NCF Nation: isaiah jones

Big 12 media days live: Day 2

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
9:40
AM ET
The Big 12 media days continue on Tuesday in Dallas, as Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and new Texas coach Charlie Strong each take the stage. Keep this page open throughout the day's proceedings as we bring you the latest from our reporters, who will cover all 10 teams at the event.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Most coaches keep practices behind closed doors. They don’t want any important information finding its way to opponents.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, however, graciously tipped his hand Wednesday when asked about what new formations and which underclassman receivers could mitigate the departure of potential first-round NFL draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, all 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds of him.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsKermit Whitfield isn't going to do the same things Kelvin Benjamin did in the Florida State passing game, but his speed could be every bit as dangerous to defenses.
“I’ll stack Bobo (Jesus Wilson) and Kermit (Levonte Whitfield) on top of each other,” quipped Fisher, clearly armed in anticipation of a question on his receivers’ height. Wilson stands 5-foot-9 and Whitfield is 5-7.

The humor could be a deflection as Fisher masks any possible concerns about replacing Benjamin, who at Tuesday’s pro day showcased a rare catching radius and leaping ability that no player on the Seminoles’ current roster has illustrated. Senior Rashad Greene's presence is vital, as he led the team with 76 catches last season, but no other returning receiver had more than 13 catches in 2013, which leaves mostly a unit with little to no in-game seasoning.

But while Benjamin’s size and strength combination won’t be replaced by anyone on the roster in its current form, his Tallahassee exit doesn’t necessarily mean a step in the wrong direction for the Seminoles offense. Whitfield and Wilson are small packages of instant offense. Whitfield initially trumpeted his speed for Florida State fans with touchdowns of 31 and 74 yards the first two times he rushed the ball, and then for a national audience with a 100-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter of the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

“You can jump or you can run there -- there are two different avenues [to catch the ball],” Fisher said. “Bobo and Kermit, those guys get the ball short and it’s hard to get them on the ground.”

Quarterback Jameis Winston knows receivers like Benjamin do not come around often, but he said neither do players with the acceleration and speed of Whitfield and Wilson.

“Kermit and Bobo, they’re going to catch the ball and you’re not going to tackle them,” Winston said. “Bobo is as electric as Kermit, but Kermit is special. And those guys can jump, and I’m pretty sure they can dunk.”

Expecting the talented but inexperienced Whitfield, Wilson, Jarred Haggins and 6-4 sophomore Isaiah Jones to quickly jell with Winston in the passing game is oversimplifying an issue that requires a quarterback and receiver to connect on an innate level. Official practice time is in short supply this spring in Tallahassee as Winston bounces between football and baseball, which will cost him Saturday’s practice.

Yet as foolish as it would be to assume Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t be missed, at this point it would be equally ill-advised to doubt any aspect of the team Winston touches.

“We trust all the guys we got. That’s why we come to Florida State, to win championships, and we've got great players,” Winston said. “It’s going to be a fast adjustment with timing, and we’re going to get this thing rolling.”
The news was hardly a surprise, but Florida State nevertheless could breathe an immense sigh of relief when Rashad Greene announced he’d be back for his senior season in 2014. There are more talented, more highly regarded players from the Seminoles’ national championship team departing for the NFL, but perhaps no one on the current FSU roster was more crucial in 2014 than Greene. He was practically irreplaceable.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsRashad Green had a team-high 76 catches in 2013, including 9 in the national title game.
The run-up to the start of the 2013 season was a disaster for Florida State’s receiver group. Greg Dent was expected to blossom into a consistent threat, but instead spent the year awaiting a trial for sexual assault. Willie Haulstead figured to return from more than two years saddled with the lingering effects of a concussion, but academics ended his season before it began. Jarred Haggins was poised for a far bigger role, but a knee injury relegated him to the sidelines.

What was left for Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense was essentially a three-man show: Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw. Of Winston’s 384 pass attempts in 2013, he targeted his big three receivers 279 times (73 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The tight rotation actually proved to be a benefit. Greene, Benjamin and Shaw all enjoyed breakout seasons, with the former two topping 1,000 yards for the season. But as Florida State looks to 2014, the lack of established depth at the position means a massive rebuilding project must begin, with Greene providing the foundation.

Shaw is graduating. Benjamin departed early for the NFL. Winston’s top three targets out of the backfield all moved on as well. Aside from Greene, the current Florida State roster accounts for just 44 of Winston’s completions, the bulk of those to tight end Nick O’Leary.

So as the enthusiasm builds for a repeat performance by the Seminoles’ high-flying offense thanks to the return of the Heisman Trophy winner and four-fifths of his offensive line, the obvious question is: Who will be catching all of those throws?

Greene’s 76 catches last season were the second-most in Florida State history. It seems likely that number will increase in 2014. Even with tempting options in Shaw, O’Leary and Benjamin, Winston targeted Greene on more than 30 percent of his throws last year.

