ACC: Giorgio Newberry

The image is now part of Florida State lore, etched into the history books for all time. Jameis Winston lofts a pass into the end zone in the final minute of the national championship game. As he’d done so often in 2013, Kelvin Benjamin -- all 6-foot-5, 240 pounds of him -- overwhelmed his defender and hauled it in for the score.

The touchdown was the capper in the Seminoles’ third national title, but it was also the finale to Benjamin’s career in Tallahassee. He’s off to the NFL, where he’s projected as a potential first-round selection.

Now, Florida State is left to find a replacement, and Jimbo Fisher has a sense of humor about the difficulty of the task, joking with reporters he’d simply stack two of his current receivers atop each other.

At least Fisher can laugh about it, but the truth is, Florida State simply doesn’t have an obvious replacement because, well, players like Benjamin don’t come around very often.

Benjamin wasn’t always the most refined route runner or sure-handed receiver, but his raw physical ability was unparalleled. He was a mismatch every time he was on the field. While Florida State retains its best receiver in Rashad Greene, has some developing talent in Kermit Whitfield, Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones, and has three prized prospects arriving this summer, none provide the same physically imposing target that Benjamin did last season.

So, who picks up the slack for the 89 targets Benjamin received from Winston last season (not to mention the 74 for Kenny Shaw or the 38 for FSU’s departed backs)?

Fisher’s answer is probably somewhat accurate. The young receivers will all play their part, but none are likely to replace Benjamin’s production on their own. It will have to be a combined effort, and the new arrivals will need some time to adjust to the college game.

Of the receivers that remain, Jones is the tallest at 6-4, but he’s 50 pounds lighter than Benjamin and perhaps the least refined of the Seminoles’ current receiving corps. No other receiver on the roster -- including the incoming freshmen -- measures taller than 6-2. And size does matter. Since Fisher took over as playcaller in 2007, FSU has always had at least one receiver 6-5 or taller catch at least 30 passes for at least 450 yards. That won’t happen in 2014.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Florida State will be without a physical mismatch in the passing game. It’s just likely that mismatch will come from its tight end.

Last season, Nick O'Leary blossomed to the tune of 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns. It was a breakthrough campaign for the junior tight end widely considered among the best in the nation coming out of high school.

O’Leary’s big season was a necessity, too. Florida State had no other options at the position after Christo Kourtzidis transferred and Kevin Haplea went down with a knee injury. Giorgio Newberry was moved from defensive end to tight end, but he was targeted just twice all year, once resulting in an ugly interception when Winston attempted to force the ball to his makeshift tight end against Wake Forest.

Now, there is some depth. Haplea is healthy. So, too, is redshirt freshman Jeremy Kerr. Two more tight ends arrive this summer. None possess O’Leary’s skill set as a receiver, but all could fit as blockers should FSU decide to run a two-tight end set with any regularity.



But O’Leary (6-3, 245 pounds) again will be crucial this season. He was targeted 42 times last season. Aside from Greene, all other returning receivers were targeted a combined 18 times by Winston last year. Winston routinely referred to O’Leary as his favorite target. That O'Leary caught eight of nine passes thrown his way on third down and had five grabs in the end zone only reinforced Winston's faith in him.

Still, three of O’Leary’s red-zone catches came in Week 1. After hauling in five catches for 161 yards against Clemson, O’Leary didn’t have more than three catches or 55 yards in any game the remainder of the year. He scored just once in FSU’s last seven contests. He was shut out in the national title game.

So why did O’Leary disappear as the year went on? It was likely as much because of FSU’s needs for him to be a blocker and Benjamin’s emergence as the physically dominant downfield target as it was any regression by O’Leary. Neither will be an issue in 2014, and Fisher said he’d like to see O’Leary’s receptions reach the 45 to 50 range by year’s end.

“You can do a lot of different things with Nick,” Fisher said. “He’s grown into this offense. I think he will be critical."

No, Florida State won’t have another Kelvin Benjamin this season. The Seminoles would be lucky to get another receiver with that skill set and body type again this decade. But there is talent at the position, as Fisher has made clear, and there is still a player who can provide some brute force in the passing game. It’s just a matter of opening things up for O’Leary and seeing if he can take the next step in an already promising career.

Karlos Williams' move a worthy experiment

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
12:30
PM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- On the first carry of his first practice as a running back, Karlos Williams burst through the whole with the same ferocity he'd displayed as a hard-hitting safety. He charged upfield, found linebacker Telvin Smith waiting, and delivered a massive blow.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreAs a kick returner, Karlos Williams proved to have some skills with the ball in his hands.
This is why Jimbo Fisher is so intrigued by the possibilities of Williams, a former five-star recruit with a unique combination of size and speed, as an offensive threat. It also underscored some of the subtleties of the job Williams still needs time to figure out.

Williams smacked into Smith's shoulder, a potentially devastating blow to one of FSU's key defenders during an otherwise low-key drill during a bye-week practice session. Smith was livid. The two players -- colleagues on defense just days before -- tussled, with Smith emphatically reminding Williams that a reasonable level of caution is required on the practice field.

"We like to go hard," Smith said, "but at the same time, you've got to be smart."

The two quickly ironed out their differences, and Smith said he's eager to see Williams pulverize a few linebackers Saturday against Nevada. That might happen, too. Fisher insists Williams, who has practiced at tailback for just a week, will be a regular part of FSU's backfield rotation.

Fisher said he's optimistic this will be a smooth transition for Williams, and the Seminoles' coach has a track record to support his hunch. He's turned back-up defenders into all-conference stars on offense and converted underutilized backs and receivers into first-round NFL draft picks on defense. But change isn't always easy, which makes the Williams experiment all the more interesting.

"There's going to be a learning curve," Fisher said. "I don't mean he's going to run out there, look like Jim Brown. I don't mean that. There'll be a learning curve, but it's not as drastic as you'd think."

Williams played tailback in high school, too, so he's familiar with the basic concepts. His work on defense also gave him some behind-the-scenes insight into how to attack the opposition. With the ball in his hands, Fisher said Williams is a natural, making cuts and finding running lanes on instinct.

If it were up to Fisher entirely, Williams might have made this move a year ago, but he had to wait until Williams was ready.

"It's what I think you can be, where I think your best future is, and where you can help this football team," Fisher said. "But if you force somebody to do something they don't want to do, they're not going to be good at it."

Fisher's history suggests his instincts are rarely wrong. At LSU, he pushed for position changes for Devery Henderson and Corey Webster. Both went on to successful NFL careers at their new positions. At Florida State, Fisher pushed Xavier Rhodes to move from receiver to corner -- a move, Fisher joked, that resulted in Rhodes giving his coach the silent treatment for months. Rhodes was drafted in the first round of this year's NFL draft. The same might happen for left tackle Cameron Erving. He began as a defensive tackle, but Fisher prodded him to make a switch, and his cache with NFL scouts skyrocketed virtually overnight.

Even for Erving, a two-star recruit with a limited track record on either side of the ball, it wasn't an easy sales pitch. When Fisher first approached him about a move, Erving was reluctant. Like Williams, it took him a year to concede.

"It was hard to swallow at first," Erving said. "But I wanted this team to do well, and anything I can do for this team, it's over. It's done."

The moves made of necessity tend to be the tougher adjustments. Fisher tabbed redshirt sophomore Giorgio Newberry to move from defensive end to tight end before the start of fall camp, a decision driven by a massive run of attrition on the offensive side.

Newberry had shown plenty of promise as a pass rusher, but he'd yet to secure a starting job. The move to tight end didn't offer an obvious upgrade, but he understood the reason behind the request.

"I looked at it as helping the team out first," Newberry said. "When it comes to the team, I'll do anything, sacrifice anything. But it's a big sacrifice."

Newberry said it took him the entirety of fall camp to begin feeling comfortable in his new role, and he's still not sold on the change as permanent. When the season ends, he hopes to reevaluate his status. That's part of Fisher's pitch, too.

"Sometimes you make a mistake," Fisher said. "You move a guy, then you move him back."

Fisher insists Williams wasn't a bust at safety, though it's clear the one-time top recruit wasn’t living up to expectations. Instead, Fisher said, the move represents a chance to blossom into something special.

"He's 6-1, 232 pounds, runs a 10.5 100-meters -- can catch, can run, is very natural with the ball in his hand," Fisher said. "He can change numbers on a scoreboard."

While Fisher says the learning curve at running back might not be as steep as other positions, Williams' timetable to master the particulars is limited. He'll be learning on the fly, left with immense physical skills to cover up a limited foundation at the position.

Still, Fisher sees promise. So, too, do Williams' teammates. Smith has the sore shoulder to prove it.

"He's got that energy, got that motor, and his legs don't stop moving," Smith said.

It's an experiment, but it's not an arbitrary one. Fisher's history suggests he's a man who understands where talent is best utilized, and in Williams' case, standing on the sideline as a backup safety wasn't ideal.

Whether the experiment pays off isn't really the point, Fisher said. It's whether the risk was worth taking.

"Sometimes you can be really good at one thing and great at another," Fisher said. "We'll see."

Seminoles in preparations for Pitt

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
11:00
AM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher finally put the biggest question of fall camp to rest Friday, officially naming Jameis Winston his starting quarterback. But if Winston's position on the depth chart finalized one lingering issue, a handful of other questions remain as the Seminoles begin their final week of preparation for the season opener at Pittsburgh.

Here's a quick rundown of what's left on Florida State's preseason to-do list:

Developing receivers: A knee injury will keep Jarred Haggins on the sideline all season, meaning Florida State is now down three senior wide receivers. Add in a finger injury that has limited junior Rashad Greene for the past week, and a position that figured to be among the deepest on the Seminoles' roster is now a major concern. Greene should be fine for the start of the season, but it's apparent that Florida State will still need to rely on a trio of freshmen to step up. Fisher has raved about Jesus Wilson throughout camp, and Levonte Whitfield and Isaiah Jones have talent to spare, but the transition to the college game is rarely a seamless one.

Dan Hicks
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDefensive end Dan Hicks, who missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, is still wearing No. 6. So is cornerback Nick Waisome. One of them will have to change numbers before next Monday.
Grasping the defense: The response from players has been universally upbeat, but even the most optimistic of Florida State's defenders admit there's still work to be done in learning Jeremy Pruitt's new defensive scheme. Florida State ranked in the top three nationally in total defense in each of the past two seasons, and there's enough buzz among the returning players to think this year's unit could be even better, but Pruitt's scheme is a challenge. The team has worked extensively on mastering the nuance throughout fall camp, but when the season begins next week, Pruitt said fans might see a more watered-down version. "When it comes to game week, we're only going to call what they know," Pruitt said. "You throw a lot of stuff at them, hope part holds, and as the season progresses, you pull out what you need each week."

Depth at tight end: Fisher tried to put a happy face on the situation when camp opened, but the lack of depth at tight end remains a major concern. Giorgio Newberry made the switch from defensive end just a week before camp began, and while he's got the size to do the job, he's definitely a work in progress. Freshman Jeremy Kerr remains sidelined with a knee injury, and Fisher continues to tinker with options, using freshman defensive end Davarez Bryant at tight end during practice last week. While Fisher is eagerly toying with his options, the fact remains that starter Nick O'Leary is going to need to shoulder the burden for a thin group behind him.

