Florida State Seminoles: Tyler Hunter

ACC's lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
NFL.com put together a list of the 14 hottest names among coordinators in college football, with two ACC coaches making the cut.

Of course, seeing Bud Foster and Chad Morris on the list is no surprise. They have established themselves as among the most consistently good coordinators in the country. What is perhaps more interesting is who isn’t on the list: Namely, no one from the defending national champion. In fact, ex-Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (now at Georgia) does make the cut, but that is as close as the Seminoles got to landing a name on the list.

Given that Jimbo Fisher doesn’t employ an offensive coordinator and is on his third defensive coordinator in as many years, it is probably not a surprise, but as our Travis Haney noted during a recent trip to a Texas coaching clinic, FSU’s Charles Kelly has made a really good early impression since taking over for Pruitt.

Pruitt, quite fairly, received a lot of credit for last year’s championship defense, so now there are concerns about what his loss will mean for Florida State. Those concerns, however, are probably a bit misplaced.

First off, remember the chaos that followed the 2012 season at FSU? Seven assistants left the staff for other jobs, including both coordinators. Mark Stoops had engineered a defense that ranked in the top three nationally in consecutive years and was widely regarded as one of the best assistants in the country. Fisher couldn’t possibly replace all that, right?

Even in the wake of Stoops’ departure, fans clamored for a big name -- Foster, perhaps, or someone with NFL experience -- but he hired an obscure secondary coach from Alabama with just three years of college coaching on his resume. But he knew Pruitt, knew what he was capable of doing, knew the system he wanted to run, and the hire proved a stroke of genius.

So now, it’s a lot easier to believe Fisher knew what he was doing when he promoted Kelly from linebackers coach to DC, and the transition promises to be much smoother this time. Pruitt’s biggest impact on the team last season was the scheme he put in place, but that doesn’t figure to change much under Kelly. The players already know what they are doing, there is no change in vocabulary and virtually no change in the Xs and Os. Moreover, Kelly is as well-liked and respected as any coach on the staff. He will do just fine.

But that doesn’t mean there is no room for worries for Florida State’s defense. It’s just that losing Pruitt probably shouldn’t be the primary concern. The biggest void is the leadership lost with the departures of Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith. That was a rare breed of leaders that had been through the battles and suffered the losses that taught tough lessons -- lessons they continually reminded their younger teammates about during last season’s championship run. Finding voices on defense that carry as much weight in the locker room this year won’t be easy.

“I think it’s feeling comfortable taking on the roles of the guys who have left, that you feel comfortable stepping up and taking that responsibility,” Fisher told me this month. “All of them play hard, but what you have to have is guys stepping up and taking on the leadership. There’s a responsibility of how you have to conduct yourself as a teammate to affect the other guys on the team. That’s where teams grow, and summer and fall camp is so important.”

Fisher reeled off a bunch of names on the offensive side of the ball who will fill that role -- Rashad Greene, Cameron Erving, Karlos Williams, Tre Jackson, Josue Matias and, of course, Jameis Winston -- but the candidates on defense weren’t quite so established.

Fisher said sophomore Jalen Ramsey has been perhaps the most vocal leader throughout the spring and early summer, and fellow defensive backs P.J. Williams and Tyler Hunter have shouldered some of the leadership burden, too. The rest of the unit, though, is still developing.

“Last year’s team wasn’t on a journey. They were on a mission,” Fisher said. “They understood what they really wanted. The trial-and-error they had, they learned from their mistakes over time.”

Terrance Smith learned under Telvin Smith last season, but he’s not nearly as vocal as his predecessor. Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman “are growing into the role,” Fisher said, but they haven’t proven they are as good at galvanizing a group around them as Jernigan did last year.

FSU has ample talent on defense, and it should again have an exceptional coordinator calling the shots, but it’s just really difficult to replace the battle scars and lessons learned that Joyner, Brooks, Smith and Co. used to such great effect in 2013.

More links:

Florida State spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Three things we learned in the spring about the Florida State Seminoles:

1. Jalen Ramsey is a star in the making. Last season, Ramsey was overshadowed on his own defense with the likes of Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith demanding the headlines, but Ramsey was only a freshman. As a sophomore, several players point to Ramsey as being the defense’s leader, and he could be the best player on a defense that could have a half-dozen first-round picks in the next few seasons. He will move around to several positions in the secondary this fall.

2. Florida State’s secondary might be the best in the country. While FSU’s talent in the defensive backfield begins with Ramsey it certainly does not end there. P.J. Williams was dominant in the spring game against No. 1 receiver Rashad Greene and is an elite college corner. Opposite him are Ramsey and Ronald Darby, who missed the entire spring. All three could be first-round picks. Nate Andrew is a up-and-coming star and also just a sophomore, and Tyler Hunter returns after a neck injury in 2013.

3. Sean Maguire is a capable backup for the Noles. The disclaimer certainly is that it came against the No. 2 defense in the spring game, but Maguire showed the type of tools to be an efficient quarterback should he be called upon this fall. As the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback for the first time in his college career, Maguire said he made his biggest strides to date this spring.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Will the wide receivers step up? Coach Jimbo Fisher is not leaving spring practice with a great feeling about his receivers. He expressed his frustration in the unit on multiple occasions, and the receivers struggled in the spring game. Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are off to the NFL, and Greene will need some help from the younger receivers. Elite high school talents Ermon Lane, Travis Rudolph and Ja'Von Harrison will enroll in the summer.

2. Can the running backs stay on the field? It was a similar feeling last spring for Fisher as he did not have any healthy running backs for the Garnet and Gold game in 2013 either. Karlos Williams was held for precautionary reasons, but backups Dalvin Cook, Ryan Green and Mario Pender all suffered injuries. Cook and Green are out until fall camp with shoulder injuries, and Pender missed his first two seasons with injury and academic issues.

3. What will the linebacker rotation look like? It will be very interesting to see how new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly pairs his linebackers with a fairly inexperienced group. Terrance Smith is a given as a starter, but who will flank him? Matthew Thomas might be too good to keep off the field, which could leave one remaining spot for a very talented unit.

