ACC: Christian Jones

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

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Up today: Linebackers

Best of the best: Clemson

It's easy to see why many believe the Tigers have the best front seven in the ACC. In addition to having the strongest defensive front, they also have the strongest group of linebackers returning to the team. Stephone Anthony had a breakout season a year ago, finishing with 131 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 802 snaps played. He should be a preseason All-ACC selection. Clemson did lose two starters in Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey, but it returns experienced players at the position. Tony Steward and Ben Boulware will anchor the weak side. Both were ranked among the top linebackers out of high school, and if Steward can stay healthy, he is in line for a big year. At the other spot, Clemson has the option of playing a linebacker or nickelback depending on the alignment. T.J. Burrell and Dorian O'Daniel will be in the mix on the strong side.

Next up: Duke

The Blue Devils return the best linebacker duo in the ACC in David Helton and Kelby Brown, who finished as the top two tacklers in the conference last season. The two combined for 247 tackles a year ago and are back to anchor a group looking to improve both against the run and the pass. Their backups return as well, so there are not many depth concerns here. These two are as dependable as they come. Now, having said that, we would be remiss if we failed to mention Florida State. The Seminoles are losing two key players in Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and will be relying more on a five defensive back alignment, so there are some questions at the position. But this team has the talent to again be the best in the ACC once it gains some experience. As it stands now, Terrance Smith is the only linebacker with consistent playing time. Guys like Matthew Thomas and Reggie Northrup could develop into studs before the season's up.

Sleeper: Syracuse

The Orange return two of the more underrated linebackers in the ACC in Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch, who will be relied upon to anchor a defense with some serious questions on the defensive line. Though middle linebacker Marquis Spruill is gone, Syracuse coaches were pleased with the role Marqez Hodge played as a true freshman behind Spruill a year ago, so he spent a year in training preparing to take over the starting job. Davis and Lynch will be there to help Hodge along. Keep an eye on Louisville here as well. The Cards return hard hitter James Burgess and have moved Lorenzo Mauldin to outside linebacker/rush end. That should pay dividends.

Problem for a contender: Pitt

The Panthers have not gotten consistent linebacker play for years, so this position remains a question mark. Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas return, but the Panthers have little in the way of depth to help them out. Thomas has the potential to be excellent. He had 72 tackles a year ago, but coaches are now hoping for more. Bam Bradley could also have an impact here, but only six lettermen are back from a year ago. There are also questions elsewhere in the conference. Will anybody step up to help out Denzel Perryman at Miami? And will Virginia Tech be just as good at linebacker without Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards?
The NFL draft concluded with 42 ACC players selected last weekend, and a slew more ended up signing free-agent deals in the days afterward.

Here’s a quick rundown of where the ACC’s undrafted free agents landed.

BOSTON COLLEGE
QB Chase Rettig, Green Bay Packers
OLB Kasim Edebali, New Orleans Saints
LB Steele Divitto, New York Jets
OT Ian White, San Diego Chargers
OT Matt Patchan, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DB Albert Louis-Jean, Chicago Bears

CLEMSON
K Chandler Catanzaro, Arizona Cardinals
G Tyler Shatley, Jacksonville Jaguars
LB Spencer Shuey, Jacksonville Jaguars
CB Darius Robinson, Buffalo Bills

DUKE
RB Juwan Thompson, Denver Broncos
DE Kenny Anunike, Denver Broncos

FLORIDA STATE
LB Christian Jones, Chicago Bears
RB James Wilder Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
WR Kenny Shaw, Cleveland Browns
FB Chad Abram, Detroit Lions
DT Demonte McAllister, Seattle Seahawks
DT Jacobbi McDaniel, Cleveland Browns

GEORGIA TECH
DT Euclid Cummings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
CB Lou Young, Denver Broncos
DE Emmanuel Dieke, New York Giants

LOUISVILLE
DT Roy Philon, Pittsburgh Steelers
S Hakeem Smith, Tennessee Titans
DT Brandon Dunn, Chicago Bears
WR Damian Copeland, Jacksonville Jaguars

