Take 2: FSU's surprise spring stars

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
11:00
AM ET
Florida State opens spring practice next week, and there are plenty of big questions waiting to be answered. But before Jimbo Fisher gets his chance to weigh in on those discussions, we’re taking a crack at finding the answers.

So far, we’ve looked at Jameis Winston's second act, Karlos Williams' emergence and life after Timmy Jernigan on D.

Next up: Who will be this spring’s surprise stars?

Jared Shanker tabs Matthew Thomas and Kermit Whitfield.

JS: Florida State fans need to keep an eye on Thomas this spring, and, unlike this time last year, it is for all the right reasons.

It is funny how much difference a year makes, as Thomas is poised to be one of the breakout players for the Seminoles this spring and a dark horse to be the team’s leading tackler in the fall. This time last year, he and his father were having second thoughts about FSU and eventually demanded Fisher release Thomas from his scholarship in favor of a transfer to USC.

Matthew Thomas
Courtesy of Florida StateMatthew Thomas has the physical ability to make a huge impact for the Seminoles in 2014.
Obviously Thomas stuck with Florida State, and he was an early contributor before a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season. Thomas racked up two tackles for a loss and a sack through the first four games.

Entering spring practice, the former five-star recruit and No. 1 outside linebacker is slated to compete for a starting role. Departed is Christian Jones, and the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Thomas has the physical presence to be an elite hybrid linebacker and edge rusher. Against the run and in coverage, there might not be a linebacker on FSU’s roster with better closing speed and pop at the point of impact.

Offensively, I’m very interested to see where Whitfield fits. If not for a late touchdown from Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, Whitfield would have been the hero for his kick return touchdown. Still, his break down the sideline for the 100-yard score offered a glimpse to the nation the dynamic running back/receiver that Whitfield is capable of becoming.

Whitfield scored on runs of 31 and 74 yards, respectively, the first two times he carried the ball last season. With his sub-4.4 speed, he is the game-breaking threat Florida State might need to rely heavily on as the offense receives a facelift with the departures of several key contributors at the skill positions. As a running back, receiver and returner, Whitfield is the kind of player with the ability to turn a seemingly small gain into a momentum-swinging touchdown from any point on the field. It has been a while since Florida State had a player like that.

David Hale looks for big things from Desmond Hollin and Dalvin Cook.

DH: The defensive line might be the biggest mystery for Florida State this spring for a myriad of reasons. The loss of Timmy Jernigan leaves a gaping hole in the middle. The shift from Jeremy Pruitt to Charles Kelly leaves open questions about how the scheme, which changed so dramatically up front in 2013, will look this season. Jones’ departure leaves FSU looking for a new edge rusher. Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman have shown promise, but can they take the next step?

But the way spring practices go, it’s not entirely clear we’ll get answers to any of those questions before the team takes off for the summer. Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch this spring is just how well the defensive linemen who served in small roles last season will take advantage of the opportunity to shine now. And if that’s the case, the player with the best head start might be Hollin.

A juco transfer last year, he came in at about 270 pounds, but Fisher said Hollin is now up to 290 -- meaning he could be a realistic fit inside as a potential replacement for Jernigan. He saw only limited action in 2013, racking up two sacks and 16 tackles, but his work in offseason conditioning and fourth-quarter drills has been exceptional, according to Fisher.

“Hollin has been off the charts,” Fisher said. “He’s running better than he’s ever run. I expect him to have a great year.”

It wouldn’t be the first time FSU had significant success with juco linemen, with Tank Carradine and Amp McCloud recent examples. Hollin has been in the system for a year and brings some versatility to a line still figuring out how to best deploy its personnel.

There will be strong competition on the line from Keith Bryant (another Fisher favorite), Nile Lawrence-Stample, Derrick Mitchell and a bevy of freshmen set to arrive this fall, but Hollin offers some significant intrigue this spring. Fisher has already set a high bar for Hollin with the heaps of praise he’s eagerly offered, and if he can make the leap this spring and gain an inside track on a starting job, he could turn out to be a breakout star in 2014.

On the other side of the ball, Cook arrived in January with plenty of hype. He’s as good a running back recruit as there was in the country. In his two months in Tallahassee, he has done little to change anyone’s mind. He’s already added some good weight, has flashed impressive speed and looks right at home in Florida State’s backfield. That’s a good sign considering the number of carries up for grabs this spring.

Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. combined for 254 rushing attempts in 2013, and while a significant portion of those might be chewed up by Karlos Williams, Cook could be in line for the lion’s share of the No. 2 tailback duties. He’s the new face this spring, but Ryan Green and Mario Pender come with their own share of questions, and both have struggled at times with blitz pickup and decision-making. Cook could easily leap past the veterans with a strong spring, and all initial reports are that he’s poised to make an instant impression.

Cook won't likely shine in scrimmage or the spring game, though. FSU has made a point of putting young running backs through the ringer in short-yardage drills during spring practice. As the team looks to develop young leaders, Cook will be given a chance to prove he belongs.

Jared Shanker

Florida State/ACC reporter

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