Two for six: It's perhaps the silliest debate of camp, but the implications could be significant. When defensive end Dan Hicks switched from tight end this spring, he kept his old uniform number. The problem, however, is that cornerback Nick Waisome was already wearing the No. 6 jersey. Since then, neither player has been willing to give it up, meaning FSU can't use Hicks and Waisome -- both projected starters -- on the field at the same time. Fisher said he's leaving it up to the players to decide, likely in hopes one would be mature enough to choose playing time over a jersey number, but thus far neither player has caved.

Playing time for rookies: The freshman receivers figure to be necessities on offense this season, but beyond that, it's tough to tell where the rest of the newcomers fit in. Running back Ryan Green, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive end DeMarcus Walker are among the most impressive freshmen of the fall, but Fisher said he wouldn't be surprised if the great majority of this year's class avoids a redshirt. Aside from Kerr, quarterback John Franklin and a couple of the offensive linemen, virtually every member of the Class of 2013 remains in the mix for playing time.

Secondary shake-up: It's a good problem to have, but Florida State's logjam of talent in the defensive backfield still leaves some question marks as the season approaches. When Lamarcus Joyner shifted from safety to corner, the questions about playing time began, and Pruitt has been quiet about potential answers. Joyner, Waisome, Ramsey, Ronald Darby and a slew of others are in the mix for regular reps, and Fisher has hinted that the Seminoles' defensive backs will be rotating early and often.

Video: DE a key battle at Florida State

July, 11, 2013
7/11/13
7:00
PM ET

"College Football Live" breaks down some of the key position battles across the nation, including the defensive end battle at Florida State.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- By any significant measure, the difference between Timmy Jernigan's role as a reserve the past two seasons and the starting job that awaits him in 2013 shouldn't be a major overhaul.

Jernigan was already on the field for a majority of snaps throughout most games, and his impact on the defensive line already included more tackles than any other FSU interior lineman in 2012. Still, there's something about hearing his name announced before each game and knowing he's officially secured the job of starter on a unit that's been among the best in the nation in recent years that Jernigan relishes.

"I've been waiting a long time," he said. "So I'm really excited about it."

Jernigan's enthusiasm isn't entirely inflated either. Sure, his playing time isn't likely to shift dramatically, and he's already proven he's capable of handling a sizable role on the defense. But what's truly different for the junior defensive tackle in 2013 isn't about reps or tackles but about his place in the hierarchy of the defense.

For the past two seasons, FSU's line has been the foundation of its defensive scheme. The unit has helped the Seminoles finish in the top three in the nation stopping the run in both 2011 and 2012, and last month, it sent five players on to the NFL, including all of last year's starters.

That, of course, means a massive overhaul for the unit, but thanks to Jernigan's presence -- along with potential breakout stars like Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman -- the expectations haven't dipped much. And that's a burden Jernigan hadn't been asked to carry before.

"I feel like it's my D-line now," Jernigan said. "I'm trying to be a leader."

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
AP Photo/Phil SearsAs a sophomore, Timmy Jernigan led all FSU defensive tackles in tackles last season.
When it comes to production, there's little reason to question Jernigan's ability to handle a bigger share of the spotlight. As a reserve the past two seasons, he's racked up 76 tackles, including 14 for a loss, and four sacks. Despite playing behind Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins -- both in NFL camps now -- Jernigan established himself as a star, and he's already currying attention as a potential first-round selection in next year's draft.

That attention is nice, he admits, but his bigger role in 2013 isn't about burnishing his resume for the next level.

"It inspired me to work even harder toward what I want," Jernigan said. "I'm not really worried about the NFL or anything like that because there's so much more I feel like I have to do here in Tallahassee. I'll worry about that when it's time."

What Jernigan needs to do this season isn't simply a repeat of past performance either.

Jimbo Fisher has been quick to shrug off concerns about the massive changes on the defensive line, noting that Jernigan and Demonte McAllister were already FSU's most productive tackles, but it's hard to ignore the notion that life gets more difficult without established talent surrounding them.

That means Jernigan has to pick up the slack as the centerpiece of the line and help bring along the younger talent alongside him.

Before an ankle injury sidelined him midway through the spring, Jernigan was taking reps alongside a bevy of potential partners on the line, from veterans like Jacobbi McDaniel and Giorgio Newberry to youngsters like Edwards and Goldman. The rotations, he expects, will continue well into the fall, but he admits it's hard not to be impressed by the potential of some of the young guns.

"I like what they're doing because they're asking questions, they're very humble," Jernigan said. "They understand we have all the talent in the world up front but the biggest thing is we've got to get everything going. Those guys are going to be just fine. It's just a matter of understanding what you're doing. Not understanding slows you down, but those guys are going to be just fine."

Of course, Jernigan is dealing with a bit of a learning curve, too. While his position group was spared in the overhaul of FSU's coaching staff this offseason, the new, aggressive schemes being implemented by defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt have added some wrinkles to what had been a relatively straightforward approach.

But like the move from reserve to starter, Jernigan sees the changes as an opportunity to impress.

"That's what I like," Jernigan said. "I like to get off the ball and attack blockers rather than absorb them. It's going to be a positive. I'm very excited about it."
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Over the past four months, Florida State won an ACC championship, a BCS game, reeled in another top-10 recruiting class and sent a handful of players into the NFL draft with first-round promise.

Given the recent spate of unsightly 7-6 seasons, Florida State seems to be in pretty fantastic shape. That, of course, is not the storyline that has taken shape since December. No, the convenient storyline has focused mainly on the coaching turnover that has left the Seminoles with six new assistants heading into the 2013 season.

What does the unusually large turnover say about coach Jimbo Fisher? What does it say about the program itself?

At this point, the storyline has become rote. Fisher already has his answers before the questions are asked, prepared to bat down the notion that this very strange offseason has been, well, strange.

He begins.

“You know,” he says, “we were one of four teams in the entire country that did not lose a single assistant in my first two years here.”