MIAMI
WR Allen Hurns, Jacksonville Jaguars
QB Stephen Morris, Jacksonville Jaguars
TE Asante Cleveland, San Francisco 49ers
DT Justin Renfrow, Arizona Cardinals
FB Maurice Hagens, Atlanta Falcons
S A.J. Highsmith, San Francisco 49ers
OG Jared Wheeler, Carolina Panthers
LB Jimmy Gaines, Buffalo Bills

NORTH CAROLINA
OT James Hurst, Baltimore Ravens
QB Bryn Renner, Denver Broncos

NC STATE
DE Carlos Gray, Green Bay Packers
TE Asa Watson, New England Patriots
DL Deylan Buntyn, New England Patriots

PITTSBURGH
P Matt Yoklic, Atlanta Falcons

SYRACUSE
CB Keon Lyn, Indianapolis Colts
CB Ri’Shard Anderson, Tennessee Titans
RB Jerome Smith, Atlanta Falcons

VIRGINIA
DE Jake Snyder, Minnesota Vikings

VIRGINIA TECH
DT Derrick Hopkins, Baltimore Ravens
LB Tariq Edwards, Miami Dolphins
WR D.J. Coles, Oakland Raiders
G Andrew Miller, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DE James Gayle, Tennessee Titans

WAKE FOREST
DT Nikita Whitlock, Cincinnati Bengals
LB Justin Jackson, Detroit Lions
LB Zach Thompson, New York Jets

ACC lunchtime links

May, 6, 2014
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Who wouldn't want this sick picture of Jerry Glanville just chillin' on a motorcycle?

Reviewing the ACC pro days

April, 4, 2014
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Pro days are now in the rearview mirror, with a month remaining between now and the NFL draft. With that, let's take a look back at some notable performances from ACC pro days this year.

Boston College (March 12)
Big name: RB Andre Williams. Representatives from 29 NFL teams were on hand to see the nation's top running back from last season. Williams says he improved on his combine 40-yard-dash time of 4.56. Also of note: Nate Freese, who went 20 of 20 last season on field goal tries, did not disappoint in front of his future employers, hitting a 60-yard try.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Michael ConroyClemson WR Sammy Watkins in all likelihood will be the first ACC player drafted in May.
Clemson (March 6)
Big name: WR Sammy Watkins. Watkins stood on his 40 time of 4.43 from the combine but was there to help out quarterback Tajh Boyd, doing little to change the general consensus that he is the top receiver in this year's draft. Boyd said scouts told him his performance was much better than his showings at the combine and Senior Bowl, as he connected on short, intermediate and deep routes with familiar receivers in familiar environs.

Duke (March 26)
Big name: CB Ross Cockrell. Cockrell improved on his combine results, with Duke saying that his 40 time was sub-4.4, which is better than what he ran in Indianapolis (4.56).

Florida State (March 17)
Big name: Where to begin? DL Timmy Jernigan slightly improved his combine 40-time from 5.06 to 5.03. S Terrence Brooks, LB Telvin Smith, DB Lamarcus Joyner and LB Christian Jones all drew a crowd, but they declined to run the 40 in front of reps from all 32 NFL teams, content to sit on their combine performances.

Georgia Tech (March 28)
Big name: LB Jeremiah Attaochu. Attaochu ran drills at both linebacker and defensive lineman, recovering nicely from a hamstring injury in the Senior Bowl that forced him out of the combine. He said his 40 time was in the 4.5s. DB Jemea Thomas also impressed, reportedly running a 4.38 40.

Louisville (March 17)
Big name: QB Teddy Bridgewater. With scouts from 29 teams watching, Bridgewater was off target with several of his throws. He ran an unofficial 4.78 40 time, but the potential No. 1 pick misfired on at least 10 passes, leaving some questions lingering heading into the draft.

Miami (April 3)
Big name: OT Seantrel Henderson. This is the name that is going to stick out, as Henderson did not finish his workouts. His agent later told reporters that it was due to dehydration. With 30 NFL teams represented, quarterback Stephen Morris took a strong step forward, reportedly completed almost all of his 67 throws.

