NCF Nation: Lamarcus Joyner

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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Love it or hate it, the BCS delivered a dramatic and fitting ending on Monday night, as No. 1 FSU rallied from from a late four-point deficit in the final two minutes to defeat No. 2 Auburn 34-31 in the final VIZIO BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The Seminoles won their third national championship and ended the SEC's reign of seven consecutive BCS national championships.

Play of the game: Trailing 31-27 with about one minute to go, Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston threw a 49-yard pass to Rashad Greene to move to Auburn's 23-yard line with 56 seconds to play. Six players later, after Auburn was penalized for pass interference in the end zone, Winston threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin to go ahead for good with 13 seconds to play. FSU's extra point gave it a 34-31 lead.

Turning point: After Auburn took a 24-20 lead with about 4:42 to go, FSU's Levonte Whitfield returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, giving the Seminoles a 27-24 lead with 4:31 left. Whitfield, a 5-foot-7 freshman known as "Kermit," returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the second time this season.

Early turning point: With Auburn holding a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter, Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall lofted a 50-yard touchdown pass to Melvin Ray to stake the Tigers to a 14-3 lead with 13:48 to go in the first half. Ray, a sophomore from Tallahassee, Fla., had four catches for 58 yards this season before hauling in the long touchdown catch against the hometown Seminoles. FSU, which hadn't trailed since falling behind Boston College on Sept. 28 and had led for more than 571 minutes of football before falling behind the Tigers, suddenly trailed by two scores. The Seminoles played catch-up the rest of the night but finally caught the Tigers in the end.

Player of the game: Winston, a redshirt freshman from Bessemer, Ala., got off to a slow start against Auburn's defense, getting sacked four times and fumbling once in the first half. But in the end, Winston broke the Heisman Trophy jinx, throwing the winning touchdown with 13 seconds to play. He completed 20 of 35 passes for 237 yards with two touchdowns.

What it means: The controversial BCS era ends with the SEC being denied its eighth consecutive national championship, which should sit well with college football fans outside of the SEC. In a game in which the SEC seemed most vulnerable during its championship streak, the Tigers jumped out to a 21-3 lead but couldn't hold on for a victory. The Tigers were denied their second BCS national championship since the 2010 season, when they defeated Oregon 22-19 in the BCS National Championship behind quarterback Cam Newton. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn missed becoming only the second coach -- Miami's Larry Coker was the first -- to lead his team to the national title in his first season since the BCS began in 1998.

Stat that matters: 2-for-12: Florida State won despite going 2-for-12 on third down.

What's next: Florida State will probably be a popular choice to be the No. 1 team in preseason polls heading into the 2014 season. FSU will have to replace several key pieces on defense, including linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. But the Seminoles will bring back Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, along with several of their most important players on offense. Auburn, which reached the BCS national championship in Malzahn's first season, will be among the SEC West favorites in 2014, along with Alabama and LSU. The Tigers will bring back Marshall, but they'll have to wait to see if junior tailback Tre Mason returns to school or enters next spring's NFL draft. Auburn's very young defense will be a lot wiser in coordinator Ellis Johnson's second season, too.

Here’s a quick preview of Monday night’s VIZIO BCS National Championship (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN):

Who to watch: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The Heisman Trophy winner, who will be playing for a national title on his 20th birthday, has a chance to become the first freshman quarterback to win a national championship. Only one sophomore or freshman starting quarterback has ever won the BCS National Championship, and that was Alabama's AJ McCarron as a sophomore. Winston can also become just the third quarterback since 1950 to go undefeated with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy all in the same season. Winston, who has dominated the headlines both on and off the field this season, has proved to be the game’s best player, but Auburn is confident in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s game plan to pressure him into uncharacteristic mistakes.

What to watch: Florida State’s defensive line against Auburn’s offensive line. This matchup will feature two of the nation’s best fronts, which both feature future NFL talent. Auburn’s strength all season has been its running game, and the Tigers have no plans of abandoning that now. The Seminoles, though, have every intent of slowing the Tigers down and forcing them to win with their passing game. Auburn has run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. The Tigers lead the nation in rushing yards per game and runs of 25 yards or more. Tre Mason leads the SEC in almost every major rushing category, and his seven 100-yard rushing games against SEC defenses are the most in a season for any player in the last 10 seasons. FSU leads the nation in scoring defense, though, and is No. 13 in the country in rushing defense.

Why to watch: The SEC’s streak of seven straight national titles is on the line, and if Auburn wins, the conference will have claimed 10 of the 16 BCS titles. The last time an SEC team lost a true national championship game to a team from outside the conference was when Nebraska beat Florida to end the 1995 season (1996 Fiesta Bowl). Auburn is also playing for the fifth straight national title for the state of Alabama. With wins over then-No. 1 Alabama and then-No. 5 Missouri in its previous two games, Auburn has a chance to become the first team in college football history to win three consecutive games against top-five teams. For Florida State, it’s the program’s first appearance in the BCS National Championship in 13 years. Both coaches -- Auburn’s Guz Malzahn and FSU’s Jimbo Fisher -- are playing for their first national titles. It’s also historic, as this year’s game will be the last in the current BCS system before the four-team College Football Playoff begins next season.