Pretty astounding, when you consider just how frequently assistants change jobs year to year. But what is more astounding is hiring seven different assistants in a two-month span. One of those assistants, Billy Napier, lasted a handful of weeks before moving on to Alabama.

As Fisher tried to defend the staff turnover, he proved the point others have made. Coaching change is common in this profession, especially at winning programs. But the type of coaching change Florida State just experienced is as rare as scoring a safety on consecutive plays.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFSU coach Jimbo Fisher says he wasn't surprised by the amount of staff turnover this offseason.
Among programs that did not have a head coaching change, only Marshall had to replace more assistants than Florida State this past offseason. Point this out to Fisher and he shrugs.

“We took the attrition of three years and put it in one,” Fisher says simply.

Was he surprised that he lost so many assistants?

“Not really. Last year was a big year,” Fisher begins. “You go back and look at all the major jobs. When’s the last time you saw four major SEC schools open?”

Not since 2004. His defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops, got the head coaching job at Kentucky and took assistant D.J. Eliot with him. Another assistant, Dameyune Craig, left for a co-offensive coordinator job at Auburn. Counting Napier, four assistants left for the SEC.

Fisher continues.

“The NFL has nowhere else to draw coaches from,” he says. “And we had a lot of success. We’re graduating players. Guys aren’t getting in trouble. People want to know how you’re having success. We had to have a proven commodity.

“We’re the eighth-winningest team in the last three years. We were 30th the previous three years. We’ve jumped more than any team in the country. So people say, ‘Wait a minute.’ We all do research and look at who’s doing good and ask, ‘Why are they doing good? Are they doing something we’re not doing?’ People are saying, ‘Let’s get some of those guys and see why they’re having success and are able to change the culture and change a program.”

The other three coaches who left -- Eddie Gran (Cincinnati), Greg Hudson (Purdue) and James Coley (Miami) -- took coordinator jobs as well. Fisher points this out, too, and makes it clear he has never stood in the way of an assistant getting another job. After all, he allowed Stoops to interview at Kentucky in the middle of the season.

While all of the change may not look so great on the surface, the staff Fisher has assembled may in fact be better than the one he had his first two seasons with the Seminoles. When asked what he likes most about this staff, Fisher says, “No. 1, the experience. No. 2, their undaunting ability to work and put in hours. A lot of staffs you get recruiters or coaches. I think everybody on our staff can do both. We have a staff that’s very solid recruiting and very solid coaching. It’s hard to find nine guys capable that way.”

Perhaps that is a slight dig at his past staff. But there is no questioning the credentials of the men tasked with elevating Florida State from ACC champ into yearly national title contender. All of them have won conference titles; three have won national titles.

Fisher keeps a running list of potential candidates with him, so he knew exactly whom to call when all these jobs came open. How they arrived in Tallahassee plays like a game of Six Degrees of Jimbo Fisher.

  • You have quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders, who crossed paths with Fisher when both were assistants in the SEC some years ago. He also coached new running backs coach Jay Graham at Tennessee in the 1990s. The two have known each other since Graham was 17.
  • You have defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who come from the Nick Saban tree that also produced Fisher. Sunseri and Fisher were on the same staff at LSU in 2000.
  • You have recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Tim Brewster, who never worked with Fisher but recruited against him when he was at Texas and Fisher was at LSU.
  • Then you have special teams coordinator, linebackers coach Charles Kelly, who was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1993 when Fisher was there. Kelly also played against Fisher the past several seasons while working at Georgia Tech. When Kelly was with the Jackets, and Pruitt with the Tide, the two shared ideas.

“Florida State has always been one of the schools I’ve always wanted to work at,” Sanders said. “When I first got married and was first coaching, my wife asked me. I said this was one of the four schools in the country I’d love to work at some day. When the opportunity came along, I was excited to come to Tallahassee.”

He echoed what all the other assistants said during their only media availability this spring: the desire to win a national title. Indeed, the intensity during spring practice seemed to be turned up a notch. Both Sunseri and Pruitt are quite boisterous and have no qualms about getting up close and personal with their players -- face to face mask.

On one particular afternoon last month, Sunseri kept getting after defensive end Giorgio Newberry. At one point, Newberry just slung his big arm around Sunseri’s shoulder and chuckled.

“I give him a hug every once in a while,” Newberry said. “I love Coach Sal. I love how he coaches me. He doesn’t let us take plays off. We have to go hard every time, and we’ve got to do it his way. I like that. He’ll chew me out and I’ll be like, 'Yes sir' and I try to fix it.”

Graham is not as in-your-face, but he demands excellence. That was not so easy to get adjusted to for some of the backs.

“He wants you to be great, so he has very high expectations,” James Wilder Jr. said. “It was hard getting used to it at first. He wants everything perfect.”

Fisher has described the staff transition as seamless. He has veteran coaches that share his same philosophies and players who have embraced the changes. But the questions will linger on until kickoff in Pittsburgh on Sept. 2.

Perhaps even longer.
With half of the conference playing spring games this weekend, here’s a look at what to watch if you’re keeping an eye on the ACC as spring ball comes to a close:

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • Quarterbacks of the future. You know Tajh Boyd is good. Expect Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly to take most of the snaps. Boyd played just four snaps in the last scrimmage. Let's see his backups.
  • The tight ends. Clemson tight ends Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford have been the first team All-ACC tight ends the past two years. Clemson tight ends have 118 receptions and 21 touchdowns the past two years, perhaps the most underrated area in Chad Morris’ offense. So who moves in there this year? Sam Cooper is the most experienced, but freshman Jordan Leggett has been impressive this spring.
  • How much better is the defense? All eyes will be on Brent Venables' group to see how much progress it has made this spring. If the D gets better, it could be a special season in Death Valley.
FLORIDA STATE

