Florida State Seminoles: mario pender

From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found HERE.

Next up: The running game

Best of the best: Florida State

There's plenty of competition for the top spot, but we're giving the edge to FSU's revamped ground game in spite of the losses of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. While the Seminoles said goodbye to two of their top runners, they return a senior-laden offensive line that has opened holes to the tune of 5.6 yards-per-carry last season, as well as a dynamic (if inexperienced) group of ball carriers. At the top of the depth chart, Karlos Williams tallied 730 yards and 11 TDs last season in a limited role, and his size/speed combination makes him as tough to bring down as any runner in the country. Behind him, Ryan Green and Mario Pender offer speedy alternatives, while true freshman Dalvin Cook oozes potential and could emerge as FSU's No. 2 option. Jimbo Fisher has made a point of distributing carries in recent years, so expect all four to see plenty of work.

Next up: Miami

It's easy enough to make a case for Georgia Tech (300 rush yards per game last year), Louisville (veteran offensive line and deep backfield) or Pitt (two 700-yard tailbacks returning), but we'll give the slight edge to Miami because there may be no more dynamic or productive runner in the conference than Duke Johnson. True, Johnson is coming off a severe ankle injury that cost him the final five games of 2013, but he's back and feeling good already, and he promises to be the foundation of the Canes' offense. With a healthy Johnson in the backfield last season, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry -- which would've been good for 13th nationally and third in the ACC.

Possible sleeper: North Carolina

Against FBS foes last season, North Carolina mustered a mere 148 yards per game on the ground -- good for 11th in the ACC. But that doesn't mean the ground game won't be a strength for the Tar Heels in 2014. In the early going, UNC mustered a meager 2.8 yards-per-carry and six TDs in its first seven games of the year (in which the Heels finished 2-5). After the calendar flipped to November, however, North Carolina's ground game flourished, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 13 times, while helping the Heels to a 5-1 finish. Now, T.J. Logan is back to lead a particularly deep corps of runners, and Marquise Williams is as good a threat to run as any QB in the league. If the offensive line can hold up, North Carolina's ground game should be vastly improved in 2014.

Potential problem: Virginia Tech

The Hokies' backfield was a disaster last season. Set aside the work of now-departed QB Logan Thomas, and the running backs tallied a mere 3.98 yards-per-carry last season and managed just 11 third-down conversions. Against FBS teams, Tech managed just 2.88 yards-per-carry, the ninth-worst mark in the nation. The eight teams that were worse had a combined record of 18-79. Now the Hokies add a first-year starter at quarterback, and the situation looks even more dire.
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.
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: 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.

FSU depth chart breakdown: Offense

January, 24, 2014
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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.
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.”
Jimbo Fisher was still on the podium, gazing into the crystal trophy that comes with winning a national championship, when it was suggested that once the team returned to Tallahassee, it was back to work preparing for 2014.

First on the docket for FSU will be identifying which star players will be returning for next season. Running back James Wilder Jr. is entering the draft, according to a source, and more decisions will trickle in before the Jan. 15 deadline. Here are our best guesses at what’s to come — and who might step in for departing underclassmen.

Likely going

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFSU nose tackle Timmy Jernigan is a force inside, and how well the Tigers do against him could determine how well they run the ball.
DT Timmy Jernigan (junior)

Why he’d leave: Entering the season, Jernigan was Florida State’s top-rated underclassman by most draft experts, and that standing never changed. Jernigan was dominant all season, and his impact was never more noticeable than in the national title game. When he was on the field, Auburn found no running room between the tackles. When he was out of the game, the Tigers moved the ball with ease on the ground.

Next up: Nile Lawrence-Stample took a big step forward this season, gaining valuable playing time in the defensive line rotation. He started six games and finished with 15 tackles. Florida State has five current defensive tackle commitments, so it’s certainly possible one of the incoming freshmen could make a big impact early — as Jernigan did in 2011 — but Lawrence-Stample is the safest bet to step in full time.

