NCF Nation: James Wilder Jr.

The dust has settled after the NFL draft, and it was another solid showing by the ACC. Overall, the league had 42 players selected, the second most in ACC history and the second most by any conference this year (trailing only the SEC’s 48).

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Elsa/Getty ImagesFormer Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins was the first ACC player selected (No. 4 overall) in the NFL draft.
Four of the first 14 players selected in this year’s draft came from the ACC, led by Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins (No. 4 overall to the Buffalo Bills) and UNC tight end Eric Ebron (No. 10 to the Detroit Lions). Five ACC players were taken in the first round and 10 more were selected in the second and third rounds.

For the second straight year, Florida State led all ACC schools in players drafted. Seven Seminoles were selected throughout the weekend, starting with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in round 1 by the Carolina Panthers and ending with linebacker Telvin Smith in round 5 by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the past two years, Florida State has had 18 players drafted by NFL teams.

Of course, it wasn’t just strength at the top for the ACC. All 14 programs had at least one player selected this year, including five apiece from Clemson and North Carolina and four from Boston College.

New addition Louisville, which officially enters the ACC next month, had four players selected this year, including three (Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith and Teddy Bridgewater) in the first round.

Three ACC quarterbacks were selected, led by Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas (No. 120). Pitt’s Tom Savage (No. 135) and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (No. 213) were also taken.

Duke corner Ross Cockrell was taken with pick No. 109 by the Bills, becoming just the third Blue Devils player drafted since 2001. He was also the highest-selected Duke defensive player since Mike Junkin was taken fifth overall in 1987.

Miami had three players selected over the weekend (Brandon Linder, Pat O'Donnell and Seantrel Henderson), extending its streak of consecutive years with at least one player drafted to 41. Florida State and Virginia extended streaks of their own to 32 years.

Of the ACC underclassmen who declared for this year’s draft, four went undrafted. FSU running back James Wilder Jr. inked a free-agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, Syracuse running back Jerome Smith signed with the Atlanta Falcons and NC State defensive lineman Carlos Gray signed with the Green Bay Packers.

Among other notable undrafted free agents in the league, former Miami quarterback Stephen Morris signed with Jacksonville, UNC quarterback Bryn Renner inked a deal with Denver, FSU receiver Kenny Shaw signed with Cleveland, Tar Heels offensive lineman James Hurst signed with the Ravens and former BC quarterback Chase Rettig signed with Green Bay.

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 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.

FSU's ground game toils in the shadows

December, 26, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The first half of December was a coronation for Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. He won the ACC championship game MVP, led his team to a berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, won a slew of postseason awards, including the Heisman Trophy.

[+] EnlargeJames Wilder Jr.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIJames Wilder Jr., who has tallied 542 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, is one of three of Florida State's solid running backs.
Meanwhile, last year’s ACC championship game MVP, James Wilder Jr., relaxed and enjoyed awards season from home. Never mind that Florida State’s ground game actually tallied more rushing touchdowns and averaged more yards per carry this season than it did a season ago, when it was widely considered one of the best units in the country.

No, with a quarterback like Winston, the shadow the ground game lives in can be a long one.

“We have a Heisman[-winning] quarterback,” Wilder said. “It’s hard to talk about the running backs when you have a Heisman[-winning] quarterback.”

It’s not just Winston overshadowing Florida State’s runners now. The narrative for this season's national title game has already been written, with Winston’s high-flying passing attack going up against Auburn’s spectacular ground game, and the team that best executes its strength is likely to be the one hoisting a championship trophy on Jan. 6.

But again, that ignores the work of Florida State’s running backs.

Auburn’s rushing attack has earned raves -- and for good reason. The Tigers led the nation in rushing touchdowns entering bowl season with 46. Of course, that’s just five more than Florida State had, despite 202 more carries.

Auburn also had one of the most explosive running games this season, racking up 335 yards per game on the ground -- the best total in the country. But break those numbers down a bit by eliminating yardage lost to sacks on passing plays and big numbers tallied against FCS competition, and Florida State was actually just a tick better running the ball (6.43 yards per carry) than was Auburn (6.42 yards per carry).

In other words, there will be more than one talented rushing attack on the field in Pasadena.

“Inside the [running backs meeting] room, we feel we’re as good as anyone,” said Karlos Williams, FSU’s third-string back who has averaged 8.2 yards per carry and scored 11 times this year.

Outside that meeting room, however, the Seminoles’ runners are happy flying beneath the radar.

Williams has been spectacular when he has touched the ball, but he’s gotten just 14 first-half carries all year.

Devonta Freeman is on course to become Florida State’s first 1,000-yard runner in 17 years, but he hasn’t complained about his lowly 12.5 carry-per-game average or the fact that he has had just 65 rushing attempts in the second half this year (an average of just five per game).

Wilder entered the season with NFL aspirations, but a shoulder injury and a concussion limited his workload. One year after winning the ACC championship game MVP, he is on pace to carry the ball 26 fewer times this season, but he’s not complaining.

“The backs, we’re not those guys that care if we get attention or not,” Wilder said. “All of our running backs are unselfish guys who just want to see the team succeed.”

And thus far, that dynamic has worked particularly well for Florida State’s offense, which leads the nation averaging 7.81 yards per play.

The Seminoles have done it with an almost perfect 50-50 split in running plays vs. passing plays -- a much heavier dose of the passing game than in years past under coach Jimbo Fisher. From 2010 through 2012, FSU ran 58 percent of the time. Florida State’s 36 rushes per game this season ranks 84th nationally, yet its 41 touchdowns ranks seventh and its 5.7 yards-per-attempt average is ninth.

“We’re explosive,” Williams said. “Very, very explosive when we lock in, when we pay attention to the small details and when we play our football.”

Of course, that’s not to take anything from Auburn’s ground game, which Wilder insists is as good as advertised.

The Tigers’ tailback Tre Mason was there in New York alongside Winston at the Heisman Trophy presentation, a worthy finalist. Wilder is good friends with Mason, and he actually texted the Auburn junior to wish him luck before Winston won the award.

But that’s where all the good wishes are likely to end. With a national championship to be decided, Wilder knows Mason will be a big factor, but on Jan. 6, Florida State’s ground game will get a chance to shine, too.

FSU offense poised to make history

December, 12, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — They know the numbers, but none of Florida State’s offensive playmakers wants to vouch for just how significant 1,000 would be.

The refrain was established even before the season, and it has been repeated again and again each time another Seminoles star gets within striking distance.

“I don’t feel like anyone is really focusing on that,” said Rashad Greene, Florida State’s leading receiver with 981 yards. “We want that crystal ball. That’s the goal, and individual stuff will take care of itself.”

