ACC: levonte whitfield
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When an all-time program great leaves a school, his presence is felt far longer than the last time he played.
This spring at Florida State, it’s not just Jameis Winston’s name being consistently thrown into that conversation. Former receiver Rashad Greene is talked about at length despite leaving almost three months ago, and he’s spoken about in a manner that can be described as nothing short of reverential.
After four seasons starring at Florida State, finishing as the program’s most prolific receiver, Greene is pursuing an NFL career. His absence leaves a gaping hole at receiver in both leadership and production, but his successors said they’re using the lessons Greene passed along to make up for his departure.
“We’re going to take what he told us and do what we have to do,” junior receiver Jesus Wilson said.
Wilson is the most experienced receiver on the roster. He’s started seven games; Greene started 43.
The Seminoles will rely on a group of mostly freshmen and sophomores. Wilson and Kermit Whitfield are the only juniors at the position, which is why Wilson acknowledged it is his time to take on a bigger role. The 5-foot-9, 181-pound receiver registered 42 catches as a sophomore. He caught only three passes as a freshman.
While Florida State lacks experience and a proven commodity at receiver with Greene graduating and Kelvin Benjamin bolting for the NFL following the 2013 national championship, the current group of Florida State receivers has the talent to potentially make up for it.
Redshirt sophomore Isaiah Jones, who was academically ineligible last season, was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 class. Whitfield also was a highly-ranked recruit in that 2013 class. Sophomore Ermon Lane was the No. 2 receiver in the 2014 class, and Travis Rudolph was not far behind at No. 6. Two 2015 receivers are already enrolled and participating in in spring practices: top-rated athlete George Campbell and sixth-ranked receiver Da’Vante Phillips.
“Just working on our craft and that goes into learning the playbook,” said Rudolph, about the key to turning the promise into on-field production. “What can stop a guy from his highest potential is not learning the playbook.”
Rudolph said he doesn’t assume he will be the No. 1 receiver in the fall, but that it is what he’s working toward -- and he expects his teammates to be doing the same. Rudolph arrived in Tallahassee as one of the more polished high school players, so the expectation was for the 6-foot-2, 187-pound South Florida native to play early. After failing to record a catch in the season’s first three games, Rudolph finished the season with 555 yards. He capped his freshman campaign with six receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown in the Rose Bowl.
“It went well, but not as well,” Rudolph said. “But I just got my feet wet and now I know how the system is and adjusted. … Now I’m at the point where everything is natural.”
Last season, Rudolph started six games and worked his way to becoming Winston’s No. 2 threat on the outside. Sean Maguire, the odds-on favorite to be the starting quarterback, worked with Rudolph with the second-string offense to start last fall and he said the difference between Rudolph then and now is “night and day.”
Then Maguire brought up the name from the past, inciting the hype and trying his best to curb it within the same breath.
“I’m not comparing anyone, but I slowly see him going toward Rashad, that route,” Maguire said. “... I was here when Rashad was a sophomore and this is going to be Travis’ sophomore year. They’re both great players, explosive, got that fifth gear to go get the ball and Travis is becoming a leader pretty much every day out there, too.”
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is not inviting the comparisons, but he isn’t squashing them, either. He said he will wait and see whether Rudolph is the next Greene.
For what it’s worth, Greene had 38 catches as a freshman -- the same as Rudolph. Greene used that season to springboard to 232 more.
“There’s nothing that says he won’t [be like Greene],” Fisher said, “but until someone does that, I’m not going to say they’re going to do that, you know what I mean?”
“We’ll have to put [a depth chart] up and say who’s first team, second team, third team or in that rotation because we have to start making scout teams,” Fisher said. “We have to start making decisions.”
Rarely this camp was Fisher visibly displeased with his team’s effort and performance, unlike during the spring. While it certainly does not guarantee an undefeated season, it should offer some comfort the Nick Saban disciple has not nitpicked much over the course of the last two weeks as the Seminoles prepare to defend a national championship.
