ACC: Terrance Smith
The ACC is at its spring midpoint. Miami, Boston College and Duke are done. Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Louisville just got started. But for most of the league, the biggest storylines are still playing out.
With that in mind, here's a quick rundown of a few of the biggest issues worth monitoring in the ACC so far this spring:
The injured QBs: Any discussion of the conference's top quarterbacks for 2015 promises to include Deshaun Watson and Marquise Williams, yet neither is taking snaps this spring. Watson tore his ACL late in the regular season, so his absence was no surprise. Instead, it's been his quick recovery that's been newsworthy. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says Watson is already at 80 percent and should be ready to run summer drills with the rest of the Tigers' offense. Williams, on the other hand, is dealing with a hip injury, and his absence from spring practice was late-breaking news. Still, the QB situation appears far more established at North Carolina than it was a year ago, with Williams clearly the starter once healthy. Nevertheless, the Tigers and Tar Heels have used the spring to develop their backups, and, given that the reigning national champions needed three starters to get through the season, that might end up being a blessing.
The emerging QBs: There weren't many quarterback battles entering the spring, but the few places where jobs were up for grabs appear to have decisive front-runners. At Florida State, the task of replacing Jameis Winston won't be an easy one, but thus far senior Sean Maguire appears to have separated himself from the pack. Redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino likely will push the competition into the fall, but for now Maguire looks like the favorite. At Boston College, there might be even less drama, with Darius Wade the obvious front-runner. He wrapped up spring practice last weekend with a relatively forgettable performance, but coaches still love his arm and pocket presence, which could bring an added dimension to the Eagles' run-heavy offense. And at Duke, David Cutcliffe gave lip service to an open job, but it appears clear that Thomas Sirk is the heavy favorite. He has just 14 pass attempts to his credit, but he looked like the veteran presence Duke needed this spring, and it's unlikely he'll be unseated atop the depth chart by fall.
FSU's thin linebacking corps: The defense took a big step back for Florida State in 2014, and Charles Kelly's rebuilding job hasn't been made any easier this spring with the departure of four underclassmen for the NFL draft and a litany of injuries -- particularly among the linebackers. Terrance Smith is dealing with turf toe. Reggie Northrup tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl. Matthew Thomas is now out with a shoulder injury. E.J. Levenberry and Kain Daub decided to transfer. That has Kelly plugging in bodies wherever he can find them, and it likely means FSU won't get a real feel for how its defense will look until the fall. That's a big concern for a team that mustered just 17 sacks last season -- ranking 118th nationally.
Notable position swaps: Spring is always a time when we see teams tinker with personnel at some new positions. That's the case at Florida State, where Jalen Ramsey moves from safety to corner, a move that worked well for Lamarcus Joyner two years ago. Running back Ryan Green also moved to corner, giving FSU ample athleticism in the secondary. At NC State, Airius Moore moves from middle linebacker to the weak side, allowing the Wolfpack to showcase their two talented sophomore linebackers, along with Jerod Fernandez. Dane Rogers moved from end to tackle at Clemson in hopes of finding a steady replacement for Grady Jarrett. Dan Crimmins, BC's second-leading returning receiver, could develop into a more dynamic tight end for the Eagles.
More drama at Miami: Brad Kaaya remains an emerging star, but there are ample questions surrounding him at Miami. Stacy Coley remains something of a mystery after an awful 2014 campaign. The options at tight end were inconsistent at best. The revamped offensive line had its share of spring struggles. Tailback Joseph Yearby was suspended for the spring game, and Gus Edwards saw only limited action. Not surprisingly, the spring game ended with a solid defensive performance that included four interceptions.
Hokies' defensive injuries: Virginia Tech promises to have one of the ACC's top defenses in 2015, but it's tough to get much of a read on it this spring. Brandon Facyson, Kendall Fuller, Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall and Ken Ekanem -- all established starters -- are out with injuries. Virginia Tech is using the time to develop depth, but, particularly in the secondary, Bud Foster would love a chance to get things a bit more settled.
Hunt-Days returns for Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets' pass rush was a work-in-progress throughout much of last season, but the development of KeShun Freeman and the return of Jabari Hunt-Days this spring could make it an asset in 2015. Hunt-Days missed all of last season because of academic issues, but he's settling back in nicely this spring and could be a wrecking ball for a Tech defense that's looking to make some major strides.
Clemson: The Tigers did lose an underclassman: punter Bradley Pinion. Head-scratching, yes. But the reason the Tigers are winners this year is that they held on to all their top offensive talent. While nobody was in position to declare early, it still is notable that this is the first time Clemson has not had an underclassman on offense turn pro since 2010. That could very well change once these freshmen start growing up, but for now, it is good to be co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott.
Duke: The Blue Devils had only one player who could have potentially left early: safety Jeremy Cash. When he announced he would return to school, there must have been a huge sigh of relief. Not only does the Duke secondary now return all its starters, it returns its best player. Cash had 111 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles this past season. With linebacker Kelby Brown (ACL) expected healthy for 2015, Duke potentially has two of the best defensive players in the ACC.
Notre Dame: So the Irish have only one toe in the ACC football waters, but they did end up a huge winner, and that is something teams with Notre Dame on the 2015 schedule need to know. All underclassmen who could have returned did: defensive lineman Sheldon Day, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, center/guard Nick Martin and quarterback Everett Golson (at least for now). Stanley was the biggest surprise because some had projected him as a first-round pick on a few early mock drafts. While Golson's status remains unclear, getting Day, Stanley and Martin back means expectations will again be high in South Bend, Indiana.