It’s the same answer given by Kenny Shaw, now 71 receiving yards shy of 1,000.

It’s the same answer given by Kelvin Benjamin, who needs 43 receiving yards to crack 1,000.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
AP Photo/Richard ShiroRashad Greene is one of three FSU receivers who's less than 75 yards from the 1,000-yard mark this season.
It’s the same answer given by Devonta Freeman, who can top 1,000 rushing yards with just 57 in the VIZIO BCS Championship Game.

And, of course, the national championship is exactly where their focus should be, but the proximity of all four players to that elusive mark is nothing to shrug off.

At Florida State, getting to 1,000 has been a remarkably rare accomplishment for anyone. In the school’s history, only 12 players have reached that mark, and only once have multiple Seminoles cracked 1,000 in the same season.

For Freeman, getting to 1,000 would end the longest -- and one of the most inexplicable -- streaks in the country. No Florida State back has topped 1,000 yards since 1996 thanks to a confluence of injuries, depth, performance and bad luck. To end the streak in a national championship game would be a perfect conclusion.

“That would be great,” Freeman said. “But we’ve got to win it. We’ve got to win, then get these 1,000 yards.”

Freeman figured to have plenty of competition from his teammates in Florida State’s backfield, but Karlos Williams (705 yards) was developed slowly after moving from safety in Week 2, and James Wilder Jr. (542 yards) was hobbled by injuries in the early season, opening the door just enough for Freeman to approach that elusive mark.

When the season began, the depth at receiver actually appeared to be a concern. Senior Greg Dent was suspended after being charged with sexual assault. Senior Willie Haulstead was ruled academically ineligible. Jarred Haggins suffered a preseason knee injury and was lost for the year, too. That left Florida State with just four veteran receivers, but the lack of depth actually proved to be a blessing.

The tight rotations meant Greene, Shaw and Benjamin were on the field more often, and for Benjamin in particular, that made a marked difference in his performance. In 2012, Benjamin withered down the stretch, but this season, his last two games have been his best. He has caught 14 passes for 331 yards and five touchdowns in his last two contests, pulling him into position to crack 1,000 yards, too.

Only once has Florida State had two receivers top 1,000 in a season -- 1995, when E.J. Green and Andre Cooper did it with a combined 9 yards to spare. That Florida State might have three this year would put the Seminoles’ offense in rarefied company.

Only four other teams in college football history have had three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season. Three of those teams -- 2009 Houston, 2007 Hawaii and 2003 Texas Tech -- hardly offer apt comparisons. They combined to throw the ball on 69 percent of their plays. Florida State, meanwhile, has thrown just 46 percent of the time this season.

The 2007 Tulsa Golden Hurricanes are really the only good comparison to what Florida State has done on offense this year. They had a 50-50 split on play-calling, and they are the only team in the last 10 years to have four players top 1,000 yards in one season.

It’s not a record that established Tulsa as an all-time great, of course. It’s simply just an interesting bit of trivia. And that’s why Florida State’s mantra is so significant.

One thousand yards would mean something. Four players topping 1,000 would mean even more. But four 1,000-yard players sharing a national championship would assure the Seminoles of their place in history.

“To me, if it’s in the context of winning and being successful, then it’s a great accomplishment,” Jimbo Fisher said. “Still, 1,000 yards is 1,000 yards, and that means a lot.”

ACC weekend rewind: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
The final regular-season weekend is on deck. Time sure flies. So here's one last look at all that went down in the ACC this past weekend.

The good: The ACC seemingly survived JV week without incident, with Florida State and North Carolina each putting up 80 points, Georgia Tech crushing Alabama A&M 66-7, and Clemson taking care of business against the Citadel with a 56-7 win. Two teams, UNC and Pitt, got to bowl-eligibility, setting up for some great showdowns this coming rivalry weekend.

The bad: Well, there is always Virginia, which lost by 19 at Miami and remains winless in ACC play. And there is NC State, also winless in ACC play after a 14-point home loss to East Carolina -- which, to add insult to injury, further declared its place in the Triangle in a season in which it beat both NC State and North Carolina.

The ugly: North Carolina's 80-20 win over Old Dominion featured a shortened fourth quarter, from 15 minutes to 10. And none of the Tar Heels' 80 points ended up coming in the final frame. Funny enough, this was actually a 14-13 game after the first quarter. I was at Notre Dame on Saturday, and when the out-of-town scores were announced in the press box, this game was announced: "North Carolina 80, Old Dominion 20. That's football, not basketball."

[+] EnlargeDaniel Rodriguez
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtClemson walk-on WR Daniel Rodriguez, a Purple Heart recipient, caught a TD pass Saturday, providing a heart-warming moment.
The awesome moment: It came at the 14:10 mark of the fourth quarter, with Clemson already holding a 45-3 lead over the Citadel. Then, Daniel Rodriguez caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Cole Stoudt, for his first career touchdown. On Military Appreciation Day, no less. If you're not already familiar with Rodriguez's story, become so. Simply amazing.

The icers: Paul Chryst, bravo. Randy Edsall, not so much. Up 17-16 with 1:03 left and Syracuse facing a fourth-and-8 from the Pitt 36, Chryst called a timeout right as the Orange were about to attempt a game-winning field goal, which was then revealed to be a fake, a fake that looked destined to be good. Terrel Hunt then threw an incomplete pass out of the timeout, sealing bowl-eligibility for the Panthers and leaving Syracuse with no other choice but to beat Boston College this Saturday in order to make the postseason. Edsall, meanwhile, called a timeout to ice BC kicker Nate Freese's 52-yard game-winning attempt, which hooked left. With new life from Edsall's timeout, however, Freese drilled it, giving the Eagles a 29-26 win at Maryland, their fourth straight victory.

The unconventional two-pointer: Speaking of BC-Maryland, how about the wild extra-point sequence in the fourth quarter? Alex Amidon hauled in a 74-yard touchdown pass for BC with 5:02 left to take a 26-24 lead. But the extra point was blocked, and Anthony Nixon ran it back the other way to tie the game at 26. You don't see that every day.

The Heisman hopefuls: In making your case for why you should win college football's highest individual honor, you can do a lot worse than what Andre Williams and Aaron Donald did on Saturday. Williams rushed for 263 yards, eclipsing the 200-yard mark for the third straight game. He also got to 2,073 yards on the season, becoming just the 16th player in college football history to reach the 2,000-yard plateau. His 36-yard run set up the game-winning field goal for Boston College. Donald, meanwhile, was named the Walter Camp defensive player of the week award, as the Pitt defensive tackle tallied nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a blocked extra-point attempt that provided the winning margin in a 17-16 win at Syracuse.

