ACC: Terrance Smith

ACC morning links

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
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The Roanoke Times reports that Michael Brewer is now considered a co-starter with Mark Leal at Virginia Tech.

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.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston and the Seminoles will try to repeat as national champions.
Key returners: QB Jameis Winston, RB Karlos Williams, WR Rashad Greene, OT Cameron Erving, OG Josue Matias, OG Tre' Jackson, OT Bobby Hart, DE Mario Edwards, DT Eddie Goldman, LB Terrance Smith, CB Ronald Darby, CB P.J. Williams, DB Jalen Ramsey, S Nate Andrews.

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.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State had the No.1 pass defense in 2013. It’s hard to believe it, but the secondary could be even better in 2014, with four possible first-round picks starting in the backfield.

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.

[+] EnlargeEddie Goldman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsEddie Goldman will start at defensive tackle, but Jimbo Fisher is hunting quality behind the junior.
“The leadership role at linebacker, Terrance [Smith] is there but who steps up at Mike linebacker? Who’s going to become the pass rushers, who’s going to be the DPR [designated pass rushers], who’s going to be the nickel ’backers, who’s going to be the first- and second-down ’backers?”

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.”
Earlier this week, I asked you guys to weigh in on whether Florida State or Virginia Tech had the best group of defensive backs in the ACC. You responded in big-time numbers, voting for Florida State by a comfortable margin.

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.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Facyson
AP Photo/John BazemoreBrandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller return on what should be a very good Virginia Tech secondary.
Bill in Birmingham, Alabama, writes: You have VT defensive backs ahead of FSU. Glad you did it. You all consistently short-stick FSU's defense. Last year, it was having Duke with more choices on the All-ACC team. Look what happened to Duke and all its All-ACC defenders in the ACC title game. This year, FSU defense slighted again in the All-ACC rankings. FSU defense will use these slights to perform at or better than last year's level. Let Duke, VT, Clemson get all the media publicity and underperform again. We'll take the ACC and national titles again.

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!

ACC's lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
12:00
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NFL.com put together a list of the 14 hottest names among coordinators in college football, with two ACC coaches making the cut.

Of course, seeing Bud Foster and Chad Morris on the list is no surprise. They have established themselves as among the most consistently good coordinators in the country. What is perhaps more interesting is who isn’t on the list: Namely, no one from the defending national champion. In fact, ex-Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (now at Georgia) does make the cut, but that is as close as the Seminoles got to landing a name on the list.

Given that Jimbo Fisher doesn’t employ an offensive coordinator and is on his third defensive coordinator in as many years, it is probably not a surprise, but as our Travis Haney noted during a recent trip to a Texas coaching clinic, FSU’s Charles Kelly has made a really good early impression since taking over for Pruitt.

Pruitt, quite fairly, received a lot of credit for last year’s championship defense, so now there are concerns about what his loss will mean for Florida State. Those concerns, however, are probably a bit misplaced.

First off, remember the chaos that followed the 2012 season at FSU? Seven assistants left the staff for other jobs, including both coordinators. Mark Stoops had engineered a defense that ranked in the top three nationally in consecutive years and was widely regarded as one of the best assistants in the country. Fisher couldn’t possibly replace all that, right?

Even in the wake of Stoops’ departure, fans clamored for a big name -- Foster, perhaps, or someone with NFL experience -- but he hired an obscure secondary coach from Alabama with just three years of college coaching on his resume. But he knew Pruitt, knew what he was capable of doing, knew the system he wanted to run, and the hire proved a stroke of genius.

So now, it’s a lot easier to believe Fisher knew what he was doing when he promoted Kelly from linebackers coach to DC, and the transition promises to be much smoother this time. Pruitt’s biggest impact on the team last season was the scheme he put in place, but that doesn’t figure to change much under Kelly. The players already know what they are doing, there is no change in vocabulary and virtually no change in the Xs and Os. Moreover, Kelly is as well-liked and respected as any coach on the staff. He will do just fine.

But that doesn’t mean there is no room for worries for Florida State’s defense. It’s just that losing Pruitt probably shouldn’t be the primary concern. The biggest void is the leadership lost with the departures of Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith. That was a rare breed of leaders that had been through the battles and suffered the losses that taught tough lessons -- lessons they continually reminded their younger teammates about during last season’s championship run. Finding voices on defense that carry as much weight in the locker room this year won’t be easy.