For the future-conscious Florida State fans, the No. 2 receiver has been one of the biggest question marks since Kelvin Benjamin declared for the NFL draft with two years of eligibility remaining. Fisher said senior Christian Green would likely be the starter opposite senior All-American candidate Rashad Greene, but he made it clear he sees viable options in the underclassmen. Sophomore Levonte Whitfield and Jesus Wilson are the most likely slot options, although Wilson is working to get back in the staff’s good graces after stealing a scooter. Freshmen Ja'Vonn Harrison, Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph were all ESPN 300 recruits and could play extensively with sophomore Isaiah Jones academically ineligible. Senior Jarred Haggins is also healthy after missing 2013.
Returning Heisman winner Jameis Winston impressed during a Tuesday scrimmage. Fisher previously said Winston has looked average in camp at times, but the positive review Tuesday might indicate the redshirt sophomore is close to building the necessary rapport with the inexperienced targets. The first scrimmage, the offense was relegated to underneath passes to the tight ends and running backs, but Fisher said the downfield attack was on display on Tuesday.
“I feel very comfortable with eight guys in that rotation right now, I really do,” Fisher said. “I'd feel very comfortable if they had to go in the football game. The last three or four days, we've really thrown and caught the football extremely well. … Guys were really understanding routes and how to set holes and get open."
It has been debated how the defensive front seven would fare without Timmy Jernigan, Christian Jones or Telvin Smith, but when asked where the team made the most progress during camp, Fisher said the linebackers and the defensive line depth. With new leaders and a first-year defensive coordinator, the unit will still need to build a cohesion that often can only be produced in games. However, concerns should be assuaged to a degree considering Fisher is upbeat about the defense.
Florida State has used the hashtag #DallasToDallas as it opens the season in AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys, and hopes to end it there. They have to begin with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, though, and while official game prep begins Thursday, Fisher said he already has begun scouting Mike Gundy’s squad.
No Power Five school returns fewer starters than Oklahoma State, but Fisher said there’s still enough on film from 2013 to build a preliminary scouting report based on coordinator tendencies and backups.
“You have notes that you’ve taken on them, so when you pull them back out you have a starting point,” Fisher said. “And you put things in in camp and you say, ‘That’s going to be good these first three or four games so we better add these two or three things to what we’re doing.’”
INJURY NOTES: The left side of the offensive line was a little banged up toward the end of camp, but Fisher said he is not worried about the unit, which consists of five seniors, missing any time against Oklahoma State. … Running back Ryan Green is still sidelined, but freshman running back Dalvin Cook rid himself of the blue non-contact jersey Tuesday. Cook received high praise after the scrimmage. Cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby are being held for precautionary reasons, but Fisher is not worried about them missing the opener. … Sophomore linebacker and former five-star Matthew Thomas continues to rehab from an ankle injury suffered last week.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State is not deviating from company line that the Seminoles have moved on from 2013, but forgive FSU fans if they’re still reveling in the past.
Levonte Whitfield gave Florida State its first lead of the national championship game with a 100-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter, and, seven months later, it’s still a talking point for Seminoles fans when interacting with the player affectionately known as Kermit.
“It’s like every day, I get a lot of [Twitter] mentions about it,” Whitfield said. “I try not to think about it. They can’t take it away from me but I try not to think about it. It’s time to move on.”
Whitfield still has the play burned in his memory, though. With the Seminoles trailing 24-20 with 4:42 left in the game, the then-true freshman fielded the kickoff from about two yards deep in the end zone. Eleven seconds later, he was in the end zone.
“As soon as I got the ball I see Chad Abram kicked out, got his block and Karlos [Williams] made a cut and I see a big hole and I see nothing but daylight,” Whitfield said.
With his sophomore season on the horizon, though, Whitfield wants to be remembered as more than just the kick returner from the national championship. The 5-foot-7, 183-pound receiver said he is working with the first-team offense in practice, and he could be relied upon in the passing game more often this season as a slot receiver, especially with fellow diminutive receiver Jesus Wilson (5-9, 177) indefinitely suspended.
Whitfield is one of the fastest players in the country, but Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said Whitfield needs to display that speed even when the ball is not in his hands. Whitfield said he is working on his route running, too.
“I want to be an All-American,” Whitfield said, “and do what I need to do to help the team win."
A lack of consistency drew the ire of Fisher in March, but through three practices this fall, Fisher has been much more measured and complimentary of the receivers. However, consistency is still a concern during preseason practices for a unit that, outside of Greene, combined for 23 catches in 2013.