The three-headed attack: Here's another box-score oddity you don't see every day: Florida State had three different players average better than 11 yards per carry. Devonta Freeman carried it 11 times for 129 yards and a touchdown (11.7 yards per carry), Karlos Williams ran it 10 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns (11.4 ypc) and James Wilder Jr. rushed four times for 85 yards and a score (21.3). The Seminoles had 336 rushing yards on the day, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt.

The Blue Devils: Where do we start this time? Duke is in the BCS standings for the first time, at No. 24, after getting picked to finish last in the Coastal Division by the media in July. The Blue Devils have now clinched a tie of the division title after beating Wake Forest 28-21, and can win it outright by winning this Saturday at North Carolina. They have tied a school record with nine wins, something they have not done since 1941. And they have won seven straight games for the first time since 1994.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The 17-year drought at Florida State is one of the more inexplicable streaks in sports.

Warrick Dunn breezed to 1,180 rushing yards his senior season in 1996, and while few Seminoles fans expected to see another back quite as dynamic as Dunn, it wasn’t hard to envision a slew of runners following in his footsteps and marching well past 1,000.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Zuma Press/Icon SMIDevonta Freeman would need to average 75 yards per game to become the first FSU running back to hit 1,000 yards in 17 years.
And yet, for 17 years and for myriad reasons, it hasn’t happened. No school in the country has a longer active streak.

Of course, this year was supposed to be different. Sure, 2000 and 2002 and 2004 and, heck, even 2012 were supposed to be different, too, but they weren’t. But everything about this season has felt different for Florida State, felt like the good old days when Dunn roamed the sideline, and really, it would’ve taken a catastrophe to keep Devonta Freeman from finally, mercifully putting the streak to an end. Right?

Not exactly.

Three weeks ago, Freeman was the workhorse against Miami, carrying a career-high 23 times for 78 yards, bringing his season rushing total to 639. With six more games to play -- including predicted blowouts against Wake Forest, Syracuse and, this week’s opponent, Idaho -- 1,000 was well within reach.

The former prediction has lived up to its billing. Florida State beat Wake and Syracuse by a combined 118-6, and is a 56-point favorite against Idaho on Saturday. The latter, on the other hand, is proving more elusive.

Florida State has won its last two games by such a massive margin that Freeman’s role all but disappeared. He carried the ball just 10 times in the two games, for a total of just 40 yards. After the Miami win, he needed to average just 60 yards per game to reach 1,000 -- a total he’d topped six times already this year. Now, he'll have to average 75.

“I think Free’s gonna get it, man,” said fellow tailback James Wilder Jr., who’d entered the season dreaming of 1,000 yards himself, only to see injuries wreak havoc on the quest. “I’m rooting for him the whole way.”

Wilder is healthy now, and he's gotten some short-yardage carries that might’ve gone to Freeman earlier in the season. Karlos Williams has taken the bulk of the second-half carries in the recent blowout wins. For the year, Freeman has just 12 carries (for 29 yards) in the fourth quarter -- a third of which came in the Miami game.

Last year, Freeman averaged 5.9 yards per carry -- a rate that would’ve gotten him to 1,000 with just 13 carries per game. This season, his average has dipped just a tad, to 5.7 yards per rush. He’s been far more explosive in the passing game (218 yards) and he’s already topped his career high in touchdowns (11 total, 10 on the ground), but it’s those 13 carries a game have proven problematic. So far this year, he’s averaged 12 per game, and in the past two blowouts, he’s averaged just five.

“The last couple games, it’s just been the way it’s fallen out,” Jimbo Fisher said. “But we’ve still got four ballgames left, a lot of ball left to play.”

Freeman isn’t Florida State’s only star in search of a record, though. He’s just in search of the most high-profile one.

Jameis Winston is on pace for 39 touchdown passes, which would dwarf FSU’s previous season high of 33, set by Chris Weinke in 2000. Of course, like Freeman, Winston’s workload has been limited by success. He's thrown just 18 fourth-quarter passes this year.

[+] EnlargeGreene/Shaw
Stephen M. Dowell/Getty ImagesRashad Greene (left) and Kenny Shaw could become the first pair of FSU receivers with 1,000-yard seasons since 1995.
Eleven years have passed since Florida State last had a 1,000-yard receiver (Anquan Boldin in 2002), and the Seminoles have never had a runner and receiver crack that mark in the same year. This season, however, Rashad Greene (860 through 10 games), Kenny Shaw (721) and Kelvin Benjamin (565) all have a chance at 1,000. Greene, who needs just 35 yards per game the rest of the way, seems like a near lock.

“If that can go within our team goals, and we can reach everything, I think it’s great,” Fisher said. “I have a lot of respect for [Greene] and I’m hoping for it.”

But hope doesn’t put the ball in a receiver’s hands or earn a tailback a few extra carries. The statistical goals are about opportunity, and during FSU’s run of blowouts this year, those opportunities have been a bit too rare.

Shaw, who is on pace for 1,009 receiving yards, is a fine example. The senior has topped 89 yards receiving in a game six times this season, but he’s never gone past 100. Last week against Syracuse, Shaw was stuck on 99 when one final pass came his way. He was tackled at the line of scrimmage, though, and 99 is where he stayed. There's a strange bit of luck involved too, and that's been the great variable for Florida State over the years.

Yes, this season is different -- and maybe too different. Florida State is the only team in the country to win all its games by at least 14 points. If the streaks continues for another year, the ultimate irony might be that it did so because Freeman and Co. were simply too good.

Winston wows with physical play

November, 19, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The fact that quarterbacks don’t get hit in practice has never quite felt right to Jameis Winston.

Back in high school, he got a feel for when his head coach, Matt Scott, might whistle a play dead to keep his quarterback from getting pummeled. So, just before the whistle blew, Winston would turn upfield, find a defender and deliver a hit of his own.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston's diving block on Kermit Whitfield's touchdown run was the latest example of Winston's sometimes ill-advised physical play.
“It’s just his will, his competitive nature,” Scott said.

Not much has changed at Florida State. Winston dons a green non-contact jersey during practice, and Jimbo Fisher doesn’t take any risks when it comes to halting a play before a big hit, but on game days, all bets are off.

Opponents bring the blitz, and Winston laughs. He’s made a habit of shedding defenders, escaping tackles and chucking the ball downfield for a big play.