“I think it’s feeling comfortable taking on the roles of the guys who have left, that you feel comfortable stepping up and taking that responsibility,” Fisher told me this month. “All of them play hard, but what you have to have is guys stepping up and taking on the leadership. There’s a responsibility of how you have to conduct yourself as a teammate to affect the other guys on the team. That’s where teams grow, and summer and fall camp is so important.”

Fisher reeled off a bunch of names on the offensive side of the ball who will fill that role -- Rashad Greene, Cameron Erving, Karlos Williams, Tre Jackson, Josue Matias and, of course, Jameis Winston -- but the candidates on defense weren’t quite so established.

Fisher said sophomore Jalen Ramsey has been perhaps the most vocal leader throughout the spring and early summer, and fellow defensive backs P.J. Williams and Tyler Hunter have shouldered some of the leadership burden, too. The rest of the unit, though, is still developing.

“Last year’s team wasn’t on a journey. They were on a mission,” Fisher said. “They understood what they really wanted. The trial-and-error they had, they learned from their mistakes over time.”

Terrance Smith learned under Telvin Smith last season, but he’s not nearly as vocal as his predecessor. Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman “are growing into the role,” Fisher said, but they haven’t proven they are as good at galvanizing a group around them as Jernigan did last year.

FSU has ample talent on defense, and it should again have an exceptional coordinator calling the shots, but it’s just really difficult to replace the battle scars and lessons learned that Joyner, Brooks, Smith and Co. used to such great effect in 2013.

More links:
It is never too early to make predictions, and with the season less than three months away, we are seeking your input on who you think will take home some of the ACC's top honors at season's end.

We continue today with defensive player of the year.

SportsNation

Who will be the ACC's 2014 Defensive Player of the Year?

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    34%
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    35%
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    13%
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    3%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,628)

DE Vic Beasley, Sr., Clemson. Beasley's return for his fifth and final season at Clemson gives the Tigers a huge boost going into 2014, as they tout one of the best defensive lines in the country. That, of course, should lead to plenty of opportunities for Beasley, who last season notched 13 sacks, another 12 quarterback hurries, 23 tackles for loss, six pass break-ups, four forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown. Numbers similar to those of his All-America campaign in 2013 will have him in the running for the award this fall.

DE Mario Edwards Jr., Florida State. The No. 1 recruit in the nation from the Class of 2012 has the tools to be one of the top defenders in the ACC and the nation. He earned third-team All-ACC status last season after making 9.5 tackles for loss (including 3.5 sacks), one interception, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, including one returned for a touchdown. And his biggest performance came on the biggest stage, as he made three stops behind the line of scrimmage in the Seminoles' BCS national championship win over Auburn, a potential precursor of what's to come in 2014.

LB Denzel Perryman, Sr., Miami. Perryman was a force to be reckoned with last season, winning team defensive MVP honors as he led the Hurricanes with 108 tackles, including five for loss. He was named All-ACC first team and is moving to the middle this season, where expectations are even higher for a player Phil Steele has already recognized as a preseason first-team All-American. The biggest thing holding Perryman's candidacy back could be his team, which has struggled recently on the defensive side of the ball, finishing 89th nationally in total defense in 2013.

S Anthony Harris, Sr., Virginia. Like Perryman, Harris could be hurt by his team, which struggled through a winless ACC campaign last season, something that likely prevented Harris' name from being in the discussion among the game's best defensive players. His numbers suggest he belongs in that conversation, as he led the nation with eight interceptions while adding 3.5 tackles for loss and forcing a fumble. Harris earned numerous first-team All-America honors and is poised for another strong season, though those stats are often difficult for a defensive back to duplicate.

Others: Florida State's P.J. Williams and Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller figure to be two of the better cornerbacks in the nation. The Hokies' defensive line, led by Luther Maddy, always makes life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Let's not forget Seminoles linebacker Terrance Smith, either. There are plenty of faces throughout the league capable of outstanding seasons, so be sure to share your thoughts on who you think could make the biggest impact in 2014.