“Consistency, guys knowing what to do, where to be when that ball is thrown to you,” Fisher said when asked what will separate the jumble behind Greene. “I’ve been pleased with the younger and older receivers.”
The younger receivers, for only practicing three days and none with full pads on, have been the stars among the corps so far. At this point, though, that is more a product of the vast hype and media and fan intrigue rather than on-field performance.
Ermon Lane was the No. 2 receiver nationally in the ESPN 300 and stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 206 pounds. Travis Rudolph was not far off in the recruiting rankings, registering as the sixth-best receiver in the 2014 class. Four-star Ja'Vonn Harrison rounds out the highly regarded freshman trio.
“Travis and Ja’Vonn, those two really do have good routes. Ermon is more of a physical type guy, he can go up, get off the jam. That’s what separates those guys,” senior receiver Jarred Haggins said. “By the time they all take their role, they’re going to be awesome."
Haggins missed the entire 2013 season with a stress fracture in his knee but is healthy and competing for the No. 2 spot. With Kermit Whitfield and Jesus Wilson -- who is still indefinitely suspended -- likely filling the slot receiver role, Haggins, Christian Green and Isaiah Jones are competing with the freshmen for the starting outside receiver position.
The 6-foot-2, 204-pound Green caught 13 passes last season, second most among returning receivers, but he caught more passes as a redshirt freshman (26) than he has the rest of his career combined. A member of the 2010 recruiting class, Green arrived in Tallahassee with the same national acclaim as the current freshmen, as he ranked No. 53 in the ESPN 150.
Despite the limited action and attention he has received the first four years of his career, Green is determined to make a senior jump similar to the departed Kenny Shaw, Green’s freshman roommate and a receiver who caught nearly as many passes a senior (54) as he did his first three seasons (70).
“It’s something I’ve been waiting for,” Green said. “I’ve been patient and playing my role and doing whatever they asked me to do. Now is the time.”
Green said he is doing his best balancing his own ambitions with mentoring the younger receivers, but this offseason they were all under the tutelage of Jameis Winston. Last summer, Winston was still embroiled in a quarterback competition. During summer 7-on-7 workouts and throwing sessions that coaches couldn’t watch, it was Winston who took the lead role of developing his young receivers.
“Jameis really understands what he wants and how he wants it,” Fisher said. “It’s something he picked up this summer from Peyton Manning. I always talk to him about taking two routes a day and running it 100 times. Make those guys understand how to do it.”
Florida State’s spring camp came to a close on Saturday with the annual Garnet and Gold game, and now the Seminoles are prepping for a second straight national title.
The game is secondary compared to the rest of spring practices, so with that in mind, here are some of the biggest answers the 15 spring sessions presented.
In early March, Noles coach Jimbo Fisher noted how healthy his team was and how rare it is to have a squad almost entirely intact for spring practice. As the practices mounted, though, so did the injuries. The silver lining is that none of the injuries are expected to linger into preseason camp. Running backs Dalvin Cook and Ryan Green had shoulder surgery but will be 100 percent by around July. Nick O’Leary missed the final half of spring practices with a second motorcycle accident, but he avoided any serious injuries. There were a few concussions in camp, but Terrance Smith, who suffered one of them, was back for the spring game. The lone setback that could impact fall camp is the foot injury Ukeme Eligwe sustained, which Fisher hinted could be the dreaded Lisfranc injury, which has a tendency to persist for quite some time. The thought is he should be fine for August, though.
2. The secondary is among the best in the country.
Quarterback Jameis Winston said after the spring game that “we got the best [defensive] backs in the country.” He should know, having thrown against the unit for much of the spring and the entire Garnet and Gold game. The secondary of P.J. Williams, Jalen Ramsey, Nick Waisome and Tyler Hunter shut down the No. 1 offense’s passing attack the entire first half, and the unit was without sophomore Nate Andrews. Fisher said throughout the spring that Ramsey is a star-in-the-making and should become a nationally recognized name replacing Lamarcus Joyner. Ramsey showcased his skills by moving around at cornerback, safety and nickel during the game. Fisher and Winston are raving about freshman Trey Marshall, too. Williams is a star in his own right, shutting down No. 1 receiver Rashad Greene.
