Noles' 'coaches' show their stuff

Originally Published: April 16, 2012
By Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

TALLAHASSEE -- The opportunity started with a phone call about a month ago.

"How seriously do you take your spring game?" we asked Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.

Like most college football coaches, Fisher's first objective was to get through 15 spring practices and a glorified intrasquad scrimmage without significant injuries. He also wanted to see how his team's younger players would respond while playing in front of a large crowd.

So we asked Fisher how he felt about two sportswriters joining his coaching staff on the sideline for this past Saturday's spring game at Doak Campbell Stadium. Let us help your seniors draft the teams, and let us call plays against each other on a couple of possessions.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher was game for letting our columnists inside his world for a few hours.

"Sounds like fun," Fisher said.

We travelled to Florida State on Friday, participated in the team's draft and broke down the playbook with assistant coaches and graduate assistants. On Saturday morning, we participated in coaches' meetings, ate at the team lunch and participated in warm-ups and pregame ceremonies.

Ivan Maisel was an honorary coach of the Gold team; Mark Schlabach worked with the Garnet team.

On Saturday afternoon, ESPN colleagues became opponents.

What could possibly go wrong? It was only a spring game, after all.

The draft

The Florida State seniors gathered Friday on the third floor of the Moore Athletics Center to draft their teams for the Seminoles' spring football game the following afternoon.

There was plenty of debate about how the Seminoles would be divided.

One team, led by quarterback EJ Manuel and defensive end Brandon Jenkins, discussed strategy on the plaza overlooking Doak Campbell Stadium. The other, led by cornerback Greg Reid and defensive end Cornelius "Tank" Carradine, packed itself around the conference table in the coaches' meeting room.

By the rules established by Fisher, a coin toss determined the draft order. The winner of the coin toss could have the No. 1 pick or the Nos. 2 and 3 choices. Then the picks alternated, with one important wrinkle -- when one name went off the draft board, his backup went to the opposing team to maintain competitive balance. After laying out the draft's parameters, Fisher left the room.

"If we give away the first pick, they'll take [safety Lamarcus] Joyner," Reid told his teammates. "I say we take Joyner -- period. If we win the coin toss, we're taking him."

Countered nose guard Anthony McCloud: "If we take Joyner, they're going to take [linebacker Telvin Smith]. They're not going to let us take Joyner and Telvin. Then they're going to take [receiver Kelvin] Benjamin."

Before the other team came into the meeting room, McCloud made an executive decision.

"Put Garnet as our team name," McCloud told a graduate assistant. "They're the Gold team. I'm not wearing that gold jersey."

"Who picked the colors?" one of the Gold players asked, as soon as he walked into the room.

"Jimbo already picked them," McCloud told him. "Pay attention."

Garnet won the coin toss, and after deciding to use the first pick, Reid performed his best Roger Goodell.

"For the first pick in the 2012 draft," Reid said, "we would like to pick Lamarcus Joyner out of Florida State University."

"Y'all got Joyner," Manuel replied. "Cool. With the second and third pick, we take Kelvin Benjamin and Telvin Smith."

By the time they finished, the Gold team had more ball handlers and all three starting linebackers. Garnet had an edge in the secondary, so much so that linebackers coach Greg Hudson, defensive coordinator for Gold, said Saturday morning that he planned to play his defensive backs so deep they would look like they were waiting for a punt.

Florida State's seniors even drafted their coaches.

"It's interesting to see what they think of their teammates," Fisher said. "It's like when you're on the playground; you want the best guys on your team. They know which guys are competitive."

Pregame

After awaking as opponents, Fisher brought both teams together in the team meeting room at 1:15 p.m. on Saturday, less than three hours before kickoff. He didn't use a microphone. He didn't need one. "It's the last time you're going to compete for four months," Fisher said. "Leave with a great taste in your mouth. Leave it all out there. Now, be very competitive with each other. Play physical. But play by the rules, be clean and remember one thing: He's still your teammate. I never wanted to beat anybody worse than I wanted to beat my brother. When we played against each other, I'd butt him right in the mouth. But be clean and play the game the right way."

An hour before the game, low conversation filled the Seminoles' locker room. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said the mood bore little resemblance to the pregame atmosphere during the season.

"Normally, you can hear a pin drop," Stoops said.

Yet some of the players performed their pregame rituals. Defensive lineman Everett Dawkins sat literally in his locker, legs splayed out, immersed in his own thoughts. Smith, in a state of perpetual effervescence, bounced around the locker room, talking trash at his teammates in Garnet uniforms.

The team -- make that, the teams -- assembled in the middle of the locker room minutes before taking the field. They continued to yap at each other, awaiting Fisher's final words.