Put a defender in his face, and Winston is brilliant. For the season, he’s completing nearly 74 percent of his passes (at 13.6 yards per attempt) when being hurried or hit, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Even when he hands off the football, there’s no guarantees Winston won’t find himself in the thick of the action, with his diving block of Syracuse defensive back Julian Whigham on a 74-yard touchdown run by Kermit Whitfield the latest example of his eagerness to mix it up downfield.

“That says a lot about his character and what type of player and person he is,” running back James Wilder Jr. said. “After a handoff, a toss, you can just chill back there, hold your hands up and say ‘touchdown.’ But it shows what type of determination and team player he is, 40 yards downfield making a block.”

Fisher understands the implicit message being sent, too, so it’s tough for him to be too upset when Winston puts himself in harm’s way for the good of the team.

“You’d like to say no and you’ve got to be smart about it, but when guys know you’re in the hunt with them and you’re in the fight with them, they’ll play really hard for you,” Fisher said. “That’s why they love him, because they know he’s full-board with them.”

The on-field scuffle between tackle Bobby Hart and Miami’s Anthony Chickillo a few weeks ago wasn’t any different. When the ruckus started, Winston was quick to jump to his teammate’s defense. Again, Fisher was less than thrilled to see his quarterback mixing it up, and again, Winston knew it wasn’t the wisest decision.

Still, it’s tough to keep those emotions at bay.

“Next time it happens, I might run full speed to the sideline and be like, ‘Coach Fisher, are you going to do something about this?’” Winston joked afterward. “It’s just in us to react when something like that happens.”

Of course, Winston's instincts kick in most often is in the pocket. Even that’s become a hot-button issue for the quarterback.

In the blowout win over Syracuse last week, Winston played just the first half, but he was still sacked three times. The problem, he said, was that he wasn’t playing physical enough.

“They brought a lot of pressure,” Winston said. “And on two instances I did hold the ball too long. But I’ve got to break those tackles.”

Winston has yet to chalk up a sack to poor blocking by his offensive line, but he’s actually been pretty good at keeping the pass rush at bay this year.

Winston has been sacked 17 times this season -- once every 18 drop-backs. That’s still a better rate than last year’s quarterback, EJ Manuel, experienced, and Winston has tallied 102 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats and Info, more than 70 percent of his rushing total for the year. Overall, Winston goes down on first contact less than 40 percent of the time.

Still, all those hits don’t exactly sit well with his coach.

“You’ve got to be safe now,” Fisher said. “We have to talk about that.”

In the end though, all those talks probably won’t amount to much, and Fisher shouldn’t be entirely surprised.

The physical approach to the game is in Winston’s DNA, and that’s a big reason Fisher wanted him in the first place.

“I think it’s about the guys Jimbo recruits. They always have that edge,” running back Karlos Williams said. “Jameis is one of those guys. If it came down to it, and everything was live in practice, we’d see Jameis laying a few licks on guys.”

Winston shines in spite of scandal

November, 16, 2013

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- He started with 11 straight completions, an answer to anyone who wondered if this chaos would finally unravel the unflappable focus of Jameis Winston.

He lounged on the sideline throughout the entirety of the second half of yet another blowout win, joking with former Heisman winner and Florida State great Charlie Ward. If Winston was worried that an off-field scandal might squash his hopes of following in Ward’s footsteps, his wide smile and relaxed demeanor didn’t show it Saturday.

Once the 59-3 shellacking of Syracuse was over, Winston lingered on the field for a few extra moments, then darted toward the tunnel, stopping behind the end zone when he found coach Jimbo Fisher’s young son. He shared high-fives with a contingent of kids, then exited the field through a cadre of fans reaching out their hands and shouting his name, disappearing into the locker room that is his sanctuary.

This was Florida State’s first mantra this week: Everything stays the same.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
AP Photo/Phil SearsJameis Winston threw for for 277 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s the same Jameis,” receiver Kenny Shaw said. “Practice was the same, everything was the same. Same schedule. Nothing changed.”

Eventually, Winston emerged to face the cameras and the reporters. During his five-minute news conference, he faced a slew of questions about his focus, but not one about his potential involvement in a sexual-assault case being investigated by the state attorney’s office. Media had been instructed that Winston would discuss football only, but those unanswered questions tinged every aspect of Florida State’s victory on Saturday.

That is the other mantra at Florida State until there is some resolution to this case: No comment.

“One thing about Florida State, we’re a big family,” Winston said, “and we stay inside the family.”

A sexual assault was alleged to have occurred last December, and at some point after that, Winston became entangled in the investigation. On Wednesday, that information became public, but few other details of the story have emerged since.

Fisher skillfully dodged questions during a postgame media session that was, at times, more like a chess match between those who wanted details and a man who might have some.

Winston turned the focus onto his teammates, just as he had all season. Florida State’s defense once again was dominant. The offense scored touchdowns on its first five drives. There was too much love to go around to belabor the ugly story that overshadowed everything else for the previous four days.

The rest of the Seminoles were subjected to similar scrutiny, but they were careful not to provide any spark that might further ignite this growing media firestorm. It was, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said, the closest thing possible to business as usual.

“The guy, he’s had a lot going on around him from the start of the season,” Jernigan said of Winston, a redshirt freshman. “When you play like he plays, a lot’s going to come with it, whether it’s in a good way or a bad way. He’s just going out and playing his game. Nothing’s going to bother him.”

Indeed, Winston hardly seemed flustered by the off-field distractions. He finished the game completing 19 of 21 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. He delivered a devastating block 40 yards downfield on a 74-yard touchdown run by freshman Levonte Whitfield. He nearly drew a flag sprinting onto the field to celebrate a defensive touchdown. He beamed after his backup, Sean Maguire, threw the first touchdown pass of his career in the third quarter, a beautiful lob to tight end Nick O'Leary in the end zone that may offer some hope for Florida State’s offense should this scandal derail Winston’s season.

“Nothing’s going to hold Jaboo back,” tailback James Wilder Jr. said of his QB. “He’s always happy, always cheering. He was tuned in, locked in.”

Before the game, the 1993 national championship team was honored, and even Seminoles 20 years removed from their playing days faced questions. Ward offered support for Winston. After an 11-month delay in investigating the incident, Ward suggested the timing of Tallahassee police’s decision to send the case to the state attorney was curious.

Derrick Brooks, a defensive star on that 1993 team, said this year’s Seminoles would rally around Winston. Championship teams, he said, always face adversity, and the cure was to step back onto the field.

But adversity seems like the wrong word. Fans cheered his name, and reporters studied Winston’s face for signs that the cloud of suspicion would finally crack his unflinchingly upbeat facade. But the alleged victim in the case remains nameless and faceless to the public, another in the stream of details still unknown.