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. It's been one of the hottest topics this spring in the ACC and arguably the biggest position battle in the conference. Check out Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston as they all battle to replace starter EJ Manuel.
  • The defensive line. The competition is on to replace Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Mario Edwards Jr. is ready to jump in, along with Giorgio Newberry.
  • Don't forget the kicker. It's big at FSU. The Noles have to replace Dustin Hopkins, the ACC's all-time leading scorer and the NCAA's all-time kick scorer. It's your chance to see Roberto Aguayo, who was one of the nation's top kickers coming out of high school.
MARYLAND

When: 7 p.m. on Friday in Byrd Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The running backs. Both Brandon Ross and Albert Reid have had strong springs and will be competing for playing time come the fall.
  • The receivers. This group should be a strong point for the team this year, as Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Nigel King are a talented trio.
  • New faces on defense. The Terps have to replace six starters on defense, including some of their best leaders in Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis.
DUKE

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3) in Wallace Wade Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Booooooone. Anthony Boone takes over at quarterback, and there have been rave reviews about him from within the program all spring. He's got a strong arm and is mobile.
  • New faces at safety. Some big names are gone, as Duke has to replace graduates Jordon Byas and Walt Canty, and Brandon Braxton, who moved back to receiver. Jeremy Cash, eligible now after transferring from Ohio State and sitting out last fall, headlines the group that includes sophomore Dwayne Norman (60 tackles in 2012 as true freshman) and redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy.
  • Front and center: There is one hole to fill on the offensive line and Matt Skura takes over at center for Brian Moore.
MIAMI

When: 3 p.m. ET at Sun Life Stadium (ESPN3)

Gates open: 12:30 p.m.

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Defensive improvement. Is there any? The Canes were one of the worst in the country last year, but they return every starter up front.
  • The No. 2 QB. Who is it? Gray Crow started the last scrimmage as the backup to Stephen Morris and completed 8 of 13 passes for 73 yards, with a touchdown and interception. Ryan Williams, who entered the spring as the expected No. 2, completed only six of his 12 passes with a touchdown and an interception. The coaches will be watching these guys closely on Saturday, so should you.
  • Running back Dallas Crawford. You know Duke Johnson. It's time to get to know this guy. Those within the program have said Crawford has had a great spring and could be a rising star this fall. He scored two touchdowns in a scrimmage in Naples earlier this month.
NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. ET on Saturday at Kenan Stadium (ESPN3)

Admission: Free

Parking: $5/vehicle

What to watch:
  • Gio's replacement(s). A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have been working to ease the loss of leading rusher Giovani Bernard. Can they be as effective as he was, how much progress have they made and who will replace Bernard in the return game?
  • The O-line. Former guard Jonathan Cooper should be a first-round draft pick later this month, and it won't matter how good Blue and Morris are if they can't find anyone to help block for them. A total of three starters have to be replaced on the offensive line.
  • Replacing big names on D. Cooper and Bernard aren't the only big names that will be missing. The defense is going to miss tackle Sylvester Williams, who could be another first-round draft pick, and linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 8.5 for loss). How does the D look without them?
PITTSBURGH

When: 7 p.m. ET on Friday at Bethel Park High School (ESPN3)

Gates open: 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Fifth-year senior Tom Savage has taken most of the reps with the first team, and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik appears to be the backup, but coach Paul Chryst has yet to name a starter.
  • The running backs. Earlier this month, it was announced that Rushel Shell has decided to transfer. Since then, the bulk of the carries have gone to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. How they fare will go a long way in determining how Pitt fares in its first season in the ACC.
  • The offensive line. It's been problematic for the Panthers in each of the past two seasons, and Pitt now has to break in two new starters in Gabe Roberts and Adam Bisnowaty.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State defensive end Giorgio Newberry walked into the room, cradling his black playbook, and sat down on a folding chair.

By the looks of it, the book should have made a monstrous thud when he went to put it down. Newberry placed the book gently on the floor, though, and laughed when he was innocuously asked, "So that playbook is bigger than your old one, huh?"

The new book, a huge three-ringed binder stuffed full, features more blitzes, and some new assignments for players used to the old way of doing things. While the Seminoles will remain a 4-3 base defense, they are going to be using all of their players in different ways.

That means a guy like Newberry -- all 6-foot-6 inches and 273 pounds of him -- will be dropping back into pass coverage on occasion as he transitions to play the jack position, an end/linebacker mashup.

And no, Newberry has never actually covered anybody in the pass game before.

"It’s pretty fun actually, getting an opportunity to run in space, show my athleticism off," Newberry said recently. "I have the speed for a big guy. I have a lot of range. I’m pretty long and tall so that should help me, too. I’ll still be rushing sometimes but it’s almost like I’ll be rushing, dropping, rushing dropping even though I’ll be rushing still."

Newberry is not the only defensive lineman in the spotlight this spring. They all are, as questions persist about how the Seminoles are going to look up front with starters Bjoern Werner, Tank Carradine, Everett Dawkins and Anthony McCloud gone. The good news is a wealth of experienced players return.

Coach Jimbo Fisher consulted his stat sheet to prove it. He starts with tackles Timmy Jernigan and Demonte McAllister, who were more productive than Dawkins and McCloud. End Mario Edwards Jr. started at the end of the season; Newberry has game experience; Jacobbi McDaniel is back; Eddie Goldman has been "coming on like wildfire"; and expectations are high for Chris Casher.

"They still have to prove it, but from we still feel very comfortable that we can be very physical and very dominating up front. Very strong," Fisher said.

To that end, players like Newberry and Jernigan are preparing themselves for breakout seasons in this new defensive style that first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought with him from Alabama.

"This," Newberry says, "is a killer defense."

How good can it be once everybody learns the entire system?

"Our defense is going to be just as good as last year, if not better," Newberry said. "Because we have a new system, people are younger and we have more people."

