- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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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:
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.
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.
2dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna