By Josh Robbins,
Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel
April 21, 2003 TALLAHASSEE One by one, the heroes of yesteryear returned to the Florida State campus this spring to inspire a team that somehow lost its way.
Corey Simon spoke to the entire team on the first day of spring practice, followed a few days later by LeRoy Butler. Derrick Brooks and Dexter Jackson visited the team in early April to chat with small groups of players. Brad Johnson addressed the squad before its spring game.
We felt like the kids needed a shot from the past, because we were so successful there for a while and the last two years have been disappointing, said coach Bobby Bowden, whose team has lost nine of its last 26 games.
The visitors sounded a common theme: The Seminoles lack cohesion, and team chemistry must improve for Florida State to rejoin college football's elite.
We don't see the team unity here anymore, Jackson said. Now, when I look at everyone, it's all about ëme, me, me' or ëI, I, I.' It's not about the team. We were like a brotherhood, and that's pretty much what we were. We had become a fraternity. We stuck together. We looked out for each other.
Bowden and his coaching staff faced plenty of obstacles as they tried to rebuild that chemistry this spring.
In 2002, the Seminoles did anything but look after each other. Adrian McPherson, who started four games at quarterback, was kicked off the team as local police investigated his alleged role in stealing and cashing a check from a local business.
In December, quarterback Chris Rix infuriated teammates when he failed to take one of his final exams and was suspended from the Sugar Bowl as a result. Later, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett also was forced to miss the bowl game after he accepted a large, unauthorized discount at a local sporting goods store.
To ease Rix's transition back to the team, Bowden kept him off-limits to the media from January until the Seminoles finished their spring game on April 12. When spring practice ended, Bowden declared that Rix had gotten over the hump and presented him with the Hinesman Award, given annually to the most dominant player of FSU's spring practices.
I've just tried to live up to every responsibility and everything I have to do on and off the field, Rix said. I hope that the guys have noticed that.
Some players did take notice.
He's had a little bit of trouble here and there, but who hasn't? center David Castillo said. He's done his part in trying to earn his teammates' respect. He works hard and he's gotten 110 percent better. He realizes the talent he has and the potential this team has. Without him without our quarterback we're not going to go anywhere. He is becoming the team player that we really need.
With McPherson in the fold last year, the Seminoles had an enormously talented and popular quarterback who could challenge Rix for the starting job. Now that McPherson's gone, none of the remaining quarterbacks on FSU's roster including junior Fabian Walker, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and impressive redshirt freshman Wyatt Sexton is ready to supplant Rix.
I think the biggest difference in this football team right now is a stable quarterback situation, which we haven't had in two years, Bowden said. It's been a shaky, iffy, not-sure type of thing, and I think it carried over to our ballclub.
But a healthy dose of skepticism in Rix is warranted, despite the hearty endorsements from his center and his coach.
Prior to the 2002 season, many of Rix's teammates raved at how far he had come in gaining their respect. But by Oct. 26, when Rix threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in a convincing loss to Notre Dame, several prominent players were calling for McPherson to become the team's new starter.
Rix had not helped matters, either. He offended his fellow players by arriving late at meetings and by missing early morning weight-lifting sessions during the season. To be fair, Rix said he spent much of his time late at night on the telephone with family back home in California to keep tabs on his father, who was suffering from an undisclosed illness.
Without getting too into it, my father's doing well, Rix said. He's in a new house and is working again, so the situation back there is a lot more stable than it was in the past. That definitely helps me.
Even if Rix displays a newfound maturity, FSU's offense could be hampered by the departures of four senior starters along the offensive line, as well as receivers Anquan Boldin, who left a year early for the NFL, and Talman Gardner.
Spring practice ended with Bowden encouraged by the offense's development. Youngsters along the offensive line junior Bobby Meeks and redshirt sophomores Matt Meinrod, Eric Broe and Matt Heinz at guard and Castillo at center played better than expected, Bowden said. Still, just how far they have improved was hard to determine, because FSU's top defensive tackles missed the spring with injuries or legal trouble.
Wide receiver Dominic Robinson emerged from the spring far more effective than he was last season, after he moved from cornerback last summer. Robinson and fellow juniors P.K. Sam, Chauncey Stovall and Craphonso Thorpe also displayed surer hands than last year's starters.
We're tired of being 9-5 and 8-4, Robinson said. We don't want to have our names associated with anything like that any longer. We're trying to cut it off right now, and we know that it starts this spring.
The defense, expected to be team's strength next season with the return of 10 starters, did not have an opportunity to play together this spring. Injuries kept Michael Boulware, Brodrick Bunkley, Claudius Osei, Kendyll Pope, Stanford Samuels, B.J. Ward and Jeff Womble out for all or most of the spring. Projected starting tackles Dockett and Travis Johnson missed spring drills while dealing with serious legal problems.
Aside from sophomore linebacker A.J. Nicholson, the person who received the best reviews on the defense was Kevin Steele, the team's new linebackers coach. Steele, who came to FSU after he was fired as Baylor's head coach, cuts a vastly different profile from his predecessor, Joe Kines, who left to become Alabama's new defensive coordinator. Steele appears far more patient with players than Kines, who often yelled himself hoarse during FSU practices.
He loves the game and you can tell when he's out there on the field, Nicholson said of Steele. I feel like he wants to get on a helmet and hit somebody else, too.
But for starting middle linebacker Allen Augustin, the positives extended beyond Steele and to what he viewed as better team chemistry.
This year, you feel a lot more kinship, Augustin said. It's not as fragmented as it used to be.