Prediction: Florida State 38, Auburn 35. The Tigers have been a team of destiny this season, while the Seminoles have been a team of dominance. Florida State is the deeper, more talented team, and that will show against an Auburn defense that has been average this year. While the key to the game is up front, and whether FSU can slow down Auburn’s running game, the difference will be in the likes of Winston, FSU wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and Seminoles running back Devonta Freeman. It’s not that Auburn can’t pass the ball -- quarterback Nick Marshall’s Hail Mary beat Georgia -- but Florida State does it better. If Auburn is trailing and gets behind in down and distance, Florida State’s defense -- particularly the secondary with Lamarcus Joyner -- will be too good for the likes of Sammie Coates to bail the Tigers out. Monday is the day the SEC’s streak comes to an end and Florida State returns to the pinnacle of college football.


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher gave his staff three days off for Christmas break.

FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt spent it watching football with his dad -- Auburn football, of course. Pruitt took game tape of the Tigers home with him, and he and his father, Dale, tried to figure out a way to stop the Tigers in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

Given Pruitt’s history with Alabama, and how similar FSU’s defense is to Alabama’s, watching the Iron Bowl was a good start.

"There’s probably nobody else out there that could say, 'OK, all right, they’ve made this call. That is exactly some calls that we have. This is how they’re going to block it. This is what you’re going to get,'" Pruitt said.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreFirst-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has helped turn the FSU defense into one of the best in the country.
For Pruitt and Fisher, the SEC ties run deep, as Pruitt spent the past three seasons as the secondary coach at Alabama, and Fisher was a former offensive coordinator at LSU. Pruitt was first hired at Alabama as Nick Saban’s director of player personnel. Both of them have shared philosophies that stemmed from their time with Saban, and it’s that chemistry and connection that has helped Florida State’s defense make a seamless transition in the first season under Pruitt. While Fisher has earned the reputation as an offensive mind, he had a clear vision of what he wanted the defense to look like after former coordinator Mark Stoops left to become the head coach at Kentucky.

"This is Jimbo's philosophy and what we're trying to get done," Pruitt said. "He brought me in, and there's a reason, because of the background, and he was familiar with the background. He laid the foundation. He said, this is the players we've got. This is what I want to do. This is how I want to get it done."

In just one season, Pruitt delivered.

Florida State enters Monday’s game with one of the best defenses in the country. The Noles lead the nation in scoring defense (10.7), passing yards allowed (152), pass efficiency defense (90.90), and interceptions (25). All with a first-year coordinator, and a defensive line that had to replace all of its starters from a year ago -- in a new, more complicated scheme, with some players in new positions. From the outside looking in, it was one of the most impressive coaching jobs in the country this season.

"I thought he did a good job," said Miami offensive coordinator James Coley, who went against Stoops’ defense every day in practice last year as FSU’s former offensive coordinator, and was defeated this year by Pruitt’s defense. "He brings a lot of energy to whatever he does. I think those guys are playing for him. They’re feeding off of him. It’s hard to come in there and come into a certain side of the ball where you’ve got a kid like Lamarcus Joyner and now say, 'Hey, you’ve got to listen to me and you’ve got to trust me.' I think he did a great job of earning their trust, and letting them play. Some people get caught up with all these fancy schemes, and if you watch them play, they’re just playing football. That’s why they’re as good as they are on that side of the ball. Those guys are really comfortable in doing what they do."

It didn’t take long.

"He got my attention when he first came back in January just with the kind of heart he has," said Joyner, who moved from safety to cornerback in Pruitt’s scheme. "He's a genuine heart person. He said something to me that I'll never forget in my life. He said, 'You don't get what you want, you get what you earn.' I never heard that said before. He got my attention from Day 1, and to just see the way he loves football, the way he loves coaching and developing young men, it's no better feeling. You know, you have no choice but to draw to him. He's a natural leader, and we respect that."

They also respected where he came from -- Alabama.

"They’ve been winning championships over there, so obviously they have a standard over there that’s working for them," said FSU DB Terrence Brooks. "And I knew he was going to bring a dominating defense over here, also."

He had plenty of talent to work with.

FSU has allowed just five rushing touchdowns in 13 games this season, tied with Iowa for fewest in the nation. FSU’s pass defense has been one of the best in the country, holding opponents to just 9.5 yards per completion -- the lowest in the country. The Seminoles have had 96 negative yardage games, not counting forced turnovers, and the Noles have forced 75 three-and-outs.

"To say how Coach Pruitt came in and put his own stamp on it, it was easy," FSU linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We believed in when he came in, we just listened to him, let him coach us. We didn't worry about the coaches that were here before him even though we've got much respect and love for them, Coach Stoops and Coach [Greg] Hudson. We came in, we believed in what he did and we just believed in the process, and look where he got us."

The same place the program once was before -- at the top.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Auburn running back Tre Mason nearly quit football as a kid. In fact, the Tigers' Heisman Trophy finalist didn't play his freshman year of high school.

He had his heart set on a basketball career.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason has run wild this season for Auburn, but at one point in high school thought about giving up football to focus on basketball.
"I stopped playing football in eighth grade and was like, ‘I’m done. I’m going to play basketball,'" Mason said Thursday. "But I went to a game in the ninth grade and said, 'I think I could do this. I think I could dominate.'"

With 1,621 rushing yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns this season, Mason has been nothing short of dominant. He needs 166 rushing yards in Monday's VIZIO BCS National Championship against Florida State to pass Bo Jackson as Auburn's single-season record holder.

It's a good thing for the Tigers that he ditched his hoops plans.