One way-too-early prediction:

The Noles were an offensive juggernaut in 2013, but the offense will sputter some against quality defenses. The issue at receiver is one that will not be settled in the near future, and it could cost Florida State a game.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State had the luxury a season ago of playing not only with future NFL draft picks all over its defense, but with senior leaders at each level.

Plenty of talent remains as the Seminoles look ahead to defending their national championship. But there is a major void in senior leadership. While the offense is full of seniors, the defense is not. There are no seniors projected to start on defense in 2014. Only two are projected for the two-deep. So who will step up to fill the hole usually filled by the most veteran players on the team?

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesFlorida State junior cornerback P.J. Williams had three interceptions in 2013.
"I quit putting an emphasis on seniors," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I think seniors at times are overrated and at times underrated. I know that sounds crazy, but it depends. Jameis [Winston] took our team over as a freshman. In the older days, seniors mattered maybe more because you didn’t play the young guys. But at the same time I don’t want to take away from senior leadership because how many times you’ve been out there matters. That offensive line and all those seniors, don’t think that doesn’t make me sleep well. I think it just depends on teach teams’ personality and the dynamic of each team."

Though senior leadership is lost from the defense, experience remains. Seven starters return, including five juniors who started in the BCS national title game against Auburn. Starting linebacker Terrance Smith is a fourth-year junior. So is safety Tyler Hunter, who is expected to return after missing most of last season with a neck injury.

But perhaps the biggest leadership shoes to fill belong to departed safety Lamarcus Joyner, the heart and soul of the defense and one of the most vocal leaders on the team. Jalen Ramsey, who will play the same position Joyner did last season, seems uniquely qualified to step right in.

Not only does he return after playing in all 14 games last year as a freshman, he has the same characteristics that made Joyner stand out as a vocal leader. Ramsey is confident in his abilities, but not arrogant. He is not shy about being honest. Like Joyner -- who started leading the Seminoles well before he started his senior season -- Ramsey is not afraid of the added responsibility. His candor has already won his teammates over. Fisher says Ramsey has been "off the chain" with his leadership during the spring.

"I think I should hold myself to step up in that area. I feel I can push other people," Ramsey said.

So does cornerback P.J. Williams, another player who has stepped up in the leadership department. Being named Defensive MVP of the national championship game has not only boosted his own confidence, but given him more authority to speak up, especially with Joyner gone.

"It’s a big role to try and step up and do because Lamarcus was a great player," Williams said. "He led by example to everybody and everybody looked up to him. Now, I'm just trying to compete at a high level, talk to my players and make sure we’re on the right page. We want to win another national championship so we know we have to work hard."

Florida State hopes a lack of senior leadership on defense turns out to be no problem. It's like Fisher tells his team all the time:

"Is there an age limit on leadership?" Fisher said. "Is there an age limit on good players? How old do you have to be to be a good player? Why can’t you be a good player now? That’s what we’re finding out."
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Tiffany McGilberry pleaded with her son. “Try baseball,” she begged.

At that time in early October, her son Tyler Hunter was riding around Florida State in a neck brace. It was the only thing preventing even a minor car accident from paralyzing the then-20-year old. A tackle in a September game that left his hands temporarily numb was the tipping point. Years of battering receivers across the middle deteriorated Hunter’s neck. Doctors ordered he wear a neck brace around campus and while driving.

The Baltimore Orioles drafted Hunter in high school, and McGilberry asked he start sacrificing runners instead of sacrificing his health.

“He doesn’t love baseball like he loves football,” McGilberry said Monday. “You can’t take [football] away from him. I don’t think anyone can.”

[+] EnlargeTyler Hunter
Brandon Mellor/Seminoles.comTyler Hunter is still in a no-contact jersey, but he's anxious to start making some hits for the Seminoles.
Not even a neck surgery that required the expert hands of leading neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes could do that. Bulging discs were removed and a metal plate was inserted to deal with a congenital condition called cervical spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine near the neck.

Nearly six months after the surgery, Hunter is ahead of schedule and practicing. He’s undergoing monthly X-rays -- the most recent coming last week -- and is still in a non-contact jersey, but he’ll participate in every spring practice. The repartee with Jameis Winston is already underway, as Hunter has unsuccessfully tried to goad the Heisman winner into throwing his direction. Inexperienced backup Sean Maguire tried his luck Saturday, and the savvy free safety returned the interception for a touchdown.

“It’s been real exciting, just being able to be out there with the team again, being able to play football,” Hunter said. “I really appreciate the game a lot more now.”

Although Hunter is avoiding most contact (he admitted to popping a receiver last week, which he hid from his mother until she read it in a Monday article), those around him in the secondary see a confident player reminiscent of Hunter’s pre-injury form. They see the safety who persevered through a knee injury last spring to win a starting job in fall camp.

“He deserves to be out there,” sophomore defensive back Nate Andrews said. “He loves being out there.”

He wasn’t out there for the final 11 games of Florida State’s first 14-0 season in school history. He wasn’t out there for the ACC championship, and he wasn’t out there intercepting Auburn’s Nick Marshall or making snow angels in the confetti. He was out there on the sidelines, despondent.

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher asked Hunter still travel with the team but it too often had an adverse effect, forcing him into the locker room as he battled with an overwhelming sense of emptiness. The white lines did more than separate him from the field; it formed a barrier from his teammates.

Against NC State, the first home game following Hunter’s season-ending surgery, he finally broke down.

“I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t watch this game,” he texted his mother.

“It was hard to watch,” Hunter said this week. “I couldn’t even watch from the sidelines.”

His head hanging, McGilberry refused to let that become the defining image of Hunter’s sophomore season. Abandoning teammates is not part of Hunter’s make-up, and McGilberry knew it. Florida State was starting a freshman and sophomore in the secondary and rotating two others. The injury meant he wasn’t on the field. It didn’t mean he wasn’t on the team, she told him.

“We had to have our meetings,” Fisher said of Hunter. “The things you face mentally, and the ghosts you chase and the wondering and not knowing, that’s the toughest part, and we had to help him through that. Once he got through that he was back helping any way he could.”

Through the final 11 weeks, Fisher said he can’t recall seeing a player study more film on his own than Hunter. He was dejected, but few knew the secondary assignments better. Terrence Brooks, a 2013 senior, credits Hunter for helping him reach new levels and calls him “another coach on the field.” For a defense that finished No. 1 in the country, Hunter’s absence became a rallying point.

As Florida State preps for a run at a second straight national championship, few on the roster are held in higher regard than Hunter. On a defense lacking seniors, Hunter, normally quiet and reserved, is becoming a vocal fixture.

“I don’t talk a lot, but knowing we need somebody to step up and be vocal and lead the team, I took it upon myself to do it,” Hunter said.

Fisher said it is that selflessness that’s endeared him to teammates. This season and these teammates mean more to Hunter than any career on the diamond ever could. The closest he wants to come to baseball is when he picks off a Winston fastball in football practice.

“He never thought twice about baseball [after the injury],” McGilberry said. “He still believes that was his best decision.”

FSU spring spotlight: Tyler Hunter

February, 28, 2014
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.

[+] EnlargeTyler Hunter
AP Photo/Steve CannonReturning from a season-ending neck injury has Tyler Hunter primed to return to his leadership role in FSU's secondary.
We’ve already discussed Nile Lawrence-Stample, Mario Pender, Christian Green and Reggie Northrup.

Last up: S Tyler Hunter

Credentials: In 2012, Hunter won the job as Florida State’s top nickel back, and he delivered solid results for a secondary that finished the year ranked as the country’s top pass defense. He was poised for even bigger things in 2013, winning the starting safety job in fall camp and getting off to a strong start on the field. In Week 3, however, Hunter suffered a potentially career-threatening neck injury making a tackle and he didn’t play again the rest of the season. Surgery repaired the damage, however, and Hunter insists he’s ready to get back on the field in 2014.

How he fits: Florida State lost perhaps its best defender in Lamarcus Joyner, but Hunter provides a perfect candidate to replace the All-American. Joyner moved from safety to corner in 2013, excelling in coverage at nickel and as a pass rusher, where he led Florida State with 5.5 sacks. Hunter lacks the top-end speed that Joyner had, but he’s still fast and would be comfortable at safety, corner or nickel (not to mention punt returner). Whether he fills a role similar to Joyner’s remains to be seen, but his combination of skills and experience gives FSU plenty of options.

Competition: Florida State’s secondary is jam-packed with talent, from young studs like Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews to established stars like Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams. What it’s potentially lacking -- and what the defense as a whole is missing without Joyner, Telvin Smith and Timmy Jernigan -- is an established veteran leader. Hunter set that tone last spring as the unquestioned leader of the defense, spending countless hours studying film of Jeremy Pruitt’s new scheme, then organizing seven-on-seven drills throughout the summer to ensure his teammates had the system down pat.

Outlook: For the past five years, Florida State’s defense has had the luxury of on-field leadership, courtesy of Lowndes County High. First it was Greg Reid. Then it was Telvin Smith. In 2014, Hunter is the heir apparent. He was integral in transitioning the Seminoles into Pruitt’s new defensive scheme last year, and he’ll play a similar key role as Charles Kelly takes over this spring. But more than just leadership, Hunter needs to provide impact on the field. With his neck injury behind him, he could easily slip into a hybrid role filled so nicely by Joyner last year, and he could establish himself as one of the ACC’s biggest impact players in what promises to be an exceptional secondary.

FSU instant impacts: Trey Marshall

February, 20, 2014
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher closed out his fifth consecutive 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.

In some seasons, such as 2011, the Seminoles relied heavily on new recruits. In others, such as 2012, only a select few played regularly.

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

We’ve already looked at DT Demarcus Christmas, RB Dalvin Cook and the wide receivers.

Next up: DB Trey Marshall

The player: Florida State signed just two defensive backs in this year’s class, but Marshall is a potential standout. Similar to so many of Fisher’s recent acquisitions in the defensive backfield, Marshall has track speed combined with size (6-foot, 196 pounds) to allow for some versatility in the secondary, though he primarily worked at safety in high school. Like last year’s surprise star at defensive back, Nate Andrews, Marshall arrives with just a three-star pedigree, but his game play isn’t entirely reflected in his measurables. Marshall is already enrolled for the spring, giving him a leg up in learning the defense, and his track record as a punt returner in high school could pay immediate dividends for Florida State on special teams.

The need: In the secondary there aren’t a lot of obvious holes, but the same might have been said a year ago, and still, two true freshmen ended up getting regular playing time on a national championship team. While the scheme could certainly change a bit under new coordinator and defensive backs coach Charles Kelly, last year’s defense employed six DBs regularly, so even if Marshall can’t crack the starting lineup, he could get playing time. FSU also loses its first-string punt returner, Kenny Shaw, and will be looking for a replacement. Marshall has the speed and pedigree to land the job — particularly if he makes an impression this spring.

The competition: At safety, the competition is stiff. Andrews is in line for a bigger role after his breakout campaign in 2013. Jalen Ramsey certainly could slide back to cornerback, where he opened 2013, but his size and style make him a good fit at safety, and FSU already has two established stars at corner. Then there’s Tyler Hunter, who returns from a serious neck injury that cost him much of last season. He’s a veteran leader on the defense, and it would be a surprise if he wasn’t penciled in as a key contributor. Hunter also could vie for reps at punt returner, where Jesus Wilson and Rashad Greene also have experience.

The prediction: Combine Marshall’s early arrival, blazing speed, experience on special teams and the small signing class in the secondary, and the case for immediate playing time is simple. The question then is how much playing time Marshall might get. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess. If he shines this spring for Kelly, there are reps to be won in the fall. Expecting a season similar to what Andrews produced last year (35 tackles, 8 passes defended, 7 takeaways) is probably shooting too high, but an impact on special teams and some success in dime situations on defense is within reach.

FSU depth chart breakdown: Defense

January, 31, 2014
Last week, we previewed Florida State’s offensive depth chart for the spring. This week, we’ll dig into the defense.

The biggest question might be how similar the 2014 defensive scheme will look to 2013. Yes, promoting Charles Kelly certainly offers stability, but he’s also likely to want to put his own stamp on the unit rather than offering a shot-for-shot remake of Jeremy Pruitt’s system. With some significant transition in personnel and some major losses of talent, there’s room to tinker this spring. Here’s what we’ll be watching:

Defensive line

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsExpect Mario Edwards to have a bigger hand in things this fall on the Florida State defensive line.
Projected starters: Mario Edwards Jr. (Jr.), Nile Lawrence-Stample (RSJr.), Eddie Goldman (Jr.)
Backups: Desmond Hollin (Sr.), Chris Casher (RSSo.), DeMarcus Walker (So.), Derrick Mitchell (RSJr.), Keith Bryant (RSFr.), Justin Shanks (RSSo.)

Storylines: Replacing Timmy Jernigan is an impossible task, but expect plenty of hype for Lawrence-Stample this spring. He was one of Jimbo Fisher’s favorites last spring, and he’ll be counted on to step up even more this time around. The loss of Christian Jones as a hybrid rusher impacts the D line, too, and how Kelly plans to handle that role now should be interesting to watch. Edwards and Goldman are both five-star players with two years of experience under their belt, but now they’ll be looked to as leaders -- both on and off the field.

Status: B
If you want to include Jones as a defensive lineman, FSU is set to lose seven DLs to the NFL in a two-year span -- including two first-rounders in Bjoern Werner and, likely, Jernigan. That’s sapped some depth from the position, but Goldman and Edwards are as good as any D-linemen in the ACC and there’s plenty of talent behind them, too.


Projected starters: Reggie Northrup (Jr.), Terrance Smith (RSJr.), Matthew Thomas (So.)
Backups: E.J. Levenberry (So.), Ro'Derrick Hoskins (RSFr.), Nigel Terrell (RSSr.), Ukeme Eligwe (RSSo.), Kain Daub (Fr.)

Storylines: Smith is the only lock for a starting job here -- and even that might depend on your definition of “lock.” But while the unit is short on experience, it’s high on talent. The battle to replace Jones in the hybrid LB/DE position should be an interesting one, with Thomas offering perhaps the most upside, but Casher and Eligwe certainly in the mix, too. Northrup is the most experienced option to replace Telvin Smith, and he’s certainly capable of blossoming into a disruptive force, but Fisher raved about Levenberry throughout 2013, and that figures to be one of the more intriguing battles of spring camp. Add Daub to the mix as an early enrollee, and Kelly’s biggest problem here might be figuring out how to get enough snaps for all his talented linebackers.

Status: B
There’s plenty of talent here, but it’s impossible to replace the veteran savvy of Smith and Jones. By year’s end, this should be a terrific group, but there’s lots to be learned this spring.


[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMISafety Jalen Ramsey will play a big role in the Seminoles secondary, which will be among the best in the nation.
Projected starters: Jalen Ramsey (So.), Nate Andrews (So.), Tyler Hunter (RSJr.)
Backups: Lamarcus Brutus (RSJr.), Keelin Smith (RSJr.), Tyrell Lyons (RSFr.)

Storylines: Ramsey and Andrews were exceptional as true freshmen, but the job now is to build on that progress under a new position coach. There’s little reason to believe that won’t happen. The bigger question mark at the moment is the health of Hunter, who is recovering from a neck injury that nearly ended his career. He was the leader of the secondary last spring and summer, and his impact on a young group could be huge again in 2014.

Status: A
Terrence Brooks was always undervalued, and he’ll be missed, but Hunter, Ramsey and Andrews projects as potentially the best trio of safeties in the nation.


Projected starters: P.J. Williams (Jr.), Ronald Darby (Jr.)
Backups: Marquez White (So.), Nick Waisome (Sr.), Colin Blake (RSSo.)

Storylines: Losing Lamarcus Joyner is a big blow, but there’s little to be concerned with here. Williams and Darby are both exceptional and figure to get even better in 2014. Darby was limited all season with a groin injury, so some downtime may be the priority for him. Waisome saw a ton of action in 2012 but largely disappeared in 2013. How he responds this spring might tell a lot about his future.

Status: A
It says a lot about the work Fisher, Pruitt and Mark Stoops have done over the past few years that FSU can lose a player of Joyner’s caliber and still likely have the best secondary -- and best pair of starting corners -- in the country.
Just a week remains until national signing day, and Florida State is on pace to add one of its deepest classes in years. Throughout Jimbo Fisher’s first four years on the job, he has managed to reel in plenty of talent. Here’s a look back at the top 10 signees who had the biggest immediate impact.

10. Christian Jones (LB, 2010): Played in all 14 games as a freshman, racking up 18 tackles with three sacks and added a forced fumble in a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina.

9. Lamarcus Joyner (DB, 2010): Played a limited role on defense but still accounted for 23 tackles and three passes defended. Blossomed into a weapon on special teams, racking up 329 yards on 16 kick returns.

8. Bjöern Werner (DE, 2010): Showed flashes of his brilliant future in a more limited role. Werner appeared in all 14 games, racking up 20 tackles, including six for a loss. He finished with 3.5 sacks.

[+] EnlargeLevonte Whitfield
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsKermit Whitfield wasn't a full-time player as a freshman, but he certainly made the most of his opportunities.
7. Nate Andrews (S, 2013): He started just one game for Florida State as a freshman, but his impact on defense was immense, leading the Seminoles with seven takeaways (four interceptions, three forced fumbles). He also racked up 35 tackles.

6. Kermit Whitfield (KR, 2013): Whitfield touched the ball just 25 times as a freshman, but he made the most of his opportunities. He racked up 818 all-purpose yards (32.7 yards per play) and scored four times, including a dramatic kickoff return for a go-ahead touchdown in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

5. Ronald Darby (CB, 2012): Splitting time at corner, Darby tied for the team lead with eight pass breakups, recorded 22 tackles and forced a fumble en route to becoming a Freshman All-America selection.

4. Timmy Jernigan (DT, 2011): Despite coming off the bench all season in 2011, Jernigan was a force in the middle of a talented defensive line. He recorded 30 tackles, tops among FSU’s interior linemen, including six for a loss. He had 2.5 sacks and his three QB hurries ranked third on the team.

3. Jalen Ramsey (DB, 2013): The first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders, Ramsey made an about-face four games into the season, taking over at safety when Tyler Hunter went down with an injury. He finished third among DBs with 49 tackles (two for a loss), recorded a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception for the nation’s top secondary.

2. Devonta Freeman (RB, 2011): Injuries on the offensive line stymied FSU’s running game and injuries in the backfield thinned the depth chart, but Freeman still stepped up to rack up a team-high 579 rushing yards with eight touchdowns in 12 games. He went on to lead Florida State in rushing in all three seasons he spent in Tallahassee.

1. Rashad Greene (WR, 2011): Because of a midseason injury he appeared in just nine games, but Greene led FSU in catches (38), receiving yards (596) and receiving touchdowns (7). He was at his best when FSU needed him the most, hauling in a 56-yard TD against Oklahoma, racking up 98 yards and a score against Clemson and catching 12 passes for 163 yards against Wake Forest. He was named MVP of the Champs Sports Bowl after recording 99 yards against Notre Dame.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State fans will be tearing the wrapping paper off presents tonight and tomorrow, but the Seminoles have already unwrapped a handful of surprises this year. Here’s a look at five of the biggest gifts Florida State got in 2013 en route to a berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game:

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin has finally lived up to his hype.
Joyner, Jones return: OK, so this was more of a late Christmas present from 2012, but when Lamarcus Joyner and Christian Jones announced in January they’d return for their senior seasons, it set the tone for what this year’s defense would be. Florida State lost all four of its starting D-linemen in the draft, taking 28.5 of the 36 sacks the Seminoles had in 2012 with them. The big question entering 2013 was who would provide the pass rush, and it turned out, Joyner and Jones were up to the task. Joyner switched from safety to corner and has wreaked havoc on corner blitzes this season. Jones moved from weakside linebacker to edge rusher and has provided a spark to a defensive line in transition. Together, they have seven sacks this season -- matching their combined career totals from their first three years in Tallahassee.

Winston is a star: This wasn’t a surprise, of course. Jameis Winston was pegged for stardom from the moment he arrived at Florida State. But who could’ve predicted just how good he’d be? From his astonishing debut against Pitt to his four-TD performance in the ACC championship game, Winston was a dynamic playmaker, mature passer and locker room leader. In August, his name was a trendy pick as a dark horse Heisman contender. By December, he was the runaway winner. Winston replaced a quarterback who went in the first round of the NFL draft, and he’s exceeded EJ Manuel’s production in every facet -- something we didn’t exactly anticipate before the season began.

Benjamin emerges: The long wait for Kelvin Benjamin to blossom into a star finally came to an end this year, thanks to the redshirt sophomore’s improved maturity. Benjamin always had the tools, of course. He made so many miraculous plays in practice that teammates spoke about his exploits as the stuff of legend. But on Saturdays, he hadn’t done much in his first two years at Florida State. Down the stretch in 2012, Benjamin was almost a non-factor -- catching just seven passes for 52 yards and no touchdowns in his final five games. This year, however, he’s gotten better each week, and he’s become perhaps the most dangerous receiver in the nation in the final weeks of the season. In his last five games this year, he’s caught 25 passes for 481 yards and nine TDs, including at least one in each game.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State
AP Photo/Nell RedmondFreshman DB Nate Andrews is FSU's leader in interceptions.
Freshmen in the secondary: Florida State had the best secondary in the nation last year, and the depth figured to be even better this season. With stars like Joyner, Ronald Darby and Terrence Brooks and emerging talent like Tyler Hunter and P.J. Williams, there didn’t figure to be much room for the true freshmen to make much of an impact. As it turned out, Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews performed too well to keep off the field. Ramsey became the first true freshman to start at corner for Florida State since Deion Sanders in Week 1, then when Hunter went down with a neck injury against Bethune-Cookman, Ramsey switched to safety and has started each of the final 10 games. Andrews emerged as FSU’s top DB off the bench and has turned his limited playing time into big rewards, leading the Seminoles in interceptions. For the season, FSU’s true freshmen have a combined for seven interceptions, five forced fumbles and 13 passes defended.

The other Smith: For the past two seasons, Telvin Smith had been the most vocal player on the field for Florida State’s defense. Meanwhile, the more reserved Terrance Smith flew beneath the radar. In 2013, both Smiths emerged as impact defenders. Telvin Smith, a senior, leads Florida State in tackles and has continued to be the emotional leader of the group, but when Jones moved to the defensive line midway through the season, Terrance Smith got his chance to shine, too. He’s now third on the team in tackles (55), has an INT, four passes defended and two sacks. Since Terrance Smith became a full-time starter, Florida State has allowed just 2.8 yards per rush.

Stocking stuffers: Karlos Williams moved from safety to tailback in Week 2, and while he’s only had 14 first-half carries this year, he’s been dominant when he’s touched the ball, racking up 705 yards and 11 TDs; Roberto Aguayo hasn’t had to make a big kick all season thanks to an average margin of victory of 43 points for FSU, but he’s missed just one this season en route to All-America status; Kermit Whitfield’s role hasn’t been huge, but he’s averaging 31 yards per touch.

FSU in position to reload for 2014

December, 18, 2013
For the past four seasons, Florida State’s seniors have worked to rebuild a program that was mired in mediocrity when they arrived. The project was a resounding success, but after the VIZIO BCS National Championship on Jan. 6, they’ll be gone. If 2013 gave the seniors a chance to take that final step toward a title, it also offered a glimpse at what’s to come, and Florida State appears well stocked to weather the inevitable losses.

Out: Lamarcus Joyner, CB

[+] EnlargeTyler Hunter
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsTyler Hunter could replace cornerback Lamarcus Joyner for the Seminoles in 2014.
After moving from safety to corner, Joyner proved he was one of the nation’s top defenders, leading FSU in sacks and finishing second in tackles.

In: Tyler Hunter, DB

Joyner is a huge loss, but Hunter is well prepared to step into the vacancy. His 2013 season was cut short by a neck injury, but he knows the defense well and his combination of size and speed allows him to fit well at safety, corner and nickel. Replacing Joyner is impossible, but Hunter could be in for a huge 2014.

Out: Terrence Brooks, S

He has been an under-the-radar performer since he arrived at FSU as a three-star recruit, but Brooks has been consistently good at safety for two years.

In: Nate Andrews, S

Brooks found a perfect protégé in the similarly underrated Andrews, and the relationship has already paid dividends. Andrews started just one game, but he leads the Seminoles with seven takeaways (four INTs, three forced fumbles) and is second on the team with eight passes defended.