Saturday’s game did little to part the clouds of the growing storm surrounding the program. It simply proved once again that, with Winston at quarterback, Florida State is a team more than capable of playing for a national championship.

“When you have great veterans around you and great people you trust,” Winston said, “you want to go out on that battlefield and play your heart out for them.”

Seminoles watching Ducks, Tide closely

November, 7, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The mantra is so deeply embedded by now, it’s tough to shake. One game at a time, ignore the outside distractions. Florida State’s players repeat it again and again.

But no matter how often the claims of tunnel vision are repeated, the college football slate this week shapes up perfectly to pique the Seminoles’ curiosity, and with No. 3 Oregon playing tonight and No. 1 Alabama playing long after FSU wraps up its own game Saturday, many Florida State players admit they’re eager to get a look at the other teams vying for supremacy in the BCS rankings.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsJimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston, like many of the Seminoles, will watch Oregon and Alabama games with interest, but they remain more focused on what FSU needs to do to finish undefeated.
“I wanted do see it because it’s a big game,” tailback James Wilder Jr. said of Thursday’s Oregon-Stanford showdown. “I just want to look at them and see why they keep jumping us, what they have that makes them keep jumping us.”

Oregon and Florida State have flip-flopped in each of the past two releases of the BCS standings, while Alabama has been a steady No. 1 all season. Both the Ducks and the Crimson Tide get top-15 opponents this week -- No. 5 Stanford for Oregon and No. 13 LSU for Alabama -- and with undefeated No. 6 Baylor also playing No. 10 Oklahoma on Thursday, the chaotic BCS picture figures to be cleared up a bit by the time the next set of BCS standings arrives.

At least, that’s the hope for Florida State, which likely needs either Oregon or Alabama to lose at least one game to get a shot to make the BCS National Championship Game. And yet, for all their interest in getting an up-close look at their competition in the polls, the Seminoles insist they’re not playing favorites.

FSU quarterback Jameis Winston said he’ll likely tune in to see Oregon and Stanford play tonight, but won’t be celebrating in his room if the Ducks get upended. It was a sentiment echoed by most of his teammates.

“I try to not get caught up in ‘I’m a Stanford fan this week, I’m an LSU fan this week,’” tackle Cameron Erving said. “We have to worry about Florida State.”

That was the company line throughout the roster, but if players wouldn’t confess to a rooting interest, they admitted there would at least be a little early scouting going on in case they end up seeing Alabama or Oregon during bowl season.

“It’s football, and I’m a natural competitor,” linebacker Telvin Smith said. “When I see somebody doing great on the opposite team, I say, ‘Yeah, I’d cover them, I’d shut them down.’ But we’re just trying to take it one game at a time and stay focused. That’s our biggest thing. And the less we try to look outside this team, the further we’re going to go.”

But even Jimbo Fisher said it’s tough to completely block out those other big games, especially when the kickoff times fit so perfectly around Florida State’s own schedule.

Fisher, who has a vote in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, said he’s tried to make a point of seeing each of the top teams, and when he does watch, it’s tough to view the games as a fan.

“You do that as a coach watching a high school game. You say, how would I stop that or how would I go against that. That’s the way a coach looks at every game. Unfortunately, we can’t ever enjoy them.”

For the most part, though, Florida State’s players say that the enjoyment of watching a big game is the biggest reason they want to tune in.

“I’m going to watch because it should be a good game,” Winston said.

And whether Oregon and Alabama stay undefeated or the door opens for Florida State to secure one of the top two spots in the standings, Fisher keeps telling his team not to worry about how the story ends just yet. FSU still has four games and, likely, an ACC championship to win first, and he’s confident that the rest of the puzzle will work itself out.

For now, at least, the Seminoles agree. And after this weekend, the whole discussion could be moot anyway.

“We can have a perfect season and not go to a national championship, but that’s not our decision,” Erving said. “We have to leave that up to everybody else, but know that we’ve played a good season if we come out 12-0, 13-0. You can be upset, but at the same time, you have to deal with it.”
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The second touchdown was a thing of beauty.

James Wilder Jr. takes a pitch at the 10-yard line, shimmies around a blocker, sidesteps a tackler then dives through another, stretching for the pylon in the corner of the end zone. In his mind, the score had played out 1,000 times, and it always looked exactly the same.

“Those are the touchdowns you dream of,” Wilder said. “When you sit in your hotel room all day, those are the dream touchdowns, and it doesn’t happen a lot.”

[+] EnlargeJames Wilder Jr.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesJames Wilder Jr.'s dive for his second touchdown against Miami was a big moment in an injury-marred season for the junior.
Throughout the majority of this season, Wilder’s dreams haven’t come close to reality. The star tailback for Florida State entered the year with big goals: 1,000-yard season, double-digit touchdowns, the NFL. Instead, he’s battled through one injury after another, with Saturday’s two-touchdown game against Miami providing a clear high-water mark after weeks of frustration.

“A lot of stops and starts,” Wilder said.

A year ago, Wilder was a breakout star on the Florida State offense. He rushed for 635 yards, scored 13 times, and was named the MVP of the ACC championship game. But a shoulder injury in the opener against Pittsburgh limited his workload to start the 2013 campaign, and a concussion suffered against Clemson forced him from the Seminoles’ biggest game of the year.

In all, Wilder’s season has consisted of just 50 carries, and last week’s game against Miami accounted for half his touchdowns on the season. Prior to that game, he hadn’t tasted the end zone since FSU’s third game of the season against Bethune-Cookman.

“Realistically, I’m probably not going to get [1,000 yards],” Wilder said. “What do I have, 200 or 300?”

It’s actually 268, but Wilder’s not really interested in counting anymore.

That talk of the NFL doesn’t have the same spark either. Wilder flatly denied reports that he’d already informed a recruit he was bolting for the NFL at season’s end, and he said that, while the injuries present a reminder of the value of cashing in on his talents quickly, his limited role also offers ample motivation to return for his senior year.

“You think, dang, I didn’t really get to show what I’m capable of,” Wilder said. “It’s a half-half thing, but I definitely want to show what I’m capable of in a full, healthy season.”

Regardless of what’s to come in 2014, this season hasn’t unfolded how Wilder had hoped. But at the same time, it’s been so much better than he might’ve imagined.

Wilder’s role hasn’t been significant on the field through eight games, but he’s been a source of energy on the sideline and the practice field even when he’s not carrying the ball. His team is undefeated, currently ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings. His close friend, Devonta Freeman, is on pace to crack that 1,000-yard mark, and Wilder said there’s no one he’d rather see end Florida State’s perplexing 17-year drought without a runner eclipsing that mark.