Florida State: The Seminoles might be the biggest draft-deadline loser in the country, with five players turning pro early this year: quarterback Jameis Winston, cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. Of that group, Winston and Goldman are listed on the first Mel Kiper Jr. mock draft. Losing players to the draft is nothing new for the Seminoles, but they have taken heavy losses from their underclassmen in the past three years: 12 in all. Add to that losses from a terrific senior group, including Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and Karlos Williams, and 2015 might end up being a bit of a rebuilding year for the Seminoles as they get a boatload of young guys ready to play. On the bright side, kicker Roberto Aguayo and linebacker Terrance Smith announced they would return to school.
Louisville: Many expected safety Gerod Holliman to leave after he tied an NCAA record with 14 interceptions, despite some questions about his pro potential. But losing defensive backs Charles Gaines and James Sample has to be a blow the Cardinals were not quite expecting. Louisville, which ranked No. 5 in the nation in pass efficiency defense, must now replace five of its top six defensive backs in 2015. Put another way, Louisville is losing players responsible for 21 of the 26 interceptions it had last season.
Miami: While we all expected running back Duke Johnson to leave, losing him is still tough for a Miami offense that revolved heavily around him in the past three seasons. Johnson leaves as the school's all-time career all-purpose yards and rushing yards leader. Add the departure of offensive tackle Ereck Flowers and now Miami has to replace its two best underclassmen, plus top seniors Clive Walford and Denzel Perryman.
Goldman is the fifth Seminoles player to declare early for the pros, joining quarterback Jameis Winston, cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. The junior Goldman really burst onto the national scene this year, especially in the Sept. 20 win over Clemson. He finished the season with 35 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks, which led the team.
"Eddie was a tremendous leader, student-athlete and, most importantly, a tremendous person for FSU," coach Jimbo Fisher said in a release. "I can't thank him enough for his contributions over the last three years on the field and for his leadership by example. I expect Eddie to have a tremendous professional career and I'm very excited for him and his family."
Fisher has recruited so well in recent years that the cupboard will be far from bare for the Noles in 2015. And it wasn't all bad news for the program in this young offseason, as linebacker Terrance Smith and kicker Roberto Aguayo both announced their intentions to return next season. But as our Andrea Adelson notes, FSU has now had 13 players turn pro in the last three years. With so many key pieces once again departing from a group that helped contribute to a 29-game winning streak, three ACC titles, one national title and a College Football Playoff berth, this really does seem like the end of an era in Tallahassee. Fortunately for the Noles, the talent is there to start a new run.
Here are the rest of your ACC Thursday links:
- The (Newport News) Daily Press' David Teel says the ACC's 2014 season was a mix of undeniable success and spectacular failure.
- Clemson's MacKensie Alexander and Virginia's Quin Blanding are both freshmen All-Americans.
- Laken Tomlinson is the fifth Duke player to earn consensus All-America honors.
- Georgia Tech guard Shaq Mason earned a Senior Bowl invite.
- Louisville linebacker James Burgess had minor wrist surgery and is expected back for spring practice, Jeff Greer writes in the (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
- Akron offensive line coach John Peterson tweeted that he's joining Pitt's staff. Paul Chryst, meanwhile, has taken plenty of Pitt assistants with him to Wisconsin.
- Virginia added Dave Borbely (offensive line) and Chris Beatty (receivers) to its staff.
1. Jameis Winston: His interceptions are up and his touchdowns are down. But is there any other quarterback you want leading your team with two minutes left in a tight game? Absolutely not. Winston has come through for the Seminoles when they needed him most, putting his mistakes behind him to lead five second-half comebacks this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Winston has an 88.1 total QBR when trailing in the second half, fourth-best in the nation. Oh, and he’s 26-0 as a starter.
3. The defense is healthy: This is probably the healthiest Florida State has been since the start of the season, and it could not come at a better time. Defensive tackles Eddie Goldman and Nile Lawrence-Stample are ready to go, and so is linebacker Terrance Smith, who missed the ACC championship game with a knee injury. Florida State has struggled at times on defense, and injuries have not helped matters. Having these three back is huge.
4. Dalvin Cook: The freshman has emerged in the second half of the season, setting a school freshman record for rushing yards with 905. He is tough to contain and bring down. Eleven of his carries have gone for 20 or more yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Cook is averaging 8.8 yards per rush outside the tackles, second-best among Power 5 running backs behind Melvin Gordon (minimum 50 carries). He will be a load for the Oregon defense to stop.
5. No Ifo: Losing All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is a huge blow for the Ducks, who are expected to start redshirt freshman Chris Seisay in his place. Winston said earlier this week it hardly matters who is lined up at corner, but there is no doubt Florida State will test Seisay early and often. The Seminoles have matchup advantages with dependable veteran Rashad Greene, speedy Travis Rudolph, and tight end Nick O'Leary to boot.
6. Florida State secondary: Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost had high praise for defensive back Jalen Ramsey, who has emerged in the second half of the season as a dependable leader in the secondary. Ramsey has 11 pass breakups and 9.5 tackles for loss and is joined by lockdown cornerback P.J. Williams, the BCS national championship MVP a year ago. Florida State has 53 pass break-ups this season. Oregon has great athletes at receiver; Florida State has the athletes to keep up.
7. More physical: Oregon takes exception to the finesse label, so here is the perfect opportunity to prove everybody wrong and absolutely own the line of scrimmage against the bigger Seminoles. Florida State owns a size advantage on the offensive line -- the five starters average 323 pounds -- and has been much better with Cameron Erving under center. Can a patchwork offensive line dominate All-ACC performers Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr.? Florida State has the edge in both matchups.