WR Kelvin Benjamin (redshirt sophomore)

Why he’d leave: Benjamin was projected as a star from the moment he arrived on campus, but it took him a while to get acclimated. He enjoyed a breakthrough 2013 season, finishing with 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns, including the game-winner in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. Some of his game could still use some refinement — as evidenced by two big drops vs. Auburn — but his physical skills already peg him as a likely first-rounder.

Next up: Kermit Whitfield certainly projects as Florida State’s next big-play receiver after an electric season as a freshman, but he fits more in the slot. Replacing Benjamin’s size and physicality isn’t an easy task, but 6-4 freshman Isaiah Jones figures to have the best chance. He saw limited playing time this year, catching two balls for 31 yards.

Possibly going

RB Devonta Freeman (junior)

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
AP Photo/David J. PhillipDevonta Freeman became the first Seminoles tailback to gain 1,000 yards in a season since Warrick Dunn in 1996.
Why he'd leave: Freeman has been the steadying force for FSU’s running game for three years, and on Monday, he became the first Seminoles tailback to top 1,000 yards in 17 years. Wilder’s role was smaller this year as injuries hampered his production, but that could also have served as a reminder why it’s better to take the big hits with an NFL paycheck. Neither has a ton of early draft buzz which could convince them to return, but both could show out at the combine and work their way into the top three rounds.

Next up: Karlos Williams showed plenty of promise this season after moving from safety in Week 2, finishing with 748 rushing yards in reserve duty. He’s largely a straight-ahead runner, but his combination of size and speed makes him a weapon. FSU will still need to develop depth, likely with Mario Pender or Ryan Green, but could get a boost from four-star commit Dalvin Cook.

LT Cameron Erving (redshirt junior)

Why he’d leave: Erving has hovered near the top of the offensive tackle draft boards since the end of 2012, and in his second season since moving from the defensive line, he showed significant progress. Still, it’s a deep draft at the position, and there were moments — including against Auburn’s impressive defensive front Monday — when he showed some flaws.

Next up: Florida State brought in two potentially strong replacements last year in Ira Denson and Wilson Bell. Injuries hampered the progress for both during the season, however, which makes Erving’s decision potentially crucial for the stability of the line going into 2014.

Likely staying

G Tre Jackson and G Josue Matias (juniors)

Why they’d leave: Matias and Jackson might be among the top underclassmen at the position, but both could benefit from another year working with line coach Rick Trickett.

Next up: Florida State has struggled to recruit on the line the past few years, which makes depth — particularly on the interior — a significant concern. The Seminoles have a solid class coming in for 2014, but the loss of more than one of their underclassmen on the line would be a serious concern.

TE Nick O’Leary (junior)

Why he’d leave: O’Leary made huge strides this season, developing into one of Jameis Winston’s favorite targets and a legitimate red-zone threat. He’s an adept route-runner, a sure-handed receiver and his blocking game has developed nicely. But with Florida State's receiving corps in transition, O’Leary could be in a position to post huge numbers in 2014 if he sticks around.

Next up: Kevin Haplea returns from a knee injury next year, but he’s more of a blocking tight end than a true replacement.

WR Rashad Greene (Jr./WR)

Why he’d leave: What more can Greene accomplish at Florida State? He’s been the team’s most reliable receiver for three consecutive seasons. He became the Seminoles’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Anquan Boldin this year. He’s quick, a great route-runner, and he has good hands. He does everything well, and his quarterbacks have taken notice. The problem for Greene is that he lacks the obvious physical skills that make scouts drool, so his draft value might not reflect his on-field contributions.

Next up: It would be a surprise if Greene left, but it would also be a huge blow to Florida State’s offense. Winston was a star this season in part because of an exceptional group of receivers, but the group will get a major makeover in 2014. The Seminoles need Greene to help ease the transition.