3. The receivers need to step up.
Speaking of Greene and the receivers, that position is probably the biggest weakness heading into the season. Fisher was upset with the production and consistency his receivers showcased through much of the spring, and the starting unit did not get any separation from the Noles’ secondary. Jesus Wilson has the potential to be a playmaker from the slot, but can he replace Kenny Shaw’s production? Isaiah Jones is 6-foot-4, but his production did not match that of departed 6-foot-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Levonte Whitfield announced himself to the world in the national title game, but he is still needs some refinement as a receiver. The coaches can spend two hours a week breaking down film with players during the offseason, and Fisher said that will be a critical step in Florida State’s development at receiver.
4. The talent is there at linebacker.
The Noles lose beloved figure Telvin Smith and consistent producer Christian Jones, but the depth at linebacker is there so those losses might not be felt all that much. Matthew Thomas is a budding star, and the former five-star recruit will not be kept off the field this fall. Terrance Smith is the leader of the unit and could be a viable replacement for Telvin Smith. Before Eligwe’s injury, Fisher voiced his opinion that Eligwe was having as good of a spring as any player. Reggie Northrup and E.J. Levenberry should each see significant snaps in the rotation, and Ro’Derrick Hoskins could be a dangerous third-down specialist from the position.
5. Sean Maguire is a quality backup for Noles.
Earlier this spring, Winston missed a practice to travel to Clemson with the baseball team, putting the pressure squarely on No. 2 quarterback Maguire to perform at a competent level. Following the practice, the third of the spring, Fisher was lukewarm on Maguire’s performance. But Maguire looked the part of a quality No. 2 option for Florida State during the spring game. The Noles got him in rhythm with three straight passes to the flats to open the game, and then Maguire dropped in a 26-yard touchdown on a post route over the defender. Maguire, a redshirt sophomore, said he made the most progress this spring than he’s ever made at any point in his college career.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, however, graciously tipped his hand Wednesday when asked about what new formations and which underclassman receivers could mitigate the departure of potential first-round NFL draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, all 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds of him.
The humor could be a deflection as Fisher masks any possible concerns about replacing Benjamin, who at Tuesday’s pro day showcased a rare catching radius and leaping ability that no player on the Seminoles’ current roster has illustrated. Senior Rashad Greene's presence is vital, as he led the team with 76 catches last season, but no other returning receiver had more than 13 catches in 2013, which leaves mostly a unit with little to no in-game seasoning.
But while Benjamin’s size and strength combination won’t be replaced by anyone on the roster in its current form, his Tallahassee exit doesn’t necessarily mean a step in the wrong direction for the Seminoles offense. Whitfield and Wilson are small packages of instant offense. Whitfield initially trumpeted his speed for Florida State fans with touchdowns of 31 and 74 yards the first two times he rushed the ball, and then for a national audience with a 100-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter of the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
“You can jump or you can run there -- there are two different avenues [to catch the ball],” Fisher said. “Bobo and Kermit, those guys get the ball short and it’s hard to get them on the ground.”
Quarterback Jameis Winston knows receivers like Benjamin do not come around often, but he said neither do players with the acceleration and speed of Whitfield and Wilson.
“Kermit and Bobo, they’re going to catch the ball and you’re not going to tackle them,” Winston said. “Bobo is as electric as Kermit, but Kermit is special. And those guys can jump, and I’m pretty sure they can dunk.”
Expecting the talented but inexperienced Whitfield, Wilson, Jarred Haggins and 6-4 sophomore Isaiah Jones to quickly jell with Winston in the passing game is oversimplifying an issue that requires a quarterback and receiver to connect on an innate level. Official practice time is in short supply this spring in Tallahassee as Winston bounces between football and baseball, which will cost him Saturday’s practice.
Yet as foolish as it would be to assume Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t be missed, at this point it would be equally ill-advised to doubt any aspect of the team Winston touches.
“We trust all the guys we got. That’s why we come to Florida State, to win championships, and we've got great players,” Winston said. “It’s going to be a fast adjustment with timing, and we’re going to get this thing rolling.”
