By Bob Thomas
November 8, 2006
Unraveling Florida State's mysterious fall, from ACC juggernaut to also-ran, really isn't mysterious at all.
In fact, it even might have been predictable to those who had the foresight to study the program's exceedingly high attrition rate, the genesis of which can be traced to its 2003 and 2002 signing classes.
Coach Bobby Bowden's 20-member 2003 class earned perhaps the lowest ranking of any at Florida State over the past 20 years, checking in somewhere from 16th to 21st according to various recruiting services. In fact, the Seminoles brought in no better than the fourth-rated class in the ACC, after never finishing worse than second, dating to their inaugural 1992 season in the league.
On national signing day in 2003, Bowden said his team's sales pitch was hurt in part because FSU, unlike in-state rivals Florida and Miami, did not experience a mass exodus of starters after the 2002 season. Thus, prospects didn't see as much of an opportunity for early playing time in Tallahassee.
The coach also attempted to explain the low recruiting rankings by pointing out that the Seminoles' class was loaded with linemen.
"That's why it don't rank high," Bowden said. "If all those guys are skilled guys, your ranking jumps way up. I haven't seen a great recruiting class unless you had a lot of skill. ... That's what these (recruiting) guys grade. They haven't got any idea what an offensive lineman looks like."
Veteran FSU recruiting coordinator John Lilly didn't argue with the gurus on signing day. Instead, he found himself looking for answers, when he was asked repeatedly what went wrong.
"The inside factors probably changed it more than the outside factors," Lilly said. "How many games we lost, how many games we won, the problems we had within the program."
As it turned out, the recruiting analysts were right to be skeptical about FSU's Class of 2003, for a variety of reasons.
Of the 20 newcomers, a number that included January 2003 enrollee Roger Williams and summer 2003 walk-on Anthony Houllis (two safeties), four failed to qualify academically. Three later were dismissed from school, for either academic or behavioral problems. That's a significant hit off the top, even without considering a number of other circumstances that negatively impacted the class.
Defensive end Chauncey Davis, a highly touted junior college signee, exhausted his eligibility at FSU in 2004 and is now in the NFL. So are linebacker Ernie Sims and cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who were first-round picks in the 2006 NFL draft, after both departed with eligibility left on the table.
Mix in one clear-cut bust (kicker Chase Goggans), plus two more players (linebacker Anthony Kelly, defensive end D.J. Norris) whose careers have been limited by injury, and you begin to see why only seven members of the initial group of 20 showed up on FSU's most recent two-deep chart.
Stack the Class of 2003 deficiencies with those of the Seminoles' 2002 class - only five of those 22 signees are still in the program as fifth-year seniors - and you have a recipe for disaster at most programs. Fortunately for FSU, the equity built up over years of excellence in recruiting and on-field performance merely have left the Seminoles hovering around the .500 mark here in 2006.
"In terms of that (2003) class, we were a little bit shorter on numbers than we could have been," Lilly said recently, "and you obviously see the effect of that now."
The Seminoles truly are fortunate to be where they are, when you consider that 50 of this year's 81 scholarship players are either freshmen or sophomores.
Whether you look at the 2002 and 2003 classes collectively or separately, they come up well short of Lilly's goal of having 60 percent of each class contribute significantly to the program.
Reflecting on the 2003 group, Lilly recently admitted it was "very, very strange" on many fronts.
"It was a class where it was one of those years, and everybody goes through them, where you had some guys committed who then don't stay with you, whether they were publicly or privately committed," Lilly said. "It was a difficult year. There had been a lot of things that had gone on, and there were a lot of different rumors in recruiting circles about Florida State."
Bowden's age - 72 at the time - already was a significant factor in FSU's recruiting efforts. Schools competing against the Seminoles for prospects repeatedly suggested that he would not be the team's coach long enough to see the 2003 class through to graduation.
"Coach's age is a lot like distance," Lilly said. "We can't change the map."
On top of that, there is little doubt that the lingering internal problems during the dysfunctional 2002 season played a part in FSU's recruiting woes.
