ACC: Jeremy Pruitt

Three reasons Clemson can upset FSU

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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No. 22 Clemson faces No. 1 Florida State on Saturday in a huge Atlantic Division showdown. But nobody is giving the Tigers much of a chance to win the game.

They are a 19-point underdog -- the largest point-spread they have faced going back to 2004. The oddsmakers clearly do not have much confidence in a team that lost badly to the Noles at home last season, and fell apart in the second half against Georgia in the opener.

But maybe all is not lost. Here are three reasons Clemson has a shot at pulling the upset.

1. No Todd Gurley: Gurley was an absolute menace in the opener, running for 198 yards and three touchdowns and also returning a kickoff for another score. He set a school record with 293 all-purpose yards and averaged 13.2 yards per carry. Clemson knew exactly what type of runner it would be facing, yet the Tigers could not contain him. Tackling was a factor, but so was Gurley's superior strength. He just ran through people. Florida State back Karlos Williams is not in the same category, at least not yet. Williams does present nearly identical size -- both are 6-foot-1, 225 pounds -- but he has not started the season the way Gurley has. Gurley had more yards and touchdowns against Clemson than Williams has in two games combined (132 yards, one touchdown). Gurley is averaging 9.4 yards per carry; Williams is averaging 4.1 yards per carry. The Florida State offensive line has not played as well as everybody expected heading into the season, so that has played a role. The Seminoles rank No. 77 in the nation in rush offense; Georgia ranks No. 10.

2. No Jeremy Pruitt: That has to be a relief to Clemson coaches, who probably never ever want to see him again. Last season when he was defensive coordinator at Florida State, Pruitt had the perfect game plan to shut down Clemson and its vaunted offensive stars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. The Tigers had four turnovers and were never in the game after going down 17-0 in the first quarter. Boyd finished 17-of-37 for 156 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions (quarterback rating 34.6), and Watkins had 68 yards and a score. Pruitt moved on to Georgia in the offseason, and though the Tigers had success early against the Bulldogs, all that changed in the second half. Pruitt made terrific halftime adjustments and outcoached Chad Morris and company. Clemson had one first down and 15 total yards in the second half. The game was tied at halftime. Florida State's defense has been slow out of the gate with so many key starters gone. But Pruitt is gone, too. Perhaps this gives Clemson an edge.

3. Deshaun Watson: Though coach Dabo Swinney does not want to incite a quarterback controversy, we have seen first-hand just how dynamic Watson is when he gets into the game. Cole Stoudt does remain the starter, but Watson is effective when he gets his turn. Of the six drives Watson has led, Clemson has scored a touchdown on five of them. Granted, most came against South Carolina State, but it is hard to ignore how much more dynamic the Clemson offense is when Watson is in the game. His mobility makes him a tremendous asset, and Clemson should use that to its advantage. Plus, he is averaging 16.4 yards per pass attempt and 21.3 yards per completion. The bye week gave Clemson coaches the opportunity to figure out how they want to use him, and when they want to use him.
In 1984, Florida State hired Mickey Andrews as its defensive coordinator. For the next 26 seasons, he held the same role, only leaving after Bobby Bowden stepped aside as head coach following the 2009 season.

Four seasons later, Jimbo Fisher is about to hire his third defensive coordinator, and that’s a major concern for Florida State fans not used to such routine turnover. Jeremy Pruitt jumped for a job at Georgia just eight days after winning a national championship in his one and only season with the Seminoles. It leaves FSU in search of a new coordinator just weeks before signing day, and it leaves the Seminoles’ defense in a state of flux after Pruitt was so influential in revamping the scheme just a year ago.

But while the timing is certainly not ideal for Florida State, the loss isn’t necessarily devastating.

1. The move isn’t unprecedented

During the BCS era, five coordinators departed their schools immediately after winning a national championship. Granted, all left for better gigs (either the NFL or a head-coaching job), but in each case, the team didn’t suffer a dramatic decline after they waved goodbye.


While coordinators are crucial in running the daily routine of practice, the head coach is usually the one setting the philosophical tone, and the players generally determine how good it all looks on the field.

It’s distinctly possible Florida State can’t repeat its defensive dominance in 2014, but it’s far more likely that any decline will be due to the losses of Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Lamarcus Joyner -- not Pruitt.

2. Pruitt didn’t “turn around” FSU’s defense

This notion has been bandied about a bit since Pruitt left for Georgia, but it’s not entirely accurate.

Yes, Pruitt completely revamped the defensive scheme at Florida State, shifting heavily toward a 3-4 set and bringing a more aggressive approach that moved the onus from the front four under Mark Stoops to a dominant secondary in 2013. The results were stellar, and Pruitt certainly deserves some credit for the marked uptick in takeaways, but his job was hardly about rebuilding a unit from scratch.


Pruitt inherited a very good defensive unit from Stoops. So good, of course, that it landed Stoops a head-coaching job in the SEC (yes, Kentucky… but it’s still the SEC). Pruitt did an excellent job of covering for the losses of several key veterans from 2012 (Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine), but he also had the luxury of a veteran-laden unit that had already accomplished a lot at the college level.

3. Pruitt wasn’t a star in 2012

Fans are rightfully concerned about losing a rising star in the coaching ranks who had enjoyed so much success this season, but it’s worth remembering that Pruitt wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk hire when Fisher brought him on board.