North Carolina (March 25)
Big name: TE Eric Ebron. Ebron stood on his 40 time from the combine of 4.60, but his pro day was marred by several dropped passes, though the always upbeat tight end was not stressed about the drops when speaking to reporters afterward.

NC State (March 25)
Big name: CB Dontae Johnson. Johnson showed his versatility, as he can play corner or safety, and he said he felt better than he did at the combine, where he ran a 40 time of 4.45 and jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical.

Pittsburgh (March 3)
Big name: DT Aaron Donald. College football's best defensive player rested on his combine numbers in the 40 (4.68) and bench press (35 times), but teammates Tom Savage and Devin Street helped themselves. Savage impressed during a scripted 100-throw workout while Street said he ran a sub-4.5 40.

Syracuse
Big name: LB Marquis Spruill. Spruill recovered nicely from a combine snub, weighing in at 231 pounds, nine pounds heavier than his playing weight. He did not disclose numbers. Running back Jerome Smith, meanwhile, said he ran in the 4.5-4.6 range, which would be an improvement over his combine time of 4.84.

Virginia (March 17)
Big name: OT Morgan Moses. A considerably different-looking Moses showed up at 311 pounds, roughly 20 pounds lighter from his playing days with the Cavaliers. After clocking in at 5.35 in the 40 at the combine, he unofficially ran between 4.9 and 5.06 at his pro day, though he pulled a hamstring during one of the runs, forcing him to miss the remainder of his drills.

Virginia Tech (March 19)
Big name: QB Logan Thomas. Thomas remains a fascinating prospect to keep an eye on in the NFL, and he threw well in front of NFL scouts at pro day. Corner Antone Exum impressed as well, running 40 times of 4.53 and 4.55.

Wake Forest (March 17)
Big name: WR Michael Campanaro. After seeing his final year end prematurely because of a shoulder injury, Campanaro, the only Demon Deacon to have garnered a combine invite, again impressed in receiver drills, making his case to become a potential mid-round pick. Nose guard Nikita Whitlock, meanwhile, saw himself lining up as a fullback for the first time in his career. Weather conditions were less than ideal for the NFL hopefuls.
Florida State has had one of the best defensive fronts in the nation in the last two seasons, but the Seminoles will have a major challenger to that claim when 2014 rolls around.

Division rival Clemson has the potential to have one of the best defensive lines in school history, thanks to returning all of its starters -- including sack master Vic Beasley. So that leads us to this question: Which team will have the best defensive front in the ACC this upcoming season? Andrea Adelson and David Hale let the debate begin.

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Andrea says Clemson

The moment Beasley decided to return to Clemson was the moment the Tigers became the favorite to field the best defensive line in the ACC next season.

Now, this is not to slight Florida State, which has dominated up front over the last two seasons. But the Seminoles have key players to replace again. Clemson, on the other hand, returns every starter on the defensive line, plus its top four backups. All told, eight linemen return who played at least 292 snaps a year ago.

Those top eight combined for 65 tackles for loss -- more than half the single-season school-record 122 tackles for loss Clemson had in 2013. They also combined for 26 of the team’s 38 sacks.

Beasley, of course, leads the returning group after making 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a season ago, one of the top performances of any defensive end in the country. Had he decided to leave for the NFL, Clemson would have still had plenty of talent returning.

But with him, the Tigers could potentially have the deepest, most talented group of defensive linemen at the school since the 1981 national championship team featured future NFL players Jeff Bryant, William Perry, Andy Headen and Dan Benish in the starting lineup.

Clemson could potentially go 10 deep along the defensive line, especially when you consider the return of Carlos Watkins, expected to be healthy after missing most of last season following a car accident. That means the Tigers have the ability to rotate frequently and keep players fresh, perhaps more than they did last season.