"I was young and had this dream of playing basketball, but the reality was that I wasn’t 6-8," Mason said.

SEC Seminoles?

Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, asked Thursday if the Seminoles could have made it through the SEC this season without a loss, would have welcomed that challenge.

And for the record, he also would have liked the Seminoles' chances.

"We believe we're the No. 1 team in the country," Joyner said. "We believe that in our heart. We wouldn't come out and be disrespectful to a lot of other teams. But with the things we've accomplished this year, everything speaks for itself. So, hopefully, we would have been able to do the same thing.

"But me being a part of this Florida State organization, if we were in the SEC, I'd say we'd do what we do."

The Seminoles are looking to become only the third team since 1950 to win all of its games by at least 14 points. The last to do it was Utah in 2004. The other was national champion Nebraska in 1995.

Too close to call

How good (and how talented) is this Florida State team on defense?

Good enough that linebacker Telvin Smith thinks Florida State's defense would shut out the Florida State offense. For the record, the Seminoles enter Monday's game leading the country in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

Joyner chuckled confidently when told of Smith's claim.

"Some things, you never know," Joyner said. "It’s a good thing to be able to say that, knowing that we won’t have to. Some things you just want to leave that way. We have a lot of talent on both ends.

"Let’s just say it would probably be a national championship game if it was our defense versus our offense."

SEC ties top friendship

Even when close friends are involved, there's apparently an SEC brotherhood that's sacred.

Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt joked that Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart wasn't sharing a lot of secrets concerning Auburn. Pruitt and Smart are friends and worked together at Alabama before Pruitt took the FSU coordinator job.

"Kirby has kind of taken the stance of, 'We’re friends, but …'" Pruitt said. "They’ve still got that SEC thing going. There’s some pride there."

Ties that bind

Auburn co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Dameyune Craig recruited Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston to Florida State. He was integral in luring the nation’s top quarterback to Tallahassee, where he spent the past three seasons as FSU’s quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator.

Now, Craig’s biggest recruit will be lined up against him on college football’s biggest stage.

While Craig hasn’t spoken publicly about his relationship with Winston, the personal ties to Florida State haven’t been lost on his current players.

"It means a lot to him," said Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. "We know it means a lot to him. We knew that he was really close with all those guys, especially Jameis. He even said something about him at the Heisman ceremony, so we know this game means a lot to him, for sure."

Better than Bama

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Florida State’s defense is comparable to Alabama’s -- and might be even better.

"Honestly, you look at the features, and Alabama might have a little bit bigger guys up front, but not much," Lashlee said. "These guys are extremely quick and active. … Alabama was younger was in the secondary. Their corners are really good players, obviously Joyner is a difference-maker. There are a lot of similarities as far as the talent, I think they’re right there with them. Who knows? We’ll find out, they might be better."

Well, that makes sense

Pruitt spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Alabama, but he’s got no problem trying to help end the SEC’s streak of seven national titles.

"I’d like to end it for sure," he said.

Why?

"Oh, shoot, because I’m on this side and they’re on that side."
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner knows all about Auburn wide receiver and Miami native Ricardo Louis -- the Noles recruited him. And Joyner has done his homework on sophomore receiver Sammie Coates, who is third in the country in yards per catch (22.1) and averages 54.1 yards per touchdown reception.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertWhile Auburn is known for its rushing attack, Nick Marshall is completing 60 percent of his passes and has FSU's attention.
So while the rest of the country is seemingly wrapped up in Auburn’s nation-leading ground game -- and deservedly so -- Florida State’s secondary isn’t sleeping on the Tigers' ability to throw the ball. There's no question Auburn's strength is up front and in its running game, which averages 335.7 yards per game, but to the Seminoles, the difference will be their ability to force the Tigers to throw and get them into long yardage situations.

"That's the key to the game," Joyner said. "That’s key. That front seven has been tremendous for us all season, and we need them to do one more for this last game. [The Tigers] have a lot of great talent up front themselves. Their O-line is pretty good. I see a lot of those guys playing on Sunday. And we have a lot of guys who can play on Sunday in our front seven. It’s a clash of the beasts. … We need them to do more so the pretty boys in the back in the secondary can get a little shine."

It's already glowing.

Florida State leads the FBS with 25 interceptions and ranks third with 34 takeaways. Still, they're going to have to make the most of their opportunities against Auburn.

Auburn threw it only 11 times in the SEC title game against Missouri, and only 16 times against Alabama. Quarterback Nick Marshall, who has 1,023 rushing yards this season, had seven pass attempts against Tennessee, and eight against Arkansas. Overall this season, Auburn has run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple option offense in the FBS.

"We obviously haven't thrown as much the second half of the season as we did the first," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, "but never was there an instance I thought it was because we couldn't or didn't want to, it was simply because you're going to go with what's working."

Not that their play-action passing game doesn’t work.

Just ask Georgia, which was stunned by Marshall’s 73-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Louis on fourth-and-18 with just 25 seconds left.

"I think Marshall has as good of arm talent as anybody in the country," FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. "He can flat-foot throw it 80-some yards. A couple of throws he's made, especially down the stretch here, have been very accurate.

"The big thing is they've been throwing it when they want to throw it. They've been dictating to everybody else. I think it's important to get them behind the sticks early on and get them in some long yardage situations, but I'm sure that's what everybody's game plan has been, and they haven't had a whole lot of success doing it."