Karlos Williams boosts FSU backfield

September, 16, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For more than a year, Jimbo Fisher knew he had a weapon waiting in storage. He'd prodded Karlos Williams to make the switch to tailback, but he didn't insist. Selling a five-star recruit on a position change requires a soft touch.

Through eight practices, Williams' teammates knew he was something special, too. That was the entirety of Williams' prep work before he was unleashed against Nevada, sprinting untouched for 65 yards and a touchdown on his first carry. He certainly hadn't mastered the craft, but a toss sweep into daylight was the play he was born to run.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
AP Photo/Steve CannonKarlos Williams, who played safety in the opener, rushed for 110 yards against Nevada.
Deep down, Williams probably knew, too. By the end of spring practice, he was giving the move serious consideration, and when Fisher came to him once more after Florida State's opening-week win over Pittsburgh, he finally relented.

"It's been something they'd been talking about, and I'd been kind of interested in it," Williams said. "I just said, 'Coach, I'll do it.' "

The final push, however, wasn't about Williams' potential on offense, but rather Florida State's need for a safety net at running back.

In the 10 days from the end of fall camp until the post-game celebration in Pittsburgh, Fisher's backfield depth chart was slashed. Mario Pender was ruled academically ineligible, and while freshman Ryan Green flashed potential, he wasn't ready for a major role. When James Wilder Jr. fell shoulder first into the turf against Pitt, re-aggravating an injury that had nagged him throughout 2012, a move had to be made.

"James had a ding, and we didn't know if he'd be able to go or not," Williams said. "[The move] was another way to help the team."

Williams finished his first game at his new position with eight carries, 110 yards and a touchdown. His 65-yard run showcased his speed. His 11-yard rumble in the fourth quarter, with 10 Nevada defenders draped atop him for the final few feet, showcased his strength. He was, as Fisher had said so many times, a natural.

"I'm not trying to say I was rubbing a crystal ball," Fisher said. "That guy is a talented cat."

Wilder played, too. He carried six times for 45 yards and a touchdown, and his devastating lead block in the third quarter helped spring Devonta Freeman for a 60-yard run.

But after virtually every tackle and every fierce block, Wilder also massaged his shoulder and appeared visibly bothered by the injury.

"It was a couple times where it went numb," Wilder said. "It's something I have to expect for my running style. It's dinged up, but it's nothing too serious."

It's a message Fisher repeated, too. Asked after the game about Wilder's health, Fisher joked the tailback just needed "to rub some dirt on it." In other words, it's not an injury likely to improve with extended rest, but rather something Wilder will have to play through going forward.

"I'm the big back, I've got to suck it up and play," Wilder said. "It doesn't really bother me, and I just don't want to sit out. I want to go out there and compete every week."

For now, Wilder insists that won't be an issue. The shoulder soreness plagued him throughout last season, and he still finished with 635 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The problems this year are minor compared to the pain he endured a season ago, he said, and the numbness hasn't affected his play. The lone casualty thus far was his trademarked high-top haircut, which he trimmed after it brought him bad luck, he said.

For Florida State, however, Wilder's injury actually might have been something of a blessing. A healthy Wilder is a powerful weapon, but the slightly battered version might have been the necessary push to add another valuable asset.

Williams' debut was everything Fisher had hoped, but it certainly wasn't an end to the story. Nevada's defense capitulated to Florida State's ground game to the tune of 377 yards, and Williams was just one of the multitudes to reap the rewards. He still must master blocking schemes and pass protection, and his role on offense remains a bit nebulous as the Seminoles march toward the heart of the ACC schedule.

But what's clear after Saturday's win over Nevada is that the tightrope Florida State might have walked with a battered backfield won't be quite so precarious now. Wilder is still pummeling defenders, bum shoulder and all, and Williams delivered evidence he's more than just a safety net.

"When he gets space, he can hit home runs and he's hard to tackle because he's a big, physical guy there, too," Fisher said. "Karlos will provide us with a very big piece to the puzzle in my opinion as the year goes on."