In other words, Wilder’s OK with taking a backseat if the ride’s worth it.

“I’d rather get 400 yards and a national championship than 1,000 yards and not win a national championship,” Wilder said. “Team goals before individual goals. Wherever the chips fall, I’ll go out there and go my hardest every play.”

And Wilder ran hard against Miami. He carried nine times, his most attempts since the opener at Pitt. He converted three third-and-shorts and plowed into the end zone from the 1-yard line for FSU’s third touchdown of the game. He provided a physical spark that the Seminoles hadn’t seen nearly enough of this season.

“He was very physical right on the goal line and blocked well,” Jimbo Fisher said. “I’m glad to have him back out there. He looked strong and healthy.”

Being healthy is always going to be a relative term, Wilder said. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he’s eager to deliver a hit on the field, but the repercussions will occasionally be felt. Playing through pain is a burden he’s willing to live with, but the key is to keep playing.

That was the beauty of the Miami game. For the first time in a long time, Wilder felt like he was making a real impact.

“Being back full-speed and not thinking about injuries, you’re just more confident, more yourself,” he said.

It’s not that the past two months had provided a diminished version of Wilder. He was still a bundle of energy on the practice field, in the locker room and on the sideline, the voice of the offense. He’d run the sideline as his teammates dashed toward the end zone, and he’d be the first to join the celebration when they scored. That never changed.

“He’s that high-energy guy,” Karlos Williams said. “He’s the first one out of the tunnel, always pumped up and ready to go, always rolling, even when he wasn’t playing.”

But Wilder missed finding the end zone himself, and Saturday’s win was a much-needed reminder.

After each score, he was jubilant. He flexed his arms, shouted toward the fans and TV cameras, hugged each teammate. For Wilder, six weeks between touchdowns was a lifetime, and it felt good to finally change the scoreboard again.

“It just all came pouring out,” Wilder said. “It just led to me being very emotional.”

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Devonta Freeman finished last year’s Miami game with his teammate’s initials scrawled on his wrist tape.

Chris Thompson had been Florida State’s most explosive offensive player before blowing out his knee on a 32-yard reception early in the second quarter. At halftime, the remaining Seminoles running backs decided to dedicate the rest of the game to their fallen teammate.

It was a fitting tribute. Freeman carried 10 times in the game for 70 yards. No carries went for a loss and two finished in the end zone. A 10-3 Miami lead at the time of Thompson’s injury turned into a 33-20 Florida State win, with the Seminoles rushing for 218 yards.

But Freeman didn’t need the extra motivation. It was Miami. It was home. It’s the game he’d been waiting for.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesDevonta Freeman is emerging as a leader for Florida State, and as a player from Miami, this week is extra special.
“I’ve always got a chip on my shoulder, but it's an even bigger chip on my shoulder knowing that more people from Miami are going to be watching,” Freeman said. “It’s always going to be that edge about it. This is Miami.”

Thompson’s injury was a gut punch a year ago. He was a feel-good story after working his back from a broken bone in his back that cost him the bulk of the 2011 season. He was on pace to cruise past the 1,000-yard mark, something no FSU runner had done in 16 years. He was the hard-working heartbeat of the Seminoles' ground game, and his loss seemed enormous.

A year later, a familiar story is being told, but it hasn't earned the same spotlight. Freeman lacks Thompson’s injury-riddled back story, but the path he’s traveled was every bit as challenging. He’s now on pace to finally end that 1,000-yard curse, yet his offensive prowess is widely overshadowed by his nationally renowned teammate, Jameis Winston. And Freeman is every bit the emotional leader that Thompson was; he just does the bulk of his work away from the cameras and microphones, with a quiet confidence more befitting his reserved personality.

“His heart is about as genuine as the day is long,” Jimbo Fisher said. “He’ll do whatever you ask him. Whatever you want him to do and however you want him to do it, he says, ‘Yes sir,’ and goes 100 miles per hour.”

Freeman’s numbers tell part of the story. He’s rushed for 580 yards and six touchdowns, numbers that figure to lead the team for the third consecutive season. He’s used his speed to avoid defenders, but still has picked up nearly 200 yards after contact. He has scored on short runs and long runs, has been exceptional outside the tackles and between them and has caught passes in key situations. He said the plays he’s most proud of are the ones when the ball isn’t in his hands.

He’s been Florida State’s ultimate offensive Renaissance man, and yet so often, Freeman still managed to fly beneath the radar.

“He’s not as fast as me, not as big as James [Wilder Jr.],” Karlos Williams said. “But I believe he’s the best of the three because of the way he carries himself.”

The truth is, Freeman isn’t much interested in the spotlight. He’s in the weight room before most of his teammates and he’ll stay on the practice field even after everyone else has gone. During position meetings, he snags a seat in the front row, peppering position coach Jay Graham with questions to ensure his teammates learn the answers. He’s the four-star recruit in a backfield of five-star talent, the quiet leader amid a group of social butterflies.

“Devonta can be a high-energy guy, but it’s never been that crazy, let’s get everything pumped up. He leads by example, by his energy on the field,” Williams said. “It comes from where he’s from, the high school he came from. He comes with an edge.”

But if Freeman is used to toiling in the shadows, this week provides the lone exception. Miami is home, and the Hurricanes’ roster is filled with familiar names.

Freeman grew up in one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods, and he understands what’s at stake in a rivalry. This year, in particular, with so much on the line, Freeman isn’t interested in going unnoticed. He’s out to deliver a blow.

“It's going to be back to that old Miami – two top-10 teams,” Freeman said. “It's going to be a dog fight.”

Florida State should be well prepared for the fight. Williams has been explosive since moving from safety to tailback. He’s scored seven times on just 44 rushes, averaging nearly 8 yards per carry. Wilder’s season has been marred by injuries, and he sat out last week with concussion symptoms. He returned to practice Monday, however, and should be ready for Miami.

But it’s Freeman who promises to carry the load.

Freeman doesn’t look for the spotlight and doesn’t want a bigger share of the carries. But each year against Miami, it’s a chance to see how he measures up, to see how far he’s come.

“I can feel myself getting better,” Freeman said. “I’m running way better than I was three, four weeks ago. That's a big improvement for me, but I know I've still got a lot of work to do.”

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The last Florida State quarterback to win a game at Clemson was a freshman.

It happened in 2001, and Chris Rix didn't realize he was supposed to be intimidated. He was from California, and the chaos of Death Valley was completely foreign to him. Ignorance, it turned out, was a luxury.

