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Despite On-field Momentum, No. 1 Ranking, Fsu Mostly Missed With 2001 Class In Media Relations World

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff
ACCSports.com

October 18, 2004 TALLAHASSEE — On signing day in February 2001, the Florida State football coaches were ecstatic about their latest recruiting class, which seemed to guarantee that coach Bobby Bowden would be able to continue fielding national championship-caliber teams through the final years of his coaching career. "I keep waiting for the day when people say, 'He's too old. He ain't going to be here another year.' Of course, they all say it anyway, but the kids haven't started believing it yet, thank goodness," said Bowden, then 71. "I was really amazed that our coaches were able to sign these kids."

The Seminoles' 2001 talent haul, which produced a consensus No. 1 ranking from gridiron recruiting services such as SuperPrep, Prep Football Report, PrepStar, Rivals and TheInsiders, also appeared to provide the impetus that would help drive Bowden past Bear Bryant on the Division
I-A career victories list.

That much appeared to be a foregone conclusion by the spring of 2001, when Bowden trailed Bryant's 323 total by only eight victories. But there was another on-going competition, too. Bowden and Penn State's Joe Paterno were locked in a last-man-standing duel to finish their career No. 1 on the victories list.

Given the changes and the pressure on today's coaches, it would be a record unlikely to be broken — soon, if ever. Paterno had a seven-win lead on Bowden after the 2000 season, but he was beginning to find it difficult to maintain the type of recruiting classes needed to keep the Nittany Lions among the nation's elite teams every year. Bowden had not yet seen such a decline.

During the 2000 season, when most of the recruiting was done for the 2001 class, the Seminoles went 11-1 and took a No. 2 national ranking to the Orange Bowl, for a BCS championship showdown with Oklahoma. That marked the fourth time in five years that FSU had played in a national championship bowl game.

But Bowden must have understood that the hot streak wouldn't go on forever, and that a top-notch recruiting class was essential in order to provide for future national title opportunities and to avoid the late-career swoon Paterno was starting to experience.

Quarterback Chris Weinke was a senior Heisman Trophy winner during the 2000 season, while becoming FSU's career passing leader. He was one of 23 seniors on the team and one of 15 senior starters on a list that also included tailback Travis Minor, safety Derrick Gibson, receiver Snoop Minnis, linebacker Brian Allen, linebacker Tommy Polley and defensive end Jamal Reynolds.

Offensive coordinator Mark Richt left to become the coach at Georgia following the Orange Bowl. Then Bowden was forced to dismiss sophomore quarterback Jared Jones, leaving someone named Chris Rix as the only scholarship quarterback on the roster. Clearly, the coach knew it was unlikely that a suddenly young and inexperienced team could maintain the same threshold of excellence, especially when his offense was going to be led by the first freshman quarterback ever to start for Bowden.

That's why Bowden was beaming on signing day. If the Seminoles weren't going to continue their streak of 14 consecutive top-five finishes through the 2001 season, at least they were going to start another one soon thereafter.

Or so he must have thought.

"On paper, this is as good a group as we've ever brought in," Bowden gushed on signing day. "You're never going to get them all, but we got as many of them as we could have hoped for, and almost all of the ones we wanted."

Included in the elation was a touch of relief, because the Seminoles — in typical fashion — had pursued such high-profile prep talent that many of the top players who ended up in their class had not committed heading into signing day.

That's a nerve-wracking way to recruit, given the chance that if numerous targets go elsewhere on signing day, there's no time left to turn back to players who had been told they would have to wait and see about a scholarship to FSU. But it's an approach that has worked well for Bowden, whose legacy as a winning coach can be directly attributed to his success as a recruiter.

On signing day in 2001, the names began to break FSU's way. From California, prep All-Americans Justin Tomerlin and Dominic Robinson faxed their signatures. Robinson, nicknamed "Prime Time II," was expected to bring the kind of flash and speed that made former FSU cornerback Deion Sanders one of the great players in college football history.

"I was convinced," Robinson said recently. "We were gonna play for the national championship every year."