Florida State, obviously, hopes to change that.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today's matchup is between Auburn’s wide receivers and Florida State’s defensive backs.

Auburn’s wide receivers: If there was ever a game for Auburn to stick to the run, this would be it. Quarterback Nick Marshall has struggled at times through the air and the Tigers are in for their most challenging test yet against a Florida State secondary that leads the nation in interceptions (25).

Expect a heavy dose of Marshall and Tre Mason running the read-option together like they’ve done all season.

Florida State still has to be wary of Auburn’s big-play ability. It starts with Sammie Coates who has emerged as a go-to wide receiver for the Tigers. He’s one of the fastest players in the SEC, if not the nation, and he leads the team with 38 catches for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s second nationally in yards per catch (22.1) and all seven of his scores have come from more than 35 yards. It was his 39-yard touchdown grab in the final minute against Alabama that put Auburn in position to win that game.

The problem for the Tigers is that nobody has emerged opposite Coates. Freshman Marcus Davis had his moments early in the season, making key catches in critical situations. Ricardo Louis, who hauled in the 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Georgia, might be the most dangerous athlete on the team. But neither has been consistent.

When Auburn plays Florida State, it’s going to need a play in the passing game from somebody other than Coates. Whether it’s Davis, Louis or even tight end C.J. Uzomah, who’s healthy again, somebody is going to have to step up and make a play when their number is called. Nothing will come easy, though, against a talented Seminoles’ secondary.

Florida State’s secondary: Only five teams threw less often this season than Auburn, which runs the ball on 72 percent of its plays. When the Tigers do throw, however, they’ve mustered some big plays -- averaging 14 yards per completion.

The recipe for Auburn is pretty simple -- run, run, run, then go deep. It’s a plan that may run into some trouble against Florida State, however. The Seminoles’ secondary is the nation’s best for the second straight season. Lamarcus Joyner leads a deep and talented group that leads the nation in fewest yards per attempt (4.9), most interceptions (25) and lowest QBR allowed (18.1). Opponents have completed just 6 of 36 passes thrown 20 yards or more against them this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Coates and Louis both have good size to win some battles downfield, but Florida State can match that physicality with P.J. Williams (6-0, 190) and Ronald Darby (5-11, 190), who have both been exceptional this year. Darby has allowed just seven completions this year and allows the fifth-lowest completion percentage among AQ-conference defensive backs in the nation.

Marshall can keep some plays alive with his legs, giving his receivers a chance to get open downfield, but Florida State hasn’t been burned often this year. Sammy Watkins, Allen Hurns and Devin Street all found some success this season, which should provide a bit of optimism for Coates, but no QB has managed better than 7 yards per attempt against FSU’s secondary all year. In its last eight games, Florida State’s secondary is allowing just 4.5 yards per attempt with 6 TDs and 19 INTs.

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State

Hale: Edge Florida State

FSU's Darby dominates without hype

December, 23, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Ronald Darby might be a household name if his name was mentioned a bit more often.

The sophomore cornerback is rarely discussed during games. Florida State’s secondary has been dominant all season, but Darby’s work tends to fly beneath the radar. Darby doesn’t show up too often in the box score, either. His 12 tackles are tied for 24th on the team.

The anonymity isn’t a knock on Darby’s talent, though. The problem is, opposing quarterbacks are terrified to test him.

“Sometimes,” Darby said, “I get a little bored.”

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins, Ronald Darby
AP Photo/Richard ShiroSophomore CB Ronald Darby is so good in coverage that opponents rarely test him.
Darby has started eight games this season and has been on the field for the vast majority of Florida State’s defensive snaps, but only a handful of balls have come his way.

According to Stats LLC, Darby has been targeted just 22 times this season -- 29 times fewer than Florida State’s other starting corner, P.J. Williams. It’s a casual workload that illustrates the ample respect he receives around the ACC.

“They watch the film,” Lamarcus Joyner said when asked why teams shy away from testing Darby. “You see his size, you see his speed, his strength. He has everything you look for in a cornerback.”

Darby’s natural talent was obvious from his first days in Tallahassee last year. He wowed teammates immediately, and while he didn’t start a game as a true freshman, he was on the field regularly, recording eight pass breakups and 22 tackles en route to freshman All-America honors. He was named the ACC’s freshman defensive player of the year.

But all the momentum from his sterling debut season came to a grinding halt this spring when a groin injury required surgery and kept him on the sidelines well into the start of fall camp. Even once the injury was healed, the effects lingered. Darby’s blazing speed was diminished a tad, and in the early going, he was reluctant to test it.

Even now, nearly a full year after the surgery, Darby says he isn’t quite right.

“I’m still not 100 percent yet,” Darby said. “I’m still trying to get back. ... I got a lot better from the offseason until now. I run a lot better, cut a lot better.”

The improved fundamentals have more than made up for the marginal dip in pure speed.

Of those 22 passes thrown Darby’s way, two were picked off and just seven resulted in completions. According to Stats LLC, that’s the fifth-lowest completion rate allowed by any defensive back from an AQ conference. Of the four players ahead of him, three were first-team all-conference. Darby didn’t even get an honorable mention.

“He’s been locking it down,” safety Terrence Brooks said. “That’s all he can do.”

And if that effort hasn’t been enough to garner much national attention thus far, that could change on Jan. 6, when Florida State takes on Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers don’t throw often, but they’ve got one of the country’s top big-play threats in receiver Sammie Coates.