Fresh players mean fresh legs, and fresh legs mean getting into the backfield at a much better clip. Last season, Beasley, starting tackle Grady Jarrett (11), starting end Corey Crawford (10.5) and backup end Shaq Lawson each finished with 10 or more tackles for loss. Now think about some of the best defensive fronts in college football. Florida State has zero defensive linemen returning with double-digit tackles for loss. Alabama? Zero. LSU? Zero. Stanford? Zero. Virginia Tech? One. Michigan State? One. Ohio State? Two.

Clemson leads them all.

Such an experienced group, with the ability to get into the backfield and get after the quarterback, should only get better with another year under Brent Venables, who is entering his third season as defensive coordinator. As Beasley told colleague Heather Dinich after he announced his decision to return, “I feel like we can be the best in the country.”

And, yes, that means the defense could emerge as the strength of this team.

David says Florida State

The track record for Florida State’s defensive front speaks for itself. During the past three seasons, only Alabama has had more success defending the run than Florida State, which has allowed just 2.8 yards per carry since the start of the 2011 season. Those Seminoles teams sent eight players from the front seven to the NFL -- and that number figures to increase by at least four this year -- yet the unit has seen little decline in production. With new personnel, a new scheme and new coaches last season, FSU’s first-team defense didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until the national championship game.

Of course, that’s all in the past, and 2014 comes with some significant questions for Florida State.

Throughout the three-year run of success for the FSU front seven, Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Timmy Jernigan have been anchors. All are gone now, and that means some significant vacancies on the defensive front, both in terms of on-field talent and off-field leadership. It means there will be questions surrounding the unit for the next few months, but it doesn’t mean the Seminoles don’t have answers.

Of the projected two-deep in the front seven, FSU projects to feature as many as 12 former ESPN 300 recruits. The talent is exceptional.

Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman were both top-10 recruits in 2012, and both have two years of experience under their belts. Edwards, in particular, took big steps forward throughout 2013, turning in perhaps his best game against Auburn’s up-tempo ground attack in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

The linebacker group lacks significant experience, but Terrance Smith is a physical clone of Telvin Smith, and he performed admirably after stepping into a starting role last season. Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe are both former elite recruits who project nicely in the hybrid role Jones handled so successfully in 2013.

Kain Daub, Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi lead a stellar 2014 recruiting class that could make an instant impact.

That’s not to say Florida State is prepared to move forward without Jernigan’s presence up front or Telvin Smith’s leadership in the middle of the field without missing a beat. There will be hiccups as the new group gets its feet wet and Edwards and Goldman learn to be leaders. But similar concerns existed a year ago when Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine bolted for the NFL, and after some early missteps, Florida State again proved to be one of the fiercest defensive fronts in the country.

And, of course, the Seminoles have another weapon in this debate, too. No position group succeeds in a vacuum, and FSU’s front seven gets a major boost from a secondary that projects to again be the best in the nation. If the Seminoles’ defensive backs continue to make teams one-dimensional and continue to provide time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback, the odds of FSU’s front seven making a smooth transition into 2014 get even better.

ACC and the NFL combine

February, 11, 2014
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The NFL draft combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will be held from Feb. 19-25 and will feature workouts, medical examinations, psychological testing and interviews for the 335 invited prospects. The ACC has a total of 46 players who will participate, including at least one player from every school (we included Maryland and not Louisville in this post, because it is from the 2013 season). National champion Florida State led the league with eight players heading to the combine, but UNC was right behind with seven. Don't cry ... you're gonna miss some of these names next year. Good luck to these guys.

Here is the official list of the ACC attendees:

BOSTON COLLEGE (5)
CLEMSON (4)
DUKE (1)
FLORIDA STATE (8)
GEORGIA TECH (2)
MARYLAND (1)
MIAMI (5)
NORTH CAROLINA (7)
NC STATE (1)
PITTSBURGH (3)
SYRACUSE (2)
VIRGINIA (2)
VIRGINIA TECH (4)
WAKE FOREST (1)
The ACC's three quarterbacks struggled to get their North squad on the board Saturday, throwing three total interceptions in a 20-10 loss in the Senior Bowl.