Stoops’ departure after the 2012 regular season was widely anticipated. He’d become a hot commodity. The search for his replacement was followed closely, but few of the pundits prognosticating a hire had Pruitt on their radar. At the time, Pruitt was an assistant on a national-championship team, but he’d had just three years of sideline experience under his belt, he’d never been a coordinator at the college level, and he was coaching Nick Saban’s position group. The concern at the time was that he was simply a product of Saban’s genius, not a burgeoning star.

Of course, Pruitt proved those doubters wrong in 2013, but the point is worth remembering: Fisher saw his potential long before everyone else did. There’s little reason to think FSU’s head coach can't pry another rising star from the ranks of anonymity this time.

4. It wasn’t about the money

Yes, Pruitt is getting a nice raise at Georgia, but that’s not why he left. He admitted during his press conference in Athens that he didn’t give Florida State a chance to counter, and whatever his reasons for leaving -- and we’re not interested in speculating until Fisher or Pruitt or someone else associated with FSU wants to talk on the record -- it’s worth remembering that FSU is in a far better position financially today than it was when it hired Pruitt last year.

Would Florida State have matched Georgia’s offer? It’s impossible to say for sure now, but there’s every indication the school would have. [Ed. note: FSU associate AD Monk Bonasorte confirmed Thursday that FSU was prepared to match UGA's offer.] Fisher inked his new deal (even when deep-pocketed Texas was on the prowl) to stay, and he made bumps in salary for his assistants a key part of those negotiations. Fisher’s tenure has been built on understanding the importance of the support staff around him, and he’s made great strides to ensure the resources are there for Florida State to be competitive on the national stage -- both on the field and with the checkbook. Oh, and a national championship doesn’t hurt either.

5. Recruiting may be the key

Where Florida State should be concerned is in the area of recruiting. Not only is Pruitt’s departure coming at a tenuous time on the recruiting trail (signing day is Feb. 5), but he was also a key salesman for the Seminoles during his 13 months on the job.

Pruitt came on board full-time after last year’s national championship game and still helped FSU close on Jalen Ramsey, Nate Andrews and DeMarcus Walker -- three players who were only tangentially on FSU’s radar beforehand. He’s also adept at recruiting the state of Alabama, a crucial battleground for FSU that took a big hit after Dameyune Craig departed for Auburn following the 2012 season.

Both Pruitt and Craig had exceptional relationships with high school coaches and players in Alabama, and that may be the toughest thing for Fisher to replace. Pruitt’s replacement will have his work cut out for him replacing several departing stars, but that work begins with finishing strong before signing day.

ACC's lunch links

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
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Time for the ACC to start stealing some assistants back from the SEC, don't ya think?

ACC's lunchtime links

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
12:00
PM ET
Tick-tock goes the draft clock ...
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For the second time in as many years, Florida State is looking to replace a defensive coordinator who bolted for the SEC.

ESPN reports that Jeremy Pruitt has accepted a job as the defensive coordinator at Georgia, leaving Florida State after just one year on the job and one more national championship on his resume.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
Fred Kfoury III/Icon SMIJeremy Pruitt not only revamped FSU's defense but his role in recruiting should not be overlooked.
Jimbo Fisher hired Pruitt to replace Mark Stoops in December 2012 after Stoops took the head-coaching job at Kentucky. At the time, it seemed a risky hire. Pruitt had spent just three years as an assistant at the college level, running the secondary at Alabama. Prior to that, he’d been an off-field assistant for Nick Saban and coached the defense at Hoover (Ala.) High School.

It turned out, the hire was a stroke of genius for Fisher. Pruitt restructured Florida State’s defense, moving more heavily to a 3-4 scheme that helped mask a litany of departures on the defensive line. He also integrated a more aggressive approach that allowed Florida State ramp up its takeaway numbers. The Seminoles led the nation in interceptions, passing defense and scoring defense in 2013.

Where Florida State goes from here is a big question, particularly with national signing day just three weeks away.

Defensive line coach Sal Sunseri is an obvious candidate. He was defensive coordinator at Tennessee, and he worked extensively with Pruitt while both were assistants at Alabama. He would provide some stability for the current Florida State defense, as would linebackers coach Charles Kelly, who served as Georgia Tech's interim defensive coordinator in 2012.

But Fisher might not be overly concerned with stability, as he showed with his hiring of Pruitt last year.

Money could play a role in a hire, too. Pruitt earned a base salary of $540,000 at Florida State, though that was expected to increase — both with bonuses from this year’s national-title run and increases in compensation Fisher reportedly negotiated in his latest round of contract talks.

Recruiting will be another key piece to the puzzle. Pruitt stepped in as one of Florida State’s top recruiters, helping the Seminoles land several key late additions to their 2013 signing class, including Nate Andrews, FSU’s leader in interceptions, and Jalen Ramsey, a freshman All-American, after just a few weeks on the job.

Fisher was forced to replace seven assistant coaches during a three-month frenzy following the end of the 2012 regular season, and he said at the time that he keeps a running list of top candidates for every job.

“I have those lists, and I know what my process is going to be,” Fisher said last year.

Now, less than 13 months later, Fisher is digging into his lists once again.


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher gave his staff three days off for Christmas break.

FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt spent it watching football with his dad -- Auburn football, of course. Pruitt took game tape of the Tigers home with him, and he and his father, Dale, tried to figure out a way to stop the Tigers in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

Given Pruitt’s history with Alabama, and how similar FSU’s defense is to Alabama’s, watching the Iron Bowl was a good start.

"There’s probably nobody else out there that could say, 'OK, all right, they’ve made this call. That is exactly some calls that we have. This is how they’re going to block it. This is what you’re going to get,'" Pruitt said.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreFirst-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has helped turn the FSU defense into one of the best in the country.
For Pruitt and Fisher, the SEC ties run deep, as Pruitt spent the past three seasons as the secondary coach at Alabama, and Fisher was a former offensive coordinator at LSU. Pruitt was first hired at Alabama as Nick Saban’s director of player personnel. Both of them have shared philosophies that stemmed from their time with Saban, and it’s that chemistry and connection that has helped Florida State’s defense make a seamless transition in the first season under Pruitt. While Fisher has earned the reputation as an offensive mind, he had a clear vision of what he wanted the defense to look like after former coordinator Mark Stoops left to become the head coach at Kentucky.

"This is Jimbo's philosophy and what we're trying to get done," Pruitt said. "He brought me in, and there's a reason, because of the background, and he was familiar with the background. He laid the foundation. He said, this is the players we've got. This is what I want to do. This is how I want to get it done."

In just one season, Pruitt delivered.

Florida State enters Monday’s game with one of the best defenses in the country. The Noles lead the nation in scoring defense (10.7), passing yards allowed (152), pass efficiency defense (90.90), and interceptions (25). All with a first-year coordinator, and a defensive line that had to replace all of its starters from a year ago -- in a new, more complicated scheme, with some players in new positions. From the outside looking in, it was one of the most impressive coaching jobs in the country this season.

"I thought he did a good job," said Miami offensive coordinator James Coley, who went against Stoops’ defense every day in practice last year as FSU’s former offensive coordinator, and was defeated this year by Pruitt’s defense. "He brings a lot of energy to whatever he does. I think those guys are playing for him. They’re feeding off of him. It’s hard to come in there and come into a certain side of the ball where you’ve got a kid like Lamarcus Joyner and now say, 'Hey, you’ve got to listen to me and you’ve got to trust me.' I think he did a great job of earning their trust, and letting them play. Some people get caught up with all these fancy schemes, and if you watch them play, they’re just playing football. That’s why they’re as good as they are on that side of the ball. Those guys are really comfortable in doing what they do."

It didn’t take long.

"He got my attention when he first came back in January just with the kind of heart he has," said Joyner, who moved from safety to cornerback in Pruitt’s scheme. "He's a genuine heart person. He said something to me that I'll never forget in my life. He said, 'You don't get what you want, you get what you earn.' I never heard that said before. He got my attention from Day 1, and to just see the way he loves football, the way he loves coaching and developing young men, it's no better feeling. You know, you have no choice but to draw to him. He's a natural leader, and we respect that."

They also respected where he came from -- Alabama.

"They’ve been winning championships over there, so obviously they have a standard over there that’s working for them," said FSU DB Terrence Brooks. "And I knew he was going to bring a dominating defense over here, also."

He had plenty of talent to work with.

FSU has allowed just five rushing touchdowns in 13 games this season, tied with Iowa for fewest in the nation. FSU’s pass defense has been one of the best in the country, holding opponents to just 9.5 yards per completion -- the lowest in the country. The Seminoles have had 96 negative yardage games, not counting forced turnovers, and the Noles have forced 75 three-and-outs.

"To say how Coach Pruitt came in and put his own stamp on it, it was easy," FSU linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We believed in when he came in, we just listened to him, let him coach us. We didn't worry about the coaches that were here before him even though we've got much respect and love for them, Coach Stoops and Coach [Greg] Hudson. We came in, we believed in what he did and we just believed in the process, and look where he got us."

The same place the program once was before -- at the top.
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
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Auburn running back Tre Mason nearly quit football as a kid. In fact, the Tigers' Heisman Trophy finalist didn't play his freshman year of high school.

He had his heart set on a basketball career.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason has run wild this season for Auburn, but at one point in high school thought about giving up football to focus on basketball.
"I stopped playing football in eighth grade and was like, ‘I’m done. I’m going to play basketball,'" Mason said Thursday. "But I went to a game in the ninth grade and said, 'I think I could do this. I think I could dominate.'"

With 1,621 rushing yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns this season, Mason has been nothing short of dominant. He needs 166 rushing yards in Monday's VIZIO BCS National Championship against Florida State to pass Bo Jackson as Auburn's single-season record holder.

It's a good thing for the Tigers that he ditched his hoops plans.

"I was young and had this dream of playing basketball, but the reality was that I wasn’t 6-8," Mason said.

SEC Seminoles?

Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, asked Thursday if the Seminoles could have made it through the SEC this season without a loss, would have welcomed that challenge.

And for the record, he also would have liked the Seminoles' chances.

"We believe we're the No. 1 team in the country," Joyner said. "We believe that in our heart. We wouldn't come out and be disrespectful to a lot of other teams. But with the things we've accomplished this year, everything speaks for itself. So, hopefully, we would have been able to do the same thing.