Greene was fond of telling the story of Florida State’s receivers meeting last summer to discuss the new quarterback running the offense. It would be up to them, Greene said, to make Winston comfortable, to do their jobs so well it made his job easy. In 2014, Greene’s role will be similar, except he’ll now be mentoring a young group of receivers around him, too.

Kermit Whitfield is electric with the ball in his hands, one of college football’s fastest players. He figures to be a nice fit to replace Shaw as the team’s top slot receiver, but he caught just five passes in 2013 -- none from Winston.

Benjamin’s loss provides an even bigger hole. Receivers who are 6-foot-5, 235 pounds and can run and jump effortlessly are rare gems. Still, tall receivers have been a cornerstone of Florida State’s offense, from Greg Carr to Rodney Smith to Benjamin. The last time the Seminoles didn’t have a receiver taller than 6-4 record at least 30 catches and 400 yards was 2005. That role in 2014 figures to fall to 6-4 Isaiah Jones, who caught just two passes for 31 yards as a freshman last season. And while he offers height similar to Benjamin, he checks in almost 40 pounds lighter and is hardly the same matchup nightmare as his predecessor.

Teammates raved about Jesus Wilson’s work on the practice field in 2013, and he’ll get his share of reps, too. Christian Green will be back again, but after a solid freshman campaign in 2011, he’s all but disappeared in the past two seasons. Haggins returns from the knee injury, too, but since Oct. 13, 2012, his combined stat line looks like this: 1 catch, 1 yard.

All of that is simply to underscore the importance of Greene in FSU’s 2014 passing game. His fellow receivers have potential, but Greene is the established weapon. And while the losses of Shaw and Benjamin are big, it’s worth remembering that Winston’s favorite weapon remains.

On third down last season, Winston targeted Greene 27 times -- nearly twice as often as any other receiver on the team. His 18 third-down catches doubled the next closest receiver, and all 18 went for first downs. Winston’s other returning star, O’Leary, converted 8 of 9 third-down targets, too.

In the red zone in 2013, Greene was again Winston’s top target (14 throws) and receiver (eight catches), and he and O’Leary accounted for nearly half of Winston’s red-zone targets.

In short, few receivers made more catches when it mattered most. Fifty of Greene’s receptions went for a first down, tied for third among ACC receivers. And no player on Florida State’s offense has been as consistent. Greene has led the team in receiving in each of his first three seasons in Tallahassee. He needs 41 more catches and 1,133 more yards in 2014 to match FSU’s career receiving marks.

Of course, as good as Greene has been, the onus will still fall to his emerging teammates to draw the attention of safeties away from him and provide Winston with a wider variety of weapons at his disposal. That development remains a work in progress for the next seven months, but Greene’s ability to handle double coverage, to make the big plays when it matters most, to set the standard for game day on the practice field during the week -- that makes the jobs of everyone around him much easier.

For an offense that returns so many stars in 2014, Greene will again be the cornerstone.

The ACC has lost 10 players who have decided to forgo their final seasons of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. It’s not a mass exodus, but their departures definitely leave some holes. Florida State is losing some talent, but Clemson arguably has the biggest shoes to fill, as the Tigers are losing their top two receivers from 2013, including All-American Sammy Watkins. With spring football around the corner, there will be plenty of competition throughout the league, but based on what we know now, here is the best guess at who the replacements will be for each of the ACC’s early entrees:

Leaving: Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Jones
AP Photo/Phil SearsIsaiah Jones (right) caught only two passes as a freshman, but Kelvin Benjamin's departure means he'll have to play a bigger role.
The replacement: Isaiah Jones. He is 6-foot-4, but he lacks Benjamin's physical strength (he weighs about 35 pounds less). Christian Green also could be an answer after playing sparingly the past two seasons. He's 6-foot-2 and known for his speed. He had 26 catches for 450 yards as a freshman in 2011 but has just 16 catches for 190 yards in the two seasons since. As far as a true red zone target and receiver who can win the jump balls, tight end Nick O'Leary will likely get the bulk of the throws that went to Benjamin in 2013.

Leaving: North Carolina C Russell Bodine

The replacement: Lucas Crowley. As a freshman, Crowley made his collegiate debut against rival NC State. He played 11 snaps and graded out at 90 percent. An encouraging sign for UNC fans should be Crowley’s performance against Pitt, where he played a respectable game opposite All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He played 66 snaps at center in that game and had five knockdowns.

Leaving: Clemson DB Bashaud Breeland

The replacement: Garry Peters. He was one of Clemson’s rising stars at cornerback in 2012, but an injury last season set him back. He still played in 10 games and enters this fall with 54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 12 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 33 games (five starts) in his career.