The head coach walked into the locker room. He surveyed his players, and went 180 degrees from his earlier speech. When Fisher spoke to the team earlier in the afternoon, he preached. He cajoled. He shouted. With the pressure built up, Fisher pinpricked it.

"If you're scared," Fisher said, "buy a dog. Play ball."

First half

With 40,631 fans in attendance, many of the Seminoles' younger players played in front of a large crowd for the first time.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State
AP Photo/Phil SearsGarnet, with "help" from Mark Schlabach, ruled the day on Saturday.

It didn't take long to rid themselves of butterflies. After Gold won the coin toss and deferred, Garnet returned the opening kickoff to its 30-yard line. Offensive coordinator James Coley told backup quarterback Clint Trickett to run "Volunteer & Go." Before the ball was even snapped, a Garnet player yelled, "Touchdown!" Trickett rolled slightly to his left and threw up a long pass for receiver Greg Dent, who hauled in a 70-yard touchdown.

"We've run that play so many times, we knew they'd bite," Coley said.

Two possessions later, with the score tied 7-7, we took over the play calling, with Schlabach calling plays on offense for Garnet and Maisel calling defensive signals for Gold.

Maisel's take: Garnet had the ball at the 50. They came out with two wide receivers and a tight end. Gold stuck with a base coverage -- "Over Special" -- the secondary in zone. On first down, pressure forced Trickett to throw the ball away.

"See? This stuff's easy," Hudson said.

On second down, Garnet put in two big backs in an I-formation.

"Sometimes," Hudson said, "you can tell a run or pass by the depth of the tailback [Debrale Smiley]. His toes are at 7 [yards behind the ball]."

Trickett handed the ball to Smiley. Smith burst through and tackled him for a 4-yard loss.

"Yep," Hudson said. "Tried to get him up there quick. Ain't going to happen against that group."

I prepared for third down.

"I'd stay with what you got," Hudson said. "We're going to bring the front a little bit."

Wait a minute. I'm in charge here.

"OK," I commanded.

Trickett took the snap. "We got it covered!" Hudson said.

Well, not so much. Rodney Smith was open but Trickett missed him.

"You're in the wrong profession," Hudson said.

"All those years of second-guessing," I said.

Schlabach's take: There was confusion on the Garnet sideline from the start. Trickett already had a play to run on first down, before the coaches realized I was supposed to be making the calls. But then Trickett ran back to the sideline and asked me, "What do you want to run?"

"Just run what you already have," I told him.

How's that for originality?

On second down, I called for a fake reverse, hoping to set up the Gold defense for a real reverse once we started driving down the field. When I called the play, Trickett shook his head. I could tell he didn't like it. It was stopped for a 4-yard loss.

As soon as I'd called the second-down play, Coley told me to come up with a third-down play. How's that for confidence? My head was spinning. Go for broke?

Facing third-and-long, I called for an intermediate pass. It was one of Trickett's favorite combo routes. The ball hit Smith in the hands, but he couldn't pull it in.

Three-and-out. Not good. I'd leave Tallahassee with my best plays in my back pocket. I'd called only one play off my three-page script.

"Good call," Coley said, trying to keep my confidence up. "It wasn't your fault."

Fisher, who coached both teams from midfield, looked toward the Garnet sideline and shouted: "Three and out! Three and out! Run some play-action and run the damn ball!"

Was he shouting at me?

I immediately jumped on my cellphone and tweeted: "I just went 3 and out. Wasn't play calling … Lack of execution."

Halftime

Thanks to free safety Terrence Brooks' 51-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the second quarter, Garnet had a 14-7 lead at the half, despite being outgained and dominated in time of possession.

In the locker room, Trickett tried to rally his Garnet teammates, telling the defense: "We only played adequately good and we're still ahead. Let's win this. We were underdogs last year and won. We're underdogs this year. Let's win."

"One more touchdown and it's a wrap," Carradine told the offense.

Before Garnet left the locker room, McCloud said: "We need one of those Jimbo speeches."

Offensive line coach Rick Trickett -- the quarterback's father -- substituted for FSU's head coach: "Let's go kick some [rears]!"

Second half

Garnet took a 21-7 lead early in the third quarter, with Trickett throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to Rashad Gholston, who made a fabulous catch in the end zone. Confidence was soaring on the Garnet sideline. Then it was Schlabach's turn to call defense, with Maisel calling offensive signals for Gold.

Maisel's take: As the Gold team waited in the visiting tunnel to return to the field after halftime, I asked senior fullback Lonnie Pryor for a play to run.

