Florida State is slated to kick off its season tomorrow night against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. It's a tough road tilt for a Seminole team that is breaking in several new players at key positions.
On the basis of talent the Seminoles should be the best offensive team on the field for most of its season, regardless of its experience level. Clemson, Miami, and maybe Florida, will be able to match the level of athleticism the Florida State offense will possess this year.
The bigger question will be offensive depth at three key positions.
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Ironically, the position that seemed to have the biggest questions associated with it coming into August may also be the deepest. Back at the start of FSU's camp Phil Savage, a former NFL GM and the Executive Director of the Senior Bowl, tweeted that FSU's QB situation was similar to Oregon's in the late 90's with Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and AJ Feeley, and that as far as young arms, FSU may have one of the best 1-2 combos in the country.
That's certainly the same refrain that Jimbo Fisher has been singing since last Spring, that he would be comfortable playing either guy while peppering in compliments about Sean Maguire as well. Winston is the starter, Coker will back him up. That much has been written about ad nauseum.
At this point though, QB is probably the deepest position on the offense. A fact that could cause the Florida State offense to struggle mightily given one or two key injuries.
Along the offensive line the team is as talented as it has been in years. Redshirt senior center Bryan Stork seems destined for a good NFL draft slot and Cam Erving has settled in to become a solid left tackle after making the transition from defensive tackle last season. The two guards, Tre Jackson and Josue Matias, are also back and will look to continue their evolution as two of the top guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The lone question along an extremely veteran offensive line is at right tackle where 19 year-old junior Bobby Hart (Ft. Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas) looks to replace Menelik Watson. Watson was a mauler last season, an absolutely brutal run-blocker with a vicious first punch and a very high ceiling. Hart's ceiling is just as high, but at 25, Watson's maturity made all the difference.
So far Hart's teammates have talked up his maturation, if true he should be fine as the right tackle. If it's not - or if injuries befall the unit - look out.
Behind the starters there is no shortage of uncertainty.
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Daniel Glauser was lost to an NCAA snafu over eligibility, junior center Austin Barron is out to start the season with a fractured bone in his foot. That leaves Sterling Lovelady, Jacob Fahrenkrug and Ruben Carter as the lone experienced scholarship linemen on the depth chart. Jonathan Wallace, a redshirt senior walk-on, is the backup right tackle while true freshman Wilson Bell is listed as Cameron Erving's back up at left tackle. True freshman Ira Denson has been banged up throughout camp but could also factor in if needed.
In all likelihood, any injury at tackle would result in Stork shifting positions and the team using a either Lovelady or Barron at center. But with Barron banged up to start the season, this unit is thin and an an injury or two could be all it takes to shelve the Seminole run-game.
The skill positions have also thinned out quite a bit as well. At running back, the loss of Mario Pender to an academic issue may force the Seminoles to get a little bit inventive. James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman both enter their junior year looking to share the workload for Florida State. Each is more than capable of shouldering the load himself. But behind them, true freshman Ryan Green is the next man up. Then – at least based on Spring – walk-on Will Burnham would appear to be fourth.
In reality though, that's unlikely to happen.
“We have a contingency plan," said Fisher on Saturday. " [Fullback] Chad Abram has done a nice job back there. He can run the ball. Bobo [Wilson] and Kermit [Whitfield] – they’ve been back there. Those guys can take snaps and be back there.”
Both Wilson and Whitfield are also true freshman. Fullback is just as tenuous. Behind senior Chad Abram, walk-on Cameron Ponder is listed as the back-up. The team has also been working out different defensive tackles for short-yardage jumbo personnel situations. Lonnie Pryor is in the NFL now, world.
Tight End is a position the Seminoles knew would be thin heading into the season. Christo Kourtzidis has decided to transfer, Kevin Haplea's torn ACL will force him to miss the season and miraculously Nick O'Leary is the lone healthy option returning from last year – despite the now-infamous video of his Summer motorcycle accident that sent him sliding down 150 feet of pavement.
Defensive end Giorgio Newberry has flipped to tight end as a result. Newberry was a high school basketball player and does possess a bit more pass-catching ability than one would expect from a man of his size, but don't look for him to be a whole lot more than a glorified offensive tackle early on.
Then at receiver, Florida State has gone from having a group of talented upperclassmen crowding the position to suddenly having a group of true freshman positioned for solid first-year playing time. Last Spring Marvin Bracy missed the start of the team's camp before announcing his decision to withdraw and pursue a professional track career.
Then over the summer senior Greg Dent was suspended indefinitely for sexual assault allegations, at the start of Fall camp senior Willie Haulstead's career ended after he was ruled academically ineligible. A couple weeks later it was announced senior Jarred Haggins is out for the year as well.
That leaves a duo of talented, proven receivers, two guys looking to prove themselves and then a trio of true freshmen. Senior Kenny Shaw is amongst the most workman-like receivers in the ACC. A good route-runner with solid hands and no hesitation about going over the middle, he could be in line for a huge season. Rashad Greene is a proven commodity, if not for Sammy Watkins, he would likely be the consensus top receiver in the conference. Since he stepped on campus, the former STA-standout has impressed and he should continue that this season as well.
Behind them are Kelvin Benjamin and Christian Green. Both come highly-touted but have been unable to stay on the field consistently. If they can, they will have plenty of chances to make plays this season. If they can't, Jesus "Bobo" Wilson, Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield and Isaiah Jones are the next three up. All three are true freshman, and while Bobo and Kermit possess track speed, their inexperience and the number of reads Jimbo Fisher's offense requires a receiver to make could spell trouble for the 'Noles.
Method to the Madness: FSU has the potential to hang 40 points any time they go out, but how they choose to do it may depend on how healthy they are. Early on, look for Fisher to ease Jameis Winston into things by relying heavily on the run to put his young signal caller into favorable passing situations.
Of course, a rolled ankle or an ill-fated step could potentially change that philosophy instantly. While the run game is the strength of the team at the outset of the stadium, keeping the blockers and backs healthy will be the key to keeping it that way. FSU would be better off in the first half of the season if they aren't forced to rely on the passing game to win. The defense should be good enough to hold their early opponents at bay and keep things close, the run game should be solid as the team's bread and butter (if healthy).
FSU's offense should have time to let Winston get his legs under him before the intensity cranks up at Clemson for the sixth game of the season.
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