When Rix returned two seasons later, the noise and the energy and the crowd made for an overwhelming obstacle. James Robert Kennedy, the inspiration for the movie "Radio," led the Tigers down the hill and onto the field. The game hadn't begun, and Rix knew Florida State was in trouble.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston will get his first taste of the Death Valley experience on Saturday night.
"We had just seen the movie," Rix said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, shoot.' "

The No. 3-ranked Seminoles, fresh off a 37-0 thumping of Notre Dame, were stunned by Clemson, beginning a run of five straight losses in Death Valley -- a streak that looms over them in Saturday's matchup like a black cloud.

In four of the five losses during this streak, Florida State was the higher-ranked team when it arrived in Clemson. The players have changed -- from the veteran Rix in 2003 to Clint Trickett making his first start in relief of an injured EJ Manuel in 2011 -- and the results have been the same. There have been close losses (a 35-30 final in 2011) and ugly ones (35-14 in 2005, part of a three-game overall losing streak to end the regular season).

For all of its success under coach Jimbo Fisher, all of the rebuilding the program has done in the past four seasons, this remains a towering obstacle, and the Seminoles are making it a point of emphasis this week.

"Twelve years? That's crazy," senior linebacker Telvin Smith said. "I know I haven't won there, and that's a goal of mine. That's what this team is about -- overcoming obstacles and being defiant."

And yet, Death Valley has a history of swallowing up the defiant and overwhelming the unprepared.

Few ACC venues provide the same unwaveringly intimidating atmosphere, from the crazed crowd to the deafening noise to the frenetic entrance Clemson's players make, charging down the hill and onto the field, ready for battle.

"It's a crazy atmosphere, especially at the beginning of the game," Smith said. "If you're not a strong-minded person, you can definitely get intimidated in there."

Fisher said the atmosphere at Clemson compares favorably to the most intense SEC stadiums, and he said he'll wear two sets of headphones just to tune out the crowd noise and ignore the claustrophobic confines. James Wilder Jr. said tailbacks can't hear a quarterback standing just a few feet away. Former FSU coach Bobby Bowden said Clemson and LSU were easily the loudest stadiums in which he ever coached. It's an environment tailback Karlos Williams said can't be replicated in practice, though he said Fisher tries to rattle his players by pumping in "terrible" music over loudspeakers during the week.

Still, as Fisher said, it's not the atmosphere that has stymied Florida State for the past 12 years -- it's the players on the field.

"Does the atmosphere make the players, or do the players make the stadium?" Fisher said. "First off, they have good players. Secondly, they're coached extremely well. And then third, to have a great environment of 80,000 folks that love football and are very passionate, I think all three of those things make it very tough to win in Death Valley."

When Florida State takes the field this season, again there will be a freshman at quarterback, and Jameis Winston insists he's not the type to be overwhelmed by his surroundings. Instead, he said, he's eager for the opportunity.

Many of Winston's teammates know exactly what to expect, however, and the memories of that 2011 loss remain fresh in their minds.

"We left with a nasty taste in our mouths last time," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We were there, knowing we should've won that game. We're going up there now, knowing it's going to be a loud, hostile environment. It's setting up for a great game."

Looking back on that win in 2001, Rix said his naiveté was a weapon on the field but admitted he never would have imagined that 12 years later, Florida State would still be looking for its next win in Death Valley.

When Clemson and Florida State take the field Saturday, however, the magnitude of the game and the environment won't be lost on anyone. With 12 years of frustration behind them, and a national championship potentially on the horizon, the Seminoles know what's at stake.

"I'm ready," safety Terrence Brooks said. "They know the expectations for this game. It's going to be a good one, and I can't wait."

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was perhaps the signature play of running back James Wilder Jr.'s career, and he's gotten to watch it over and over this week.

Florida State clung to a four-point lead as the fourth quarter began in last season's game against Clemson, and Wilder had carried the ball just twice. His third run, however, changed the entire dynamic of the game.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Zuma Press/Icon SMIRB Devonta Freeman, who leads the Seminoles in rushing this season with 385 yards, didn't have a touch in last season's win over Clemson.
Wilder took the handoff from EJ Manuel, barreled over defenders, stiff-armed another and broke free for 35 yards to the Clemson 9-yard line. Two plays later, he scored, and Florida State cruised to a 49-37 win.

In the week leading up to this season's game, friends and fans have reminded Wilder of that run repeatedly, sending pictures and videos to his phone along with a message.

"'Do this again,'" Wilder said. "Everybody tells me every day, 'Stiff-arm them like last year.'"

As Florida State preps for this week's top-five showdown against Clemson, Wilder is finally feeling like that might be a possibility. Through the first five games of the season, his longest run is 24 yards -- 11 shy of his highlight against the Tigers in 2012 -- and he has been hampered by a sore shoulder since the opener.

But after a lighter workload early in the season and an off week to heal up, Wilder said he's finally feeling ready to run with that same bruising power he displayed last season.

"My shoulder is OK, full and back again," he said. "I feel more comfortable running the ball, not holding my arm up or nothing like that, using it like I’m supposed to. No hesitation."

That's good news for a Florida State running game that has flashed plenty of potential in the early part of the season but still hasn't clicked on all cylinders.

Against two overmatched nonconference opponents, FSU averaged a stellar 8.4 yards per carry, scoring 10 times on the ground. But in its three ACC games, Florida State is moving the ball at a far more pedestrian rate of 4.4 yards per rush with just six touchdowns. That's more than a yard per carry less than the Seminoles averaged in ACC games last season.

"There is definitely room for improvement," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We feel we've left a lot out there every week."

If Florida State plans to improve those numbers this week, Clemson figures to provide an interesting challenge.

The Tigers rank in the middle of the pack in the ACC in rushing defense, allowing an average of 3.9 yards per carry this season. That's actually a solid improvement from a year ago, when FSU ran for 287 yards against them. What's more, Clemson leads the country in tackles for loss with 61, with its defensive line making a slew of big plays behind the line of scrimmage.

But break down the numbers a bit more, and there does seem to be room for optimism for Florida State. Against FBS teams, Clemson is 12th in the ACC, allowing 4.43 yards per rush. Factor out yardage lost on sacks and examine only running plays, and opponents are averaging 5.62 yards per rush, 19th-most in the nation. And on all plays in which a runner makes it across the line of scrimmage, Clemson's defense has been gouged for 6.6 yards per rush.

"It seemed like they were kind of struggling to stop the run [against Georgia and Syracuse]," Wilder said, "but they're at home, and you can't really look at that."