Offensive MVP: Jameis Winston (redshirt freshman, QB)
Who else could it be? Winston won the Heisman, set the team record for touchdown passes and blossomed into the emotional leader of a national championship team. From his dynamic debut against Pitt (when he completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and accounted for five touchdowns) to his final, game-winning drive in the BCS title game against Auburn (when he was 6-of-7 for 77 yards) Winston was spectacular. Now he just needs to do it again in 2014.
Defensive MVP: Lamarcus Joyner (senior, CB)
Joyner nearly left for the NFL after the 2012 season, but Florida State is thrilled he decided to stick around. He moved from safety to corner during the spring, and the new role fit perfectly in Pruitt’s scheme. Joyner was a crucial cog in a secondary that finished No. 1 in the country in passing defense and interceptions, and he excelled as a blitzer, leading FSU with 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Best moment: Benjamin’s final TD grab
It was a season filled with special moments for Florida State, from Winston’s big debut to Kenny Shaw’s Hail Mary grab to end the first half against Boston College to Joyner’s forced fumble that set the tone in a dominant win over Clemson. But of course, it was the final moment that will be remembered most fondly. After trailing nearly the entire game in Pasadena, Benjamin came down with a 2-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left to play, giving Florida State its third national title.
Worst moment: the investigation
There weren’t many bad moments on the field for Florida State this season. The Seminoles trailed in the first half against Boston College, then didn’t trail again until the national title game. But off the field, it was an extraordinarily challenging season, beginning when reports first surfaced of an open investigation surrounding Winston. For nearly a month, the quarterback faced questions about his role in a rape case, and while charges were never filed, the threat of a civil lawsuit continues to keep the case in the news.
The ACC delivered when it mattered most this year -- in its two BCS bowls. Duke also had some outstanding performances in spite of its loss to Texas A&M. The ACC fared particularly well at the wide receiver and return positions. Here's a look at some of the ACC's top performers on the All-Bowl team:
- Guard: Laken Tomlinson, Duke
- Wide receiver: Rashad Greene, Florida State
- Wide receiver: Sammy Watkins, Clemson
- Tight end: Braxton Deaver, Duke
- Linebacker: Telvin Smith, Florida State
- Defensive back: P.J. Williams, Florida State
- Punt returner: Brisly Estime, Syracuse
- Kickoff returner: Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield, Florida State
David Hale and Matt Fortuna handled the ACC's All-Bowl team for ESPN.com, and there were a few differences. Colleague Ivan Maisel and I also recognized a few unsung heroes from bowl season in this video. Congrats to all of ACC's top performers this year.
QB: Tajh Boyd, Clemson: The big stage hadn't been kind to Boyd through most of 2013, but on the first day of 2014, he was exceptional. Boyd accounted for 505 yards and six touchdowns in a Discover Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, giving the ACC two BCS bowl game victors.
RB: James Conner, Pittsburgh: The freshman tailback carried 26 times against Bowling Green, blowing past Tony Dorsett for the Pitt bowl game record with 229 yards on the ground. For good measure, Conner chipped in on the defensive line for a few snaps, too.
RB: Devonta Freeman, Florida State: It wasn't the most spectacular performance of bowl season -- Freeman wasn't even the best running back on the field in the BCS title game -- but his hard running early kept FSU from falling too far behind, and his final tally -- 11 carries for 73 yards and a TD -- helped Freeman become the first FSU running back since Warrick Dunn to top 1,000 yards on the season.
WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke: Ho-hum, another 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown for Crowder, who turned in one last stellar performance to cap an exceptional season for the Blue Devils.
WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State: The Seminoles' dramatic comeback against Auburn in the BCS championship game wouldn't have been possible without Greene's big day. He was the only FSU receiver with positive yardage in the first half of the game, and his 49-yard reception -- he dodged two tacklers and picked up most of that yardage after the catch -- was the key play on FSU's dramatic last-minute, game-winning drive.
TE: Braxton Deaver, Duke: The junior had six catches for 116 yards, including three grabs that went for 25 yards or more and five that went for first downs.