The loss of Weinke didn't feel as bad when top-ranked prep quarterback Joe Mauer, who came from the same high school (Cretin-Derham Prep) in Minnesota that Weinke once attended, chose the Seminoles over Miami. Mauer was named the national player of the year by Gatorade, USA Today and Parade Magazine after throwing for 3,022 yards and a state record-tying 41 touchdowns as a senior. Also like Weinke, Mauer was a two-sport star who held significant interest in playing professional baseball.

From Lexington, Ky., 6-3, 230-pound tailback Eric Shelton chose FSU and drew immediate comparisons to Bo Jackson and Hershel Walker for his combination of size and speed. Shelton averaged more than 10 yards a carry as a senior at Bryan Station High and rushed for 4,970 yards and 59 touchdowns in his career.

Closer to home, the Seminoles were having equally impressive results. Mammoth Jacksonville offensive lineman Ron "Lucky" Lunford (6-5, 324) chose FSU over Auburn, Florida, Miami and Georgia. Coveted linebacker Chauncey Davis of Auburndale gave the Seminoles the high-profile player at his position they had missed out on in previous recruiting classes. Bradenton quarterback Adrian McPherson chose FSU after a heated recruiting battle with North Carolina, primarily because the Seminoles had expressed more enthusiasm for his desire to play basketball, in addition to football.

With Mauer on board, there also was excitement over two tall and fast receivers who joined the 2001 class — Craphonso Thorpe of Tallahassee and P.K. Sam of Buford, Ga. Combined, Thorpe and Sam caught more than 100 passes for more than 2,000 yards as high school seniors. Both were rated consensus prep All-Americans.

When signing day ended, the Seminoles had a class of 29 signees, including a group of linebackers that looked, on paper, as good as any FSU had ever signed in one class.

Davis was joined at linebacker by 2000 Pahokee High graduate and Parade All-American Eric Moore, who enrolled at FSU in January 2001 after achieving a qualifying test score. Another linebacker in the group, Miami Carol City's Willie Jones Jr., had set a Florida prep record with 32 sacks as a senior. His father was a former standout defensive end at FSU, but Jones kept the Seminoles guessing until announcing on signing day that he would play for Bowden.

At the end of the day, the recruiting experts weighed in enthusiastically. A story by CNNSI.com summed up the consensus opinion: "Reports circulating out of Miami's Pro Player Stadium last month, regarding the demise of Florida State, appear to have been premature. Bobby Bowden may have lost the national championship, his Heisman-winning quarterback and his top offensive mind, but he hasn't lost his recruiting touch. Grabbing four major commitments in the last two days, Bowden's Seminoles pulled away from LSU, Michigan, Texas, Washington and Oklahoma for the 2001 recruiting title."

Like any good recruiting class, however, the final analysis is based on results on the field. Looking back, Florida State's Class of 2001 didn't even come close to matching the hype that once surrounded it.

"That year was a highly ranked recruiting class, but because of injuries and other things it's gotten chopped down in numbers," FSU recruiting coordinator John Lilly said recently. "That class had a lot of numbers, and that works heavily in the rankings. The numbers have gotten chopped down a lot in it, so the effect of the class has gotten chopped down."

Some members of FSU's Class of 2001 are more blunt with their assessments of their own performance over the past four seasons. Looking back, have they met the expectations they had on signing day?

"No, to be honest," Robinson said. "There's no way to sugarcoat it or step around it — no. We've lost a lot of guys … and the guys that we were surrounded with, maybe we didn't click well with the upperclassmen in our freshman and sophomore year. And even last year, you wonder, because you see the talent if you look at each guy individually. Or you look even at each segment you see great players, the potential for great players, you wonder: Why hasn't it been a great team?"

Mauer never enrolled at FSU, choosing instead a lucrative deal (signing bonus: $5.15 million) with the hometown Minnesota Twins after they made him the first selection in the 2001 amateur baseball draft. In retrospect, that choice has worked well for him. Mauer completed his rookie season with the Twins in 2004 with a .308 batting average and six home runs in 35 games. Though his season ended early because of a knee injury, his performance confirmed that he likely will be a major league catcher for many years to come. Any chance that he'll some day follow Weinke's example by asking Bowden for another chance to play quarterback at FSU appears remote, at best.