Rather than worry about Clemson's stats, Florida State is focused on improving its own fundamentals. Erving said the tailbacks have worked to be a bit more patient, and Devonta Freeman, who didn't have a touch in last year's win, said a few new wrinkles were worked into the ground attack.

Freeman thinks the two weeks FSU has had to prepare against its own defense in practice should have the Seminoles ready.

"They're a very aggressive team. Their D-linemen and linebackers play as a whole unit," Freeman said. "But I feel like we see that every day in practice with our defense. It's going to be great competition to be out there."

Wilder has had plenty of reminders of what's expected, and he has passed along that motivation to his teammates in the Florida State backfield.

Last season's game showed the potential, but this season has shown there's still more work to be done.

"We’re definitely nowhere near satisfied, nowhere near our expectations running the ball," Wilder said. "We definitely are trying to pick it up this week.”

ACC helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
Here are your top five performers for Week 3 in the ACC:

Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee: Not only did he throw the ball, he beat Duke with his arm. Lee threw four touchdown passes -- the most in a game in the Paul Johnson era, and the most by a Jackets quarterback since Reggie Ball threw four against NC State in 2006. He also ran for another touchdown in the 38-14 win over Duke, was 8-of-16 for 125 yards and added 76 yards rushing. Georgia Tech rolled up 344 yards rushing and 469 total yards.

Virginia Tech CB Brandon Facyson: The true freshman has grown quickly into a star, as he picked off a pair of passes and made two tackles in the Hokies’ 15-10 win at East Carolina. The Hokies’ D was again the highlight, as Virginia Tech held ECU to just 158 yards passing and 204 yards of total offense. Facyson already has three interceptions this year, matching the most interceptions in a season by a Tech freshman since DeAngelo Hall had three interceptions in 12 games as a freshman in 2001. Coach Frank Beamer told reporters after the game that Facyson is “a baller.”

Pitt freshmen: The future is now at Pitt, where three freshmen made headlines in the Panthers’ 49-27 win over New Mexico on Saturday. Freshman James Conner had 119 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. Freshman Tyler Boyd continued to impress with six catches for 134 yards, including with a 51-yarder early in the game and a 34-yard touchdown reception as time ran out in the first half. He also had two carries for 39 yards with a 33-yard touchdown run. Freshman tight end Scott Orndoff joined the party with a 4-yard touchdown.

Florida State’s running backs: Sure, it was another outstanding day for quarterback Jameis Winston in the 62-7 romp over Nevada, but let’s spread the love a little. Devonta Freeman ran nine times for 109 yards and a touchdown. James Wilder Jr. added 45 yards and a score. And the highlight? Former safety Karlos Williams, who moved to offense after the season opener against Pitt, ran eight times for 110 yards and a score. His 65-yard run early in the third quarter gave the Noles a comfortable 31-7 lead. FSU finished with 377 rushing yards -- just their third 300-plus yard rushing day since 2007.

Maryland cornerback Dexter McDougle: McDougle finished with a personal-best two interceptions, including one he returned 49 yards for a touchdown to essentially seal the Terps' 32-21 win over UConn in Randy Edsall's homecoming. It was Maryland's first pick-six since November 2011. McDougle also led the team with seven solo tackles. Maryland now has six total interceptions on the season, two more than all of 2012. But there was some bad news, as McDougle left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent shoulder injury.

Five things: FSU-Pitt

September, 2, 2013
The wait to get things started in 2013 was just a little bit longer for Pittsburgh and No. 11 Florida State, but they'll wrap up opening weekend with a prime-time showdown at Heinz Field Monday night (8 ET, ESPN). Here are five potential keys to the game:

Jameis Winston's debut: In all fairness, Pittsburgh fans get a first look at their new quarterback tonight, too, as Tom Savage makes his debut for the Panthers. But it's no discredit to Savage, who has earned ample praise from FSU's coaches and players this week, to say he's playing second fiddle to the freshman under center for the Seminoles. Winston was one of the most prized recruits in the nation two years ago, and the hype surrounding the multitalented quarterback has only built from there. He's a two-sport star, dominated FSU's spring game and beat out three other talented quarterbacks for the starting job. Now he gets to prove he's ready to live up to all the excitement.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesAfter months of hype, Florida State's Jameis Winston is set for his Monday night debut at Pittsburgh.
New look on defense: Florida State's defenders have spent the long offseason downright giddy about the changes new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought with him from Alabama. When FSU released its official depth chart last week, the personnel shifts were jaw-dropping. And yet Jimbo Fisher insists things won't be that different. Is he playing coy? It's hard to say much of anything about the new-look D until Pitt's offense takes the field, but based on the talk of fall camp, it certainly sounds like the Seminoles are planning to combat Pitt's massive offensive line with a dose of heft on defense, then bring the blitz early and often against Savage, who doesn't exactly bring much mobility to the table. If it's a transition that goes smoothly for FSU, it could mean fireworks. If there are hiccups, Savage is more than capable of exploiting them.

Elite receivers: Pitt receiver Devin Street's 73 catches led the Big East last year. He was third in yards with 975. Pitt considers him a legitimate All-America candidate, but Florida State safety Karlos Williams wasn't quite so generous, telling reporters that Street was "productive" but not great. The bulletin-board material grew from there, with Pitt players questioning FSU's secondary in response, and it's all added up to a little more excitement for a matchup that already had plenty of cachet. But perhaps the more intriguing question involves Florida State's receiving corps, which lost three seniors for the season, leaving just four wideouts with previous game experience.

Run the football: For all the intrigue in this game, one thing is clear: Both sides know how to feed an offensive line. FSU's group checks in at an average of 310 pounds. Pitt tops even that, closer to 314. Both units will be looking to throw their weight around in the ground game Monday night in hopes of making things a bit more comfortable for their quarterbacks. Florida State is led by juniors James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman, both of whom topped 600 yards on the ground last year. Pitt's situation is a bit murkier. Junior Isaac Bennett and freshman James Conner both dealt with injuries in fall camp, and sophomore Malcolm Crockett could get plenty of playing time, too.

Big-game environment: The last game of the first week of the season might not be the marquee event, like Clemson-Georgia, but it sure doesn't lack for intrigue. From the two new quarterbacks to the trash talk between players, there's ample buildup. But it's also Pitt's initiation into the ACC, Florida State's first chance to defend its conference title, a national TV game in prime time, and a showdown the Panthers expect will result in a packed house at Heinz Field. So which team responds better to the energy and excitement? Will Winston be rattled by the rabid crowd? Will Pitt be energized by it? Florida State has played in its share of big games before, but plenty of pundits have already chalked this one up as a classic trap game for the favored Seminoles.