"But me being a part of this Florida State organization, if we were in the SEC, I'd say we'd do what we do."

The Seminoles are looking to become only the third team since 1950 to win all of its games by at least 14 points. The last to do it was Utah in 2004. The other was national champion Nebraska in 1995.

Too close to call

How good (and how talented) is this Florida State team on defense?

Good enough that linebacker Telvin Smith thinks Florida State's defense would shut out the Florida State offense. For the record, the Seminoles enter Monday's game leading the country in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

Joyner chuckled confidently when told of Smith's claim.

"Some things, you never know," Joyner said. "It’s a good thing to be able to say that, knowing that we won’t have to. Some things you just want to leave that way. We have a lot of talent on both ends.

"Let’s just say it would probably be a national championship game if it was our defense versus our offense."

SEC ties top friendship

Even when close friends are involved, there's apparently an SEC brotherhood that's sacred.

Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt joked that Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart wasn't sharing a lot of secrets concerning Auburn. Pruitt and Smart are friends and worked together at Alabama before Pruitt took the FSU coordinator job.

"Kirby has kind of taken the stance of, 'We’re friends, but …'" Pruitt said. "They’ve still got that SEC thing going. There’s some pride there."

Ties that bind

Auburn co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Dameyune Craig recruited Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston to Florida State. He was integral in luring the nation’s top quarterback to Tallahassee, where he spent the past three seasons as FSU’s quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator.

Now, Craig’s biggest recruit will be lined up against him on college football’s biggest stage.

While Craig hasn’t spoken publicly about his relationship with Winston, the personal ties to Florida State haven’t been lost on his current players.

"It means a lot to him," said Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. "We know it means a lot to him. We knew that he was really close with all those guys, especially Jameis. He even said something about him at the Heisman ceremony, so we know this game means a lot to him, for sure."

Better than Bama

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Florida State’s defense is comparable to Alabama’s -- and might be even better.

"Honestly, you look at the features, and Alabama might have a little bit bigger guys up front, but not much," Lashlee said. "These guys are extremely quick and active. … Alabama was younger was in the secondary. Their corners are really good players, obviously Joyner is a difference-maker. There are a lot of similarities as far as the talent, I think they’re right there with them. Who knows? We’ll find out, they might be better."

Well, that makes sense

Pruitt spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Alabama, but he’s got no problem trying to help end the SEC’s streak of seven national titles.

"I’d like to end it for sure," he said.

Why?

"Oh, shoot, because I’m on this side and they’re on that side."
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner knows all about Auburn wide receiver and Miami native Ricardo Louis -- the Noles recruited him. And Joyner has done his homework on sophomore receiver Sammie Coates, who is third in the country in yards per catch (22.1) and averages 54.1 yards per touchdown reception.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertWhile Auburn is known for its rushing attack, Nick Marshall is completing 60 percent of his passes and has FSU's attention.
So while the rest of the country is seemingly wrapped up in Auburn’s nation-leading ground game -- and deservedly so -- Florida State’s secondary isn’t sleeping on the Tigers' ability to throw the ball. There's no question Auburn's strength is up front and in its running game, which averages 335.7 yards per game, but to the Seminoles, the difference will be their ability to force the Tigers to throw and get them into long yardage situations.

"That's the key to the game," Joyner said. "That’s key. That front seven has been tremendous for us all season, and we need them to do one more for this last game. [The Tigers] have a lot of great talent up front themselves. Their O-line is pretty good. I see a lot of those guys playing on Sunday. And we have a lot of guys who can play on Sunday in our front seven. It’s a clash of the beasts. … We need them to do more so the pretty boys in the back in the secondary can get a little shine."

It's already glowing.

Florida State leads the FBS with 25 interceptions and ranks third with 34 takeaways. Still, they're going to have to make the most of their opportunities against Auburn.

Auburn threw it only 11 times in the SEC title game against Missouri, and only 16 times against Alabama. Quarterback Nick Marshall, who has 1,023 rushing yards this season, had seven pass attempts against Tennessee, and eight against Arkansas. Overall this season, Auburn has run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple option offense in the FBS.

"We obviously haven't thrown as much the second half of the season as we did the first," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, "but never was there an instance I thought it was because we couldn't or didn't want to, it was simply because you're going to go with what's working."

Not that their play-action passing game doesn’t work.

Just ask Georgia, which was stunned by Marshall’s 73-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Louis on fourth-and-18 with just 25 seconds left.

"I think Marshall has as good of arm talent as anybody in the country," FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. "He can flat-foot throw it 80-some yards. A couple of throws he's made, especially down the stretch here, have been very accurate.

"The big thing is they've been throwing it when they want to throw it. They've been dictating to everybody else. I think it's important to get them behind the sticks early on and get them in some long yardage situations, but I'm sure that's what everybody's game plan has been, and they haven't had a whole lot of success doing it."

Florida State, obviously, hopes to change that.
The big game between No. 7 Miami and No. 3 Florida State is almost here. So what does each team have to do to win Saturday in Tallahassee? Glad you asked. ACC reporters Andrea Adelson and David Hale give you the breakdown.

