TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State returns the best quarterback in the nation. But what cannot go unnoticed is that Florida State returns the best offensive line in the nation, too.
Four starters are back -- all of them projected NFL draft picks. The new face on the line, center Austin Barron, has starting and game experience himself. As if that was not advantage enough, the Seminoles will field an all-senior offensive line, a rarity in college football. No other ACC team projects a starting offensive line with all seniors.
Indeed, this could be one of the best offensive lines Jimbo Fisher has ever coached -- potentially even better than the group last season that had center Bryan Stork, who won the Rimington Trophy as the best center in America. Another year should make all these players wiser and better, with 113 combined starts between them -- and a chance to make at least 70 more in 2014.
When asked for some perspective, Fisher pointed to the offensive line LSU had for its 2003 national championship season, when he served as offensive coordinator. Two of those players were drafted, and all five ended up on an NFL roster.
“But this group here’s a pretty good group now,” Fisher said recently. “It lets you sleep better, I know that much.”
Left tackle Cameron Erving and right guard Tre' Jackson each turned down opportunities to leave school early for the NFL. Erving already was recognized last season as the best offensive lineman in the ACC -- winning the Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- and should go into the season as a preseason All-American.
He and Jackson made the All-ACC coaches first team. Guard Josue Matias made the second team. Matias and Jackson are among the top four rated guards for the 2015 draft, and Fisher believes each player on this line will play in the NFL.
Returning so many experienced players gives the Seminoles a luxury that not many other programs have, especially when you return the Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jameis Winston.
“What you’re able to do at the line of scrimmage, protection wise, run wise, and then you’ve got a quarterback to process it and get you into the right plays all the time -- it gives you a huge advantage,” Fisher said. “The confidence, on the road, the noise that can hurt your communication issues, you don’t have to worry about.”
What’s more, the players on the line are versatile. This spring, Fisher experimented a little bit. Where there is experience among the starters, there is hardly any among the backups. So to make up for some of the depth concerns, Fisher had Erving play some center and Matias play at left tackle.
He raved about both players in the different spots. Matias came into Florida State as a tackle, so he was a natural fit there. Fisher said Erving had “big-time capabilities” at center.
“The versatility of how you can mismatch those guys in there? It’s the best we’ve had for a long time,” Fisher said.
For their part, players on the line believe they have an opportunity to improve on what was already a fantastic line a year ago.
“I feel like we had a pretty stout line last year, but there’s always room for improvement,” Jackson said. “There’s no telling where this line can go.”
Some of the depth questions should be answered in the fall. Florida State signed the best offensive line class in the ACC in February. Fisher praised junior college transfer Kareem Are for his performance this spring. He also said another junior college transfer, Chad Mavety, “may be more talented than anybody we’ve got.”
It is clear Fisher knows how to develop talent. Florida State has had offensive linemen taken in three straight drafts, and Stork is a projected mid-to-late round draft pick next week. Several, if not all, of these seniors will be drafted in 2015.
For now, the focus is on just how good this group can be by the time the season ends.
“We’ve all played, been in the system for three years now,” Matias said. “This is going to be a big year for us to reach our full potential.”