In fact, Coates and the Auburn offense might be a perfect test for Darby. The Tigers run and run and run, and just when a cornerback appears to be getting a bit bored with the heavy dose of the ground game, the deep ball takes them by surprise. But Florida State just so happens to employ a cornerback who’s used to battling the boredom and pouncing on those rare chances to make a play.

“That’s why I just practice hard really,” Darby said. “So we can be perfect on game day.”

And perfection on the biggest stage might finally earn Darby some of the attention he has deserved all season. Add in a few more weeks for Darby to strengthen that groin injury and rebuild his speed, and Jameis Winston -- Darby’s roommate and practice-field nemesis -- has a good idea of what might be in store.

“I honestly think Darby could be the best cornerback in the country,” Winston said.

ESPN.com's All-ACC team

December, 16, 2013
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Florida State’s undefeated season is reflected in the Seminoles’ 10 all-conference selections by ESPN.com. Quarterback Jameis Winston was the highlight of the group, along with Boston College running back Andre Williams, who was also a Heisman candidate this year. This list differs just slightly from the choices of the coaches and writers, with the toughest decisions coming on defense.

Offense
Defense
Special Teams

2013 AT&T ESPN All-America Team

December, 14, 2013
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Offense
QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State
RB: Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona, Andre Williams, Boston College
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M, Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
TE: Eric Ebron, North Carolina
OT: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M, Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OG: Cyril Richardson, Baylor; David Yankey, Stanford
C: Bryan Stork, Florida State

Defense
DE: Michael Sam, Missouri; Leonard Williams, USC
DT: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh; Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama; Ryan Shazier, Ohio State, Trent Murphy, Stanford
CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
FS: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
SS: Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
K: Nate Freese, Boston College
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina

Fisher built FSU with SEC template

December, 11, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It’s not just Auburn standing in the way of a national championship for Florida State. It’s history.

For seven straight seasons, the BCS title game has been dominated by the SEC, so when this year’s matchup was set, the question for the Seminoles wasn’t simply whether they could match up with the Tigers, but whether they possessed the magic formula to finally snap that league’s stranglehold on the trophy so many SEC fans now view as a birthright.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher has stockpiled FSU with talent and won several recruiting battles against SEC heavyweights.
But just because the dominance of the mighty SEC provides an easy narrative for this year’s championship game, Florida State isn’t buying in to the hype.

“It’s not the ACC vs. the SEC,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “It’s Florida State vs. Auburn. It’s a bunch of great, talented kids over here vs. great talented kids.”

In the wake of Florida State’s win over Duke, wrapping up a second straight ACC title and securing the Seminoles’ spot in the VIZIO BCS Championship Game, coach Jimbo Fisher was quizzed on how he assembled his such a talented group of players. A longtime assistant at Auburn and LSU and a protege of Alabama’s Nick Saban, Fisher never hid his appreciation for how the top SEC programs were built.

When six assistant coaches departed following the 2012 season, Fisher looked to the SEC for replacements. He hired Randy Sanders from Tennessee and stole Jeremy Pruitt away from Saban. Sal Sunseri had spent years coaching in the SEC, too. When Pruitt came aboard and installed a new defense, he sold players on the system by showing them film of Alabama.

Even beyond X’s and O’s, however, Fisher has worked to instill an SEC culture at Florida State. In February, he told a Minnesota radio station that building his program in Alabama’s image was the path to success.

"I went against [Saban] every day in practice for five years," said Fisher, who was Saban’s offensive coordinator for five years. "He's done a great job of organizing. He's got the structure. People don't realize he's got the infrastructure really set up.

"That's why we've been able to make our jump at Florida State. We've got our infrastructure set up where we can keep replacing guys, and I think we'll be in that national title hunt every year, just like they are."

Fisher’s words proved prescient. After the Seminoles had 11 players from last year’s team selected in the NFL draft -- more than any other school -- Fisher simply plugged in talented replacements, and Florida State never faltered.

But now that his prediction has come true, Fisher isn’t so eager to tip his cap to the conference that has won the last seven national titles.

“I built our program like I thought we needed to build it to win a national championship,” Fisher said. “We don’t model ourselves after nobody. We’re Florida State, and we do things the way we do them, the way I think you have to play to win a championship. That’s the way we tried to build this team.”

Fisher can bristle at the comparisons, but it’s hardly a slight. And while the culture he’s created at Florida State looks awfully similar to what Saban installed at Alabama, the key for the Seminoles on Jan. 6 will be the players Fisher has recruited.

Its not the ACC vs. the SEC. Its Florida State vs. Auburn. Its a bunch of great, talented kids over here vs. great talented kids.

-- FSU cornerback Lamarcus Joyner
In his four years on the job, Fisher has won his share of recruiting battles going head to head with Auburn, Alabama and Florida. Since 2010, only two programs have finished with top-10 classes every year, according to ESPN’s rankings: Alabama and Florida State. And when FSU takes the field against Auburn in Pasadena, all but two members of its starting lineup will be players who spurned SEC offers to play for the Seminoles.

In other words, it’s not about how good the SEC players are in the other locker room. Florida State has plenty of talent of its own.

“We always say the opponent has no face,” linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We’re not looking at them and saying, ‘Oh, they’re Auburn’ or ‘They come from the SEC.’ We’re going out there to compete against ourselves.”

After seven years of SEC dominance, the challenge Florida State poses this year might finally be enough to end the streak.

