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Florida State's reshuffled O-line could be key to playoff run

12/18/2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida State offensive line wasn’t scaring defensive coordinators through the first month of the season. A unit hailed as the country’s best during the preseason had struggled clearing space for a rushing attack that ranked 103rd at the end of September.

Four games ago, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher made a bold switch along the offensive line in the midst of an undefeated season. Before the Nov. 15 game against Miami, just as starting center Austin Barron was cleared to play after fracturing his forearm back in early October, Fisher moved all-conference performer Cam Erving from left tackle to center. That meant true freshman Roderick Johnson was being inserted at left tackle, the position responsible for Jameis Winston’s blind side.

Fisher’s roll of the dice worked. The Seminoles are averaging 146 yards rushing over their past four games -- not a sizable difference -- but they are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. They averaged less than four yards per rush in September. And in the ACC title game, FSU averaged 5.42 yards per rush, a stat that helped carry them to the No. 3 playoff seed and a date against No. 2 Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

With this new starting five, Florida State might as well be Wisconsin South. Both Florida State and Wisconsin, whose offensive line’s girth is annually celebrated, have a starting five that averages 6-foot-5 along the line. The Seminoles’ combined weight across the group is actually greater than Wisconsin’s, and Florida State still has athleticism along the unit, too.

"We got great size," said Josue Matias, who is the link between Johnson and Erving at left guard. "We got intimidation off the bus. It just has a different attitude."

As early as this spring, Erving was being groomed as a potential center. Fisher originally said it was strictly for emergencies that Erving would play center, but as the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Johnson continued to hold his own in fall practice against a talented FSU defensive line, Fisher felt at some point during the season he would be able to move Erving to center.

At 308 pounds, Erving is the smallest player on the line, but he’s also maybe the most athletic. As the offensive line anchor, Erving has been effective firing off as a run blocker, but also when he’s pulling.

"Athletically you can see our difference, and in height and weight and you don’t really drop off with Rod at left tackle," right tackle Bobby Hart said.

Erving, one of the team leaders, praised the effort of Barron and fellow center Ryan Hoefeld, but he said the chemistry of this starting five just seems to be better.

"It’s all about chemistry on the offensive line," Erving said. "You got to know what each other is thinking and how you’re going to do each block. The chemistry is coming together better."

Through the first nine games, despite Florida State winning them all, there were legitimate questions as to whether the Seminoles could win a second straight national title without an effective running game. And the offensive line had struggled to protect Winston at times. The new structure of the offensive line potentially returns Florida State to its perch among football’s most talented groups as it hits its stride.

The lack of an effective run game and inconsistent offensive line play put the offense, and specifically Winston, in a weekly bind. Winston was forced to shoulder too much of the offense. Winston averaged 38.5 passing attempts per game in October. That number has dropped to 32 over the past four games.

"We’ve taken on a new identity," Erving said.

With the playoffs only two weeks away, the shift has come at the perfect time.