Out: Telvin Smith, LB

For the past two years, there has been no louder voice in the locker room than Smith, and in 2013, he blossomed on the field, too, leading FSU in tackles.

In: Reggie Northrup, LB

Northrup hasn’t started a game in his two seasons at Florida State, but when he’s been on the field, he has proven to be a big-play defender. He has 46 tackles this season, and he has a skill set to both play the run and in coverage. Terrance Smith is FSU’s only returning linebacker with starting experience, but there’s ample depth at the position, led by Northrup.

Out: Christian Jones, OLB

Jones' move from traditional linebacker to edge rusher was a turning point for Florida State’s defense, helping to seal the edge and add another dynamic pass rusher to the D line.

In: Matthew Thomas, OLB

An injury ended Thomas’ season after just five games, but his potential is immense. He had two tackles for loss in his limited playing time, and his athleticism and strength could make for a smooth transition into the role Jones defined so well in 2013.

Out: Kenny Shaw, WR

Always a reliable option in the slot, Shaw blossomed as a senior and is on pace for 1,000-yard season while also handling punt return duties.

In: Levonte Whitfield, WR

Whitfield may lack Shaw’s consistency, but his big-play potential is through the roof. He racked up 646 total yards and three TDs on just 21 touches (an average of 31 yards per touch) as a runner, receiver and kick returner. It was valuable experience as a freshman, and Whitfield should be an excellent fit in the slot in 2014.

Out: Bryan Stork, C

As Florida State’s line developed from disaster in 2011 to dominant in 2013, Stork was the centerpiece. The veteran leader of the group has been the foundation for the unit’s growth.

In: Austin Barron, C

Losing Stork is big, but Barron is no rookie. He has six career starts already under his belt, and he has worked routinely with the first-team line during practices this season while Stork has nursed a foot injury.

Out: The underclassmen

No one has made it official that they’re leaving, and with so much talent on the roster, plenty of Florida State’s draft-eligible underclassmen could decide to come back for what figures to be another big season in 2014. Of the group, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan -- widely considered a first-round selection -- is the most likely to depart. Beyond that, tailbacks Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., receiver Kelvin Benjamin, tight end Nick O’Leary, and lineman Cameron Erving will all have big decisions to make.

In: The next regime

Replacing Jernigan will be a tough task, but Nile Lawrence-Stample (14 tackles, 2 QB hurries) took some big steps in 2013. Karlos Williams (705 yards, 11 touchdowns) is ready to pick up the slack if either tailback leaves, while Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones will see their workload at receiver increase in 2014. Kevin Haplea returns from a knee injury, though he’s unlikely to match O’Leary’s productivity in the passing game. Wilson Bell earned rave reviews before an injury ended his season, but he could step into a vacancy at tackle should one arise in 2014.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The truth is, Telvin Smith had tried to avoid his friend, at least on Saturdays. Seeing Tyler Hunter before a game jangled his nerves, jumbled his focus. It was too emotional.

Before the Boston College game, Hunter’s anguish rattled the entire team, Smith said. Since then, eye contact is dangerous, a trigger for all the emotions they’ve worked to suppress. But when Smith wandered into the players’ lounge before the Seminoles’ showdown with Miami earlier this month, finding Hunter slumped in a chair, head in hands, he couldn’t help but put an arm around his friend and promise things would get better.

[+] EnlargeTyler Hunter
AP Photo/Steve CannonDespite a season-ending injury Tyler Hunter remains a leader for the FSU secondary.
“He’s coping with it, but I know it’s definitely tough for him,” Smith said.

This wasn’t how the season was supposed to go for Hunter. No one embraced defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s new system with more ferocity than he had, spending countless hours studying game film and teaching his teammates the intricacies of the scheme. He’d organized FSU's seven-on-seven drills over the summer, mentored his young teammates in advance of fall camp, then nailed down the starting safety job with little fanfare.

And then with one seemingly insignificant hit against Bethune-Cookman in September, it was all over.

“It’s still hard for me,” Hunter said. “Seeing them make all those plays in the secondary, wishing I was out there and knowing I could be making plays, too. It’s hard for me to watch every week.”

Hunter was born with a condition called cervical spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spine near the neck. Over the course of his career, enough big hits had left the area vulnerable. Against Bethune-Cookman, the ticking time bomb finally exploded.

It wasn’t that Hunter was in pain, he said. In the immediate aftermath of the hit, he assumed he’d miss just a week or two of action. It felt like a stinger, some numbness in his hands and legs that wouldn’t dissipate. An MRI revealed the extent of the damage, though, and doctors initially wondered if Hunter would ever play again.

“The doctor showed me the MRI, and it was just — I don’t know,” Hunter said. “It looked bad.”

That was a low point, but eventually Hunter made his way to Chicago, where he met with Dr. Julian Bailes, who recommended a surgical procedure to remove some of the discs and fuse a metal plate to strengthen the area.

Hunter now has a jagged scar on the front of his neck and a second chance at playing the game he loves.

“He kept his mind positive," Smith said. "He’s staying with it. He’ll be back, give all he’s got and lead this team again.”

Still, Hunter won’t be able to return to the field until the spring, and even then, he expects his contact to be limited. Now, he’s stuck on the sideline, tossing footballs during warmups and serving as a de facto coach during the game.

It’s hardly an ideal role, but it’s one he’d prepared for long before the injury.

When Pruitt took over for Mark Stoops in January, Hunter was rehabbing another surgery. A knee injury kept him off the field during spring practice, but Hunter was ravenous in the film room.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a guy who was in the office studying more on his own,” Jimbo Fisher said.

Hunter would arrive on campus around 1 each afternoon, then spend the next six to seven hours studying the playbook or watching game film — usually from Pruitt’s old stomping grounds in Alabama.

“What we did in the spring, there was a lot of messing up going on, so I couldn’t really watch that,” Hunter said.

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIFreshman safety Jalen Ramsey has emerged as a playmaker for an opportunistic FSU defense.
By the summer, those mistakes began to disappear, and it was largely because Hunter was so adept at mentoring the rest of the group. What Hunter learned from the film he passed along to his teammates. He noticed the potential in freshmen Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews, and he made them a priority.

Hunter was the wise, old scholar. Ramsey and Andrews were his eager students.