8. Roberto Automatic-o: Not only does Florida State have the clutch Winston, it also has the clutch Roberto Aguayo, who has missed only three field goal attempts in his career. Aguayo is 8-for-8 on field goal attempts from 44 yards or longer and has never missed an attempt from 50 yards or longer. He is as close to automatic as you will find, and that is a huge advantage for any team playing for a championship.
9. Red zone dominance: Florida State has been extremely productive in the red zone, converting 92.6 percent of its opportunities into points to rank No. 5 in the nation. Against Power 5 opponents, Florida State has converted 38 of its 42 red-zone chances. Twenty-one of those scores have been rushes. Here is the advantage: Oregon ranks No. 74 in the nation in red-zone defense and allows 4.1 yards per carry.
10. The 29-game winning streak: Florida State just doesn’t lose. Simple as that.
For No. 3 Florida State, that is your reward for a second straight undefeated season and third consecutive ACC title. Hop on a cross-country flight to the No. 2 Ducks’ backyard for the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual in a New Year’s Day College Football Playoff semifinal.
“Wherever you’re ranked right now, I don’t know if it matters,” Fisher said. “Every team in this playoff is a great team.”
He’s right, of course. It sounds crazy -- and maybe it is considering Oregon is outscoring opponents by almost 24 points per game -- but football is a game of matchups, and the Seminoles are better off against the Ducks, an early 8.5-point favorite.
Oregon’s offense is “off the charts,” Fisher said, but the Seminoles have the luxury of three-week period to prepare for the Ducks’ dynamic spread. Although no offense is soaring quite like the Ducks’, Florida State’s last three games have been against Boston College, Florida and Georgia Tech. All or some of those teams are predicated on the run, have mobile quarterbacks, use a lot of misdirection and run some variance of the option.
With Fisher expecting defensive tackle Eddie Goldman to be able to play, the Seminoles have the size, length and athleticism along the defensive line to pose problems for Oregon’s spread. Goldman is among the country’s best defensive tackles, and few defensive ends can control the edge like 300-pound junior Mario Edwards, who can do a standing backflip. He will have to funnel plays inside because Oregon averages 6.9 yards per rush outside the tackles. Oregon is statistically better rushing between the tackles than Alabama, too, but dreadlocked wrecking ball Derrick Henry could ravage an already thin FSU defensive front.
The running game is peaking for the Seminoles, too. True freshman running back Dalvin Cook has emerged as one of the Seminoles’ elite players, totaling 392 yards over his last two games and winning MVP of the ACC championship.
The Ducks are above average against the run in 2014, ranking 57th in yards per rush (4.12), but, Alabama ranks third nationally with an average of 2.81 yards allowed. The Ducks have also been a little bit more vulnerable in the beginning of games before they put games out of reach. Oregon allows 4.26 yards per carry in the first half but have a sub-4.0 average in the second. The Ducks have not been great on first down either, allowing nearly 5 yards per rush on first downs.
“Dalvin’s just getting better and better as each week goes by,” Seminoles senior center Cameron Erving told reporters after the game. “He’s a dynamic player. He can break tackles. He’s fast. He’s elusive. There are not enough positive things you can say about Dalvin.”
And really, who wants to match wits with Nick Saban in a championship-like setting? Saban is 5-1 in SEC title games and 4-0 in national title games when he has had weeks to prepare. That’s not knocking Mark Helfrich, who has only three losses in two seasons as head coach, but Saban has earned the $7 million check with his performances in championship games. Alabama has won all three of its national championships under Saban by at least 16 points.
All that said, there are certainly areas the Ducks can exploit the Seminoles. Florida State’s linebackers are not nearly as athletic or fast as a year ago and missed tackles have plagued the unit. Starters Matthew Thomas and Terrance Smith are not 100 percent either.
Offensively, Florida State ranks 116th out of 128 FBS teams with 27 turnovers while the Ducks have turned it over only twice. The Ducks are averaging 9.2 points off turnovers per game this season, ranked eighth in the country and have allowed only 13 total points all season off their own mistakes.
It’s an unenviable “Would You Rather” scenario for Florida State with only Alabama and Oregon as the options, but the Seminoles might matchup better -- even if just slightly -- against the Ducks.
The truth is, Kelly has been asked to sweat it out under the Florida State fan base’s intense, beaming light the last three months. The Seminoles’ contingency was keeping a close eye on Kelly, who took over the No. 1 scoring defense from the departed Jeremy Pruitt.
By the end of September, knee-jerk reactions led to premature calls for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher to replace Kelly. The Seminoles ended September ranked 78th in total defense and 66th in points allowed.
What the Florida State defense and Kelly were able to hang their hat on early in the season despite the struggles were second-half adjustments. In the Seminoles’ first four games this season against current bowl-eligible teams -- Clemson, NC State, Notre Dame and Louisville -- they allowed 72 first-half points (18 points per game). In the second half of those games, the defense allowed 44 points, an average of 11 points.
In eight of the last 10 games, Florida State has held its opponents to fewer yards in the second half than the first, and the Noles rank 15th nationally with 9.2 points allowed in the second half this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Colleague David Hale also points out Florida State’s defense is allowing touchdowns on only 14 percent of its second-half drives over its last 10 games.
The second-half surges are serving as a microcosm for the Seminoles’ season. In the month of November, the Seminoles rank 31st in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense.