Jernigan chimed in later with his own take: "As far as stats go, I feel like this will be my biggest year. I feel like I’m going to have a very good year this year.

"I’ve been preparing, I’ve been working very hard in the weight room, in the classroom making sure I have no extra stress. Then the style of the defense, we’re a little more aggressive up front and that’s the way I like to play. I like the physicality, I like to get off the ball, hurry up and get my hands on the blockers. I think that’s going to help, we’re going to be attacking a lot more."

Attacking from all over the field, in fact. Florida State has a deep history and tradition to uphold defensively, especially after ranking No. 2 in the nation in defense last year. The only team ahead was Alabama, and now the Noles have the Tide's former defensive coordinator.

Fisher, however, wanted to be sure to emphasize the Noles are keeping much of what they did in the past in place, even though it seems they may be radically changing. Alabama does run a 3-4 base. Florida State will not. Simply put: There will be a few new twists -- OK a lot more twists -- in the playbook, sorta like sprucing up the garden for spring.

"We're a 4-3 team," he said. "If you go back and look last year, we were about 25 percent 3-4 last year. If you go back and watch Alabama’s film, there’s only about 8-to-10 3-4 snaps a game. They might not have been as much 3-4 as we were a year ago. Believe that or not. You may stand a guy up to create a mismatch, we did that with Bjoern and Tank and Brandon (Jenkins) all the time. We were a bunch of 3-4. Perception’s not always reality."

That may end up being the perfect description for this defensive line in 2013.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State hit spring practice with two major questions -- who would start at quarterback this season, and how would the new coaching staff come together?

I got a little bit of insight into both Wednesday, when coach Jimbo Fisher opened the entire 2 1/2-hour practice to the media for the first time this spring. It was my lucky day!

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreWIll FSU coach Jimbo Fisher have a title contender despite having to replace 13 starters from 2012?
I paid close attention to the quarterback competition between Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston. From my viewpoint, Trickett looks to be the clear front-runner, as he should, given the time he has spent in the system and his past game experience. He knows the offense the best of the three; he seemed comfortable and at ease; and his passes were crisp and sharp, and went exactly where they needed to go.

Now, it should be noted that both Coker and Winston have been limited this spring. Coker is still not 100 percent as he recovers from a foot injury, and Fisher acknowledged after practice that his quarterback was unable to display the athleticism that makes him so good.

"But I’m not concerned about that right now," Fisher said. "I know he can do those things. I want him to win from the pocket right now. Make decisions, lead and do those things."

As for Winston, the team is monitoring his throws this spring because of his dual commitment to baseball, especially following games in which he pitches. Winston pitched Sunday out of the bullpen against Georgia Tech, and was a little sore following the game. Again, this is not a concern to Fisher but clearly something the team has to be sensitive to as Winston does both this spring. Winston, by the way, seems to be the most vocal of the three, bringing an extra bounce to practice.

Now on to the new assistants. I was impressed with the energy, passion and tempo they brought to the field Wednesday. This is a boisterous group unafraid to get in the faces of their players. Offensive line coach Rick Trickett used to be the loudest of the bunch, but that title belongs to new defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri, whose booming voice could be heard for most of the practice.

In particular, he was on Giorgio Newberry for a good part of the practice, clearly realizing how much potential his player has as the Seminoles work to replace both starting ends. Newberry has the physical tools, and he looks very impressive in person. Now he has to take the next step and dominate consistently in games.

Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was on his players, too, hollering one minute, then pulling a player aside for a teachable moment the next. Coaches want to teach first and foremost this spring, and you definitely saw a lot of that going on during the open practice.

One more note: Kelvin Benjamin was all the rage headed into last season as a player who could be a star on the rise given his size (6-foot-5, 242 pounds), speed and athleticism. He had a productive first year with 30 catches for 495 yards and four touchdowns, but was maddeningly inconsistent. In the final three games of the season, he had a combined two catches for 16 yards (including a goose egg against Florida).

Benjamin is incredibly impressive in person because he is just so big. He towers over just about everybody on the field. What you now want to see out of him is complete domination. He should be winning his one-on-one matchups more; he should be able to come down with every fade pass in the end zone; he should become an All-ACC receiver. Can he?

That's it for now. Check back later for much more.
You look at the Florida State roster, and you look at the Florida State coaching staff, and the automatic assumption is this could be a rebuilding year for the Noles.

Jimbo Fisher does not see it that way. Not one bit. As spring practice opens today, Fisher needs to find new starters at some key positions, including quarterback, defensive end and linebacker. But he sees players who have had valuable playing experience ready to step right into starting roles, not wet-behind-the-ears freshmen in over their heads.

To him, there is no dropoff between the talent on his 2012 ACC winning team, and the talent on his 2013 team.

[+] EnlargeClint Trickett
Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY SportsThere will be a competition for FSU"s starting quarterback, but Clint Trickett has more game experience than the others.
"I ask people this: Lawrence Dawsey is arguably one of the best receivers in Florida State history," Fisher said during his pre-spring news conference earlier this week. "How many years did he start here? He started one year. How about Odell (Haggins)? He was a linebacker that got moved. Nowadays he’d be, 'Oh, he wasn’t what we said he was, you moved him.'

"Just because you don’t start a game doesn’t mean you’re not starter material. Do you understand what I’m saying? We’re establishing ourselves as a program again and guys still played as much ball as anybody else."

Fisher gave a host of examples. Every starter on the defensive line is gone -- ends Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine, and tackles Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins. But the players expected to move into the starting lineup played extensively last season. Mario Edwards Jr. and Giorgio Newberry will start with the first-team at end; Timmy Jernigan, perhaps the best interior lineman last year, moves up to start at one tackle spot.

Vince Williams and Nick Moody are gone at linebacker. Into the middle steps Telvin Smith, who has extensive game experience and should have no problems moving up.