WHY FLORIDA STATE WILL WIN

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesJameis Winston has to be on his game against a Miami pass defense that has been outstanding this season.
1. Jameis Winston. Miami’s pass defense has been exceptional this season. The Hurricanes have allowed just six passing touchdowns, and they’ve been especially tough on third down, allowing opponents to convert just 28 percent of their throws, with just one touchdown and five interceptions. The antidote for all that? Winston has thrown at least three TDs in each of his ACC games so far, and he’s converting a nation-best 68 percent of his throws for first downs, averaging 12.5 yards per attempt (third nationally) and has five touchdowns passes with just one pick.

2. The rejuvenated defense. It took the Seminoles a while to adjust to new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s scheme, but they seem to have things pointed in the right direction now. They ended September by allowing 200 yards rushing to Boston College, and for the month, they coughed up an average of 152 yards per game on the ground. In October, however, they’ve trimmed that average by nearly 40 yards (against better teams). Moving Christian Jones to defensive end and getting Mario Edwards Jr. healthy has been a big part of the improvement, but much of the difference is simply experience in the new system. Add in FSU’s aggressive blitzing strategy against a quarterback who’s battled an ankle injury all season, and there’s a good chance the Seminoles’ D could have a big day.

3. The intangibles. The numbers already suggest a pretty clear advantage on the field for Florida State, which enters the game as a three-touchdown favorite. But more than that, all the off-the-field markers are tipped in FSU’s favor, too. Seniors like Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks and Telvin Smith are eager to wrap up a 4-0 career against their archrivals. Florida State is expecting a sellout crowd at Doak Campbell for the first time this season. It’s a big-game environment, but FSU already knows that feeling, having played two prime-time games already, including one against Clemson just two weeks ago.

WHY MIAMI WILL WIN

1. Duke Johnson and the run game. The Hurricanes have relied heavily on their run game all season, specifically to pull out comeback wins in the fourth quarter of their past two games. Miami is averaging 214.7 yards per game on the ground this season -- its highest total going back to 1960. In fact, Miami has averaged more than 200 yards rushing just twice in that time span. Johnson leads the way with a league-high 6.7 yards per rush. Dallas Crawford runs hard, too, and he won the North Carolina game for the Canes. Do not overlook this offensive line, either. Miami only has one underclassman in its starting lineup and presents the best line the Seminoles have seen to date.

2. Stephen Morris is finally healthy. Morris is the healthiest he has been since the start of the season after playing through a lingering ankle injury in the past five games. That injury forced him to change his footwork and mechanics, and it did not allow him to take snaps under center as much as Miami wanted. The Canes are hoping a healthy Morris means fewer mistakes and better decisions. "Definitely need to be better on first-down efficiency, making the right decision on first down," Morris said. "Setting up an easy second and third down is huge for us, and when we get into our third down, our money downs, we have to stay on the field. I need to make better decisions, I need to see the field better, and especially in the red zone, converting touchdowns instead of field goals."

3. Improved pass defense. As was mentioned above, Miami is much better defensively this season than last. One of the biggest keys to slowing down Winston is not so much flustering him or blitzing him, because he does well under pressure. Rather, the Hurricanes need to take away the guys who make plays for him. In this instance, Miami must do an excellent job covering receivers Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, along with tight end Nick O'Leary. That means tackling well and not allow those guys to get behind them for a big play. Miami has forced 19 turnovers in 2013, second-highest in the ACC and better than Florida State. Of those, 12 are interceptions, which is tied for No. 12 in the nation.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The scenes flickered across the screen as Jimbo Fisher broke down the film on Sunday, and the Florida State coach breathed a sigh of relief.

The outcomes were just as he'd remembered. Boston College's rather mundane attack gashed the Seminoles' defense again and again, big chunks of yardage adding up to 34 points -- the most BC had scored in an ACC game in nearly four years.

Florida State still escaped with a win, thanks to another dynamic effort from Jameis Winston, but the defense was exposed, and the future schedule promised to be far less forgiving. Fisher assumed the worst, but the film eased his mind.

[+] EnlargeAndre Williams
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaBoston College rushed for 200 yards against the Seminoles, led by Andre Williams with 149.
"I wasn't as distraught as I thought I would be," Fisher said Monday, putting a happy face on an otherwise troubling effort. "It was more two or three individuals that caused all the problems."

There is ample room for big-picture concerns. Players admit to being slow to latch on to the subtleties of new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's defensive scheme. The aggressive approach has yielded a handful of big plays but also surrendered a few more to the opposition. The Seminoles' performance through four games has fans wondering if disaster looms just over the horizon, as the explosive offenses of Maryland and Clemson await.

Instead, what Fisher saw on film were a few minor glitches -- easily correctable mental errors. A few missed assignments here, a few sets of eyes focused on the wrong things there. Rather than panicking, Florida State's defense seems relieved.

“Those mistakes are going to help you," safety Terrence Brooks said. "It’s bad, but it also can be good for you, too. Those are things you know you’ve got to key in on. It’s just room for improvement.”

