- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Three years ago, Jimbo Fisher was out of options. Injuries and ineffectiveness had rendered his offensive line a sieve, and as the 2011 season drew to a close, Fisher threw his hands in the air and sent four true freshmen onto the field to start Florida State’s bowl game against Notre Dame.
The last resort proved to be a stroke of genius. The group gelled and by the time the Seminoles secured the 2013 national championship, the offensive line was a strength. With five seniors projected as starters for 2014, the line promises to be the backbone of Florida State’s offense again.
Fisher clearly remembers the struggles of 2011, and he’s not eager to relive them again in 2015 and beyond. So while rebuilding the line is still a year away, the groundwork for that massive overhaul began in earnest Wednesday.
Florida State inked an impressive class on national signing day, reeling in 28 new Seminoles -- including five early enrollees -- and one quarter of that group is offensive linemen. It is one of the largest recruiting scores at the position in school history, Fisher said, and it’s a group with significant upside.
“We got size on the edges, in the middle and that can snap the football,” Fisher said. “From that standpoint, it’s a great group, and guys are just getting bigger and faster.”
There might not be room for the seven linemen FSU inked to get much bigger. The group already averages 6-foot-6 and 313 pounds, including juco transfers Kareem Are (6-6, 350) and Chad Mavety (6-5, 315), who Fisher believes can step in and play immediately.
Of course, finding reps for the fresh faces won’t be easy given the veterans already in place atop the depth chart, but Fisher understands it’s necessary if Florida State wants to avoid another season of linemen learning on the job in 2015.
“If those guys play well, there will be a lot of playing time,” Fisher said. “They’ll get a lot of playing time, and that’s why it was critical we got two junior college guys.”
If game-ready talent was necessary, developmental projects were significant for Florida State, too.
Fisher has racked up big recruiting wins in virtually every segment of the roster since his arrival in 2010, but the offensive line has remained a concern throughout. Part of the struggles to recruit top talent on the line lies with position coach Rick Trickett, who is far less interested in recruiting rankings than finding players malleable enough for him to build up from scratch.
Since Trickett took over the line in 2007, Florida State has signed just three offensive linemen ranked among the top 150 recruits. Jordan Prestwood left shortly after arriving. Ira Denson, last year’s prize recruit, could be on his way out, too. (Fisher said Wednesday that Denson was “still in school,” but didn’t elaborate on his status with the team.) Of FSU’s best line recruits in the Trickett era, only Bobby Hart remains embedded on the depth chart.
In fact, if Denson leaves, FSU will have just two scholarship linemen to show for its recruiting efforts in 2012 and 2013 combined and, before Wednesday’s haul, had just three linemen on the current roster set to still be with the team in 2015. Fisher praised the potential of redshirt freshman Wilson Bell and redshirt junior Ruben Carter, but there’s no doubt Wednesday’s new additions were a necessary influx of bodies.
“The guys who put their hands in the dirt on the offensive line, that controls the game,” Fisher said. “You can have all the skills in the world you want but you’ve got to win those battles up front and protect. Getting great offensive linemen is critical.”
Just how great this group ends up remains to be seen. Strong bodies with weak constitutions have a tendency to crumble under Trickett’s demanding approach. But the potential for this group is obvious.
Roderick Johnson is 6-7, 330 pounds and ranked as one of ESPN’s top prospects at tackle. FSU snagged him out of Missouri as one of Wednesday’s late additions to the class.
"Big Rod is a very athletic guy -- bends tremendously well for a guy 6-7 and 330 pounds,” Fisher said. “Great length and can bend his lower body, great flexibility and very intelligent. Very smart guy. Works very hard. I think the sky is the limit for the guy.”
Corey Martinez ranked just a tick behind Johnson as an ESPN 300 member, too. It’s the first time FSU landed multiple ESPN 300 linemen in the same class since Prestwood and Hart came aboard in 2011.
At 6-9, Brock Ruble is one of the tallest recruits in the nation, while Are and Movety were both among the top junior college linemen in the country. The Seminoles also added three-star center Alec Eberle.
Replacing the five seniors projected to start in 2014 will be no small task, but the first step in the process was providing Fisher and Trickett with some building blocks. Wednesday’s recruiting haul did that, and Fisher hopes that means there won’t be another season like 2011 on the horizon.
“Those guys will get a lot of playing time this year, and we’ll develop them,” he said. “They’ll have been able to play, and they’ll all be sophomores and juniors [in 2015] and they’ll fit in.”