[+] EnlargeStephen Morris
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaMiami QB Stephen Morris completed 10 of 18 passes for 89 yards and two picks at the Senior Bowl.
Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Miami's Stephen Morris and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas combined to go 21 of 39 for 137 yards with no touchdowns. Thomas, who impressed all week down in Mobile, Ala., with his arm strength, threw just five passes, completing four. He was sacked five times for a total loss of 39 yards.

"I don't think I had much time to do anything with it," Thomas said, according to the Associated Press.

The other two quarterbacks managed to stay on their feet but accounted for the trio of turnovers.

Morris completed 10 of 18 passes for 89 yards with two picks. Boyd went 7 of 16 for 31 yards with one interception, adding two rushes for eight yards.

“Just talking to the linemen, they said these guys are kind of quick coming off the ball," Boyd said, according to the AP. "You've got to go out there and try to help those guys out."

One notable bright spot offensively for the ACC was the play of Michael Campanaro, who caught two passes for 11 yards for the North and returned three punts for 24 yards. The former Wake Forest receiver saw his first game action since Nov. 2, when he suffered a broken collarbone in a loss at Syracuse.

The ACC's biggest victory came two days earlier, when on Thursday night Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald added one more line to his résumé, as he was named most outstanding player for the week of practice.

"Donald is a very explosive defensive tackle," Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons and North team coach, said in a statement. "I've been very impressed with him. He's short in stature by NFL standards and doesn't maybe have all the measurables, but he's one of the more explosive guys we have on the North squad. He's done a very nice job both in the running and the pass game."

Below are ACC player statistics from Saturday. Scouts Inc. lauds a number of ACC players from the week of practice in its superlative post here.


QUARTERBACKS
Stephen Morris, Miami: 10 of 18, 89 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, 0 sacks
Tajh Boyd, Clemson: 7 of 16, 31 yards, 0 TDs, INT, 0 sacks, 2 rush, 8 yards
Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech: 4 of 5, 17 yards, 5 sacks (39 yards)

WIDE RECEIVERS
Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest: 2 catches, 11 yards, 3 punt returns for 24 yards

DEFENSE
Christian Jones, LB, Florida State: 6 tackles
Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State: 5 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss
Kareem Martin, DE, North Carolina: 4 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss
Dontae Johnson, DB, NC State: 2 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 1 breakup
Terrence Brooks, S, Florida State: 2 tackles
Jeremiah Attaochu, LB, Georgia Tech: 1 tackle
Jemea Thomas, S, Georgia Tech: 1 tackle

ACC players in the Senior Bowl

January, 21, 2014
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Senior Bowl practices are underway this week, and wouldn't you know it -- scouts have their eyes on the quarterbacks.

That means Stephen Morris, Logan Thomas and Tajh Boyd are firmly in the spotlight this week among featured ACC players participating in the college all-star game, a critical first step in evaluations for the NFL draft in May. Scouts Inc. lists Thomas as the highest rated quarterback among the three and broke down what each has to accomplish this week.

For Thomas: The need to "thrive with an even playing field."

For Morris: More consistency with footwork and ball placement as a passer.

For Boyd: "Show improvement throughout the week with pro-style progressions and anticipation as a pocket passer."

Scouts Inc. also lists Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson and Virginia offensive tackle Morgan Moses as having the most to prove.

Here is a look at all the ACC players participating in the Senior Bowl, with the game set for Saturday. Boston College running back Andre Williams was invited but pulled out so he can continue to rehab his injured shoulder.
Florida State finished off a spectacular season with a national championship, and with Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, Jalen Ramsey and a host of other stars returning for 2014, the expectations for next season are already sky high.

So if FSU is going to repeat as national champs, what are the big stumbling blocks on the road ahead? We take a look at the top five.

1. Rebuilding the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWith Timmy Jernigan heading to the NFL, Florida State will have a big hole to fill in the middle of its line.
With Timmy Jernigan leaving early for the NFL draft -- he’s widely considered a top-15 pick — Florida State will have a huge hole in the middle of the line. But the Seminoles also need to find someone to rush off the edge, as Christian Jones did throughout the season and develop some depth after waving goodbye to Demonte McAllister and Dan Hicks. Nile Lawrence-Stample, Matthew Thomas and others could fill those voids, but it will be incumbent on emerging stars Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman to step up their games, too.

2. Developing new receivers.

It wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was nevertheless a relief when Greene decided to return for his senior season. Florida State’s receiving corps was exceptional in 2013, but it wasn’t deep. Kenny Shaw is moving on, and Kelvin Benjamin could follow. That leaves Greene as FSU’s only established, consistent receiver. Isaiah Jones, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield all got a taste of playing time in 2013, but they’ll need to do a lot more next season.

3. Finding new leaders on defense.

This might be the toughest task for Florida State. Telvin Smith, Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Jones and Jernigan weren’t simply the defensive standouts on the field, they were the heart and soul of the unit in the locker room. There’s still plenty of talent remaining on the unit, but no one who has had to step up and galvanize a locker room or push the younger players to work harder. Finding leaders on that side of the ball — Edwards, Goldman, Terrance Smith and Ronald Darby, perhaps — will be crucial to maintaining the unit’s immense production in 2014.

4. Managing the schedule.

If the knock on Florida State this season was that it wasn’t tested until the title game, the concern for 2014 might be that there are simply too many big tests. The Seminoles open in Dallas against Oklahoma State, but also have Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida before the season is out. If this title was a victory for the ACC’s legitimacy on a national stage, the 2014 slate for Florida State only underscores how much tougher winning the league will be going forward.

5. Handling the hype.

It’s one thing to win when no one is expecting it. Winning when everyone has you pegged as No. 1 is a whole other challenge. Florida State will enjoy its national championship now, but in 2014, everyone will be gunning for the Seminoles, and the media scrutiny will be immense. Can Winston go a full offseason as a Heisman winner and national champion and not waver from his commitment to getting better? Can the coaching staff maintain that same level of dedication from a group that already has a title on its résumé? There’s a reason so few teams repeat as champions. It’s really hard to do.

Video: Florida State LB Christian Jones

January, 7, 2014
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Christian Jones and his teammates have Florida State back on top of the college football world.

Video: FSU's Christian Jones

January, 6, 2014
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Christian Jones has been a major success changing between linebacker and defensive end this season for the Seminoles.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. Today’s matchup is between Auburn’s offensive line and Florida State’s defensive line.

Auburn’s offensive line: We’ve broken down all of the matchups this week, but as Auburn center Reese Dismukes put so eloquently Thursday, “You can have all the pretty boys you want, but whoever wins the line of scrimmage all day is usually going to be who wins the football game.” If that’s the case, the Tigers are in good shape. They feature one of the most dominant offensive lines in the country. It’s the reason they’re in Pasadena, Calif.

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFSU nose tackle Timmy Jernigan is a force inside, and how well the Tigers do against him could determine how well they run the ball.
Dismukes, a three-year starter, is the anchor of the group. He was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the top center in college football, and although it’s not an official stat, he leads the team in knockdowns. The matchup between him and Florida State nose tackle Timmy Jernigan won’t just be a battle in the trenches -- it will be a war.

From a pure talent standpoint, sophomore left tackle Greg Robinson has emerged as the best player on this Auburn offensive line. He started last year but was still relatively unknown heading into this season. He’s quickly become a star in the SEC, and he continues to improve his draft stock with every game.

Junior Chad Slade doesn’t get the notoriety, but he’s been as solid as it gets for the Tigers. He moved from right tackle to right guard and hasn’t missed a beat. The other two spots are taken by a pair of redshirt freshman, Alex Kozan and Avery Young. Kozan was named to the freshman All-SEC team for his play at left guard.

If Auburn wants to knock off No. 1 Florida State, this is the matchup it has to win. The Tigers have rushed for an average of 402 yards over the past four games, and it’s in no small part due to the play of the offensive line.