Florida State spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Florida State Seminoles:

1. Jalen Ramsey is a star in the making. Last season, Ramsey was overshadowed on his own defense with the likes of Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith demanding the headlines, but Ramsey was only a freshman. As a sophomore, several players point to Ramsey as being the defense’s leader, and he could be the best player on a defense that could have a half-dozen first-round picks in the next few seasons. He will move around to several positions in the secondary this fall.

2. Florida State’s secondary might be the best in the country. While FSU’s talent in the defensive backfield begins with Ramsey it certainly does not end there. P.J. Williams was dominant in the spring game against No. 1 receiver Rashad Greene and is an elite college corner. Opposite him are Ramsey and Ronald Darby, who missed the entire spring. All three could be first-round picks. Nate Andrew is a up-and-coming star and also just a sophomore, and Tyler Hunter returns after a neck injury in 2013.

3. Sean Maguire is a capable backup for the Noles. The disclaimer certainly is that it came against the No. 2 defense in the spring game, but Maguire showed the type of tools to be an efficient quarterback should he be called upon this fall. As the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback for the first time in his college career, Maguire said he made his biggest strides to date this spring.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Will the wide receivers step up? Coach Jimbo Fisher is not leaving spring practice with a great feeling about his receivers. He expressed his frustration in the unit on multiple occasions, and the receivers struggled in the spring game. Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are off to the NFL, and Greene will need some help from the younger receivers. Elite high school talents Ermon Lane, Travis Rudolph and Ja'Von Harrison will enroll in the summer.

2. Can the running backs stay on the field? It was a similar feeling last spring for Fisher as he did not have any healthy running backs for the Garnet and Gold game in 2013 either. Karlos Williams was held for precautionary reasons, but backups Dalvin Cook, Ryan Green and Mario Pender all suffered injuries. Cook and Green are out until fall camp with shoulder injuries, and Pender missed his first two seasons with injury and academic issues.

3. What will the linebacker rotation look like? It will be very interesting to see how new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly pairs his linebackers with a fairly inexperienced group. Terrance Smith is a given as a starter, but who will flank him? Matthew Thomas might be too good to keep off the field, which could leave one remaining spot for a very talented unit.

One way-too-early prediction:

The Noles were an offensive juggernaut in 2013, but the offense will sputter some against quality defenses. The issue at receiver is one that will not be settled in the near future, and it could cost Florida State a game.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State had the luxury a season ago of playing not only with future NFL draft picks all over its defense, but with senior leaders at each level.

Plenty of talent remains as the Seminoles look ahead to defending their national championship. But there is a major void in senior leadership. While the offense is full of seniors, the defense is not. There are no seniors projected to start on defense in 2014. Only two are projected for the two-deep. So who will step up to fill the hole usually filled by the most veteran players on the team?

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesFlorida State junior cornerback P.J. Williams had three interceptions in 2013.
"I quit putting an emphasis on seniors," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I think seniors at times are overrated and at times underrated. I know that sounds crazy, but it depends. Jameis [Winston] took our team over as a freshman. In the older days, seniors mattered maybe more because you didn’t play the young guys. But at the same time I don’t want to take away from senior leadership because how many times you’ve been out there matters. That offensive line and all those seniors, don’t think that doesn’t make me sleep well. I think it just depends on teach teams’ personality and the dynamic of each team."

Though senior leadership is lost from the defense, experience remains. Seven starters return, including five juniors who started in the BCS national title game against Auburn. Starting linebacker Terrance Smith is a fourth-year junior. So is safety Tyler Hunter, who is expected to return after missing most of last season with a neck injury.

But perhaps the biggest leadership shoes to fill belong to departed safety Lamarcus Joyner, the heart and soul of the defense and one of the most vocal leaders on the team. Jalen Ramsey, who will play the same position Joyner did last season, seems uniquely qualified to step right in.

Not only does he return after playing in all 14 games last year as a freshman, he has the same characteristics that made Joyner stand out as a vocal leader. Ramsey is confident in his abilities, but not arrogant. He is not shy about being honest. Like Joyner -- who started leading the Seminoles well before he started his senior season -- Ramsey is not afraid of the added responsibility. His candor has already won his teammates over. Fisher says Ramsey has been "off the chain" with his leadership during the spring.

"I think I should hold myself to step up in that area. I feel I can push other people," Ramsey said.

So does cornerback P.J. Williams, another player who has stepped up in the leadership department. Being named Defensive MVP of the national championship game has not only boosted his own confidence, but given him more authority to speak up, especially with Joyner gone.