As the 2003 class was being assembled, quarterback Adrian McPherson was facing felony theft charges, following an FSU police investigation into alleged gambling activities by the signal-caller.
It certainly didn't help that a divided locker room, which long had debated who (McPherson or Chris Rix) should be the Seminoles' starting quarterback, melted down following a home loss to Notre Dame. A post-game outburst involving veteran defenders Alonzo Jackson and Darnell Dockett, who both were in McPherson's camp, came on a day when FSU was hosting a number of prime recruits.
One of those on an official visit was quarterback Chris Leak, who witnessed the outburst first-hand. Leak was one of a handful of FSU targets - some of whom had made silent commitments to the Seminoles - who ended up at rival Florida, where then-coach Ron Zook was stockpiling the talent for today's national championship contender (under Urban Meyer) in Gainesville.
Among the other well-regarded Class of 2003 prospects who had FSU and Florida on their short lists but ultimately selected the Gators were wide receiver Andre Caldwell, linebacker Earl Everett, defensive end Jarvis Moss, free safety Reggie Nelson, defensive tackle Marcus Thomas (a one-time FSU commitment) and cornerback Dee Webb. All have played key roles for Florida, and they're a huge part of the foundation for this year's top-10 team in Gainesville.
Linebacker Jon Beason (Miami), quarterback Kyle Wright (Miami), wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (LSU), defensive tackle Kevin Brown (UCLA) and cornerback Kenny Scott (Georgia Tech) also received scholarship offers from the Seminoles but signed with other BCS programs and became standout performers.
It doesn't take much of an imagination to envision those players collectively providing the Seminoles with a national championship contender, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
FSU's quarterback quandary didn't end with McPherson's dismissal. Rix's suspension for the Sugar Bowl against Georgia, which resulted from his failure to show up for a final examination, pressed injured third-team quarterback Fabian Walker into action as the starter in a losing effort.
Then, the morning after the loss, Bowden may well have piled onto his team's problems when he said Rix would be the starter in 2004. That ill-timed announcement led to Walker - one of the most popular players among his teammates - to transfer to Division II Valdosta State, perhaps further driving a wedge into those who never believed Rix was a capable and deserving leader.
Potential recruits couldn't help but notice what was going on within the program, which had followed up a run of three consecutive national championship game appearances by losing nine games in 2001 and 2002.
Furthermore, Bowden also was dealing with yet another staff change. Once the standard of measure for stability in Division I-A, the Seminoles still were trying to recover from the loss of assistants Chuck Amato to N.C. State, following the 1999 national championship season, and offensive coordinator Mark Richt to Georgia a year later.
Joe Kines, who was hired to replace Amato as the linebackers coach, had been a very effective recruiter for the Seminoles, even as his read-and-react philosophy proved to be a poor fit for the team's defense. Kines bolted after the 2002 season to return to his roots as an assistant at Alabama, leaving a recruiting void in his primary areas of responsibility, talent-rich Jacksonville and South Georgia.
Bowden moved quickly to replace Kines and struck it rich by landing Kevin Steele, at the time the deposed Baylor head coach. Steele since has proven to be the program's most valuable recruiter, and it didn't take him long to make an impact.
Heading into signing day in 2003, the Seminoles appeared on the verge of coming up empty-handed in pursuit of their top targets. Steele, however, helped swing the signing-day decisions of Sims and Cromartie, two of the nation's elite prep athletes.
Take away those two players - even though Cromartie never started a game for the Seminoles, thanks to injuries and inexperience - and FSU's 2003 class would have rated among the worst anywhere.
Lilly remembers the class-saving swing on signing day well.
"Two of the marquee names in the class didn't do anything until signing day - Ernie and Antonio," Lilly said. "There was a pretty big buzz out there, in a lot of people's minds, that we weren't going to sign anybody, a big mega-name player. That was probably a concern for a lot of (recruits) here and there. ...
"We got them in the 11th hour, and there were a lot of rumors about them going other places. At the same time, there were some high-quality guys that we got and some guys that contributed. I think about guys like (wide receiver) Joslin Shaw, who wasn't a big-name guy, who has contributed a lot of good things in that class."