Florida State’s defensive line: This is a much different defensive front than what the Seminoles ran in three years under Mark Stoops. When Jeremy Pruitt took over at defensive coordinator this season, he had four new starters on the line and completely revamped the scheme. It’s been something of a work in progress all season, but the Seminoles believe the unit is playing its best football now.

Jernigan is a beast in the middle of the line, and he’ll be a huge challenge for an Auburn team that wants to play physical and run between the tackles. Seminoles opponents are averaging just 3.1 yards per rush between the tackles and fewer than 9 percent of runs up the middle go for 10 yards or more. Jernigan also leads FSU’s defensive linemen in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (10.5).

Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr. add plenty of size to the mix on the D-line, too, while Christian Jones and FSU’s safeties will be counted on to seal the edge, which is where the defense is far more vulnerable. Across the board, Auburn’s O-line figures to be as big a physical challenge as Florida State has faced all season, and with the tempo that the Tigers run, it could be tough for FSU to substitute as often as it would like.

There’s ample talent on the line for Florida State, but this figures to be as tough a matchup as the unit has faced.

Ostendorf: Edge Auburn

Hale: Slight edge for Auburn
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today’s matchup is between Auburn’s running backs and Florida State’s linebackers.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Marshall isn't a running back, but with over 1,000 yards rushing, Auburn's quarterback provides a lethal ground threat.
Auburn’s running backs: Gus Malzahn has always been one to tailor his offense around his team’s skill set. In this case, it’s safe to say that Auburn’s strength is running the football. The Tigers have run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage of any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. They lead the nation in rushing yards per game and are one of five schools this season to have two players with at least 1,000 rushing yards.

The star is running back Tre Mason. He leads the SEC in rushing (1,621 yards) and rushing touchdowns (22), rushing for a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries in the SEC championship game. That performance, along with his 164-yard outing against No. 1 Alabama, earned him a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

But as impressive as Mason has been all year, it’s quarterback Nick Marshall who makes this offense go. Technically, Marshall isn’t a running back, but how can you not include him in this category when he has over 1,000 yards rushing? The junior college transfer seems to get better every game as he gets more and more comfortable with the zone-read. Florida State has the athletes to defend Auburn’s offense, but Marshall’s ability to run turns a great offense into a nearly unstoppable offense.

The wild card of the group is Corey Grant, a former Alabama transfer. If Mason is the thunder, Grant is the lightning. The junior has been used sparingly, but he’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. He has 650 yards and six touchdowns on the season and is among the nation’s best in yards per carry (10.0).

Statistically speaking, Florida State has been strong against the run, but the Seminoles haven’t faced a rushing attack quite like Auburn’s “four-headed monster.” When they faced Boston College’s Andre Williams, they gave up 149 yards to the Heisman finalist. Mason is every bit the player that Williams is, and that’s just one of the multiple weapons Auburn has in its arsenal.

Florida State’s linebackers: It’s hard to know quite what to make of this matchup. On the one hand, FSU has been exceptional against the run for most of the season. The Seminoles are eighth nationally, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry (and just 2.9 in the first halves of games), and the first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Throw out the second half against NC State (when the backups played the entirety), and FSU is allowing just 2.6 yards per rush since the start of October, when Christian Jones moved up to the defensive line and Terrance Smith stepped in as the starting middle linebacker.

The problem, of course, is that Maryland and Wake Forest and Duke didn’t provide anything close to the challenge Auburn will on Jan. 6. The best rushing offense Florida State faced this year was Boston College, and not coincidentally, no team had more success on the ground (200 yards) or overall (34 points) against FSU this season.

Still, the Seminoles defense has evolved immensely since that BC game. Terrance and Telvin Smith have both developed into reliable defenders against the run. Jones provides an athletic defender on the edge. Jalen Ramsey (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) moved to safety and can play sideline to sideline against the run. Both Jones and Ramsey will be vital against an Auburn team that runs outside the tackles routinely with great success (averaging 6.3 yards before contact outside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Info, best among AQ schools). FSU is allowing just 3.1 yards per rush between the tackles this year, but 5.1 outside.

