggest, most important game of the season delivered the best game of the season as the Seminoles won their third national championship with a frantic second-half rally. The final 4:31 provided one highlight after another: Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return gave Florida State its first lead; Auburn answered back with Tre Mason's 37-yard run; and then the capper, Heisman winner Jameis Winston delivering the game-winning score to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds remaining. Let the debate rage about whether this game tops USC-Texas as the best BCS national championship game.

Best game, II: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35. In the second-best win for the ACC, the Tigers also needed a second-half comeback to beat Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl, but got the school’s first BCS win thanks to the talented tandem of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. Boyd had 505 yards of total offense and threw the game-winning score to tight end Stanton Seckinger with 6:16 remaining for the final margin.

Best wheels: Kermit Whitfield. The nation got the true definition of "track speed" when Whitfield returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score in the national championship game. It only took 11 seconds in real time for Whitfield to go from end zone to end zone, his jaw-dropping speed on full display. This set off a debate on Twitter about who would win a race between Whitfield and former Florida State receiver Marvin Bracy, who left the team to concentrate on his track career. The two are cousins. No surprise, they each claim victory.

Best impersonation of Tony Dorsett: James Conner. Pitt struggled all season to get its run game going, so watching the Little Caesars Bowl unfold you could not help but wonder, 'Where was this all year!' Conner broke the school bowl rushing record held by Tony Dorsett, running for 229 yards -- tied for the highest total among all players during bowl season. He averaged a whopping 8.8 yards per carry, and also got some reps on defense, too.

Best individual performance: Sammy Watkins. Boyd may have had 505 total yards, but it was Watkins who was the best player on the field in the Orange Bowl. He set a school and Orange Bowl record with 227 yards receiving -- tops among all players during bowl season. Ohio State's overmatched defensive backs were helpless to stop him. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Watkins gained 202 yards after the catch, eclipsing his previous career high of 137 yards after catch against Auburn in 2011.

Best play call: Florida State's fake punt. Jimbo Fisher was largely outcoached in the first half of the national championship game, but he made the call of his career late in the second quarter, with the Seminoles trailing 21-3. On fourth-and-4 at their own 40-yard line, Fisher had Karlos Williams take the ball on a reverse from the up man. Williams turned the corner and got the first down. The Seminoles ended up scoring a much-needed touchdown on the drive, one of the key turning points in their comeback win. Fisher explained the decision behind the call quite simply: he did it in an effort to spark his team and avoid a blowout.

Best performance in a loss: Duke. What a heartbreaking end to the season for the Blue Devils, who came oh so close to upsetting Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. Duke led 38-17 at halftime, perhaps the most stunning result of bowl season to that point and had done a good job containing Manziel. But there was little the Blue Devils could do to stop some of the plays Manziel made late in the game. Anthony Boone did not help matters, either, throwing two costly fourth-quarter interceptions -- including one that was returned for the game-winning touchdown.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesSammy Watkins shredded Ohio State for an Orange Bowl record 227 receiving yards.
Best comeback performance: Terrel Hunt. Syracuse did not have a great year from its quarterbacks, but give Hunt an A-plus for keeping his head up and finally catching on late in the season. His last-second touchdown pass to Josh Parris to beat Boston College in the regular-season finale got the Orange into the Texas Bowl. He pulled out more heroics against Minnesota in said bowl game. Hunt ran for a 12-yard touchdown with 1:14 remaining to give Syracuse the 21-17 win and finished with 262 yards of total offense, winning MVP honors (along with a 10-gallon hat!).

Best special teams: North Carolina. It is tough enough to have on return for a score in a game. How about two? The Tar Heels did that in their 39-17 domination of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. Ryan Switzer had an 86-yard punt return for a score, giving him an NCAA record five on the season. T.J. Logan also returned a free kick following a safety 78 yards for a touchdown, the first kickoff return for a touchdown in a bowl game in school history. Switzer was named game MVP for his efforts.

Best quote: "We’re the first team from South Carolina to ever win a BCS bowl." -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney after the 40-35 win over Ohio State, stirring the pot with rival South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.

Worst stat: 0-11. Miami got embarrassed by Louisville, 36-9, in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Maybe worse than that final score was the 0-fer the Hurricanes posted on third downs.

Worst stat, II: 32.3. The ACC did not have a particularly outstanding defensive showing throughout bowl season. Teams gave up an average of 32.3 points per game. Only two of 11 teams allowed less than 20 points (North Carolina, Syracuse), seven gave up 30 or more and three gave up 40 or more.

Worst bowl game: Russell Athletic Bowl. The Hyundai Sun Bowl had the most lopsided score of ACC bowl season, but the Russell Athletic Bowl is the choice here. This was one of the most anticipated non-BCS games on the schedule, but this was never really a game. Miami looked unmotivated despite waiting two years for a shot at a bowl game and allowed Teddy Bridgewater to throw for 447 yards and three touchdowns.

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