That's the upbeat spin. These are the raw numbers: Through four games, Florida State has coughed up 606 yards on the ground, nearly half the total its defense allowed in 14 games last year. Boston College amassed 397 total yards Saturday; only Clemson (2010 and 2011) managed more against FSU since the start of the 2011 season -- and the Tigers' high-flying attack gets its shot against the Seminoles in just three weeks. The defense has started slowly in every game, and as a result, FSU has trailed in three of four games. It's a particularly disconcerting picture given that this week's opponent, Maryland, has topped 500 yards of offense three times, is averaging better than 7 yards per play, has a dual-threat quarterback and one of the ACC's most explosive playmakers in receiver Stefon Diggs.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Brown
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyC.J. Brown is averaging 261 yards passing and 71 yards rushing through four games.
And yet, Florida State's players insist they're not worried. The fixes aren't physical failures, but rather mental miscues -- a product of new personnel seeing an increased workload, a handful of gimmick plays by the opposition and a continuing adjustment to Pruitt's new scheme.

"We had some little, stupid mental errors in that game -- letting our guys go, trying to do too much and getting out of gaps," Brooks said. "That’s the only reason they were able to get all those points they did get."

It's not an entirely unfair accounting. Two of Boston College's touchdowns came on nearly identical plays, when the offense shifted heavily to one side, then threw the opposite way. FSU's defense aggressively pursued the ball and left a receiver wide open.

Of course, Pruitt's approach also might be part of the problem. As FSU's players raved about the new scheme this offseason, the buzzword used again and again was "aggressive." Pruitt promised to turn the Seminoles' athletes loose to make plays, and the players loved the concept. It all sounded good until Boston College used that mindset against them.

"We’re a very aggressive defense, and we want to get to the ball fast," Brooks said. "That right there kind of killed us a little bit."

It's not that the scheme is flawed, however. Pruitt essentially is installing a defense similar to what Alabama used to win three of the past four national titles. There's a track record of success.

The difference is that when Pruitt took over as defensive backs coach at Alabama in 2010, that scheme was already in place, and the veterans already knew it well. At Florida State, it's all new, and the learning process requires time.

"When you come in during the spring and put in a new defense, especially as complex as this one, it’s not like you’re coaching a team full of guys that have already been in the system," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "It’s almost like you’re coaching a defense full of freshmen, technically. We’re all learning it."

Jernigan insists his teammates have bought in, but the learning process has come more quickly for some. Fisher praised Jernigan's work against BC, saying the junior played perhaps the best game of his career. Eddie Goldman earned raves, too, and linebacker Telvin Smith earned player of the week honors in the ACC after finishing with 10 tackles.

So where are the problems?

Fisher did his best to avoid criticizing specific players, though the absence of senior Christian Jones from his synopsis was noteworthy. Dan Hicks was burned for a touchdown, as well, though he was noticeably overmatched in his assignment. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and safety Tyler Hunter sat out for the second straight game against BC, too, and there are no assurances they'll be ready this week.

But to hear Fisher's analysis, there's no cause for alarm. It's not a matter of a flawed scheme, a too-steep learning curve or a lack of personnel. It's simply about getting the little things right.

Florida State's players are convinced of that, too, and the film from Boston College only burnished that optimism. But even so, this week's practices come with a mandate for improvement.

"Having that happen with these good teams that have mobile quarterbacks, people who can run and pass better, better receivers," Brooks said, "it’s just more of a problem at that point."
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The experiment was effectively over before the game even started.

It's not that Nevada posed much of a threat to begin with. Florida State entered Saturday's game as a five-touchdown favorite. But there was some intrigue, thanks to the Wolfpacks' up-tempo, pistol offense that promised to give an untested FSU defense a taste of what might be waiting on that crucial Oct. 19 showdown with Clemson.

Only the test never materialized. About an hour before kickoff, Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo tweeted the news that he'd miss the game, and the Wolfpack offense that took the field didn't look anything like the frenetic, fast-paced unit that had averaged 84 plays per game since the start of the 2012 season.

Instead, Florida State's defense was subjected to slogging, methodical snooze. Nevada ran 26 fewer plays than its season average, in spite of a sizable edge in time of possession. The Wolfpack usually ran a play every 21 seconds of possession time, but against FSU, they averaged a snap every 32 seconds. In the end, the Nevada offense looked baffled, and the FSU defense remained something of a mystery.

"They were trying to shorten the game a little bit, try not to get as many at-bats and eat the clock," Jimbo Fisher said. "But I thought the defense did a really nice job and made some nice adjustments. The defense has played very solidly."

[+] EnlargeJoyner
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesLamarcus Joyner gets a sack, which has been a rarity so far this season for Florida State.
It's tough to nitpick a defense that allowed just 511 yards and 20 points in its first two games, both against FBS opponents. And yet, questions linger.

Through two games, Florida State's supposedly aggressive new attack under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has amassed just three sacks, two of which came from cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. Despite bringing the blitz on half of Nevada's passing plays Saturday -- against two backup quarterbacks, to boot -- the Seminoles didn't record a sack. (In fairness, one potential sack was overturned because Timmy Jernigan continued pursuit after his helmet came off.)

More often, Florida State has been burned on the blitz. When rushing five or more defenders this year, FSU has allowed the opposition to complete 64 percent of its passes. Both of the touchdowns FSU has allowed came vs. the blitz. When just four defenders rush, however, the opposition completes just 47 percent of its passes and has thrown two interceptions, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Florida State has mustered just 10 tackles for loss thus far, a number bettered by 93 other FBS teams. Of the four TFLs the Seminoles managed against Nevada, two came late in a blowout game from backup defenders.