The Seminoles have the athleticism on defense to make life tough for an Auburn running game that hasn’t struggled often, but what the Tigers do well is also the one place where some questions remain for Florida State.

Ostendorf: Edge Auburn

Hale: Slight edge for Auburn

Auburn heroics have FSU's attention

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
11:00
AM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the days after the Iron Bowl, everyone got their chance to weigh in on the absurd ending that helped send Alabama to its first loss of the season and Auburn on the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

The game came down to a long field goal, which Alabama missed. Auburn’s Chris Davis fielded the kick and returned it for a game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher and FSU are well aware of Auburn's ability to make the seemingly impossible possible.
Even Jimbo Fisher, who knows both programs well and has seen his share of college football insanity, was left speechless.

“I never dreamed of it ending that way,” Fisher said.

Of course, had he been in the same position as Alabama coach Nick Saban, Fisher also might’ve handled things a bit differently.

“You’ve got to go cover [the return man],” Fisher said, adding that he would’ve adjusted his normal field-goal personnel to cover a potential return.

As unexpected as the play was, Fisher said Florida State has practiced it throughout the year, and the Iron Bowl was just another lesson on why the details matter so much.

For Auburn, those finer points have been crucial to reaching Pasadena with a shot at a championship. For Florida State, however, the Seminoles have rarely been tested on those finer points.

FSU has won all 13 games by at least 14 points. It’s average margin of victory -- 43 points -- is the most by any team in the past decade. Since its dominant win over Clemson on Oct. 19, Florida State has been favored by at least three touchdowns in every game.

The fact that Auburn has had to sweat out some close wins and Florida State hasn’t been tested has quickly become one of the most prominent narratives in the run-up to the BCS championship game. If it’s a close contest, certainly the team with the résumé of last-second wins gets an edge, right?

“That can happen to anybody, that can happen to us if we’re not locked in and playing to the last play,” safety Terrence Brooks said of Auburn’s unlikely wins over Georgia and Alabama. “I feel like those things will happen if you’re not doing the things you’re supposed to do and looking at the right thing.”

Even before Florida State began breaking down the film on Auburn, players were all too aware of the fantastic finish to the Iron Bowl, along with another final-minute win over Georgia in which Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis hauled in a 73-yard TD catch after it deflected off two Bulldogs defenders.

So as the Seminoles prepare for their Jan. 6 date with Auburn, they’re focusing on those same details they’ve worked all season in practice -- but they’re also expecting those details to be far more significant than they had been in any previous game this year.

“They’re going to play hard, so every snap we’ve got to be ready to play, whether it’s a trick play or a straight run at us,” linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We’ve got to go out and play until the clock says zero, zero, zero.”

It’s easy enough to say, of course, but the reality is that Florida State has had precious few chances to back up that mantra on the field.

The Seminoles haven’t won a game decided by three points or less since a 16-13 victory over Clemson in 2010. Since Fisher took over as head coach, FSU is just 6-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Auburn, meanwhile, has six wins by eight points or less this season alone.

“It’s a team with a bunch of talent, bunch of intelligence, and they wait for guys to make mistakes,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “They do what they do well, and they do it for 60 minutes. Something has to bend and break, and they don’t. Opponents do.”

If the national championship game is tight, Auburn won’t be rattled. During Florida State’s three weeks of bowl practice, Fisher is doing his best to ensure the Seminoles won’t be either.

There’s no way to properly simulate what the final minutes of a national championship game might be like on the field, and Auburn’s shocking wins over Georgia and Alabama were as unexpected as any in recent college football history. So the job for Fisher won’t be easy, but the Seminoles can return to the fact that working the fundamentals and prepping for a close game isn’t a new addition to the practice routine. They’ve been doing it since the spring -- which is why the past 13 games have all looked so easy.

“Right now we’re at a point where we just want to get better and be able to know our assignments like this because they go fast,” defensive end Christian Jones said. “So we want to be able to know when they come out in something, we know exactly [where to be]. We’re doing a good job staying level-headed.”
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.

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