“I think we’re getting a little more comfortable,” linebacker Terrance Smith said. “Everyone is flowing. We’re getting comfortable with Coach Kelly. It was a change from Pruitt.”
Smith and a large sampling of Florida State players all say there haven’t been any changes schematically the last few weeks. It’s just a matter of the Seminoles playing better and more consistently under the direction of Kelly, who has been lauded as a coach by all of his peers.
Smith will not play Saturday, a tough blow to a linebacker corps that Fisher feels is playing its best all season. He said the linebackers were the key to limiting Florida to 76 rushing yards below its average last weekend. The better linebacker play has helped steer the Florida State defense that looked rudderless in September.
The emergence of Jalen Ramsey at nickelback cannot be overlooked, either. The sophomore, who leads the defense in starts, was an elite safety as a freshman but was asked to fill the void Lamarcus Joyner left. At 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, Ramsey is the ideal build for nickelback in Fisher’s defense.
There was a transition period early in the season, but Ramsey is now stating his case to be named as an All-American. Few defensive backs have had a better second half to the season than Ramsey, who is filling up the stat sheet with interceptions, tackles for loss, batted balls and blocked kicks.
But it’s what Ramsey takes away that Fisher points to.
“He can cover the slot, tight end, can blitz and be take up a big blocker to allow another one on one for our inside guys,” Fisher said. “His presence. It’s that kind of factor.”
All eyes will be on Kelly and his new-look defense Saturday, but recent indications suggest the defense is better equipped to handle the pressure than it has at any other point this season.
Laskey and Days have been an unstoppable force in the Jackets’ five-game winning streak. In four of those games, one of the backs has gained over 100 yards. Laskey did it most recently last week in an upset over rival Georgia, rushing for 140 yards and three touchdowns -- including the game-winner in overtime.
“I have confidence in him that he's going to bring that again this week.”
Laskey humbly admitted, “Probably one of my best games I’ve ever had since I’ve been at Tech. I give a lot of credit to the guys up front. They were blowing guys off the ball all time. Every guy on the team, you could tell we all had that extra fire in our eyes, and we came out and it helped us tremendously.”
Laskey began the year as the starter, patiently waiting his turn behind David Sims. Davis joined the B-back group this season after shuffling around different positions in the offense. His size and athleticism made him the perfect fit.
The two became close, and started calling each other Ebony and Ivory. Their playing styles suit the B-back position, where a hard-nosed temperament is a must. Laskey is 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds; Days is 6-2, 231 pounds. Try bringing those guys down on first contact when they are running right up the middle.
“We have a pretty big D-line up front. We're going to need them to perform really well this game, get their people on the ground, keep them from gaining yards,” Florida State linebacker Terrance Smith said. “We faced a couple big backs this year, Boston College, to Florida, teams like that. It just comes down to tackling. You're going to have to man up, get them on the ground.”
That is something teams have had a tough time doing this year, whether Laskey or Days got the carries. Initially, it was only Laskey. But when he hurt his shoulder against North Carolina, Days stepped in and had three consecutive 100-yard games.
Last week against Georgia, both were particularly effective running up the middle. A combined 26 of their 42 carries went that direction, and they got stronger as the game went on.
“Me and Synjyn both bring a lot of power to the position,” Laskey said. “When we’re driving down the field having 10-, 12-play drives and we’re running right up the middle on the defense, they’re going to get worn out. It really helps wear down some defenses.”
Laskey and Days combined for 236 of the team’s 399 yards rushing against Georgia.
“Me and Zach, we definitely have similar running styles,” Days said. “We’re always falling forward, we’re always going to keep our feet moving to try to get the extra yards. We're definitely hard workers on and off the field, trying to be leaders. Being seniors, me and him, we wanted to go out there our last go-around, leave everything out on the field, to have no regrets.”
Beyond the 100-yard games Laskey has had, there is one stat the best illustrates how effective he is with the ball in his hands. On 150 carries this year, Laskey has lost a total of 2 yards.
“For me, I always just tell myself if I can fall forward and that’s going to be a couple yards right there,” Laskey said. “Really, I just try to win the one-on-one battles with the linebackers and soft shoulder them for a few yards.”
He and Days will try to do that again against the Seminoles. If they are as successful as they have been over the past five games, Georgia Tech will improve its chances at the upset.
A quick look at Florida State's 24-19 win over Florida:
How the game was won: Florida State played its sloppiest game of the season, but the No. 3 Seminoles weren't to be outdone by rival Florida. The Gators had two chances to kick the go-ahead field goal in the second half and missed both. Off of four Jameis Winston interceptions, the Gators managed six points, a missed field goal and their own interception returned for a pick-six. FSU has made the late plays in most close wins, but Florida handed the Noles this one.
Game ball goes to: True freshman running back Dalvin Cook (144 rushing yards) was spectacular again, but redshirt junior linebacker Terrance Smith breathed life into an FSU team that looked disinterested to start. Florida had a chance to take a 16-point lead and had the ball inside the FSU 10, but the Gators threw an interception on the drive’s first play, and Smith returned it 94 yards for a touchdown. The Noles scored a touchdown on their next two possessions and never trailed again.
What it means: FSU coach Jimbo Fisher continues to dominate his in-state rivals. He is now a combined 9-1 against Florida and Miami. Winston showed, once again, that no matter how bad he is to start a game, he finds a way to turn it on. He was great in the second quarter. For Florida, it's a tough exit for coach Will Muschamp considering the Gators' chances and undisciplined play. It was a typical loss under Muschamp, though, as the offense could not do enough despite a great defensive effort.