Leaving: Clemson WR Martavis Bryant

The replacement: Mike Williams. The true freshman played in all 13 games and started three, finishing 2013 with 20 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. His first career start came against Wake Forest, and Williams had a 14-yard touchdown. As a prep, he was rated the No. 3 player in South Carolina by ESPN.com. Williams has a lot of potential, and the Tigers will need him to reach it quickly.

Leaving: North Carolina TE Eric Ebron

The replacement: Jack Tabb. He played in 10 games at tight end and on special teams, and he also saw some time at linebacker. He finished with six catches for 116 yards and 10 tackles. UNC also signed two tight ends in the 2014 class, including one, Brandon Fritts, who enrolled in January. The other, Avery Edwards, is regarded as the top TE in North Carolina.

Leaving: Florida State RB Devonta Freeman

The replacement: Ryan Green. He played in all 12 games (no starts), and finished with 163 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries. He showed some explosiveness in his limited playing time, as six of his carries went for 10 yards or more. His blocking and ability to take advantage of open holes still need to improve.

Leaving: Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan

The replacement: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He played in 13 games and started six alongside Jernigan at defensive tackle. He finished the season with 15 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He also had two quarterback hurries. He made his first career start against Pitt and had a season-high three tackles against both Boston College and Maryland. He had one tackle in the national championship game.

Leaving: Syracuse RB Jerome Smith

The replacement: Prince-Tyson Gulley. He was granted a fifth season of eligibility and as of now is expected to play this fall. Gulley qualified for a medical hardship waiver because he broke his collarbone in 2011 and played just four games. He was third on the team in rushing in 2013 and finished with 456 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries. He also had 15 catches and one receiving touchdown.

Leaving: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins

The replacement: Charone Peake. Watkins was one of a kind, and his record-setting production nearly impossible to duplicate, but Peake is the next man up. He was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver before he tore his ACL during a simple non-contact drill in practice on Sept. 10. Prior to the injury, Peake had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, second only to Watkins in both receptions and yards. In 2012, Peake had 25 receptions for 172 yards and two scores.

Leaving: Florida State RB James Wilder Jr.

The replacement: Karlos Williams. He moved from safety to tailback in Week 2 and finished his first season at the position with 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who scored once every 8.3 carries.
Florida State finished off a spectacular season with a national championship, and with Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, Jalen Ramsey and a host of other stars returning for 2014, the expectations for next season are already sky high.

So if FSU is going to repeat as national champs, what are the big stumbling blocks on the road ahead? We take a look at the top five.

1. Rebuilding the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWith Timmy Jernigan heading to the NFL, Florida State will have a big hole to fill in the middle of its line.
With Timmy Jernigan leaving early for the NFL draft -- he’s widely considered a top-15 pick — Florida State will have a huge hole in the middle of the line. But the Seminoles also need to find someone to rush off the edge, as Christian Jones did throughout the season and develop some depth after waving goodbye to Demonte McAllister and Dan Hicks. Nile Lawrence-Stample, Matthew Thomas and others could fill those voids, but it will be incumbent on emerging stars Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman to step up their games, too.

2. Developing new receivers.

It wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was nevertheless a relief when Greene decided to return for his senior season. Florida State’s receiving corps was exceptional in 2013, but it wasn’t deep. Kenny Shaw is moving on, and Kelvin Benjamin could follow. That leaves Greene as FSU’s only established, consistent receiver. Isaiah Jones, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield all got a taste of playing time in 2013, but they’ll need to do a lot more next season.

3. Finding new leaders on defense.

This might be the toughest task for Florida State. Telvin Smith, Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Jones and Jernigan weren’t simply the defensive standouts on the field, they were the heart and soul of the unit in the locker room. There’s still plenty of talent remaining on the unit, but no one who has had to step up and galvanize a locker room or push the younger players to work harder. Finding leaders on that side of the ball — Edwards, Goldman, Terrance Smith and Ronald Darby, perhaps — will be crucial to maintaining the unit’s immense production in 2014.

4. Managing the schedule.

If the knock on Florida State this season was that it wasn’t tested until the title game, the concern for 2014 might be that there are simply too many big tests. The Seminoles open in Dallas against Oklahoma State, but also have Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida before the season is out. If this title was a victory for the ACC’s legitimacy on a national stage, the 2014 slate for Florida State only underscores how much tougher winning the league will be going forward.

5. Handling the hype.

It’s one thing to win when no one is expecting it. Winning when everyone has you pegged as No. 1 is a whole other challenge. Florida State will enjoy its national championship now, but in 2014, everyone will be gunning for the Seminoles, and the media scrutiny will be immense. Can Winston go a full offseason as a Heisman winner and national champion and not waver from his commitment to getting better? Can the coaching staff maintain that same level of dedication from a group that already has a title on its résumé? There’s a reason so few teams repeat as champions. It’s really hard to do.

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