"Regular F-Under," Pryor said. F, as you might have guessed, stands for fullback.

"I got you," he said. "That's the play. It's a pass in the flat. Call it and I'll break a long one."

Assistants Dameyune Craig and Lawrence Dawsey coached the Gold offense. The first two possessions of the second half produced few yards and no points. Craig dressed down the offense, and when Gold got the ball back at its 46, Fisher started barking at his two assistants about their play calling. Craig pointed at me.

"This is his drive," Craig said.

I wanted to start with a pass in the flat to gin up the offensive flow. I wanted to throw to tight end Nick O'Leary either on a slant over the middle or have him run a seam route straight up the hash marks. With the defense on its heels, I wanted to bust 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore James Wilder Jr. up the middle. When we got inside the 30, I wanted a jump ball thrown to Benjamin, a 6-6, 242-pound bundle of potential. And somewhere, of course, call Regular F-Under.

I would tell Craig what I wanted. He would translate it into play-call-ese. Quality control assistant Kurt Kennedy would signal it, and the rest would be Schlabach's downfall.

In truth, something got lost in the translation.

My slant call to O'Leary turned into a 19-yard gain, the third-longest of Manuel's 28 completions. But that's a great example. I thought O'Leary would slant over the middle. He caught this one at the sideline, a leaping, two-handed catch at the Garnet 27.

"Good grab!" Kennedy said. "Good call," he said to me, sounding surprised.

Wilder's run into the middle and a pass into the flat to Kenny Shaw moved us to the Garnet 14. Time for a jump ball. "Throw it to KB in the corner," I said to Craig. "Let him go get it."

Manuel instead went to Shaw in the end zone. Pass interference and a first down at the Garnet 2. Here it came -- Pryor's special weapon.

"Regular F-Under," I said to Craig.

"L45 Extra Naked F Under," he said to Kennedy.

I locked my eyes on Pryor. He took two steps forward and -- picked up the pass rush. Manuel moved right and threw to Shaw for a touchdown. But the play worked! Seven plays, 54 yards. But Gold missed the extra point, so Garnet remained ahead, 21-13.

When Pryor came off the field, I met him with a smile on my face.

"He didn't call F Under," Pryor said.

"That's what I told him to call!" I said.

Schlabach's take: Garnet sported a two-touchdown lead, so I figured I could get a little aggressive. After going three and out on offense, my pride was at stake.

Stoops gathered his No. 1 defense. "If they score on this drive, it's not on me," Stoops told his players. "It's on him."

I called an inside blitz on first down.

Reid's eyes got big and he shook his head.

"That doesn't work really well here," Reid said.

"Run it," Stoops told him. "He's got more guts than me."

The Gold team drove down the field with ease. I tried to mix in a few blitzes with base coverages like "Special" and "Robber." No matter the call, Gold seemed to have an answer. When a 10-yard pass to Shaw moved the ball inside the 20, I asked Stoops for help with a voice of desperation.

"Give me something here," I said.

"It's on you, baby," Stoops said.

I brought pressure again, and sophomore cornerback Kendall Fullington was penalized for pass interference. Gold got the ball at the 2-yard line and scored on the next play.

"Don't worry about it," Stoops said. "I know my guys' weaknesses and what positions not to put them in. I'll let you call another defensive possession."

"Let's get a couple of more touchdowns first," I told him.

The Garnet team scored two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter -- Smiley on a 7-yard run and Gholston on a 25-yard touchdown pass -- to put Gold away for good and win by a final score of 35-20. With less than two minutes left, players doused Coley and Rick Trickett with a Gatorade bath. A few seconds later, I was doused with a jug of ice water.

Ah, the chill of victory.

Postgame

After the game, with Maisel sporting an 0-1 career record, he tracked down his quarterback in the locker room. Maisel wanted to make sure Gold ran his play on Manuel's touchdown pass to Shaw.

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel
AP Photo/Phil SearsEJ Manuel may not have remembered his Maisel-directed drive, but he couldn't argue with the result.

"Actually, it was Zone 45 Extra Naked," Manuel said. "We didn't have the F Under. If he had called that -- he didn't signal it."

"Kurt thinks he signaled F Under," Maisel said.

"But he did not," Manuel said. "Trust me."

All right, fine. Whatever. Give it to me straight, quarterback to playcaller. Critique the touchdown drive. Manuel thought for a second.

"To be honest with you, I cannot remember the drive," he said.

Playcaller and quarterback dissolved into laughter.

So there you have it. The next time a player details the wizardry behind a scoring drive, the next coach who is hailed a genius, try not to think of this story.

At least Schlabach went home a winner.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball