Team preview: Florida State

Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.

Originally Published: July 14, 2005
Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook
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(All information as of July 1, 2005)

COACH AND PROGRAM

Can a team with so many questions on offense truly compete for a national championship?

Yes, if it has the kind of defense Florida State will field this year. It's still a big if, mainly because the defense suffered a handful of unexpected losses over the summer that puts its ability to stop the run in jeopardy.

And it's been a few years now -- five, to be exact -- since the Seminoles have legitimately challenged for a national title. They went from 14 straight years of double-digit wins and top 5 finishes to single-digit wins three of the last four years, including last season's 9-3 record.

Things are much tougher for the Seminoles now that they aren't the only football power in the ACC, which was won last year by new member Virginia Tech.

But this is the kind of debate Bobby Bowden, the winningest coach in college football history, loves to hear, almost more than the sound of the little white ball hitting the bottom of the cup on a 40-foot putt.

Sure he has questions, but the anything-but-worn-out coach went out and signed one of his best recruiting classes in years, signing the nation's best running back and receiver and two of the best linebackers. Bowden, who will turn 76 in November, made no promises that he will be around for their graduation, but he certainly has a strong foundation if, as most people believe, there is a coaching change in Tallahassee in the next couple of years.

For now, however, Bowden is mostly concerned with making some drastic improvements on offense. Relative to the high-powered units of the past, which produced Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, last year's offense was awful. Not only did the Seminoles produce the lowest scoring (24.7 ppg) and total yardage total (364.7 ypg) in a quarter century, they also had the worst third-down conversion rate of any Division I-A team (23.7 percent).

When was the last time the Seminoles were ranked last in an offensive category? For anyone who remembers the days of Ward and Weinke, it's practically inconceivable.

Thad Busby fans would find it hard to believe.

There were reasons for the offensive failures. It was a unit that simply didn't have an identity. Sure, there were some good running backs. But there were also a slew of good receivers. That doesn't really matter when so few people have faith in the quarterback.

When the season began, that lack of faith came from the fact that Chris Rix was beginning his fourth straight year as a starter. That only caused the fourth straight year of whining from Seminole fans and teammates, neither of which clicked with the California-born Rix, who had a propensity to give the ball away, especially when playing against Miami.

When he turned his ankle in the first quarter of the third game, against Clemson, it gave the Seminole coaching staff an easy way to take him out of the lineup and insert sophomore Wyatt Sexton, a player of limited athletic abilities, but lots of football knowledge.

He didn't set the world on fire, by any means, but Sexton did lead the Seminoles to a 5-2 record in his seven starts, and he significantly lowered the expectations of the passing game. Some fans wanted an entire overhaul of the Seminole offense, up to and including the dismissal of offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, who they blamed for the team's worst offensive production since the 1981 6-5 season.

Hey, if Lou Holtz can fire his kid as offensive coordinator at South Carolina the year before, why couldn't ol' Bobby do the same?

Bowden has made it clear that simply ain't gonna happen, not as long as he is the head coach.

But he did make some significant offseason changes. Specifically, he brought in former Marshall offensive coordinator Mark McHale to make the Seminoles' spread offense less predictable and more high-powered, the way it was in the old days. While some of the changes McHale brought in did directly affect the offensive line -- more zone blocking, no more flip-flopping guards and tackles -- the other adjustments were pretty much outside the responsibilities of an offensive line assistant. They were more fitting of an experienced coordinator who has coached the likes of Brett Favre, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.

Bowden and his staff worked on using more motion with the tailbacks, the fullbacks and the tight ends. Of course, the head coach didn't want to reveal too much of how the offense will change this coming year.

"I won't tip anything off," Bowden said. "If we do anything that's different, I won't tell anybody, because we play Miami that first ballgame and they read, too."

Anyway, there are clearly some changes going on with the FSU offense, and that may include who takes the snaps. Rix is long gone now, and Sexton, who was fighting for the starting job with redshirt Xavier Lee and Drew Weatherford -- two of the top high school quarterbacks in the country two years ago -- might be out of the picture, too, after being suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules in May and then getting into a brush with the law in Tallahassee in June.

Neither of the young guys was able to unseat Sexton in the spring, but they closed the gap enough to have extended the competition into the fall. But Sexton's ordeal might have changed things drastically. Friends of Sexton said the pressure to win the starting job might have led to a bizarre incident during which police found him doing pushups in a street, clad only in shorts. When police asked Sexton to identify himself, he claimed he was God and then began shouting obscenities at the officers. Sexton was doused with pepper spray, handcuffed and taken to the hospital.

The police later said Sexton "appeared to be under the influence of some unknown narcotic or alcohol."

Of course, with senior Leon Washington, who led the ACC in rushing last year at 95.1 yards, and junior Lorenzo Booker, the Seminoles should have a pretty good rushing attack, if the offensive line comes back as healthy as expected.

The line, with five returning starters last year, was a big disappointment for its inability to dominate the line of scrimmage, and that ultimately cost position coach Jimmy Heggins his job. A healthy line should be able to protect Sexton better, which will be key for him retaining the starting job.

"I think a big question that we must answer when we get our starters back offensively is are we going to protect Wyatt or not," Bowden said. "Then we can go from there."

With so many uncertainties on offense, it's a good thing the Seminole defense is as good as any of those dominating squads from the late 1990s. Throughout the spring, the first-team offense scored exactly one touchdown on the first-team defense, and that didn't come until the first drive of the Garnet and Gold Game. There wasn't exactly a letdown in that game either: the FSU defense had seven sacks and two interceptions. And it made up for the touchdown when senior linebacker picked up a fumble and returned it 85 yards for a score.

"The defense just swarmed them to death," Bowden said after the game.

The Seminoles do have some unexpected holes up front on the defensive line, but they also have far-and-away the best linebacker corps in the country, thanks to starters A.J. Nicholson, Ernie Sims and Buster Davis.

They were the primary reason the FSU defense was ranked No. 1 in the nation against the run last year.

That should be a strong indication of what the coming season will be like for Bowden's team: a swarming defense that will only need a few points out of an uncertain offense.

QUARTERBACK

The hate-hate relationship that Rix had with Florida State fans is finally over. That's because Rix, who was the Seminoles' primary starter under center the last four years, finished his eligibility, stuck on the bench, playing behind Wyatt Sexton (6-3, 217).

Whether they Seminoles were any better off, of course, is still up for debate. Sexton, who got his chance when Rix suffered an ankle injury early in the third game of the season, got some experience running the offense in his seven starts, while leading FSU to a 5-2 record. But after his personal problems in the spring, his situation was unclear.

On paper, it looked like a no-brainer: Sexton has all those starts behind him and two primary competitors, red-shirt freshmen Drew Weatherford (6-3, 210) and Xavier Lee (6-4, 227), have exactly one college game snap between them. Bowden generally doesn't like to rely on a quarterback until he is a fourth-year junior. The one time he deviated from that was with Rix, and that didn't turn out so well.

But those two young players, who were among the best high school quarterbacks in the nation two years ago, closed the gap significantly during spring practice. Lee, in particular, opened the eyes of the Seminole coaches and the fans, who cheered loudly when he worked with the first-team offense at the spring game.

Sexton was still listed at the top of the depth chart going into the fall, but his status was uncertain after the June incident.

Sexton, the son of Florida State assistant coach Billy Sexton, was clearly the most seasoned candidate, but he had trouble getting the ball off against the Seminoles' blitzing first-team defense. He's immobile while running and doesn't do well making split-second decisions, which he frequently had to do during the spring playing behind a patchwork offensive line. But he does throw a tight, accurate spiral on his passes, and he knows the game inside and out, like so many other coaches' sons.

His problems come from when the pressure gets on him," Bowden said. "Not that he's a afraid; he just can't keep away from it."

With Weatherford out the latter half of the spring with an ankle injury, the strong-armed Lee got plenty of repetitions with the second offensive unit. He's certainly not a classic drop-back passer, but he is a better scrambler than Sexton.

"He's getting the team in the end zone," Bowden said after one of four spring scrimmages. "A couple of them were scrambles, but that's just like a golf ball that hits a tree and goes in the hole; it's still a par.

"He's moving the offense."

Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that he was playing against the second-team defense, while Sexton played against a first-team defense that will surely be considered one the best in the nation this year. So Bowden spent a good deal of time trying to gauge whether Sexton's lack of productivity and Lee's impressive performances had more to do with the competition they faced.

"It's hard, mighty hard, to throw the ball against our defense," Bowden said at the end of spring practice.

Weatherford, who was originally listed between Sexton and Lee on the pre-spring depth chart, suffered a setback in May when he underwent surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left ankle. It was a different injury than the sprained right ankle that got Weatherford a medical hardship for the 2004 season.

Weatherford had the surgery in May and was expected to need up to two months to rehabilitate the injury. While he is expected to be healthy for the fall, that won't be known for sure until August.

"The thing I see about the two freshmen is potential," Bowden said.

RUNNING BACKS

With so many questions about the starting quarterback and a lack of depth and play-making abilities at receiver, the Seminoles will definitely ask Leon Washington (5-9, 202), a senior, and Lorenzo Booker (5-11, 187), a junior, to carry the load for the offense.

The two combined for more than 1,800 yards last year and averaged nearly six yards per carry. And that was behind an offensive line that was an overall disappointment.

What can they do this year, when the line is supposed to be better, thanks to a new blocking scheme?

Odds are, one of the two of them will have the ball in his hands on most offensive plays. Washington, speedy but somewhat undersized, was the ACC's top rusher last year, thanks to his 195-yard performance against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. He finished the season with 95.1 yards per game.

Washington came within 49 yards of becoming the Seminoles' first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996, a feat he hopes to achieve this year. He would also like to be the first back-to-back winner of the ACC rushing crown since Virginia's Thomas Jones pulled off that feat in 1998-99. He's a fearless runner, someone who despite his size will put his head down and run over opponents between the tackles.

Booker is a pretty good foil. He prefers making plays in the open field, using his speed to get away from linebackers and defensive backs. Those are the same skills that make him the team's top returning receiver, in terms of passes caught. He had 24 receptions last year, which ranked behind the departed Chauncey Stovall (53) and Craphonso Thorpe (40). However, Booker averaged 6.7 yards per catch and did not score via the pass.

Bowden has a handful of other options, including sophomore Lamar Lewis (5-9, 188) and sophomore Jamaal Edwards (6-0, 202).

But he also may look to incoming freshman Antone Smith (5-9, 190) of Pahokee, Fla., a runner very much in the mold of Washington who will need to get some chances to prove himself as a true freshman. He was rated the No. 1 tailback prospect in the nation after rushing for 2,814 yards and 44 touchdowns as a high school senior.

Everyone in the state of Florida thought Smith would end up at Miami, until he pulled off a signing day surprise and faxed his scholarship papers to Tallahassee. That will surely play a part in him getting some carries as a true freshman.

Shifty runner Russell Ball (5-9, 165) of La Marque, Texas, is a bit of an unknown quantity since he missed his entire high school senior season with a knee injury. But as a junior, the blazing runner with a reported 40-yard dash time of 4.3 rushed for 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Another freshman who was a record-setting high school running back is Matt Dunham (6-2, 233), who broke Herschel Walker's state record for touchdowns, finishing his career with 111. However, he also played safety in high school and his college position won't be determined until after he arrives on campus.

The Seminoles will probably throw a lot of different looks into their backfield formations, with Washington and Booker on the field at the same time. They will probably use less I-formation, even though they have a full barn of fullbacks. Senior James Coleman (6-0, 245) and B.J. Dean (5-11, 258) are both accomplished blockers who have backfield experience. Sophomores Joe Surratt (6-1, 255) and Sean Compton (6-0, 232) are also talented, giving the Seminoles more than enough depth between the quarterback and tailbacks.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END

Going into last season, the Seminoles thought they would have one of the best receiving corps in the ACC, if not the nation. Seniors Craphonso Thorpe and Chauncey Stovall were returning, and there was plenty of talented youth behind them.

Stovall lived up to his expectations -- catching a team-high 53 passes and scoring six touchdowns -- but Thorpe never seemed to be fully back mentally after suffering a broken leg late in the 2003 season.

So with an inexperienced quarterback running the offense, no one was able to step forward in the receiving corps and give the offense an identity. The three seniors -- Thorpe, Stoval and Dominic Robinson -- combined for 101 of the Seminoles 199 receptions last year.

Now, heading into the 2005 season, the question remains: who will step forward as the team's top playmaker?

Could it be Willie Reid (5-10, 186), the only senior receiver on this year's roster? He caught 15 passes last year in a season that was plagued by hamstring injuries and contributed on special teams with a school-record 522 yards on the season in punt returns. The speedster who can get down the field has had his share of injury problems, with a broken leg before his true freshman year and all the hamstring troubles last season. Could this be the year that he stays healthy and blows past the competition and finally catches more than 20 passes in a season?

Sophomore De'Cody Fagg (6-3, 192), who saw action in six games as a true freshman last year, will probably get every opportunity to make big plays after the way he performed in the first part of spring practice. He sat out the latter half with a high ankle sprain, but that shouldn't affect him in the fall. He is listed behind Reid, followed by sophomore Joslin Shaw (5-10, 183) and red-shirt freshman Kenny O'Neal, a track star who hopes to contribute to the football team.

Junior Chris Davis (6-0, 176) owns the other starting spot for right now. He had the best yards-per-catch average (16.3) of any receiver on the team last year, when he played in all 12 games. As a freshman, Davis caught 23 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

Behind Davis is junior walk-on Robert Hallback (5-9, 171) and freshman Greg Carr (6-6, 193).

One player who won't contribute is would-be junior Lorne Sam (6-2, 216), who announced in June that he would be transferring to UTEP for his final two seasons. Sam, the younger brother of former FSU receiver P.K. Sam, was slated to miss this season anyway because of a knee injury.

Regardless, his absence leaves some holes that will likely have to be filled by some extremely talented incoming freshmen.

One of them is Carr, a freshman from Reddick, Fla., who signed with the Seminoles in 2004 but did not qualify academically. He enrolled in January and proved that he could contribute immediately. One of the tallest receivers in the ACC this year, Carr opened eyes with his performance in the spring. Incoming freshman Rod Owens (6-0, 170) of Jacksonville will also get the opportunity to catch some passes as a freshman.

What the Seminoles won't know for sure until August is the status of hometown superstar Fred Rouse (6-4, 195) of Tallahassee's Lincoln High School, the school that also produced former standout receiver Thorpe and All-ACC cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Rated the consensus best high school receiver in the country last year, when he averaged 20.1 yards per catch, Rouse is a little shaky on getting his qualifying scores and may not be able to join the team until January, just like Carr did last year.

It's an awfully young group, but Bowden has high expectations.

"I think the receivers are very dangerous," Bowden said. "But sometimes we would make a play and sometimes we would not. We just need to mature, mature, mature."

Bowden is looking for a new starter at tight end, with the graduation of the reliable Paul Irons. For now, senior Matt Henshaw (6-4, 234) is listed as the starter, followed by Matt Root (6-6, 249).

But Donnie Carter (6-4, 255), who sat out most of the 2004 season with a knee injury, could make a strong push for the starting job when he returns to drills in August. Carter sat out of spring practice while rehabilitating his knee.

"There is no doubt that Donnie Carter is the best prospect of all because he's big, catches the ball well and is a good blocker," Bowden said. "I hope he can stay healthy."

The Seminoles also have newcomer in freshman Charlie Graham (6-3, 230) of Greenville, Fla. Though he is considered the lowest-ranking member of the Seminoles' 23-player signing class, Graham helped Madison County High School to a state 2-A championship. He is more of a blocker than receiver.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Bowden grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of productivity on the offensive line last year, when the Seminoles had all five starters returning. So, at the end of the season, he made it obvious that he would not renew the contract of Jimmy Heggins, a 19-year veteran on the Seminole staff. Heggins, not known for his ability to communicate with players, eventually resigned.

Bowden then hired former Marshall offensive coordinator Mark McHale, who brought sweeping changes to the offensive line in the spring. There will be much more zone blocking than in the past, as the Seminoles hope to keep whatever quarterback is in the game better protected from the blitzes that often had them confused last year. Also, for the first time in 29 years, the tackles and guards won't switch sides based on where the tight end is. There will be set right and left positions, instead of split and tight positions.

None of that made a bit of difference immediately after McHale's arrival, as the offensive line was crippled by injuries during spring practice. Three projected starters -- junior center David Castillo (6-2, 304), junior guard Matt Meinrod (6-4, 297) and junior tackle Cory Niblock (6-4, 301) -- were all rehabilitating from various surgeries and did not participate. That left most of the work in the spring to inexperienced players who were just trying to grasp the new offensive concepts.

The absences were significant. The Seminoles were already trying to deal with the loss of both starting tackles, Ray Willis and two-time consensus All-American Alex Barron. At various points during the spring, six of the 11 linemen vying for starting jobs were out of action because of injury. Little wonder that none of the three quarterbacks could get off a pass in scrimmages. But it's not unusual for the Seminoles to fix all their injuries in the spring, then dominate the line of scrimmage in the fall.

When the season begins, the Seminoles think they will be OK. Castillo has been a starter for two years at center, and should be fine as long as his surgically repaired tendon in his right middle finger heals properly. Castillo had surgery right after the Gator Bowl victory and planned on returning for the spring. But he re-injured the same digit in the first practice and did not return.

Both his backups, freshman Dumaka Atkins (6-4, 280) and junior walk-on Cory Brookins (6-3, 290), got some experience in his absence, but they were both limited by their own medical issues. Atkins also did not endear himself to his new coach by being responsible for five bad quarterback exchanges before missing the last half of spring practice with shoulder problems. By the time the spring game rolled around, the Seminoles were down to a little known non-roster player named Philip Browning to handle all the snaps.

Sophomore John Frady (6-4, 290), a back-up center for two seasons, switched to right guard in the spring, in addition to working with the centers. He's fighting with sophomore Jacky Claude (6-4, 290) for the starting guard spot, and will be the first option at center behind Castillo.

At right tackle, sophomore David Overmyer (6-5, 285) is back as the regular starter after stepping in for Barron in the Gator Bowl. Senior Ron "Lucky" Lunford (6-5, 358) will be behind him.

At left guard, Meinrod returns after missing most of last season with torn knee ligaments. He started every game as a freshman, though, and has loads of experience to go with his two remaining years of eligibility. He will be backed up by red-shirt freshm3n Cornelius Lewis (6-4, 305) and Jarad Martin (6-2, 285)

At left tackle, Niblock (6-4, 301) sat out with a shoulder injury in the spring but should return to the top of the depth chart ahead of junior Mario Henderson (6-7, 307) and Lunford.

KICKERS

Sophomore Gary Cismesia (5-11, 206) was doing just fine after his bloodless coup midway last year, taking over the kick duties from veteran Xavier Beitia. He made his first seven field goals, proving himself to be steady and accurate.

Then came the Florida game. Cismesia missed chippies of 32 and 39 yards against the Gators and the Seminoles lost at home to their biggest rival for the first time since 1986.

The devastated kicker was replaced for the Gator Bowl by Beitia, who got one last chance to contribute before exhausting his eligibility.

Cismesia, whose range tops out around 48 yards, is listed ahead of sophomore Chase Goggans (5-9, 162), but he knows the real competition for the place-kicking job will begin in the fall, when freshman Graham Gano (6-1, 180) of Cantonment, Fla., arrives in camp.

Gano was a first-team USA Today All-American and rated the No. 3 high school kicker in the nation by one recruiting service. Gano has a powerful leg that he used to kick three field goals of more than 55 yards as a high school senior, including a state-record 65-yarder. He also boomed 36 of his 38 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The defense suffered a huge loss in June, when the school announced that projected starting nose-guard Clifton Dickson (6-4, 310) would not be eligible to play this season. With six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in his sophomore season, Dickson was considered the Seminoles' next great stopper on the defensive front, stepping right in for NFL first-rounder Travis Johnson.

Dickson spent the summer enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, trying to earn his associate's degree, which he isn't likely to achieve until December. He must have the degree before he can return to Florida State in January.

The Seminoles, who led the nation in rushing defense last season, will have to rely on their copious depth to replace Dickson, though that might be hard because senior Brodrick Bunkley (6-3, 291) was also in an academically tenuous position during the summer. Even if he remains eligible, Bunkley was plagued by ankle injuries as a junior, making only seven starts, and was an overall disappointment. He had surgery in January and did not participate in spring practice.

The Seminoles are left with red-shirt freshman Aaron Jones (6-3, 284) as the possible starter at nose-guard, with January-enrollee Emmanuel Dunbar (6-5, 265) of Deerfield Beach, Fla., behind him.

Sophomore Andre Fluellen (6-4, 278) will probably slide over into the defensive tackle spot and immediately become the Seminoles most experienced interior lineman, even though he had all of six tackles last year.

There might be help from the 2005 recruiting class, though. Dunbar is already on campus and Kendrick Stewart (6-2, 275) was among the top defensive tackle prospects in the nation last year. But the real prize of the recruiting class, Callahan Bright (6-2, 300) of Ardmore, Pa., will probably be one of several incoming freshmen who will not meet initial eligibility requirements. His contribution to the tenuous position would have been huge.

That means the Seminoles will expect even more production from a trio of somewhat undersized defensive ends: senior Kamerion Wimbley (6-4, 234), junior Darrell Burston (6-2, 241) and junior Barry Wright (6-1, 211).

Wimbley, who played in a regular rotation with departed starters Eric Moore and Chauncey Davis, will man one of the starting positions, with sophomore D.J. Norris (6-3, 252), Wright and junior Willie Jones (6-1, 248) behind him. Wimbley was voted the most outstanding defensive player in the spring.

Burston, who made two tackles last year, will start on the other side, with sophomore Alex Boston (6-3, 250) and junior Anthony Kelly (6-3, 237) as his backups.

The Seminoles did bring in three well-regarded candidates at end: Everette Brown (6-4, 238) of Wilson, N.C.; Justin Mincey (6-5, 240) of Folkston, Ga.; and Neefy Moffett (6-1, 215) of Palm Bay, N.J. Brown and Mincey were among the top five defensive end prospects in the nation last year. Moffett could also play linebacker.

LINEBACKERS

It's one of those cases where numbers don't lie: The Seminole linebackers are among the most dominating in college football.

The trio of junior strong-side starter Ernie Sims (6-0, 220), senior weak-side starter A.J. Nicholson (6-2, 235) and junior middle linebacker Buster Davis (5-11, 237) combined for nearly 250 tackles last year, 28.5 of which were behind the line of scrimmage.

"That's about as good a group as you find in the country," Bowden said.

While not an overwhelmingly imposing group of players, the trio can cover a lot of ground, from sideline to sideline and backfield to secondary. Bowden called Sims, who started in all but the opener against Miami last year, the best linebacker in the country at times last year and said Sims reminded him of former NFL first-round pick Derrick Brooks. He may have been a second-team All-ACC pick, but ESPN.com put Sims on its first-team All-America squad.

He can only getter better in his second -- and likely last -- year as a starter. The Seminoles got a huge scare in spring practice, when Sims fell to the ground during a practice, grabbing his left leg. He suffered a hairline fracture that needed surgery to repair. The medical staff doesn't think the injury will have any carry-over into the fall.

With Sims out, sophomore Lawrence Timmons (6-3, 225) worked with the first team and impressed FSU coaches with his ability. Defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews called him the spring's most improved defensive player.

Nicholson, who led the team with 88 tackles last year, will look to have a big final season becuase it will be the only one he gets to play with younger brother Derek Nicholson, who signed as a linebacker out of Winston-Salem, N.C. Davis is a ferocious hitter who is comfortable plugging up the middle. Senior Sam McGrew (6-3, 230) is the team's most versatile reserve, getting nearly as many snaps last year as the three starters. Sophomore Jae Thaxton (6-3, 235) plays behind them.

Other reserves at the position include senior Marcello Church (6-1, 223), sophomore Jesse Cole (6-1, 215) and freshman Rodney Gallon (6-0, 210).

"Our linebackers are our most solid group, no doubt about it," Bowden said. "It's not just the starters, but the second-liners as well. I think we played seven linebackers last year and we only lost one of them [Ray Pinquion]."

The Seminoles also seem well prepared for the likelihood that at least two of the starters will be gone after this year. Bowden and his staff signed a total of five prospects at the position, including two who were ranked among the top three high school players in the country, the younger Nicholson and Geno Hayes (6-2, 210). Junior Anthony Kelly (6-3, 230), who signed with the Seminoles in 2003, enrolled in school in January after two seasons at Jones County (Miss.) Community College.