Yet Shaw, a prep tailback from a program without a track record of turning out big-time prospects, may be the poster child for the 2003 class - and not the kind of guy you associate as a difference-making FSU signee. He's spent much of his career in special-teams obscurity, before finally moving into the Seminoles' paper-thin receiver rotation this season.
At least Shaw made it into school. Four from the Seminoles' 20-man class did not. That pushed FSU's two-year total of players failing to meet minimum NCAA entrance requirements to nine, and it prompted athletic director Dave Hart to insist that the program take a closer look at the kinds of student-athletes it was recruiting.
"It certainly has had an impact," Lilly said. "I would be lying if I said it hasn't. The thing you always want to do is you always want to look at the individual, regardless of where they stand in different areas. 'Are they going to be successful here?' It can go both ways. ... There has obviously been a renewed emphasis, and that has been reflected in what you see in graduation rates, off the field, or whatever."
Today's closer scrutiny of prospects, however, did nothing to diminish the impact of those who did not make it into school in 2003.
Defensive lineman Chris Anderson (Jacksonville Mandarin/Hargrave Military Academy), who initially signed in 2002, failed to qualify for a second time in 2003. He attended Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College and eventually surfaced at Middle Tennessee State, where he has not had a major impact.
Wide receiver De'Cody Fagg (Quincy Shanks), forced to enroll in prep school, broke his leg and did not play football in 2003. He signed with the Seminoles again in 2004, and he since has become a solid, productive player.
Linebacker Anthony Kelly (Daytona Beach Seabreeze), who was juco-bound, made it back to FSU in 2004. All along, he was part of a proposed package deal with his more heralded younger brother, quarterback Xavier Lee.
Offensive lineman Aubrey McPhadden (Jacksonville First Coast) never did make it to the major college level. After two separate junior college stops in Mississippi, he signed with Ole Miss in February but failed to qualify yet again. He's now at College of the Sequoias in California, working with the second team and drawing criticism from his coaches for a questionable work ethic.
As if often the case, the 2003 class also included its share of flameouts, some off the field and some on it. Four of those who fit the description are no longer in the program.
Defensive lineman Chris Bradwell (Alpharetta, Ga., Chattahoochee/Hargrave), originally a member of FSU's 2002 class, had academic shortcomings that put him on the prep school path for a year. After making it to Tallahassee, he ran afoul of the law and the coaching staff, even stealing from teammates after serving several suspensions for a "violation of team rules." He was dismissed in the spring of 2005, without ever seeing substantial playing time. After a year at Northeast Mississippi Junior College, he signed with Troy in February. He was dismissed from that school six months later, without ever appearing in a game for the Trojans, after he was arrested for his alleged role in an off-campus break-in and theft incident.
Defensive tackle Clifton Dickson (Miami Northwestern) was FSU's first prominent South Florida signee in a number of years. He was the defensive MVP of the team's 2005 spring practice and apparently on the track to stardom when he was dismissed for academic reasons. Hoping to be reinstated, he enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, where he was involved in a felony break-in and theft incident and had his name attached to a drug investigation. Dickson's current location is unknown, and he will not be rejoining the FSU program.
Kicker Chase Goggans (Douglas, Ga., Coffee County), rated as the nation's top prep kicker by one service, enrolled at FSU for the 2003 spring term. An outstanding student, he never adjusted to kicking off the ground and will wrap up his eligibility at the end of this season with one career PAT (and one blocked).
Cornerback Jhermaine McAroy (Pensacola High) was the only corner in the 2003 class, but he wasn't around long enough to see the field. Redshirted as a freshman, he was dismissed after one school year for academic reasons. He didn't resurface until February, when he signed with Division II North Alabama. He is listed as a second-team safety this fall.
Not surprisingly, when you look at the deficiencies on today's FSU team, they show up most glaringly along the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary, where there isn't a single senior and only two juniors on the two-deep. The Seminoles' lack of experience, linked directly to the two-class attrition rate, has exposed many weaknesses.
There have been some pleasant surprises from the 2003 class, beyond Sims and Cromartie.