“At first they struggled with the system, but just watching them in seven-on-sevens, I knew they had ability to get out and be able to play,” Hunter said.

Ramsey opened the season as the starter at corner, but when Hunter went down, he slid to safety and has been nearly flawless. Andrews saw his role expand after Hunter’s injury, too, and he now leads the team with four interceptions.

Even without Hunter in the lineup, Florida State leads the nation in passing defense and interceptions. For Hunter, that offers both reward and heartache.

“He’s like having another coach. He knows it all inside and out, and those guys ask a lot of questions,” Fisher said. “But at the same time, you’re disappointed to not be out there with your teammates because of the competitor in you.”

It’s hard knowing what this year might’ve been, Hunter said, but he doesn’t feel alienated. The emotions overwhelm him at times, and his teammates have been there to pick him up again. Smith scribbles Hunter’s name on his gloves before games, and the freshmen pat him on the back afterward, his reward for their job well done.

Florida State’s success this season was built on a selfless approach, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said, and no one has embodied that more than Hunter. It’s hard to see him struggle with his emotions on game day, but it’s been inspiring, too.

“Every second in the locker room on game days, we can look him in the eye and see he wants to be out here as much as us,” Joyner said. “And even though he’s not, we still have the spirit of Tyler Hunter out there with us.”

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
Even if Florida State’s offense had never taken the field Saturday, the Seminoles still would have cruised to an easy win. And in truth, the offense really didn’t see much of the field anyway. But as the Seminoles continue to dominate overmatched ACC opposition, there were a few key takeaways from Saturday’s 59-3 victory over Wake Forest.

[+] EnlargeFSU/Wake Forest
AP Photo/Nell RedmondIn his first start, Florida State freshman Nate Andrews picked off two passes and returned one for a touchdown.
The defense has a lot of depth: Most weeks, if a team’s two senior starting safeties were out and two true freshmen were forced to step in, it would be a problem. For Florida State on Saturday, it was a revelation. Jalen Ramsey has been exceptional all season in place of injured Tyler Hunter, and he added to his resume against Wake Forest by scooping up a fumble and returning it for a touchdown. Nate Andrews, making his first start in place of Terrence Brooks (concussion), was even better. He picked off two passes, returning one for a touchdown, and forced the fumble Ramsey recovered. The two freshmen had more first-half takeaways (3) than Wake Forest had completions (2). Freshman Marquez White added another interception. FSU finished with seven takeaways in the game.

Winston not finishing strong: Perhaps it’s nitpicking after a 59-3 blowout, but Jameis Winston wasn’t exactly sharp. It was similar to his game against NC State: Winston looked good enough on early drives but struggled to maintain the same focus after Florida State built a big lead. For the third time this season, his last pass was an interception. Overall, Winston has thrown four picks in his last 58 attempts after throwing just three in his first 182 passes of the year. Again, it’s hardly any indication that Winston is slipping. It’s more about the pace of the game. FSU has built big leads, the defensive scores have limited offensive possessions and Winston has struggled to get into a groove. The problem, however, is that trend figures to continue in coming weeks, with FSU expected to be a heavy favorite in each of its three remaining regular-season games.

The mindset hasn’t changed: Yes, the Seminoles crowded into hotel rooms Thursday night to watch the end of Oregon’s loss to Stanford. Yes, they were excited about the outcome. Yes, they’re enjoying their place in the driver’s seat for a trip to the BCS title game. But no, nothing’s changed other than the standings. If anything, the strong start and dominant victory over Wake Forest underscored how focused Florida State is on its own agenda, rather than worrying about what might await at season’s end. On a chilly afternoon before a sparse crowd with little expectation of anything other than an easy win, Florida State did what it was supposed to do. That might not seem like much, but when evaluating the maturity of this FSU team against the program’s recent history, it’s an enormous test to pass.

Helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
Another week, another big win for Florida State. There were huge plays from virtually every sector of the defense during Saturday’s 59-3 win over Wake Forest, but the offense remained relatively pedestrian. That makes the helmet stickers a little more difficult to hand out this week.

The freshman safeties: No Tyler Hunter? No Terrence Brooks? No problem for Florida State. The Seminoles started two true freshmen at safety, and they were both exceptional. Nate Andrews, getting his first career start in place of Brooks (concussion), picked off two passes, forced a fumble and scored a touchdown. Ramsey recovered the fumble and scored, too. By halftime, FSU’s freshman safeties had created more turnovers (three) than Wake Forest had completions (two). Ramsey was a five-star stud coming out of high school, and his success was expected -- albeit a bit sooner than Florida State might’ve anticipated. Andrews has been a revelation. The three-star recruit now leads the team with four interceptions this season, despite a small role so far.

DE Mario Edwards Jr.: It’s no coincidence that the emergence of Florida State’s defense has coincided with the improving health and productivity of the sophomore defensive end. Edwards had just two tackles on Saturday, but he was a fixture in the Wake Forest backfield, and he added an interception for good measure. Since returning from a hand injury against Maryland, FSU’s first-team defense has allowed 21 points in five games.

RB James Wilder Jr.: Someone on offense has to get a pat on the back, and it might as well be Wilder. The junior tailback finished with 49 yards on six carries, but his 22-yard run was the longest play of the day by the FSU offense. He scored one of the team’s five offensive touchdowns, and he converted three third-and-short carries. In all, it was a lackluster day for the FSU offense; its 296 yards were FSU’s lowest output since the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl against Notre Dame. But when the starters rarely see work in the second half, it’s hard to find much fault.

Hat tips to: Christian Jones continues to shine at defensive end; Karlos Williams and Devonta Freeman each found the end zone again, giving them 17 between them on the ground, tops for a pair of teammates in the ACC; Jameis Winston set the ACC record for touchdown throws by a freshman with his 26th of the season, passing NC State’s Philip Rivers.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- There’s family history here, Mario Edwards Jr. said. In fact, his father had reminded him just hours before Florida State kicked off against Wake Forest on Saturday.

It was 1998 when Mario Edwards Sr., currently a member of FSU’s support staff, picked off four passes against Wake Forest, tying an ACC record.

“He said we were walking into his house,” the younger Edwards said of his father's pregame speech.