OL: Dorian Johnson, Pitt: The Panthers simply overwhelmed Bowling Green's defensive front in the Little Caesars Bowl, racking up 487 yards of offense, including 255 on the ground. (Ed. note: We mistakenly included Matt Rotherham here in an initial post. Johnson slid from tackle to guard for the game, replacing Rotherham, and the Pitt line didn't miss a beat. We apologize for the error.)
OL: Jon Heck, North Carolina: Cincinnati entered the Belk Bowl second in the AAC in sacks with 35, but the Bearcats couldn't get to UNC QB Marquise Williams, as the Tar Heels' offense racked up 39 points -- the second-most Cincinnati gave up all season.
OL: Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The Blue Devils racked up 661 yards of total offense and 29 first downs against Texas A&M, with the offensive line -- led by Tomlinson -- paving the way for a 300-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher.
OL: Tre' Jackson, Florida State: Yes, the Seminoles' line allowed four sacks in the game, but Jackson and Co. also helped FSU run for more yards per carry (4.8) than the vaunted Auburn ground game and provided Jameis Winston with plenty of time to throw on a dramatic game-winning drive in the final minute.
C: Macky MacPherson, Syracuse: The Orange rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:14 left, to knock off Minnesota in the Texas Bowl. The physically dominant performance on the line was a fitting conclusion to MacPherson's Syracuse career.
DE: Mario Edwards Jr., FSU: Edwards had one sack and three tackles for loss among his six total tackles for a Seminoles front that turned it up a notch in the second half, allowing the offense to catch up and ultimately escape with the win.
DT: Andre Monroe, Maryland: The Terrapins' finale as an ACC member ended on a sour note with a 31-20 loss to Marshall in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman. Monroe tied for a game-high with 10 total tackles, three of which went for a loss, one of which was a sack. Monroe added a quarterback hurry as well.
DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt: With one more game to go in a historic season, Donald did not disappoint. The senior closed out his career with two tackles for loss, including one sack, to go with a pass break-up in the Panthers' 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over Bowling Green. Donald's sack came on second down of the Falcons' final drive, all but sealing the win.
DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson: Beasley was part of a Tigers front that made life extremely difficult for Braxton Miller and the rest of the Ohio State backfield. Beasley recorded four tackles for loss and a sack among his five total tackles, and in the end Clemson's defense proved to be the difference in a shootout win.
LB: Norkeithus Otis, UNC: The Tar Heels capped their strong second half with a bang, routing Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl to make them 6-1 over their last seven games. Otis tallied seven total tackles -- two for loss and one sack among them -- to go with two quarterback hurries.
LB: Jack Tyler, Virginia Tech: UCLA proved to be too much for the Hokies in a 42-12 win in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, but Tyler played well, totaling seven tackles, including half of a sack, to go with one pass break-up and one quarterback hurry.
DB: P.J. Williams, FSU: The defensive MVP from the Vizio BCS National Championship came up huge when it mattered most, picking off Auburn's Nick Marshall early in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown that cut the Tigers' lead to one. Williams finished with seven total tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.
DB: Jemea Thomas, Georgia Tech: Thomas ended his college career with a bang, totaling a game-high 15 tackles. Three of those stops were behind the line of scrimmage, including one sack.
DB: D.J. White, GT: The Yellow Jackets get two more years of White, a future that looked all the brighter in the 25-17 loss to Ole Miss in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. White finished with 13 total tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and three pass break-ups.
DB: Bryce Jones, Boston College: The Eagles' turnaround campaign under Steve Addazio ended on a down note, falling to Arizona 42-19 in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but Jones was a bright spot, with the sophomore notching a team-high 12 tackles, including one for loss.
K: Chris Blewitt, Pitt: Blewitt went 3-for-4 for the Panthers in Detroit, connecting from 25, 28 and, most important, 39 yards with the game-winning kick with 1:17 left in Pitt's 30-27 win.
P: Tommy Hibbard, UNC: Hibbard was phenomenal for the Tar Heels, punting four times for an average of 44.2 yards per boot. He pinned Cincinnati inside its own 20 three different times, and he had a long of 59 yards in the win.
KR: Levonte Whitfield, FSU: At the time, Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown seemed as if it would go down as one of the greatest returns in BCS championship game history. The touchdown gave Florida State a 27-24 lead with 4:31 to play -- but the lead would change twice more before it was over. Whitfield finished the game with 172 return yards.
