Thursday, August 8, 2013
FSU makes moves, finds needs at DE, TE
By David M. Hale
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Dan Hicks galloped around the practice fields as Florida State opened fall camp Tuesday, no signs of the knee injury that ended his 2012 season a year ago -- almost to the day.
A lot has changed since the injury. Back then, he was a third-string tight end, moved from defensive end after three years because of a logjam of talented pass rushers. In the 12 months since, he's had surgery, recovered and swapped positions again, returning to his original place on the roster after a stampede of talented ends departed for the NFL. His lone mementos to a lost season are the scar on his knee and the No. 6 on his jersey, which now conflicts with the uniform worn by cornerback Nick Waisome.
Dan Hicks has played in 27 career games at defensive end, but missed all of 2012 with a knee injury.
A year ago, Hicks was such a luxury that he wasn't needed on the defensive line, and he wasn't missed at tight end. Now, the fifth-year senior would rank as the second-most accomplished player on Florida State's roster at either position.
"Dan's had a tremendous summer," Jimbo Fisher said this week. "His conditioning has no signs of anything that's gone on."
That's good news for Florida State, which finds itself in a remarkably tenuous situation on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
In praising Hicks' physique, Fisher was offering an explanation for moving third-year sophomore Giorgio Newberry from defensive end to tight end -- the same swap Hicks made last year. It was a move Fisher said was first discussed weeks ago, but one that was made a necessity when senior Kevin Haplea succumbed to a knee injury and sophomore Christo Kourtzidis opted to transfer, leaving the Seminoles with just two scholarship tight ends.
But if Fisher was filling a need on offense, he also was robbing from a position on defense that lacked veteran experience to spare.
Newberry was no one's idea of a success story thus far. Physically, he's intimidating and his potential seemed high, but through two full years in the program, he'd yet to develop as a pass rusher. Still, he played in every game last season, which made him a rarity among FSU’s defensive ends.
All-ACC defensive ends Bjoern Werner, Brandon Jenkins and Cornellius Carradine were all selected in this year's NFL draft, which meant Florida State would be looking to fill a massive void at the position. Only Newberry and Mario Edwards Jr., who opened last season with a redshirt before injuries eventually forced him into the starting lineup, saw the field in 2012.
And yet Fisher said he's confident there is talent to spare.
"I feel very good about where we're at defensive end-wise," he said. "You've got to play both sides of the ball, and we've got just as many inexperienced guys at tight end. There was no apprehension whatsoever. It's something we would've done either way."
That might be true, but there's no avoiding the obvious numbers. Last season, in just 12 games, Carradine finished with 80 tackles, including 13 for a loss, and 11 sacks -- stats that dwarf the combined career totals of every member of FSU's current depth chart at defensive end.
Only Edwards and Hicks have seen serious game action. Redshirt freshman Chris Casher hasn't played in two full years after sitting out his senior season in high school and going down with an injury in his first game of 2012. Freshman Demarcus Walker figured to get an early start on his career by enrolling this spring, but NCAA eligibility issues kept him off the field during spring practice. Tuesday's start to fall camp represented the first official practice session of his career at Florida State. The same is true for fellow freshman Davarez Bryant and junior college transfer Desmond Hollin.
But Fisher insists he's not worried about the lack of experience.
"You have a great group of guys there that we feel very comfortable with the size and speed and the things we do," he said.
When the games begin though, establishing the pass rush may be more about scheme than personnel. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has implemented a blitz-heavy approach that players have embraced. He also comes from a 3-4 base system at Alabama, and the Seminoles could certainly employ those looks more often in 2013. Pruitt isn't just planning to throw his rookie pass rushers into the deep end of the pool, either. He's mixing and matching, finding alternative options in unlikely spots.
"In the spring we had some packages with me actually playing some D-end and coming off the edge a little bit," senior linebacker Christian Jones said. "And we're blitzing a lot more this year."
Like Newberry's move to tight end, the new approach to the pass rush was likely to a necessity regardless of the surprises Florida State has faced this summer. Werner, Jenkins and Carradine were the backbone to Mark Stoops' highly ranked defenses the past two seasons, and changes were required in the wake of their departures.
Giorgio Newberry's size could make him a valuable asset as a blocking tight end.
"The key to the game on both sides is the guys that put their hand in the dirt, and that's why we could play the way we did last year was the D-line," Fisher said. "But I think we've got just as good a group [in 2013]. I like our group better. I really do."
Optimism is easy to find this time of year, but Florida State has already walked the tight rope that comes with having limited options at key positions.
For now, Newberry fills the Seminoles' biggest hole. Hicks' health and the emerging Edwards, who has dramatically improved his physique from a year ago, offer possibilities in another significant area of concern.
Not all choices are supposed to be easy, and Newberry's move was the best option Fisher had, and FSU’s pass rush will make due with what's left.
"[If we weren't satisfied] we'd have tried to find something else to do," Fisher said, "but I felt very comfortable with those guys."