In both of its games, Florida State's defense has finished strong. But it's still tough to ignore that two supposedly overmatched offenses marched down the field for extended early drives. On the first four drives of the game, Pittsburgh and Nevada averaged 5.7 yards per play. Throughout the remainder of the game, that average dipped to just 3.1 yards per play.

"We've got to come out a little faster," corner P.J. Williams said. "We're letting teams [move], especially in the running. … We know the defense, but we've got to execute it better. It's different going against them in practice than when you go into the game."

That the FSU defense remains a work in progress at this point isn't really a surprise. A half-dozen regulars missed spring practice, and the shakeups on the depth chart have continued since then. Fisher announced Monday that defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. would likely miss this week's game against Bethune-Cookman after surgery on his hand, leaving a trio of freshmen -- Chris Casher, DeMarcus Walker and Ukeme Eligwe -- to pick up the slack.

Edwards' absence may not last beyond this week, Fisher said, and Bethune-Cookman doesn't figure to provide much of a challenge for the defense anyway. But therein lies the problem.

That Oct. 19 date still lingers on the horizon, a game that is likely to define Florida State's season. Between now and then, Florida State plays an FCS opponent, a Boston College team that ranks 121st nationally in plays per game this year, and resurgent Maryland, the final tune-up before high-flying Clemson.

After Nevada downshifted its up-tempo attack, the Terrapins likely represent the only opportunity Florida State's defense will have to test its mettle against an offense with a modicum of the firepower Clemson possesses. That certainly figures to add some intrigue to the game, but it isn't likely to have too many Florida State fans feeling entirely comfortable in the interim.

"These last couple games, coming in with this new defense and just learning, we can do better," Williams said. "It has a lot to do with the new defense."


All spring and all summer, Florida State promised we would see a new-look defense come Week 1.

Well, the Noles delivered on those promises against Pittsburgh. Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt showed off new blitz packages designed for his athletic linebackers and cornerbacks in a 41-13 win over the Panthers on Monday night, allowing guys like linebacker Telvin Smith and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner to take on even bigger roles on the defense.

Smith was all over the field, making one punishing hit after another. He finished second on the team with eight tackles -- including two for loss. Joyner led the team with nine tackles and a team-high two sacks.

That is not a misprint. A defensive back led the Noles in sacks.

Rewind to last season: not one defensive back got a sack. Of the 36 total sacks the Noles notched in 2012, defensive linemen made 33 of them.

"Oh that was something that coach Pruitt emphasized on this offseason," Joyner said. "He said I was too much of a player with explosion not to come off the edge and try to make those kind of plays. That’s what this defense expects me to do. I was pretty successful with some of the guys doing their job allowing me to come off free."

The philosophy -- at least in Week 1 anyway -- was in stark contrast to last season, when the Seminoles rode the strength of their defensive front behind Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Florida State did not generate much of a pass rush against the Panthers from its defensive front, relying instead on the blitz packages to get after Pitt quarterback Tom Savage.

Considering the players Florida State has to replace up front, that does not come as a complete shock. Still, it was different.

"I love this defense," Smith said. "A lot of times I’m uncovered and guards can come hit me but I feel like I have an advantage with being quick and being fast. I’m trying to be more aggressive also. It’s just a transition to this defense."

With transition comes rocky patches, too. Pitt marched down the field on the opening drive, and found early success with its running backs rushing to the outside. But coach Jimbo Fisher praised his defense for not buckling.

On Pitt’s second possession, true freshman Jalen Ramsey came up with a huge interception to help swing the momentum back to the Noles. Florida State scored off the turnover. Terrence Brooks also got an interception that the Noles turned into a score just before halftime.

Fans are sure to see more of Ramsey, who joined defensive end DeMarcus Walker as the two true freshmen starters on defense. Joyner said Ramsey was a little rattled to start.

“He was very nervous at the beginning of the game and I told him, ‘Hey it’s just like high school. You go against Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene, two NFL receivers every day, Kenny Shaw. If you can do it against those guys, you can do it out here,’” Joyner said. “He took a deep breath and there was an interception the next drive.”

There is no question this defense remains a work in progress. Players said they felt comfortable in the scheme, but still believed they were doing too much thinking during the game as they get used to their new roles. Joyner says it is essential to get some technique and leverage issues squared away during practice this week.

All of that should get better over time. Still, Florida State did hold Pitt to under 300 yards total offense and only gave up 13 points.

“I thought we did pretty good but there’s still a lot more room for improvement,” Brooks said. “We messed up on some little things, they were able to get some plays out of that but just with more practice and reps, film study we’ll be fine.”

Could they be another Top 10 group by the time the season ends?

“We’ve got the same players that did it last year so we definitely have that mentality,” Smith said. “We set that standard last year and we’re going to try and do it again this year.”


PITTSBURGH -- No. 11 Florida State overcame an early deficit to handily beat Pitt in the Panthers' ACC debut on Monday night. Here is a look at how the Seminoles won:

It was over when: Jameis Winston took the field. Partially kidding. Pitt scored on the opening drive, and that was about it for the Panthers. Winston, the redshirt freshman quarterback making his first career start, took over the game from there. Winston completed his first 11 passes and scored four first-half touchdowns -- three passing and one rushing. Winston left no doubt -- he has the talent to be a very special quarterback.