Offensive tackle Mario Henderson, the lone fourth-year senior from the class, was viewed as a project when he signed. As the starter for every game at left tackle this fall, he'll have a chance at an NFL career.
John Frady has started every game at center this season, and most acknowledge that he is FSU's most gifted lineman. But he missed the final four games of 2005 because of a shoulder injury, and he took a medical redshirt in 2004 after dislocating his elbow in practice in the first month of the season.
Tackle/guard David Overmyer, who started every game in 2005, has made four 2006 starts and plays significantly each week as the unit's "putty guy."
On defense, tackle Andre Fluellen is one of the league's best, while Williams has made 11 consecutive starts at safety. Ends Alex Boston and Norris have been limited by injury to seven combined starts, and they lack the physical tools to measure up to the greats who have gone before them.
While a significant core group from the 2003 class will return as fifth-year seniors in 2007, FSU's future rests with its youth. Fortunately for the Seminoles, their 2004-06 classes have suffered very few losses to academics or behavioral problems, which may prove to be the most significant contribution from the 2003 class. Bowden also likes what's happening with the Class of 2007, despite another very difficult season on the field.
"It (the 2007 signing class) will be normal," Bowden said. "We'll recruit another good group.
"Recruiting is a funny thing. Sometimes you can be so good that nobody wants to come to your school, because they don't think they can play. 'That team has so many good players, I ain't going there because I won't get to play.' At the same time, there's another team not doing as well, and they need tackles, and if I'm a tackle I'm going to go there, where they need me. So, really, the record doesn't affect it that much.
"We'll recruit like we always do, and we'll probably do good, as we always do. We won't be able to sign a lot of numbers this year, because we don't lose hardly any people. But that recruiting thing - it's not like if you are winning you will get all the good ones, and if you are losing you won't."
In the meantime, there's no substitute for experience, and the 2006 Seminoles sorely lack it. One of Bowden's coaching tenets has been, "Our seniors won't let us lose." That may have applied this season if Bowden were coaching the FSU basketball team.
Simply put, there just haven't been enough of them to make a difference. That was readily apparent when Bowden hosted the seniors at his home on the first Sunday in August. Only six seniors who arrived at FSU on scholarship - Henderson and five fifth-year players - were on hand for the affair. The annual tradition is usually a catered event, topped with desserts made by Ann Bowden.
On the morning of this year's celebration, fifth-year senior offensive lineman Cory Niblock quipped: "It won't be catered this year. Throw some hamburger helper in a pot, and we're good to go."
For expedience, the family-style dinner in a box is hard to beat. But when you've been dining at college football's head table for as long as Florida State has, it's a poor substitute, with a lingering aftertaste.
Just like FSU's Class of 2003.
- Bob Thomas Florida Times-Union
Recruits: 20 Points: 120 (6.0 per)
All-ACC Selections/Candidates: 2
Starters: 9 % Starters: 45.0
Second Team: 2 % Contributors: 55.0
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 6
FL/VA DT Chris Anderson Non-Qualifier/MTSU
FL DE Alex Boston Two-Year Starter
FL/VA DT Chris Bradwell Dismissed/juco/Troy
FL DB Antonio Cromartie Second Team/NFL
JC DE Chauncey Davis Starter/NFL
FL DT Clifton Dickson Academics 2005
FL WR DeCody Fagg Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
GA DT Andre Fluellen Two-Year Starter
FL OL John Frady Starter
GA PK Chase Goggans Left Team 2006
FL OL Mario Henderson* Starter
FL DB Anthony Houllis^ Second Team
FL LB Anthony Kelly Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
FL DB Jhermaine McAroy Academics/N. Alabama
FL OL Aubrey McPhadden Non-Qualifier/juco
FL TE D.J. Norris Starter (DE)
GA OL David Overmyer Two-Year Starter
FL WR Joslin Shaw Career Reserve
FL LB Ernie Sims Two-Year Starter/NFL
GA DB Roger Williams Starter
^ – 2003 walk-on ! – I-A transfer # – injured<br>
* never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall
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