Then of course, there is the quarterback spot, a position that folks across the ACC will be paying attention to as the competition begins. Clint Trickett starts out No. 1 on the depth chart, and here again is where playing time has helped him. Trickett has played in 16 games with two starts behind EJ Manuel the last two seasons.

The other three players competing for the starting job -- Jacob Coker, Sean Maguire and Jameis Winston -- have either limited or no game experience. That does not take them out of the mix by any stretch. Fisher already said the position is wide open, and he has no timetable to make a decision. But having game experience is certainly not going to hurt him as the Noles try to find their leader on offense.

"From a talent standpoint, I think we’re still a very talented football team and we have guys with a lot of experience still playing," Fisher said. "We look at returning starters sometimes, it’s a very misleading factor about depth of a team and how much guys have played behind them. I’m excited about these young guys. Even though they’re new starters, they've still played like starters."

As for the coaching changes, six new assistants will be on the field this spring, including new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. But Fisher downplayed those changes as well, saying nothing would change about philosophy or with the schemes the Noles run.

"We're going to do things the Florida State way, the way we've been doing," Fisher said.

That means plugging new guys into the starting lineup and believing there will be few hiccups along the way.

Spring questions: New-look pass rush 

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
5:00
PM ET
Editor’s note: Each day until the start of spring practice, we’ll pose a question facing Florida State's football team as it moves toward the 2013 season. Today’s question: How will the defensive front look after a wave of departures from last year's group?

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- By the time next year's NFL draft is complete, five former Florida State defensive linemen figure to hear their names called. That's an impressive indication of just how much talent was on this unit for the past two seasons, but it also underscores one of the biggest questions of this spring: How can Jimbo Fisher replace so many departing stars in one group?

In 2012, FSU finished in the top three in the country in rush defense (91.9 yards per game) for the second year in a row, and for the third straight year, the Seminoles led the ACC in sacks (36). As far as pass rushers go, Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine were the most prolific defensive end tandem in the nation. But aside from quarterback, no area of the roster figures to get as big a facelift for 2013.

Under-the-radar players to watch

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
2:00
PM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With spring practice less than a week away, the fervor surrounding some of the most-hyped storylines of 2013 has already been raging for months. The three-way battle at quarterback, the return of Bobby Hart to the limelight, Lamarcus Joyner's move to cornerback -- Jimbo Fisher already has plenty to keep his eye on.

But while those stories will continue to headline Florida State's preparations for the 2013 season, there are a handful of other intriguing players to watch this spring. They might not be in the running for a starting job, but they should offer plenty of reasons to watch as they look to impress a new group of coaches and find their own niche for the upcoming season.

Mario Pender (RB/RFr.)

When it comes to sheer intrigue, the entirety of Florida State's returning redshirts could probably make the list -- with Jameis Winston probably atop it. But while there will be genuine interest in Justin Shanks' weight or Marvin Bracy's speed, it's Pender who likely leads the pack in non-QB buzz from fans. The highly touted tailback missed all of 2012 with a groin injury and is just now getting back into full swing. His workouts during fourth-quarter drills earned raves from Fisher, who compared his burst and home-run ability to Chris Thompson -- only Pender is a bit bigger and stronger. Does that mean a job awaits this fall? Not exactly, but he'll definitely have his coaches' attention.

(Read full post)

Friday mailblog

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
4:00
PM ET
Miami or UNC? Who ya got? Virginia Tech, anyone? Buehler?

J in Florida writes: Not so fast with that Miami will win the coastal statement. UNC will have something to say about that. Yes UNC lost Giovanni and Cooper, hard shoes to fill. However Heather the offense will be in their second explosive year with fully capable RBs. The defensive secondary will be better and letsbnot forget UNC lost in the last seconds to Duke and Wake and handled Miami at the U last year. So let's look a little closer at the team that finished, ineligable aside, first in the coastal last year.

HD: Who's going to block for those RBs? It all starts up front, and if you ask me, Miami has the edge there this year.




Rob Beyma in Pocomoke, Md., writes: Heather,Read your article about Miami being favored for the Coastal division this year. And that the schedule was one of the reasons why. For some strange reason, Miami gets Va. Tech at home for the 2ND straight year. They should be playing the game this year in BLACKSBURG! No wonder Miami has a scheduling advantage. How about the Hurricanes in Blacksburg on a Thursday night!

HD: The last time I saw Miami play at Virginia Tech, it was one of the muddiest games I can remember. And Miami flopped. That tends to happen to the Canes in Blacksburg. No doubt it's an edge this year to have that as a home game again.




Michael Walker in Charlotte, N.C., writes: I'm a die-hard Canes fan even though I live in Charlotte. My question is this, even though we only had 13 sacks last year and one of the worse defenses in the entire nation, do you really think we've improved that much to win the ACC Coastal. We had trouble stopping the run and the pass, though we had 34 freshmen and sophomores on our roster. The offense is stacked and the receivers are going to be one of the best groups in the nation. I'm still a little concerned with our defense. Virginia, BC, Duke and the Wolf Pack picked us apart passing the ball last year.

HD: You should be concerned about the defense. So should Al Golden. Until proven otherwise, it's the weak link and the biggest reason they won't win the Coastal Division. Miami returns all four starters on the defensive line, though. That experience is a plus, and after last season, you'd think it could only get better. Time will tell.




Danny Schmal in Winston Salem, N.C., writes: Your thoughts on Wake's chances of winning the ACC. Doesn't seem like anyone is giving Wake a chance against Clemson.

HD: I never count out Jim Grobe. The Deacs gave the entire Atlantic Division a scare two years ago, but they lost to Clemson by a field goal and missed their shot at playing in the ACC title game again. In order to get back to contender status, they have GOT to get healthy up front on the offensive line. That is their biggest issue right now. The other thing is they need another receiver besides Michael Campanaro to step up. Having Tanner Price return at quarterback is a huge plus for the offense, but he needs somebody to divert attention away from "Camp."