Playoff implication: FSU remains alive despite another lackluster performance. The Noles cannot survive a loss most likely, but at this point, it doesn't matter how ugly Florida State wins. The Seminoles will not get dropped, but it also looks like No. 3 is as high as they will go unless No. 1 Alabama or No. 2 Oregon loses.
Best play: It belongs to Smith, who caught the ricocheted pass for the big touchdown to swing momentum.
What's next: Florida State plays Georgia Tech in the ACC championship in Charlotte, North Carolina, with obvious major playoff implications. The Seminoles can’t lose, and Georgia Tech wants the automatic Orange Bowl bid. For the Gators, it's now time to find a coach. Chances are they will have one named before the bowl game, whenever that might be.
The Seminoles slowed down Virginia back Kevin Parks, holding him to just 43 yards. FSU held the Cavaliers to 37 total yards rushing -- a season low for the Noles' D.
On Monday, local reporters asked Florida State defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. whether that performance showed the defense had turned a corner.
"That's Virginia and this is Miami," he said.
The result is the most productive Miami run game in years. The Hurricanes are averaging 199.6 yards per game on the ground, their highest average since the 2001 national championship team.
It all starts with Johnson, so the primary objective is to stop him at all costs.
"You have to make them one dimensional," Edwards said. They’re good with position blocking. They want to get in front of you and turn you where Duke can cut off them and make a play.
"Duke is one of those backs you really don’t see. He can make a cut or stop and get back to full speed within two strides, and once he makes a cut and gets through a gap you can pretty much kiss the baby -- he’s going to be gone."
Despite the Virginia result, there has been some cause for concern with the Florida State run defense. The Seminoles are thin up front and have had injuries in a linebacker unit that has taken a step back from a year ago.
Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston and Louisville running back Michael Dyer each ran for over 100 yards, meaning the Noles have allowed 100 yard rushers twice in the last three games.
"Some of the players, including myself, stepped up and said, 'This isn’t Florida State football, it’s not the way we play.'" Edwards said. "We challenged each other to play the way we need to and come back and win."
As colleague Jared Shanker points out, Florida State has made successful halftime adjustments throughout the course of the season, especially on run defense. After allowing big rushing totals in the first half against Clemson, Notre Dame and Louisville, the Noles tightened up in the second half, as all three had fewer second half rushing yards.
Still, it is strange to see Florida State in the middle of the pack among rush defenses in the ACC, ranking No. 7 (and No. 35 in the country). Florida State is giving up an average of 135.7 yards per game on the ground. That is not terrible, but not nearly as good as in years past. The last time FSU gave up that many yards per game was 2009.
Still, Fisher and his players believe they see improvement.
"You’re talking about a lot of guys that haven’t really had to carry that big burden on their back," Fisher said. "Reggie Northrup makes tackles, but he never had to play any significant time last year when he was on defense. Terrance [Smith] did, but he’s been off and on hurt. Eddie [Goldman] did, but he wasn’t counted on to be like Timmy [Jernigan] was, which he’s playing like. Now Mario has really grown into that role and gotten healthy and got his weight down. Losing Nile [Lawrence-Stample] I thought was really a huge loss for us inside because he was playing extremely well. Desmond Hollin's doing a good job. I think their experience and confidence is growing.”
Good timing, considering the challenge they face to try and stop Johnson.
ACC reporter Jared Shanker contributed to this report.
It’s true that quarterback Jameis Winston hasn’t been quite as sharp this season, but it’s worth noting that he has been asked to throw a good bit more than he did a season ago. During the regular season in 2013, Winston’s high in pass attempts was 34 (vs. Clemson). This season, he has had one game against an FBS foe in which he’s thrown less than 34 times (31 vs. Notre Dame). Last season, 51 percent of FSU’s plays against FBS teams were pass plays. This season, that rate has jumped to 58 percent.
So why the increased reliance on Winston’s arm? It has a lot to do with the lack of production from the backfield, and that actually starts up front.
If you have watched Florida State’s recent games, it’s no secret that center Ryan Hoefeld is a bit overmatched, but the Seminoles’ inability to run between the tackles has been a season-long problem, and it’s the biggest difference between last season’s offense and this season’s.
Last season, FSU ran between the tackles on 66 percent of its runs, and its 6.2 yards-per-carry average and 26 TDs led the ACC. This season, the Seminoles’ performance outside the tackles has actually improved, but its production up the middle has been cut in half.
Now flip the script to the defensive side of the ball. Again, FSU hasn’t been nearly as impressive as it was in 2013, and the once mighty secondary has proven vulnerable at times.
Last season, FSU allowed 52 percent completions, picked off one of every 16 attempts and allowed a national-best 5.1 yards per attempt to opposing quarterbacks. This season, those numbers are down across the board: 58 percent completions, one interception for every 34 attempts, and a 7.1 yards-per-attempt average.
Again, it’s hard to pin all that blame on the secondary when the play up front has been spotty.
With Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith gone from the middle of the defense, opponents have thrived between the tackles, and the pass rush has dropped off precipitously (FSU averaged a sack every 12.2 attempts last season, every 22.8 this year).
Last season, opponents averaged just 3.2 yards-per-carry between the tackles and scored just twice -- both tops in the ACC. This season, FSU has again improved on outside runs -- its 4.2 yards-per-carry allowed leads the conference -- but opponents are rushing for 1.1 more yards-per-run up the middle than they did a season ago and have already doubled their touchdown total.