"It’s a big role to try and step up and do because Lamarcus was a great player," Williams said. "He led by example to everybody and everybody looked up to him. Now, I'm just trying to compete at a high level, talk to my players and make sure we’re on the right page. We want to win another national championship so we know we have to work hard."

Florida State hopes a lack of senior leadership on defense turns out to be no problem. It's like Fisher tells his team all the time:

"Is there an age limit on leadership?" Fisher said. "Is there an age limit on good players? How old do you have to be to be a good player? Why can’t you be a good player now? That’s what we’re finding out."

FSU spring: What we learned

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
1:00
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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.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher escaped the spring with a healthy roster.
1. FSU will be at full strength this fall.
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.
Setting up spring in the ACC Atlantic.

Boston College

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
  • Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
  • Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Clemson

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
  • Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
  • Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Florida State

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
  • The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
  • Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Louisville

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
  • Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
  • New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
NC State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
  • The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
  • Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Syracuse

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
  • The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
  • Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Wake Forest

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
  • Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
  • The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.
Florida State has had one of the best defensive fronts in the nation in the last two seasons, but the Seminoles will have a major challenger to that claim when 2014 rolls around.

Division rival Clemson has the potential to have one of the best defensive lines in school history, thanks to returning all of its starters -- including sack master Vic Beasley. So that leads us to this question: Which team will have the best defensive front in the ACC this upcoming season? Andrea Adelson and David Hale let the debate begin.

SportsNation

Which team will have the best defensive line in the ACC in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,741)

Andrea says Clemson

The moment Beasley decided to return to Clemson was the moment the Tigers became the favorite to field the best defensive line in the ACC next season.

Now, this is not to slight Florida State, which has dominated up front over the last two seasons. But the Seminoles have key players to replace again. Clemson, on the other hand, returns every starter on the defensive line, plus its top four backups. All told, eight linemen return who played at least 292 snaps a year ago.

Those top eight combined for 65 tackles for loss -- more than half the single-season school-record 122 tackles for loss Clemson had in 2013. They also combined for 26 of the team’s 38 sacks.

Beasley, of course, leads the returning group after making 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a season ago, one of the top performances of any defensive end in the country. Had he decided to leave for the NFL, Clemson would have still had plenty of talent returning.

But with him, the Tigers could potentially have the deepest, most talented group of defensive linemen at the school since the 1981 national championship team featured future NFL players Jeff Bryant, William Perry, Andy Headen and Dan Benish in the starting lineup.

Clemson could potentially go 10 deep along the defensive line, especially when you consider the return of Carlos Watkins, expected to be healthy after missing most of last season following a car accident. That means the Tigers have the ability to rotate frequently and keep players fresh, perhaps more than they did last season.

Fresh players mean fresh legs, and fresh legs mean getting into the backfield at a much better clip. Last season, Beasley, starting tackle Grady Jarrett (11), starting end Corey Crawford (10.5) and backup end Shaq Lawson each finished with 10 or more tackles for loss. Now think about some of the best defensive fronts in college football. Florida State has zero defensive linemen returning with double-digit tackles for loss. Alabama? Zero. LSU? Zero. Stanford? Zero. Virginia Tech? One. Michigan State? One. Ohio State? Two.

Clemson leads them all.

Such an experienced group, with the ability to get into the backfield and get after the quarterback, should only get better with another year under Brent Venables, who is entering his third season as defensive coordinator. As Beasley told colleague Heather Dinich after he announced his decision to return, “I feel like we can be the best in the country.”

And, yes, that means the defense could emerge as the strength of this team.

David says Florida State

The track record for Florida State’s defensive front speaks for itself. During the past three seasons, only Alabama has had more success defending the run than Florida State, which has allowed just 2.8 yards per carry since the start of the 2011 season. Those Seminoles teams sent eight players from the front seven to the NFL -- and that number figures to increase by at least four this year -- yet the unit has seen little decline in production. With new personnel, a new scheme and new coaches last season, FSU’s first-team defense didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until the national championship game.

Of course, that’s all in the past, and 2014 comes with some significant questions for Florida State.