PR: Ryan Switzer, UNC: The Tar Heels had a huge day on special teams in a Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati, with Switzer -- an All-American -- leading the way, returning his fifth punt of the season for a touchdown.
Love it or hate it, the BCS delivered a dramatic and fitting ending on Monday night, as No. 1 FSU rallied from from a late four-point deficit in the final two minutes to defeat No. 2 Auburn 34-31 in the final VIZIO BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The Seminoles won their third national championship and ended the SEC's reign of seven consecutive BCS national championships.
Play of the game: Trailing 31-27 with about one minute to go, Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston threw a 49-yard pass to Rashad Greene to move to Auburn's 23-yard line with 56 seconds to play. Six players later, after Auburn was penalized for pass interference in the end zone, Winston threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin to go ahead for good with 13 seconds to play. FSU's extra point gave it a 34-31 lead.
Turning point: After Auburn took a 24-20 lead with about 4:42 to go, FSU's Levonte Whitfield returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, giving the Seminoles a 27-24 lead with 4:31 left. Whitfield, a 5-foot-7 freshman known as "Kermit," returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the second time this season.
Early turning point: With Auburn holding a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter, Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall lofted a 50-yard touchdown pass to Melvin Ray to stake the Tigers to a 14-3 lead with 13:48 to go in the first half. Ray, a sophomore from Tallahassee, Fla., had four catches for 58 yards this season before hauling in the long touchdown catch against the hometown Seminoles. FSU, which hadn't trailed since falling behind Boston College on Sept. 28 and had led for more than 571 minutes of football before falling behind the Tigers, suddenly trailed by two scores. The Seminoles played catch-up the rest of the night but finally caught the Tigers in the end.
Player of the game: Winston, a redshirt freshman from Bessemer, Ala., got off to a slow start against Auburn's defense, getting sacked four times and fumbling once in the first half. But in the end, Winston broke the Heisman Trophy jinx, throwing the winning touchdown with 13 seconds to play. He completed 20 of 35 passes for 237 yards with two touchdowns.
What it means: The controversial BCS era ends with the SEC being denied its eighth consecutive national championship, which should sit well with college football fans outside of the SEC. In a game in which the SEC seemed most vulnerable during its championship streak, the Tigers jumped out to a 21-3 lead but couldn't hold on for a victory. The Tigers were denied their second BCS national championship since the 2010 season, when they defeated Oregon 22-19 in the BCS National Championship behind quarterback Cam Newton. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn missed becoming only the second coach -- Miami's Larry Coker was the first -- to lead his team to the national title in his first season since the BCS began in 1998.
Stat that matters: 2-for-12: Florida State won despite going 2-for-12 on third down.
What's next: Florida State will probably be a popular choice to be the No. 1 team in preseason polls heading into the 2014 season. FSU will have to replace several key pieces on defense, including linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. But the Seminoles will bring back Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, along with several of their most important players on offense. Auburn, which reached the BCS national championship in Malzahn's first season, will be among the SEC West favorites in 2014, along with Alabama and LSU. The Tigers will bring back Marshall, but they'll have to wait to see if junior tailback Tre Mason returns to school or enters next spring's NFL draft. Auburn's very young defense will be a lot wiser in coordinator Ellis Johnson's second season, too.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- He started with 11 straight completions, an answer to anyone who wondered if this chaos would finally unravel the unflappable focus of Jameis Winston.
He lounged on the sideline throughout the entirety of the second half of yet another blowout win, joking with former Heisman winner and Florida State great Charlie Ward. If Winston was worried that an off-field scandal might squash his hopes of following in Ward’s footsteps, his wide smile and relaxed demeanor didn’t show it Saturday.
Once the 59-3 shellacking of Syracuse was over, Winston lingered on the field for a few extra moments, then darted toward the tunnel, stopping behind the end zone when he found coach Jimbo Fisher’s young son. He shared high-fives with a contingent of kids, then exited the field through a cadre of fans reaching out their hands and shouting his name, disappearing into the locker room that is his sanctuary.
This was Florida State’s first mantra this week: Everything stays the same.