Injuries have been critical in both areas for Florida State. Center Austin Barron and defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample are done for the season. Tackle Derrick Mitchell and linebackers Terrance Smith, Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe have all battled injuries, too. FSU is plugging in second- and third-stringers to fill key roles, and the results have been obvious. [Edit: Barron's original diagnosis suggested a season-ending injury. Jimbo Fisher said this week the center could return this year. Meanwhile, reports surfaced Thursday suggesting Eligwe's career at Florida State was over though Fisher has yet to confirm that.]
Indeed a lot has changed for the Seminoles from 2013. Freshmen are playing bigger roles, the competition is better, and as national champs, they are getting every opponent's best shot. But the biggest differences from 2013 to 2014 have been health and strength up the middle - two issues invariably tied together.
And with Barron and Lawrence-Stample sidelined, those problems aren’t going to be fixed in any dramatic fashion. What is encouraging for FSU is that it has found ways to win anyway. What’ is perhaps troubling, however, is that there will be many bigger challenges ahead -- from Virginia’s defensive line this week to Duke Johnson and Tyler Murphy down the road -- that figure to test those weak links again and again.
Florida State's Jimbo Fisher fired back Monday at NC State coach Dave Doeren, two days after Doeren had accused the Seminoles of faking injuries in FSU's 56-41 win.
"Well, I accuse him of not knowing what he's talking about," Fisher said Monday, as our Jared Shanker wrote. "They're not fake injuries. No one faked injuries, and we wouldn't do that. We'll coach Florida State, and he can coach North Carolina State."
As Shanker writes, Eddie Goldman, Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Terrance Smith needed help off the field Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Doeren softened his stance Monday but did not exactly back down, saying that the issue is not specific to FSU and that a rule should be in place that a player has to sit out for more than one play if he leaves the game in such a situation.
None of this, of course, is particularly new to college football, which has publicly wrestled with the hurry-up, no-huddle debate going on three years now. There is no real clear answer yet.
Surprisingly, a poll embedded in Shanker's story shows fans are overwhelmingly OK with Doeren's suggestions, saying that he did not cross a line. But our David Hale likely had a point Saturday when he tweeted that if you're going to fake injuries to slow the offense's tempo, you probably don't do it with Goldman in the red zone.
On to the rest of your ACC links ...
- With BC entering its bye, ESPNBoston.com's Jack McCluskey takes a look at where the Eagles stand after a disappointing loss.
- Georgia Tech's Shaq Mason has some new motivation, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: He became a father last month.
- Will Gardner returned to practice but his status remains unclear, Jeff Greer writes in the (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
- Larry Fedora is going about correcting UNC's mistakes, Andrew Carter writes in the (Raleigh) News & Observer.
- Pitt is looking for answers after its latest loss, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- Syracuse is trying to develop green cornerbacks during a tough stretch, Nate Mink writes in the (Syracuse) Post-Standard.
- The (Newport News) Daily Press' David Teel says Virginia's clash with Pitt is important and intriguing for the Coastal division.
Frank Beamer says Brenden Motley is due to return to practice following a back injury next week, but with the Hokies scrimmaging Saturday, all indications point to a two-man race with the winner likely being decided this weekend. Beamer says he wants a decision made sooner than later so the team has time to build a rapport with the new starter.
I talked with Beamer on Wednesday, and he spoke highly of Brewer’s ability to grasp the system in a hurry and command the huddle.
“His personality, who he is, it lends himself to that,” Beamer said. “He’s a take-charge guy, likes being in control. It lends itself to him coming in and feeling at ease with the position he’s in.”
Beamer praised Brewer’s accuracy, too, but he said the key for either QB will be more consistency from the receivers when it comes to route running and drops. And on the subject of the receivers, Beamer absolutely raved about freshmen Cameron Phillips and Isaiah Ford.
“Those are two guys that are going to really help our group,” Beamer said. “They’re two athletic guys.”
A few more links:
- Dabo Swinney was none too happy with his team after its scrimmage Wednesday, telling reporters, “I thought we hit the wall.” Probably not worth reading too much into the outburst. Good coaches always pick at least one practice to publicly call out their team, and as we hit the midpoint of August, it was probably time for Swinney to give Clemson a minor wake-up call.
- Sports Illustrated has its preseason All-America teams out, with 14 ACC players making first- or second-team status. Only the SEC (16) had more. A few ACC names not on the list that we wouldn’t be surprised to see at year’s end? Clemson’s Grady Jarrett, FSU’s Karlos Williams and Ronald Darby and Miami’s Duke Johnson.
- Speaking of Johnson, he looked 100 percent as Miami scrimmaged for the first time, writes the Miami Herald. The QB race, however, remains as murky as ever, with Jake Heaps and freshman Brad Kaaya doing battle Wednesday.
- With Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, Terrance Smith is taking command of the Florida State linebacking crew, writes the Tallahassee Democrat. Smith has 69 career tackles. Reggie Northrup has 55. The rest of the linebacking corps combined has just 71.
- NC State QB Garrett Leatham wasn’t even one of the top 20 walk-ons to make it into fall camp a year ago. Now, writes the Charlotte Observer, he’s got a scholarship and the No. 2 spot on the Wolfpack’s depth chart. Good for Leatham, of course, but it does suggest just how critical a healthy Jacoby Brissett will be for NC State in 2014.