Throughout the three-year run of success for the FSU front seven, Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Timmy Jernigan have been anchors. All are gone now, and that means some significant vacancies on the defensive front, both in terms of on-field talent and off-field leadership. It means there will be questions surrounding the unit for the next few months, but it doesn’t mean the Seminoles don’t have answers.

Of the projected two-deep in the front seven, FSU projects to feature as many as 12 former ESPN 300 recruits. The talent is exceptional.

Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman were both top-10 recruits in 2012, and both have two years of experience under their belts. Edwards, in particular, took big steps forward throughout 2013, turning in perhaps his best game against Auburn’s up-tempo ground attack in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

The linebacker group lacks significant experience, but Terrance Smith is a physical clone of Telvin Smith, and he performed admirably after stepping into a starting role last season. Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe are both former elite recruits who project nicely in the hybrid role Jones handled so successfully in 2013.

Kain Daub, Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi lead a stellar 2014 recruiting class that could make an instant impact.

That’s not to say Florida State is prepared to move forward without Jernigan’s presence up front or Telvin Smith’s leadership in the middle of the field without missing a beat. There will be hiccups as the new group gets its feet wet and Edwards and Goldman learn to be leaders. But similar concerns existed a year ago when Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine bolted for the NFL, and after some early missteps, Florida State again proved to be one of the fiercest defensive fronts in the country.

And, of course, the Seminoles have another weapon in this debate, too. No position group succeeds in a vacuum, and FSU’s front seven gets a major boost from a secondary that projects to again be the best in the nation. If the Seminoles’ defensive backs continue to make teams one-dimensional and continue to provide time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback, the odds of FSU’s front seven making a smooth transition into 2014 get even better.
No. 13: Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State

Previous ranking: Not ranked

Making the case for Smith: Seven starters and three assistant coaches from Florida State’s 2012 defense left after the Seminoles wrapped up an ACC title and an Orange Bowl victory last year, but the rapid transition did little to disrupt the unit’s success. Smith was a major reason why.

After two years splitting reps at middle linebacker, the job was all Smith’s in 2013, and he didn’t disappoint. Florida State was the nation’s top-ranked scoring defense and third in total defense, and Smith was the unit’s unquestioned leader -- on and off the field.

For the season, Smith led FSU in tackles (90) and was second in tackles for loss (9.5). He finished with a career-high three interceptions and defended seven passes (third best on the team) while playing a crucial role in stopping the run up the middle. He scored two touchdowns on defense, had multiple tackles for loss against Pitt, Boston College and Duke, and he recorded double-digit tackles three times, including a game-high 15 (11 solo) in the BCS national championship win over Auburn. The success earned him second-team All-ACC honors.

The countdown
Florida State finished off a spectacular season with a national championship, and with Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, Jalen Ramsey and a host of other stars returning for 2014, the expectations for next season are already sky high.

So if FSU is going to repeat as national champs, what are the big stumbling blocks on the road ahead? We take a look at the top five.

1. Rebuilding the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWith Timmy Jernigan heading to the NFL, Florida State will have a big hole to fill in the middle of its line.
With Timmy Jernigan leaving early for the NFL draft -- he’s widely considered a top-15 pick — Florida State will have a huge hole in the middle of the line. But the Seminoles also need to find someone to rush off the edge, as Christian Jones did throughout the season and develop some depth after waving goodbye to Demonte McAllister and Dan Hicks. Nile Lawrence-Stample, Matthew Thomas and others could fill those voids, but it will be incumbent on emerging stars Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman to step up their games, too.

2. Developing new receivers.

It wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was nevertheless a relief when Greene decided to return for his senior season. Florida State’s receiving corps was exceptional in 2013, but it wasn’t deep. Kenny Shaw is moving on, and Kelvin Benjamin could follow. That leaves Greene as FSU’s only established, consistent receiver. Isaiah Jones, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield all got a taste of playing time in 2013, but they’ll need to do a lot more next season.

3. Finding new leaders on defense.

This might be the toughest task for Florida State. Telvin Smith, Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Jones and Jernigan weren’t simply the defensive standouts on the field, they were the heart and soul of the unit in the locker room. There’s still plenty of talent remaining on the unit, but no one who has had to step up and galvanize a locker room or push the younger players to work harder. Finding leaders on that side of the ball — Edwards, Goldman, Terrance Smith and Ronald Darby, perhaps — will be crucial to maintaining the unit’s immense production in 2014.

