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Florida State's young line key to offensive success

10/16/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich Florida State left guard Rodney Hudson was sick to his stomach. It was one of the first practices of the season, and Hudson had caught a virus. He couldn't keep anything down, but refused to miss a minute of practice or complain about being ill.

"Nobody ever knew," said running back Antone Smith. "When I found out, I was like, he's a winner, this guy is a winner."

Hudson is only 19 years old, but he talks about "helping out the young guys" like he's a senior. He and offensive line coach Rick Trickett are two of the main reasons the youngest offensive line in the nation has matured quickly enough to make a difference. Their progress has been the root of the Seminoles' offensive success, and paved the way for Smith and a running game that had been lacking in previous years.

"I'm as surprised as I can be," coach Bobby Bowden said. "I mean, I'm as surprised as I can be. All five games, I'm just surprised. I just didn't think they could do this good. I mean, when you put that offensive line together, you would say, 'Well, this group is going to be pretty good one of these days, but they're not going to be ready yet.' Well, they're performing like they're juniors."

Florida State enters tonight's game against North Carolina State averaging 231.6 rushing yards per game. The last time the Seminoles averaged more than 200 yards rushing per game was in 1995 (222.8) when they finished with a 10-2 record and a victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.

"We've still got room for improvement," Hudson said. "We're running the ball much better than last year, so far, but we've still got to keep it up. The season isn't even halfway done yet."

The first half, though, has been pretty good.

Florida State hasn't allowed a sack in three games this season, and the Seminoles have had three games of 200-plus total rushing yards. And they've done it with two true freshmen (left tackle Andrew Datko and right tackle Zebrie Sanders), one redshirt freshman (right guard Will Furlong), one true sophomore (Hudson) and one redshirt sophomore (McMahon) in the starting lineup.

Trickett said he's just hoping they can keep it up.

"I'm still kind of pinching myself a little bit," he said. "But I'm old enough to know we're one chicken away from laying an egg. The longer it goes, the more buildup it is on these freshmen. You're still dealing with the mind of an 18-year-old kid. That's the main thing that worries me the most. I don't believe in burnout, but I do believe in maybe a little overload. I worry about the overload on these young guys as the season goes on and the schedule gets tougher and tougher."

Florida State opened the season with an offensive line that had 23 combined starts and not one junior or senior in the mix. Hudson and center Ryan McMahon were the sophomore stars. Junior college transfer Joe Tonga is a senior, but he had never played in an FBS game before coming to Tallahassee and hasn't started a game yet.

He hasn't had to.

Smith, who has 394 yards and nine rushing touchdowns, attributed the best five-game stretch of his career to his health and the players blocking for him.

"I've been very impressed with these guys," Smith said. "They've been busting their butts day in and day out, from the minute the freshmen came in, paying attention to detail, listening to the coach, and taking criticism well, learning from the criticism and getting better."

The motto of the Florida State offense this season has been "pushing the rock."

"When adversity strikes you, are you going to go around it, or are you going to try to go through it?" Smith said. "We want to go through it."

So far, he's been able to, because Hudson and the rest of his teammates have paved the way.