- Duke checks in at No. 24 on USA Today’s college football countdown. Their “dream season” scenario for Duke is an 11-1 campaign with the lone loss coming to Virginia Tech. Of course, the Blue Devils beat the Hokies in Blacksburg last year while mustering 198 yards of offense and failing to convert a third down. So, it’s all relative.
- Breaking news of your impending transfer via Instagram is apparently a thing now, as freshman receiver Corey Cooper announced he was leaving the Orange, writes Syracuse.com. Can recruiting via Tinder be too far off?
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for Florida State Seminoles, the reigning ACC and national champions.
Key losses: RB Devonta Freeman, WR Kelvin Benjamin, WR Kenny Shaw, OC Bryan Stork, DT Timmy Jernigan, LB Telvin Smith, CB Lamarcus Joyner, S Terrence Brooks.
Most important 2014 games: Aug. 30 versus Oklahoma State (neutral site), Sept. 20 versus Clemson, Oct. 18 versus Notre Dame, Oct. 30 at Louisville, Nov. 15 at Miami and Nov. 29 vs. Florida.
Projected win percentage: 93.5 percent.
Over/under Vegas odds: 11.5 wins
Instant impact newcomers: There has been a lot of hype surrounding the freshmen in Florida State camp, and Jimbo Fisher is not doing much to lower expectations. Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph, two of the top six receivers in the 2014 recruiting class nationally, could start at some point this season. Defensive tackles Demarcus Christmas, Derrick Nnadi and Arthur Williams are impressing the coaches and offensive linemen, and the Seminoles need depth along the D-Line.
Best NFL prospects: The over/under for how many first-round picks the Seminoles have in the 2015 draft should be set at five. If he remains healthy and declares following his redshirt sophomore season, Winston could be the No. 1 pick. Two of his linemen, Ervin and Jackson, could be first-round selections, too. Defensively, Edwards could move into the top 10, and Darby and Williams are competing to be the No. 1 cornerback taken in next spring’s draft.
Best-case scenario for 2014: It’s rather simple -- the 2013 scenario plays out a second time in 2014. Florida State has the talent to become the first team to go 15-0 and win the inaugural College Football Playoff. Las Vegas expects the Seminoles to finish the regular season undefeated, and Florida State should be able to dispose of its opponent in the ACC championship game. Florida State 2014 might be competing against Florida State 2013 as one of the greatest teams in school history.
Worst-case scenario: Any season that does not end with Florida State in the College Football Playoff has to be considered a disappointment. The Seminoles could probably survive one regular-season loss and still advance to the playoff, but two losses would almost certainly eliminate them from the conversation. With Winston likely off to the NFL following this season, the Seminoles could take a lengthy step back in 2015 as they reload offensively.
Budding superstar: Ramsey is already regarded as one of the best defensive backs in the country, and he should be squarely in the Thorpe Award conversation this fall. He’s not quite a national name yet, though, and he was not even named to the preseason All-ACC team. Fisher has said repeatedly that as a sophomore Ramsey is the vocal leader of the defense. In a secondary that possibly houses four first-round picks, if not more, Ramsey could go the highest when he’s eligible in 2016.
They said it: “People ask me, ‘When did I know Florida State was the team that they are?’ You never believe it until you get out there on the field, but in warm-ups, I was looking at their kids warming up, and I said, 'Who the heck is that guy? Who is that guy?' I'm looking at them and, oh, they're getting redshirted. And they're a foot taller than our guys and can run, too.” -- Syracuse coach Scott Shafer.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher knows what he is going to get out of his defensive backs. However, the front seven is looking for players to emerge to alleviate the burden of losing tackle Timmy Jernigan and linebacker Telvin Smith. The defensive line needs a handful of role players to complement the starters, and the linebacking corps doesn’t have a definitive first-team unit just yet.
“I want to see those [starting linemen] take responsibility, and I want to see the quality depth behind it so we can get a quality rotation,” Fisher said. “I know we have plenty of guys capable.
Standing at the podium for his first fall camp news conference, Fisher still displayed a palpable confidence as he elaborated on the defense’s questions, but he was cataloging them so he could return to them in another two weeks to see which have been answered.
Florida State has what looks to be a clearly defined set of starters on the defensive line with Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman, Nile Lawrence-Stample and Chris Casher. Defensive line inherently is a position that requires a bevy of fresh bodies, though, which is why Fisher is determined to uncover quality rotational players who will allow his starters to come off the field without the defense taking a step back.
There is no shortage of options behind Florida State’s starters. There are 10 backups along the line who are either freshmen or sophomores, and they average almost 6-foot-4 and 293 pounds. Keith Bryant, Justin Shanks and DeMarcus Walker were blue-chip recruits out of high school, and the defense needs those three to become primary rotational players with the idea they could be the starters in 2015. Florida State also brought in a number of freshmen, and Fisher said, physically, they already fit the Florida State defensive lineman archetype.
The luxury Fisher has is the younger players will all be able to learn from Edwards, who is in his second year in this defensive system but in his first as the unquestioned leader of the defensive line. The former No. 1 high school recruit, few players nationally are as physically gifted as Edwards.
“He’s so daggone big and athletic. He’s still 300 pounds, but we played a lot with those guys at LSU, 300-pound ends,” said Fisher, calling upon his days as an assistant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “When you can do a standing back flip and a run a 5-flat [in the 40-yard dash] and bend like he does, you don’t worry.”