Game ball goes to: Winston. He was as close to perfect as you could be for a 19-year-old making his first start, with a national television audience watching. Winston ended up going 25-of-27 for 356 yards, with five total touchdowns and no interceptions. He set the Florida State record for most passing yards by a freshman in his first start.

Stat of the game: 3. Tight end Nick O'Leary set a career high with three touchdown catches. He and Winston had quite a connection working Monday night.

What Florida State learned: Winston is for real. Well, Florida State already knew that. The nation now knows after all the advance hype. After a shaky start, the Noles' defense recovered to post a good showing. You saw a much more aggressive group out there. It cost them a few times, allowing Pitt to make some big plays. But they also got after quarterback Tom Savage all night, not only sacking him but hitting him often. There were some blown assignments but you can see the talent in this group. They will only get better as they get more comfortable in Jeremy Pruitt's new defense.

What Pitt learned: The Panthers do have some talent at the skill positions. Freshman Tyler Boyd looks like he has the makings of being a special receiver. He and Devin Street are players to watch. But the defense really was a disappointment. A group that ranked in the top 20 in the nation a year ago returned the majority of its starters and yet, was completely out of position for most of the night. The secondary -- returning three starters -- did not play up to its potential, leaving Seminoles receivers wide open. If Pitt wants to make some noise in its first ACC season, it is going to have to shore up that defense in a hurry.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
10:20
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The moment is finally here. The season kicks off tonight, as two ACC teams take the gridiron and mark the return of college football. Here is what to keep an eye on this entire weekend as all 14 teams get back in action.

1. Battle in the trenches in Columbia, S.C. North Carolina will have three new starters on its offensive line Thursday night against No. 6 South Carolina, including two redshirt freshmen. And the Tar Heels will be going up against preseason Heisman contender Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks' lethal defensive line. Don't overlook fellow end Chaz Sutton, either.

2. Conference debuts. Pitt and Syracuse play their first games as ACC schools after exiting the former Big East, which the Orange won a four-way share of in 2012. Both schools have the chance to make big opening statements, as the Panthers host defending conference champion Florida State on Labor Day and Syracuse faces a Penn State squad looking to build off Bill O'Brien's successful first year with the program.

[+] EnlargeSteve Addazio
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesBoston College's Steve Addazio is one of the conference's new coaches this season.
3. Trio of first-year coaches. New BC coach Steve Addazio hosts Villanova, a familiar opponent from his Temple days. Dave Doeren and NC State host Louisiana Tech, which breaks in a new coach of its own in Skip Holtz after Sonny Dykes left for Cal following a 9-3 season. And Syracuse coach Scott Shafer debuts against Penn State in East Rutherford, N.J.

4. QB choices in Jersey and Raleigh. Two of those new coaches also will be unveiling their starting quarterback choices for the first time, as Shafer sends out either Terrel Hunt or Drew Allen and Doeren picks Pete Thomas or Brandon Mitchell. The Orange will be facing a Penn State team that carries the same surprise in its quarterback race between Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson.

5. ... Speaking of new starting QBs. Virginia's David Watford will make his first career start against BYU, Duke's Anthony Boone takes over the job from Sean Renfree against NC Central, and Florida State and Pitt will both start new signal-callers when they square off on Labor Day, with Jameis Winston running the Seminoles' offense and Tom Savage handling duties for the Panthers.

6. Pitt's running backs. Ray Graham is gone. Rushel Shell transferred to West Virginia. And Isaac Bennett and James Conner have dealt with injuries in camp. Coach Paul Chryst isn't sure how things will shake out Monday, but we likely will see Rachid Ibrahim and Malcolm Crockett get at least some action given the backfield situation.

7. FSU's defensive backs. Are too many bodies a good thing? Nick Waisome and Terrence Brooks started all 14 games last season for the nation's No. 1 pass defense. The crowd also includes preseason All-American Lamarcus Joyner, reigning ACC defensive rookie of the year Ronald Darby, former five-star prospect Karlos Williams and several other strong athletes. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has his work cut out for him, although probably not as much as new Pitt quarterback Tom Savage does.

8. Virginia Tech's backfield. Coach Frank Beamer wasn't kidding when he said the Hokies went from having too many running backs to not enough. Michael Holmes was kicked off the team in July, Joel Caleb was suspended this month for the opener against Alabama, Tony Gregory suffered a career-ending ACL tear and J.C. Coleman's status for Saturday is up in the air because of two ankle sprains. Redshirt freshmen Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus are the Hokies' next options after Coleman.

9. "Smoke." Taquan Mizzell has earned that nickname despite having never taken the college field. ESPN's No. 9 running back prospect from the class of 2013 has drawn plenty of buzz in Virginia's camp, and he will get a stiff first test against BYU's defense.

10. ACC vs. SEC. What, you really thought we'd forget this one? Three ACC teams face off against squads from the big, bad SEC, perhaps none with as steep a challenge as Virginia Tech's against Alabama. UNC kicks things off Thursday at South Carolina, and No. 8 Clemson hosts No. 5 Georgia on Saturday night in the headliner of Week 1. The ACC went 1-1 against the SEC in last year's weekend openers, with NC State falling to Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff the night before Clemson topped Auburn in the Georgia Dome.

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