TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The night began with Karlos Williams on the sideline, just as it had for every game of his college career. It ended with the sophomore safety on a stage next to Jimbo Fisher and EJ Manuel. William was the hero who'd led his team in tackles and corralled a game-saving interception to seal Florida State's first ACC title in seven years.
After two years of hype, Williams stepped into an unfamiliar role in the ACC championship game and delivered a breakout performance.
"The guy is going to be a great player," Fisher said. "He's got two years left, and I'm glad of that."
Fisher isn't interested in turning the page on 2012 just yet, but Williams' performance on Saturday offered a glimpse of the future. So while a sluggish win over a mediocre Georgia Tech -- or the upcoming Orange Bowl date with BCS-busting Northern Illinois -- won't provide much closure on just how good this season's FSU team was, Williams' big game might offer a strong statement on just how good next season's team can be.
"I was kind of nervous, but you've got to go out there and step up," Williams said of Saturday's performance. "It was my time, and I think I played pretty well."
For Williams and a host of young FSU defenders, their time is nearly at hand.
One game remains on this season's slate, and the slew of departures -- which began last week when defensive coordinator Mark Stoops accepted the head coaching job at Kentucky -- is expected to continue.
Six senior starters on defense will definitely be gone, including Williams' older brother, Vince. As many as four juniors could decide to leave early as well, including projected first-round draft pick Bjoern Werner -- meaning the departure of FSU's entire vaunted defensive line. When the dust clears, it's possible that just one member of the Seminoles' projected defensive starters at the end of this year's spring practice will still be on the team when spring drills begin again in 2013.
Even if the evacuation of talent isn't quite that immense, the job of rebuilding the unit for 2013 figures to be a significant undertaking, but Saturday's ACC title game offered some early steps in the right direction.
From his first days at FSU, Williams was lauded as a potential difference-maker on defense, but his role through two seasons has been limited. He played sparingly as a freshman, and while his snaps have increased marginally throughout 2012, it wasn't until Saturday when he got his first big break -- one that came not at safety, but linebacker.
Williams entered early in the first quarter when starting strongside linebacker Nick Moody left with a concussion. Williams had been training for the role throughout the week, knowing Georgia Tech's option offense would put a strain on the linebacking corps. The results were astounding -- 11 tackles and the interception.
"He can really do anything," Vince Williams said of his brother. "He's an outside linebacker that returned kickoffs. The man is unbelievable talent-wise. It's just get him a role, get him adjusted and get him out on the field to see if he can make plays."
The plan was similar on Saturday for freshman defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. The former five-star recruit was slated to redshirt when the season began, but injuries to Brandon Jenkins and Cornellius Carradine thrust him into the starting lineup.
"The kid is not normal," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "He was 315 pounds [in August] and he was doing back flips. I've never seen something quite like him. He reminds me of, if you could, put Bjoern and Tank [Carradine] together."
A year ago, Florida State used its bowl game to debut a revamped offensive line that proved to be the first steps toward building this season's offense. In the waning weeks of the 2012 season, it could be the defense that gets a sneak peek at the future.
Williams and Edwards have already shown they're capable of handling bigger jobs. Freshmen Ronald Darby, Eddie Goldman and Reggie Northrup have flashed potential in smaller doses, too. It's far from definitive evidence that the future is bright, but for fans already anxious about the months ahead, it's a strong statement that the cupboards won't be bare.
"You train all year with those guys, and you know what they're capable of," Joyner said. "When the guys in front of them go down, you know they're able of filling those shoes. So it's no pressure when those things happen."