Behind the defensive line, Smith returns as a starter in the linebacker corps, but it is a tossup as to who will partner with him. Ukeme Eligwe, who is recovering from a Lisfranc injury, E.J. Levenberry and Reggie Northrup all played at least 13 games last season, and Matthew Thomas was shelved after four games in 2013 to repair a balky shoulder and preserve his redshirt. Thomas was a five-star recruit and one of the top players during the spring. When a player has a good practice, Fisher likes to say he “flashed,” and routinely this spring Fisher said “No. 6 flashed,” referring to Thomas.
As Fisher balances each player’s talents and weaknesses, the potential deciding factor ultimately could boil down to chemistry. Fisher said it’s often overlooked, but certain players raise their level of play when lining up next to certain teammates.
“We’ll mix and match and also see who plays well together,” Fisher said. “Sometimes people don’t look at that. Some guys play better beside certain guys, and creating those packages is going to be critical.”
No surprise there. I figured I was in the minority when I gave the Hokies the slight edge. Now, here is a little of what you had to say:
Ethan in NY writes: For the ACC DBU, I have to say Virginia Tech gets the top spot, slightly over Florida State. While it's true that we lose Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum, we return Detrick Bonner, Kendall Fuller, Brandon Facyson, and Kyshoen Jarrett, the latter three should be among the best in their position in 2014. To me, it comes down to the fact that FSU is a much stronger team overall, and doesn't rely on it's secondary as much as VT. VT has been tested more and withstood more.
Erv Blythe in Blacksburg, Virginia, writes: Thank you for your analysis, Andrea. At least a part of VT's annual good production and worth a word in the debate is the DB coach: Torrian Gray. Since 2006, he is the key player in recruiting the best, and teaching good fundamentals and toughness that the pro teams have come to love in VT defensive backs.
Jason in Harrisonburg, Virginia, writes: I agree with your pick of Virginia Tech having the best secondary. I completely understand the argument for Florida State, and I may have a different opinion after the season. As it stands now, though, I feel that VT has four starters that are proven to be game-changers. I feel like if Facyson didn't miss a few games toward the end of the season and lose time to Kyle Fuller and Exum, he would have given Kendall Fuller competition for Defensive Rookie of the Year. In my opinion, Tech just has more proven talent at the starting positions, so I feel that they need to get the nod at this point in time. FSU's recruiting of freak athletes is enough for me to believe that they are completely capable of being the best, once the season rolls around, but until each of them are thrown into starting roles, it's yet to see how great they can actually be.
Parker Joost in Athens, Georgia, writes: Va. Tech's DBs are the best.
Charles in Bradenton, Florida, writes: FSU or VTech DBs? The depth of the FSU DBs, combined with a ferocious front six (or seven), should allow FSU to have the better unit. Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman, Chris Casher, Nile Lawrence-Stample, Matthew Thomas and Terrance Smith should prove to be the difference for FSU. Jalen Ramsey, Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams all have first-round potential, and Nick Waisome (backup DB) who is a senior, started for the team his sophomore year. If Tyler Hunter can return to form, he also logged significant minutes with Waisome two years ago. True freshman Trey Marshall, who was in for spring, has played well in camp.
Yapo in San Diego writes: As an alum (93), I am impartial to and have a good resource for knowledge about our team, including elite DBs at FSU. No contest, I thought. ... What [category] could VT possibly lead FSU in as the No. 1 underperforming team last year? Then I took a moment to investigate your blog and... what whaaaat? VT has a couple of All-ACC returnees... in-game actual performance vs. potential, but untested. Ah-ha! Makes sense to even pose this question. Nope. I looked at the deets and I am so, so sorry, Hokies. ... The proof will be in the pudding at season's end. (I am a chef, so when I say pudding, it is undeniable.) At the end of the season, I say FSU has more All-ACC DBs than VT.
Michael Winter in Atlantic Beach, Florida, writes: I'm just curious how Virginia Tech can return all four of its starters and lose a first-round draft pick? (Reporter's note: "All" should be deleted from the sentence). It can be debated who is best, but I think Phil Steele is an idiot. We are not going back 10 years. You only go back one year to try to guess who is going to be better. Ten years ago has nothing to do with what is going to happen this year. Phil Steele has proven he's not very bright, in my mind, when he chose (Marcus) Mariota as the best quarterback over (Jameis) Winston. Did he watch them play? Mariota was not good when he was on the stage against Stanford. Mariota says he gets nervous. Winston showed at Clemson that he is made for the big stage. ... Maybe you need educating, too, I don't know. ... Next time Phil Steele hands out B.S., like choosing Mariota over Winston, those two plays alone are enough to make him look silly.
Mitch in Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: It's still FSU. Aside from Ramsey and Nate Andrews, they also have Tyler Hunter, who missed last season with an injury. If Hunter doesn't get hurt last year, Andrews might not have seen the field. He is a physical freak who will be a menace in the same role as Joyner a year ago. Starting corners Darby and Williams are both top-10 DBs in the country, according to Mel Kiper, with a shot to both go in the first-second round.
Mike at Scott AFB, Illinois, writes: Concerning the best DBs in the ACC (and the nation), I'm just a little biased toward FSU, but I can see yours and Mr. Steele's point. VT does have more returning "starts" and does not have a change in defensive coordinators. So from a "preseason" assessment, you definitely have an argument. However, looking individually... Ramsey is going to be a beast... P.J. Williams is being considered one, if not the best in the nation. Darby is the silent killer [and] no QB will truly test him. Andrews will continue to improve on his surprise freshman season. Then there is Hunter, who was on track to dominate before his injury... That is the potential starting nickel package and all five have NFL draft potential. If they can communicate and work as a team, it is hard to argue them being the No. 1 DB unit in the nation! Go Noles!