Eventually, Winston emerged to face the cameras and the reporters. During his five-minute news conference, he faced a slew of questions about his focus, but not one about his potential involvement in a sexual-assault case being investigated by the state attorney’s office. Media had been instructed that Winston would discuss football only, but those unanswered questions tinged every aspect of Florida State’s victory on Saturday.
That is the other mantra at Florida State until there is some resolution to this case: No comment.
“One thing about Florida State, we’re a big family,” Winston said, “and we stay inside the family.”
A sexual assault was alleged to have occurred last December, and at some point after that, Winston became entangled in the investigation. On Wednesday, that information became public, but few other details of the story have emerged since.
Fisher skillfully dodged questions during a postgame media session that was, at times, more like a chess match between those who wanted details and a man who might have some.
Winston turned the focus onto his teammates, just as he had all season. Florida State’s defense once again was dominant. The offense scored touchdowns on its first five drives. There was too much love to go around to belabor the ugly story that overshadowed everything else for the previous four days.
The rest of the Seminoles were subjected to similar scrutiny, but they were careful not to provide any spark that might further ignite this growing media firestorm. It was, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said, the closest thing possible to business as usual.
“The guy, he’s had a lot going on around him from the start of the season,” Jernigan said of Winston, a redshirt freshman. “When you play like he plays, a lot’s going to come with it, whether it’s in a good way or a bad way. He’s just going out and playing his game. Nothing’s going to bother him.”
Indeed, Winston hardly seemed flustered by the off-field distractions. He finished the game completing 19 of 21 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. He delivered a devastating block 40 yards downfield on a 74-yard touchdown run by freshman Levonte Whitfield. He nearly drew a flag sprinting onto the field to celebrate a defensive touchdown. He beamed after his backup, Sean Maguire, threw the first touchdown pass of his career in the third quarter, a beautiful lob to tight end Nick O'Leary in the end zone that may offer some hope for Florida State’s offense should this scandal derail Winston’s season.
“Nothing’s going to hold Jaboo back,” tailback James Wilder Jr. said of his QB. “He’s always happy, always cheering. He was tuned in, locked in.”
Before the game, the 1993 national championship team was honored, and even Seminoles 20 years removed from their playing days faced questions. Ward offered support for Winston. After an 11-month delay in investigating the incident, Ward suggested the timing of Tallahassee police’s decision to send the case to the state attorney was curious.
Derrick Brooks, a defensive star on that 1993 team, said this year’s Seminoles would rally around Winston. Championship teams, he said, always face adversity, and the cure was to step back onto the field.
But adversity seems like the wrong word. Fans cheered his name, and reporters studied Winston’s face for signs that the cloud of suspicion would finally crack his unflinchingly upbeat facade. But the alleged victim in the case remains nameless and faceless to the public, another in the stream of details still unknown.
Saturday’s game did little to part the clouds of the growing storm surrounding the program. It simply proved once again that, with Winston at quarterback, Florida State is a team more than capable of playing for a national championship.
“When you have great veterans around you and great people you trust,” Winston said, “you want to go out on that battlefield and play your heart out for them.”
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.
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.
State of the wide receivers : With experienced playmakers and young, athletic talent, the Florida State receiving corps could be a strength in 2013. That is, if the QB competition doesn't do in this loaded group.
Corey Dowlar writes: Several of FSU's commits have loaded up on preseason honors as high school seasons begin.
Hale: Cornerback Nick Waisome barely beat out a true freshman for the starting spot left by Greg Reid’s departure, but that hasn’t hampered his confidence.
Hale: Defensive end Bjoern Werner, who helps man one of the strongest defensive lines in college football, is today's subject in NoleNation's Carrying the Spear series of player profiles.
Dowlar: Whitfield’s high school coach says the standout ATH has the ability to change a game with one play, even at a BCS school, a statement supported when former NFL player Chris Gizzi says Whitfield held his own against the best at the recent Gridiron Kings event.
David Hale writes: Tight end Nick O’Leary, who brings versatility to Jimbo Fisher’s pro-style offense, is today’s profile in NoleNation’s Carrying the Spear series looking at 50 potential impact players.
Hale: Images from Sunday’s FSU media-day team photos.