ACC's lunchtime links

August, 30, 2013
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North Carolina has some work to do on D.

Gonzalez making a return trip to FSU 

July, 17, 2013
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Marlon Gonzalez (Cape Coral, Fla./Island Coast) wasn't exactly flying high on Seminoles fans' radars coming into the first session of the Jimbo Fisher Camp in June.

Now that they know who the 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end is, they certainly understand why he was taken by the Florida State coaches. Even more credibility has arrived with his recent inclusion in the 2015 ESPN 300.

Sure, Gonzalez will take the honor -- like he should. But at the same time, he isn't focused on that above the goals of his team.

It is pretty clear college football guru Phil Steele things Florida State is mighty talented, considering he has the Noles sitting at No. 3 Insider in his preseason rankings.

Here is a glimpse at how talented he thinks this team is headed into 2013: He has Florida State ranked among his Top 15 teams in the nation at: running back Insider, receiver Insider and defensive line Insider. That means Florida State is featured in three of the four position rankings Steele has unveiled on ESPN.com so far.

Of those three groups, he has receiver rated highest of all, which surprises me quite frankly. Florida State has talent, yes, but there is no true national headliner among them. Steele admits as much, writing, "Although there are not a lot of household names in this group, the Noles could have some by the end of the year, including Kelvin Benjamin, who is 6-foot-5, 242 pounds."

No doubt Benjamin is a freak of an athlete, but he has got to be more consistent this season to really strike some fear into the heart of the opposition. Greg Dent is suspended indefinitely following his arrest this week, but Florida State has plenty of talent to make up for his loss. This is pretty high billing for a group that has a bunch of players that still need to prove themselves. We'll see if the Noles receivers can live up to these expectations.

One more ACC team to note in the receiver rankings: Maryland at No. 15, thanks to Stefon Diggs and Deon Long.

As for the other rankings, Steele has Florida State ranked No. 12 at running back and No. 8 at defensive line. Interestingly enough, he has the Florida State running back group ranked ahead of Miami, which checks in at No. 13. I understand the reason for that. Florida State returns two very solid backs in Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., and they add Mario Pender.

Miami counters with ACC Freshman of the Year Duke Johnson and Eduardo Clements, along with spring surprise Dallas Crawford. The Canes get the nod in the headliner category with Johnson; but Florida State has more depth.

There is one ACC team ranked ahead of Florida State on the defensive line -- No. 7 Virginia Tech. No arguments here on that ranking. The Hokies should have a pretty solid front, with seven of their top eight linemen back from a year ago, including end James Gayle. Clemson also made into the rankings at No. 15. Vic Beasley is on course to have a huge season.
Throughout the summer, Nole Nation will be counting down the 40 players we're projecting to make the biggest impact on the Seminoles' 2013 season, taking into consideration everything from experience to potential to their spot on the current depth chart.

First up: No. 40 Mario Pender
Position/Class: Running back, redshirt freshman

What he's done: Pender arrived at Florida State more than a year ago as a well regarded tailback prospect with blazing speed and an eye on some early playing time. Unfortunately, a significant groin injury put to rest any hopes of making an impact in 2012. He underwent surgery at the start of fall camp and didn't return to practice until the season had drawn to a close.

Where he's at: In Pender's absence last season, both Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. made strides and enter the fall as the established veterans atop the depth chart and figure to have a firm grasp on the bulk of the carries. Still, Pender's return during spring practice offered glimpses of his potential. He has breakaway speed and he's tough to bring down in space, potentially offering FSU that big-play threat it lost when Chris Thompson's career came to a close last season.

What's to come: Pender remains a work in progress, but what he does well -- his speed and elusiveness, to be specific -- needs no further refinement, meaning he could be a legitimate weapon right away. He still needs to work on some fundamentals, with a focus on pass blocking at the top of the list. But Pender's upside remains remarkably high, and if the past few years have been any indication, Jimbo Fisher's tailback depth will be tested.

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