Of the last six non-SEC teams to play for a national title (two SEC teams faced off in 2011), Florida State has the most yards per play (7.8), scored the most points per game (53), held opponents to the fewest points (10.7 per game), and compiled the second-best turnover margin (+17). The difference between the Seminoles’ yards-per-play and points scored compared with what their defense has allowed this season is nearly double the average of the last six teams to challenge the SEC for a national title.

In other words, Florida State is good, even if it doesn’t come from the world’s most distinguished conference.

“We're not going to get involved in all this SEC-ACC stuff because we done made it to where we are, and we're not done yet,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “We fear no one.”

FSU's Benjamin a matchup nightmare

December, 3, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It’s sort of a running joke among the Florida State defensive backs. It’s a confident group -- ranked No. 1 in the nation two years running -- so no one admits when they’re overmatched, but they know covering Kelvin Benjamin is a tough job, and so they can’t help but laugh when someone else tries to do it.

Lamarcus Joyner, all 5-foot-8 of him, has battled Benjamin for jump balls in practice, but how many corners can combat a 6-foot-5 frame?

[+] EnlargeBenjamin
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKelvin Benjamin's 12 touchdowns leads Florida State's receiving corps.
P.J. Williams is tall enough to at least pose a threat on those plays, but then, he has to account for Benjamin’s surprising burst of speed, too. How may 6-5 receivers get used on end-arounds, after all?

Terrence Brooks plays with a unique blend of speed and physicality, but mixing it up with Benjamin isn’t exactly fun. A receiver with size and quickness that still likes to hit, to block downfield -- how many players in the country do that?

“It’s like it’s easy for him,” Brooks said. “I don’t think they make him anymore in the factories.”

This is how it’s been since Benjamin arrived at Florida State in 2011, a physical freak of nature who performed such astonishing feats of athleticism and strength on the practice field that the accounts from teammates were often met with skepticism from those who hadn’t seen it firsthand. But making it look easy was actually what made life hard for Benjamin.

His first year was a waste. He was overweight, unprepared and redshirted.

The 2012 season represented a big step forward, but still a disappointment. His focus wandered, and his production waned. He caught 30 balls, but he had just 52 receiving yards in the final five games of the season.

This season, however, Benjamin is blossoming into the player his teammates always knew he could be -- a monster few defensive backs are capable of taming.

“Anybody can make mistakes and have a season like [2012] and throw excuses out there,” Benjamin said. “I felt like the season just improved me as a player.”

Benjamin’s improvements began in the weight room. He shed some excess pounds and got into the best shape of his life. He hit the film room, studying the playbook with renewed vigor, knowing a new quarterback was taking the reins of the offense, and he’d have a fresh start and a bigger role. He talked with Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw, the veterans of the receiving corps, about finally showing the rest of the world what had so often been confined to the practice field.

“He’s a lot more focused mentally than anything,” Greene said. “He’s always had the ability, the skill, the talent. But the way he’s been locked in and just been all in for the team -- he can tell you, he’s really focused compared to what he was last year. And it’s showing all around.”

It’s helped, too, that Benjamin’s role has increased dramatically.

A year ago, the receiving corps was deep -- a solid mix of veterans and younger players all eager for their share of throws. For Benjamin, however, there simply weren’t enough footballs to go around. He’d be on the sideline for long stretches, then his head wasn’t in the game when he took the field.

But this offseason, Florida State lost three seniors for the season before fall camp concluded, and that’s meant a tight rotation on game days and plenty of throws for Greene, Shaw and Benjamin, who are now all within reach of 1,000 yards.

“A receiver wants to touch the ball as many times as you touch it in practice, and my first season, I wasn’t doing that,” Benjamin said. “I let that get to me, wanting the ball more and the rotation. This year, we stay on the field until we finish the game. It’s just staying in there and having that feeling that consistently you’re in the game and you’re warm and can go out there and do it.”

In last week’s win over Florida, Benjamin was constantly in quarterback Jameis Winston’s sights. He had a career-high nine catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns. It was the first time a Florida State receiver topped the 200-yard mark in 11 years. It was the eighth-best single-game total in school history, and Winston had predicted it earlier in the week.

"I said, 'KB, you are an unstoppable force. If you go out there and do what you're supposed to do, no one can cover you,'" Winston recalled after the win.

None of it comes as a surprise, of course. Just look at Benjamin, and it’s always been obvious he would become a star. There simply aren’t other receivers who do what he can do.

Duke corner Ross Cockrell said the key is to challenge Benjamin at the line of scrimmage, play physical with him. But really, Cockrell is grasping at straws. Benjamin has five inches and 50 pounds on the Duke corner.

“We'll be working all week on that answer,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of defending Benjamin. “We don't have anybody that can line up and match up physically with him. He's just a monster and with great skills.”

Benjamin has always been a monster, but after three years, Jimbo Fisher has finally convinced him to prepare as if he were a mere mortal. Now those skills are well refined, and Benjamin presents a matchup as perplexing for defenders as any in college football.

And that’s when Florida State’s own defensive backs can break character and admit, covering the monster can’t be done. They know. They’ve tried.

“Seeing him go against other guys,” Brooks said, “we sit there and laugh about it.”

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The team had just arrived home, fresh off another dominant win, its 14th straight. Florida State had secured a perfect regular season, set a date with Duke in the ACC championship game, and coach Jimbo Fisher flipped on the radio in his pickup to listen to the final moments of the Auburn-Alabama game on his ride home.