On Saturday, 15 years after his father’s record-setting performance, Edwards added to the legacy.

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey, Nate Andrews
AP Photo/Nell RedmondJalen Ramsey, left, and Nate Andrews, both freshmen, returned Wake Forest turnovers for scores Saturday.
Edwards was one of five Florida State players with an interception Saturday, a game in which the Seminoles tallied seven takeaways and two defensive touchdowns in a 59-3 rout of Wake Forest.

Demon Deacons starting quarterback Tanner Price threw just four passes before being pulled. Three were intercepted. His backup, Tyler Cameron, didn’t fare much better. In all, Florida State’s defense and special teams accounted for 224 yards and 21 points, dwarfing Wake’s offensive output for the game.

The dominant defensive performance was a tribute to Florida State’s depth. With senior safety Terrence Brooks out with a concussion and junior Tyler Hunter done for the year with a neck injury, the Seminoles started two true freshmen as the defensive backstops Saturday. Jalen Ramsey has been starting the entire season and was joined Saturday by Nate Andrews. The pair accounted for two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two touchdowns. By the time the starters were all on the bench in the fourth quarter, Wake had just 16 yards through the air.

“Two true freshman safeties and both scored touchdowns,” Jimbo Fisher said. “I mean, they can play the ball, they can tackle, they can run, they can play multiple potions. They’re very good football players.”

Edwards, Terrance Smith and Christian Jones had picks too, while another true freshman, Marquez White, added the game’s final takeaway. Thirty-eight of Florida State’s 59 points followed Wake Forest turnovers.

But if the defense dominated, the offense never quite found its rhythm. Chalk that up to another blowout. Jameis Winston threw for just 159 yards, and for a 15-minute span midway through the first half, he threw just one pass. For the third time this season, Winston’s final pass of the game was an interception, and for the second time in three weeks, he saw just one drive’s worth of action in the third quarter.

None of that mattered much, Winston said. The defense set the tone, and Florida State rolled to another easy win. It’s become habit, and that’s the idea -- particularly with the Seminoles now comfortably in command of their destiny in the BCS title picture.

“The way we’re playing right now, we’re playing like a championship team,” Winston said.

Indeed, it was a championship moment for Florida State on Saturday, though few realized it.

When the game was over, the Seminoles filtered into their locker room and found a trophy waiting. With Saturday’s win, FSU clinched the ACC’s Atlantic Division title and a trip to the conference championship game.

“We saw the trophy, and we were like, ‘OK, this is nice,’” Jones said.

The accomplishment, however, had been a complete afterthought. Florida State’s goals are set so much higher.

After Saturday’s big win, coupled with Oregon’s loss Thursday, those goals are well within reach. Now, Edwards said, it’s simply a matter of following Fisher’s one-day-at-a-time mantra and continuing the dominance.

“Everything is falling into place now,” Edwards said, “just like Jimbo said it would.”

Five things: Florida State-Clemson

October, 19, 2013
To say this is the biggest game of the season for Florida State and Clemson might be an understatement. It's potentially the biggest game in a decade for two programs with sights set on a BCS title. There are myriad storylines at play, but these five areas to watch might be the biggest in determining which team emerges from Death Valley with a win.

1. The quarterbacks: The showdown between Heisman contenders Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston has been discussed at length this week, and for good reason. Boyd's legacy might be on the line in this one. He has won big games before, but a loss would put Clemson's ACC title hopes in peril, and Boyd would hate to spend his final two seasons with the Tigers finishing in second place. Winston, meanwhile, faces a test unlike anything he's seen during his impressive five-game run to start his FSU career. Will Boyd's veteran savvy overwhelm Florida State? Will Winston live up to the moment the way he has at every turn thus far? Odds are, neither quarterback will disappoint, but only one of them can come out on top.

2. FSU's ground game: Lost in the talk of the quarterbacks is perhaps the more substantive issue of Florida State's ground game against a Clemson defense that has been feast or famine vs. the run this season. Clemson looks decent overall, ranking in the middle of the pack in rush yards allowed and racking up a national-best 61 tackles for loss. But dig deeper, and the Tigers don't look nearly so imposing. Against FBS teams, not counting sacks, Clemson is allowing 5.62 yards per rush -- good for 107th nationally. Meanwhile, FSU rushed for 287 yards in last year's win without this year's starter, Devonta Freeman, getting a single touch. Freeman, Karlos Williams and a healthy James Wilder Jr. could do a lot in opening things up for Winston in this year's game.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson DE Vic Beasley has recorded nine sacks in six games, including three multi-sack games.
3. Clemson's pass rush: Looking back on the Tigers' Week 1 win over Georgia, the difference might have been the fearsome pass rush from Vic Beasley, which thwarted the Bulldogs momentum and allowed Clemson to take command. The same trend has followed all year, as Beasley leads the nation with with 9 sacks. Florida State's offensive line has been solid this season, but this is by far its biggest test. Allowing Winston time to look downfield will be crucial, particularly given the quarterback's penchant for avoiding check-downs in favor of the big play.

4. Ramsey's test: Jalen Ramsey opened the season by becoming the first Florida State freshman to start at corner since Deion Sanders. He acquitted himself nicely, but when Tyler Hunter went down with a season-ending neck injury, Ramsey was shuffled to safety, where he also has managed to hold his own. Of course, none of those games involved Boyd or Sammy Watkins, which makes this week's test a whole different animal. Last season, Terrence Brooks was burned for a long touchdown early, and that memory has lingered ever since. This season, both Ramsey and Brooks figure to be tested downfield. Boyd has 23 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more since the start of 2012 -- four more than any other quarterback in the nation.

5. The special teams: It has been 25 years since the famous "Puntrooskie" play that helped Florida State topple Clemson in 1988. But the significance of special teams in this rivalry shouldn't be lost to history. Perhaps the biggest play in last year's Florida State win was a 90-yard kickoff return by Lamarcus Joyner that swung all the momentum to Florida State's side midway through the third quarter. Clemson was up 10, but Joyner's return set up an EJ Manuel TD pass to ignite a 28-6 FSU run to end the game.


Goodell Has Sit-Down With Jameis Winston
ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates discusses Roger Goodell's meeting with presumptive No. 1 draft pick Jameis Winston.