4. Managing the schedule.

If the knock on Florida State this season was that it wasn’t tested until the title game, the concern for 2014 might be that there are simply too many big tests. The Seminoles open in Dallas against Oklahoma State, but also have Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida before the season is out. If this title was a victory for the ACC’s legitimacy on a national stage, the 2014 slate for Florida State only underscores how much tougher winning the league will be going forward.

5. Handling the hype.

It’s one thing to win when no one is expecting it. Winning when everyone has you pegged as No. 1 is a whole other challenge. Florida State will enjoy its national championship now, but in 2014, everyone will be gunning for the Seminoles, and the media scrutiny will be immense. Can Winston go a full offseason as a Heisman winner and national champion and not waver from his commitment to getting better? Can the coaching staff maintain that same level of dedication from a group that already has a title on its résumé? There’s a reason so few teams repeat as champions. It’s really hard to do.

Video: A Seminole's life

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
6:00
PM ET
video
Tom Rinaldi profiles Florida State linebacker Terrance Smith overcoming the death of his father, who was a record-setting wide receiver at Clemson.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today’s matchup is between Auburn’s running backs and Florida State’s linebackers.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Marshall isn't a running back, but with over 1,000 yards rushing, Auburn's quarterback provides a lethal ground threat.
Auburn’s running backs: Gus Malzahn has always been one to tailor his offense around his team’s skill set. In this case, it’s safe to say that Auburn’s strength is running the football. The Tigers have run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage of any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. They lead the nation in rushing yards per game and are one of five schools this season to have two players with at least 1,000 rushing yards.

The star is running back Tre Mason. He leads the SEC in rushing (1,621 yards) and rushing touchdowns (22), rushing for a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries in the SEC championship game. That performance, along with his 164-yard outing against No. 1 Alabama, earned him a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

But as impressive as Mason has been all year, it’s quarterback Nick Marshall who makes this offense go. Technically, Marshall isn’t a running back, but how can you not include him in this category when he has over 1,000 yards rushing? The junior college transfer seems to get better every game as he gets more and more comfortable with the zone-read. Florida State has the athletes to defend Auburn’s offense, but Marshall’s ability to run turns a great offense into a nearly unstoppable offense.

The wild card of the group is Corey Grant, a former Alabama transfer. If Mason is the thunder, Grant is the lightning. The junior has been used sparingly, but he’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. He has 650 yards and six touchdowns on the season and is among the nation’s best in yards per carry (10.0).

Statistically speaking, Florida State has been strong against the run, but the Seminoles haven’t faced a rushing attack quite like Auburn’s “four-headed monster.” When they faced Boston College’s Andre Williams, they gave up 149 yards to the Heisman finalist. Mason is every bit the player that Williams is, and that’s just one of the multiple weapons Auburn has in its arsenal.

Florida State’s linebackers: It’s hard to know quite what to make of this matchup. On the one hand, FSU has been exceptional against the run for most of the season. The Seminoles are eighth nationally, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry (and just 2.9 in the first halves of games), and the first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Throw out the second half against NC State (when the backups played the entirety), and FSU is allowing just 2.6 yards per rush since the start of October, when Christian Jones moved up to the defensive line and Terrance Smith stepped in as the starting middle linebacker.

The problem, of course, is that Maryland and Wake Forest and Duke didn’t provide anything close to the challenge Auburn will on Jan. 6. The best rushing offense Florida State faced this year was Boston College, and not coincidentally, no team had more success on the ground (200 yards) or overall (34 points) against FSU this season.

Still, the Seminoles defense has evolved immensely since that BC game. Terrance and Telvin Smith have both developed into reliable defenders against the run. Jones provides an athletic defender on the edge. Jalen Ramsey (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) moved to safety and can play sideline to sideline against the run. Both Jones and Ramsey will be vital against an Auburn team that runs outside the tackles routinely with great success (averaging 6.3 yards before contact outside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Info, best among AQ schools). FSU is allowing just 3.1 yards per rush between the tackles this year, but 5.1 outside.

The Seminoles have the athleticism on defense to make life tough for an Auburn running game that hasn’t struggled often, but what the Tigers do well is also the one place where some questions remain for Florida State.

Ostendorf: Edge Auburn

Hale: Slight edge for Auburn

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