Perhaps he shouted or cheered or pumped his fist when Auburn’s Chris Davis dashed into the end zone on the game’s final play, unseating Alabama atop the BCS standings and effectively installing Fisher’s Seminoles as the nation’s new top dog. But if he did, Fisher certainly wouldn’t admit to it now.

When pressed Sunday about whether things have changed for Florida State now that it’s No. 1, Fisher offered the same stoic assurance he’s preached all season.

“Not one bit,” he said.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher has guided Florida State to the top of the BCS standings.
A year ago, the Seminoles collapsed in the fourth quarter against Florida, and even an ACC title and an Orange Bowl win weren’t enough to erase the disappointment of two games Florida State had let slip away.

Since then, everything has changed, but the transformation has come through unwavering consistency.

Florida State’s 37-7 win Saturday over Florida was as emphatic as each of the 11 others this season. The Seminoles have won every game by at least two touchdowns, and a reserved approach in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter Saturday proved the only impediment to reaching 40 points, a mark they achieved every previous game this fall.

Before the season, critics wondered what middling opponent would stifle Fisher’s plans this time, but it turned out, this really was a different Florida State team.

“We've been able to focus, not pay attention to the outside things and worry about anything,” Fisher said. “We can't worry about where we're ranked and what goes on. We've just got to worry about preparing and playing, and that's all we tell our guys, and hopefully we can do that at least one more week right here.”

This week is the conference championship game against Duke, a team that has never beaten Florida State -- never even come within 19 points of a win -- in 18 tries. But where past teams would have chalked up the game as an easy win, this season's Seminoles haven’t fallen into that trap.

It has been six weeks since Florida State was favored by fewer than three touchdowns in a game, and it has won each one by at least 27.

“It never left their head,” Fisher said of his one-week-at-a-time mantra. “It doesn’t worry about the results. It doesn’t worry about the outcome. It doesn’t worry about what we have in front of us. It’s a very mature group.”

It’s a group that knows Fisher’s process well, not just as coachspeak that’s been regurgitated, but as a sincere belief in what it takes to win.

When Fisher took over as coach four years ago, he came with a five-year plan to revitalize the program. He stocked a roster with so much talent, it could lose 11 players to the NFL draft and get better the following season. He installed a system so thoroughly self-sufficient that FSU could lose six assistant coaches in one offseason and not miss a beat.

He has preached his process so intensely for four seasons that he can now watch silently as Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith and Rashad Greene command the locker room with the same rhetoric.

It was a plan that took time to implement, but Fisher never wavered in his belief that it would succeed.

“It’s exactly where we want to be and hoping we’d be at,” Fisher said Sunday, just before Florida State officially rose to No. 1 in the BCS standings.

At 12-0, Fisher can say that his team hasn’t been sheltered from the ongoing legal drama surrounding star quarterback Jameis Winston, but also why it hasn’t been shaken by it.

As a four-touchdown favorite this week, Fisher still preaches the same thing he has all year, and his players will believe.

At No. 1 in the BCS, Fisher could shrug off Florida State’s status as front-runners, ignoring a finish line that seems so easily within reach.

His program has come a long way, but Fisher is not interested in looking back any more than he wants to look ahead.

“We play next week, then we get a break to see what bowl game we want to play in,” Fisher said. “I’m really proud of the way they approach everything, the way we practice, the way we handle things.”

FSU's seniors leave lasting legacy

November, 22, 2013
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Terrence BrooksMelina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsTerrence Brooks is part of a senior class hoping to lead Florida State to a national title.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The questions come because Saturday marks an ending, and endings require acknowledgement. But really, Terrence Brooks hasn’t wanted to talk about it much.

Yes, he’ll walk out onto the field at Doak Campbell Stadium for the final time in his career on Saturday, but it seems like an odd time for reflection. There’s still so much work left to do, and for Brooks and the rest of Florida State’s 2010 recruiting class, the ultimate goal is tantalizingly within reach.

After all, a national championship is why they came here in the first place -- even if it seemed a long way off at the time.

“I feel like all of us in that class, we’ve laid some great groundwork since we came here,” Brooks said. “We want to go out with a bang. We can’t let anything get between us and this national championship.”

When Brooks agreed to play for Florida State, a national championship was the least of the Seminoles’ concerns. In 2009, FSU barely qualified for a bowl game. Legendary coach Bobby Bowden was pushed out, and coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher was given the reins. For nearly a decade, the program had been listing toward irrelevance, and now Fisher was tasked with convincing top recruits he had an answer.

The Class of 2010 bought his pitch, then spent the next four years building the legacy he’d promised.

“There’s some guys that you’ll remember to the end of your last dying days,” Fisher said. “That’s a tremendous group of guys to me, and they ought to be remembered in Florida State lore for a long time for what they really meant.”

For Brooks, Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, Kenny Shaw and Christian Jones, creating a new legacy at Florida State was part of what drew them to Tallahassee in the first place.

Joyner grew up in Miami, rooting for the Seminoles as a kid. Smith was a star in south Georgia, and he knew the history of the once-proud program. Jones’ dad and brother both played here, too, and he wanted to make his own mark.

When the class finally came together on Signing Day 2010, Fisher had compiled enough talent to begin the long climb back to relevance.