Jayson Shaffer in Crestview, Florida writes: Hey Heather, I was just curious on who you think will step up to replace the losses at the defensive end position at FSU?

HD: You have to start with Mario Edwards Jr., who is the front-runner because he played in 11 games as a true freshman and started the final two games of the year in place of Tank Carradine. There is also Giorgio Newberry and Chris Casher, who is now healthy after a knee injury. Casher will start spring ball on the two-deep depth chart. Dan Hicks, who was Brandon Jenkins’ backup two years ago, had a knee injury and missed all of last season. He had moved to tight end, but was in the rotation at defensive end earlier in his career and could come back.




Scott in Durham, N.C., writes: Have you heard of any updates on Kelby Brown, LB from Duke? If/When he is at 100%, will he every get back to the tackling machine like he was his freshman year?

HD: Yup, got an update for you. Brown is fully participating in spring practiaces, but only time will tell if he returns to 100 percent. It's important to remember that he’s been banged-up his entire career, playing in just nine games as a true freshman in 2010 (63 tackles, 5.5 TFL, four fumble recoveries) and in 10 games his sophomore season (65 tackles, 7.0 TFL, three PBU). He's fortunate that he did play as a true freshman and had a redshirt year to use last season following his second knee surgery. The Duke coaches are hopeful that he’ll make a complete recovery after missing all of 2012, but how the surgically repaired knee will hold up in full contact drills and games remains to be seen.

ACC's spring position battles

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
2:00
PM ET
There are going to be position battles this spring at every school in the ACC, but some will be in the spotlight more than others. If you’re just tuning in to ACC football, here are some of the biggest competitions in the conference this spring:

OFFENSE

1. Florida State quarterback: This is arguably the most intriguing competition in the entire conference, as the Seminoles have to replace veteran EJ Manuel. Clint Trickett enters the spring at the top of the depth chart, but consider this job open. Sophomore Jacob Coker is the total package, but redshirt freshman Jameis Winston was the nation’s No. 1 quarterback and could be the answer, too.

2. North Carolina running back: The Tar Heels have to find a way to replace leading rusher Giovani Bernard, who left early for the NFL draft. Not only will his loss be felt in the running game, but probably even moreso in the return game, as Bernard was one of the nation’s top punt returners. UNC returns A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, who combined for 819 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last season.

3. Syracuse quarterback: The Orange enter the ACC with a new coach and in need of a new quarterback. Record-setting quarterback Ryan Nassib is gone, leaving behind a wide-open competition. Backup Charley Loeb, junior John Kinder, and dual-threat Terrel Hunt are the top candidates. Ashton Broyld, who moved to running back in 2012, could be in the mix as well.

DEFENSE

1. Florida State defensive ends: The cream of the crop is gone, as Tank Carradine, Bjoern Werner and Brandon Jenkins all have to be replaced. Enter Mario Edwards Jr., who has a leg-up on the competition because he played in 11 games as a true freshman, and started the final two games of the year in place of the injured Carradine. Don’t forget about Giorgio Newberry, though, and Chris Casher, who is now healthy after a knee injury. Casher will start spring ball on the two-deep depth chart. Dan Hicks, who was Jenkins’ backup two years ago, had a knee injury and missed all of last season. He had moved to tight end, but was in the rotation at defensive end earlier in his career and could come back.

2. NC State secondary: This group will have an entirely new look this spring, as three starters have to be replaced, including Earl Wolff, Brandan Bishop and David Amerson, the school’s career interception leader. Cornerback Dontae Johnson returns, along with Juston Burris, who played in the nickel package. There are also several redshirts and younger players who will compete.

3. Virginia Tech cornerback: Virginia Tech’s defensive backfield lost its star last month when cornerback Antone Exum tore his ACL in a pickup basketball game. Several young players will compete for his reps this spring, including Donovan Riley, Donaldven Manning and Davion Tookes. Highly touted cornerback Kendall Fuller will join the team in the summer.
If Florida State is going to live up to its preseason hype this year, it is going to have to do it now without its top two defensive players from a year ago.

The Seminoles are going to be without preseason All-America defensive end Brandon Jenkins for the rest of the season, a difficult enough proposition on its own. But couple that with the loss of cornerback/returner Greg Reid -- kicked off the team this summer -- and the Noles are sitting with a major talent deficit.

What helps is that Florida State has depth at defensive end, and young players with potential in the secondary. Senior Cornellius Carradine will step into the starting job for Jenkins. He has experience, and he played well against Murray State on Saturday after Jenkins got hurt, making nine tackles. The Noles also have redshirt freshman Giorgio Newberry and senior Toshmon Stevens and could consider pulling the redshirt from highly touted Mario Edwards Jr., the No. 1 player on the ESPN 150 for the class of 2012.

But no matter the depth, it is going to hurt when you lose a player who has had 22.5 sacks and made 28 starts since 2010 -- a player many believed to be the most outstanding defensive end in the entire nation. Yes, Bjoern Werner mans the other side of the line, and he had four sacks in Week 1. But where Florida State had the best defensive end duo in the nation at this time last week, there are now more questions than answers.

Couple that with some inexperience in the secondary with Reid gone. Sophomore Nick Waisome made his first start Saturday; true freshman Ronald Darby is behind him. When it comes to crunch time, how will FSU fare with only seven of its returning starters from a year ago, instead of nine?

The truth is there is not much to glean from the first two weeks of the season against FCS opponents. Savannah State, which just lost to Oklahoma State 84-0, awaits Saturday. We should know much more when ACC play opens against Wake Forest on Sept. 15. An even bigger test awaits the following week against Clemson.

Florida State may end up moving on without missing a beat. Or these two key losses could have a major impact. We just have to stay tuned.

SPONSORED HEADLINES