Neefy Moffett (6-1, 215) of Melbourne, Fla.; Dan Foster (6-2, 215) of Blakely, Ga.; and Matt Dunham (6-2, 233) will also look to add to the Seminoles' linebacker depth. Moffett and Kelly could be candidates to provide depth at the defensive end.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The key to a dominating defense, for the Seminoles at least, is the play of the cornerbacks. There are some major holes to fill with the departure of last year's starters, Bryant McFadden and Leroy Smith. In addition, the FSU secondary also loses rover Jerome Carter.

So the defensive backfield will be coordinator Mickey Andrews' biggest concern going into the season.

Andrews does have the luxury of inserting one of the top "reserves" in the country, in junior cornerback Antonio Cromartie (6-3, 202). The rangy cover man was a first-team All-ACC selection, even though he saw limited action as the Seminoles nickel back.

Cromartie, who shared the team lead with four interceptions, will start on the right side. He is backed up by red-shirt freshman Trevor Ford (6-1, 194).

The left side, however, is less secure headed into the fall. Fifth-year senior Gerard Ross (6-2, 198) was listed as the starter coming out of spring, but he mostly stayed in Andrews' doghouse last season, after getting beaten in the Miami game. Ross added some weight and got into better shape in the off-season, but he was being pushed hard for the starting job by sophomore J.R. Bryant (6-1, 181).

They will likely continue to fight for the starting job into the fall. Red-shirt freshman Tony Carter (5-9, 156) could also see action at the right corner. Senior free safety Pat Watkins (6-4, 195) is the only returning secondary starter. He shared the team lead with four interceptions last year with Cromartie and added another 10 passes broken up for a team-high 14 passes defended.

He'll get relief from a pair of young players, sophomore Roger Williams (6-1, 199) and red-shirt freshman Joe Manning (5-10, 175).

Senior Kyler Hall has some experience as a starter, though not at rover. He shared starting duties at free safety as a sophomore in 2003, but moved over to rover before last season. He missed most of last year with an injury. A pair of red-shirt freshmen, Kenny Ingram (6-6, 208) and Darius McClure (5-11, 199), are listed behind him.

Other possibilities in the secondary include senior cornerback Jarrel Simpson (5-11, 157), freshman cornerback Trevor Ford (6-1, 194), sophomore cornerback Mikhal Kornegay (5-8, 176) and junior safety Anthony Houllis (6-0, 208).

The Seminoles signed three cornerbacks on in the freshman class: Michael Ray Garvin (5-8, 179) of Ramsey, N.J.; Korey Mangum (6-0, 185) of LaMarque, Texas; and cornerback Jamie Robinson (6-2, 185) of Rock Hill, S.C.

Clarence Ward (6-0, 175) of Pensacola, Fla., is the only safety in the class. Ward was the teammate of freshman signees Mangum and Russell Ball at LaMarque (Texas) High School until moving to Florida for his senior prep season.

PUNTERS

Bowden feels good about having dependable senior punter Chris Hall (5-10, 216) returning for a last go round.

Hall ranked third in the ACC last year with a 42.1-yard average. He also tied for second in the ACC with 21 punts inside the 20, perhaps a better gauge of his worth to the Seminoles.

Bowden thinks the former walk-on will continue to mature.

"He's very dependable and very effective," Bowden said. "He'll probably improve some this year and should be one of the top punters in the conference."

There are no other punters listed on the pre-fall roster, but incoming freshman Graham Gano was chosen first-team All-America by USA Today as a place-kicker/punter. He averaged 42 yards per punt at Tate High School in Cantonment, Fla. He should be a capable backup if something happens to Hall.

SPECIAL TEAMS

A team that is generally weak on offense doesn't need to be put in any holes. So the Seminoles hope to improve on their kickoff returns this year after averaging 20.3 yards per return last year, which ranked ninth in the ACC. The three primary people who returned kicks last year -- cornerback Cromartie, tailback Washington and receiver Reid -- are all back for 2005, though Bowden may look at others when fall practice starts.

He may also need to find a new punt returner, despite the fact that Reid broke Deion Sanders' school record for punt return yards last year by amassing 324 total yards on 38 returns. His average of 13.7 yards ranked in the top 20 in the NCAA stats.

Punter Hall will serve as holder again on field goals and extra points. Senior snapper Myles Hodish (6-0, 232) returns for his second straight year as the starter on punts, field goals and extra points. Junior Garrison Sanborn (6-1, 221) is behind him.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).

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