“Guys like me, Telvin, Lamarcus -- we used to talk in high school,” Jones said. “We’d talk about how we can help build that foundation. We grew up watching Florida State and knew how great the teams were in the past.

Fisher’s job when he took over as head coach was to change the culture of a program that had fallen on hard times. He needed leaders -- both on the field and off. He looked for players with infectious personalities, then sold them on what they could accomplish at Florida State.

Little by little, Fisher’s process took root. Florida State won 10 games his first season, nine his next, then 12 in 2012, along with his first ACC title. There were still the occasional questions about whether Florida State was “back” but no one doubted the program was pointed in the right direction.

“Everything he was saying was falling into place,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, I couldn’t do anything but believe.”

That belief has paid off in a perfect start to the 2013 season, with Florida State in the hunt for a BCS championship and the Class of 2010 leading the charge -- in the locker room and on the field.

“They are the transition,” junior Karlos Williams said. “They’re the class that started it, that really started the change. It’s something they take pride in. They came in and said they weren’t leaving without a national championship.”

Saturday figures to be a rather simple step toward that goal. Idaho has won just four games the last three years. But it’s still a significant moment, a point to measure where they were and how far they’ve come.

“I think this is just the beginning for the program,” Jones said. “And it’s a special thing for us to know we laid that foundation.”
Florida State has wiped out its best competition this season, taking down Clemson and Miami with such authority that the Seminoles should have a clear path to the national championship game.

But they do not. A flawed polling system that gave Alabama and Oregon an edge before the games even kicked off is most to blame, as voters determined in the preseason that the Tide and Ducks – not the Seminoles – were among the best teams in the nation.

No. 2 Florida State has the most impressive results to date, but it has not budged from its spot behind Alabama and Oregon in the human polls despite picking up a few first-place votes in the coaches poll. So here the Noles sit, with four games left in their regular season, their destiny in the hands of LSU, Auburn and Stanford.

To be sure, Florida State must win out to stay in contention. The Seminoles have been so utterly dominant, not many people believe Wake Forest, Syracuse, Idaho or Florida have much of a shot at pulling the upset. So that leaves the ACC title game.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesDevonta Freeman and Florida State might have to beat Miami again to make a difference in the logjam atop the BCS standings.
Florida State needs Miami to make it into the game for the rematch -- a one-loss Miami team preferably, to add some more beef to a strength of schedule that is going to take a dive in this last month of the season.

Folks across the ACC have been waiting on a Hurricanes-Seminoles matchup in the league title game since Miami joined the league in 2004, hoping their two marquee teams would carry the banner as elite programs. As we saw in the 41-14 Florida State victory on Saturday, Miami remains far from elite. And yet, a rematch is the best possible option for both Florida State and the ACC.

Never mind that their game Saturday was just the fourth time in the last 19 meetings that the outcome was decided by 20 or more points. Given the other contenders in the Coastal Division, a Miami team that got pummeled is still going to be a better opponent than Virginia Tech (with losses to Duke and Boston College), Duke (lost to Florida State 48-7 last year and has never beaten the Noles) and Georgia Tech (one victory over a winning team this season).

Miami dropped to No. 11 in the BCS standings after the loss Saturday, but the Canes will get back into the top 10 if they win out. That would give Florida State three top-10 teams on its schedule. The downside, of course, is that Miami will be dismissed as “overrated,” which is exactly what happened this past weekend.

Florida State cannot help that. But it also is true that the Noles are in the unenviable position they were in last year in the Discover Orange Bowl against Northern Illinois. They must blow out every remaining opponent – including the team they face in the ACC title game – or risk being discredited for not winning decisively enough.

Alabama and Oregon do not carry the same weight. If Oregon beats Stanford on Thursday night in a close game, it is hard to imagine the Ducks being ripped for winning a tight contest. Florida State beat No. 3 Clemson last month, and, well, outsiders crowed the Tigers were simply overmatched. Never mind that Stanford has a loss to Utah (4-4) and Clemson went into the Florida State game unbeaten -- with a win over full-strength Georgia to boot. Oh by the way, Clemson remains a top-10 team.

As for Alabama, given the way the SEC is perceived, the Tide can probably afford to win close games without anybody questioning them. So Florida State essentially has double the burden if the status quo remains.

Even still, the thought of seeing Miami again is fine with Florida State.

“Gotta embrace the challenge,” Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said after the victory. “We know what kind of football team they are. We know for a fact if we have to play those guys again in the ACC championship, then it won’t be an easy championship game.”

Joyner called Miami “the toughest team we’ve played this season. Despite the scoreboard, that does not determine the way, how physical those guys played us. Those guys played our hearts out, and if we have to see them again in the championship, I can tell you that’s going to be a pretty hard-nosed championship game.”

Hard-nosed is one thing. But Florida State must find a way to be even more dominant, as ridiculous as that sounds. Especially when you consider how difficult it is to ask a team to beat the same squad twice in one season. The ACC championship game has featured a rematch four times. Twice the same team won both games; twice the games were split.

There has not been much recent back and forth in the Miami-Florida State series. The Seminoles have won four in a row, their longest winning streak in the rivalry since 1995-99. Only a handful of redshirt seniors were on campus the last time Miami beat the Seminoles.

“I had told someone I wasn’t going to lose to Miami, no matter what,” running back Devonta Freeman said. “It just means a lot to go out there and beat them.”

The Seminoles could very well have to do that again. As unappealing as that sounds, that’s the matchup Florida State – and the ACC – need.

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