Tomerlin didn't qualify academically because of an unspecified problem with his high school transcript, and he remained in California for a year as he tried to sort out the problem with the NCAA. He later moved to Tallahassee in the summer of 2002, hoping to be eligible to enroll and play at FSU that fall. However, the NCAA Clearinghouse again refused to certify his transcript, and he was advised by FSU officials to obtain an associate's degree. Tomerlin then used the internet to seek information about the top football-playing junior colleges in the country, and he enrolled at Butler County (Kan.) Community College. As a sophomore this season, he's the team's third-leading tackler, with a team-leading nine sacks. At 6-6 and 265 pounds, he has plenty of options for his final two years of eligibility, but FSU apparently isn't one of them. Tomerlin said he hopes to stay closer to the West Coast, and he recently listed Southern California, Washington State, Fresno State, Nebraska and Oklahoma as schools of interest.

None of the highly touted linebackers in the 2001 class became a starter at that position, although three became starters at other positions.

Davis also was forced by academics to attend junior college, but he re-signed with the Seminoles in 2003 and appeared in all 13 games as a reserve last fall, after making the switch from linebacker to defensive end while at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College. He blocked a punt and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown against Colorado last season, and he is a starter for the Seminoles this year as a senior.

Jones suffered a knee injury in the Florida-Georgia high school all-star game and had to redshirt in 2001. He also moved to defensive end, where he has battled various injuries — an Achilles problem caused him to miss all of the 2003 season — and currently is a backup as a junior. He could compete for a starting job in 2005.

Moore also switched to defensive end and has become an All-ACC candidate at that position, while fellow linebacker signee B.J. Dean is in his second season as FSU's starting fullback. Only two linebackers in the 2001 signing class remain at that position — Marcello Church (a career backup) and Ray Piquion, who started one game this season in his hometown of Miami but otherwise is a backup to sophomore Ernie Sims.

McPherson became the most notorious member of the 2001 class, for all the wrong reasons. He started four games at the end of the 2002 season, after a near-mutiny by FSU upperclassmen who were tired of Rix's arrogance and mistakes. McPherson played well enough that he likely would still be the starter today if not for his off-the-field conduct.

McPherson was implicated in the theft and forgery of a $1,500 check from a truck accessories store near campus that was frequented by many FSU athletes, including McPherson, and co-owned by the sons of a prominent booster. McPherson also was charged with gambling and went through a highly publicized trial that was broadcast live on Court TV in the summer of 2003. It ended with a hung jury, and McPherson later accepted a plea bargain to end all of the criminal charges against him.

He continues to travel to Tallahassee occasionally to complete some of his 400 hours of work-detail, which includes picking up roadside trash. He also has resurrected himself as a quarterback, with the Indiana Firebirds of the Arena Football League. Meanwhile, McPherson made amends with his former program and was allowed to work out in summer passing drills in Tallahassee with many of his former teammates. He recently said he hopes to be selected in the 2005 NFL draft, which could produce a bitter irony. Rix, who re-gained his job when McPherson was dismissed before the final game of the 2002 season, may not get drafted.

Shelton played one season at FSU as a third-team tailback, but he didn't like his position on a crowded depth chart and transferred to home-state Louisville. The starting tailback for the 4-1 Cardinals this fall, he recently scored a school-record five touchdowns in a 59-7 victory over East Carolina. Through five games, he had 52 carries for 343 yards and eight scores and was a solid candidate for All-Conference USA honors.

Sam started one season for FSU at receiver and caught the game-winning pass against Florida in 2003. He then shocked most of his coaches and teammates by leaving early for the NFL, grumbling about where the team's offense was headed and privately telling friends he didn't want to risk injury by entrusting one more season to Rix and offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden. Selected in the fifth round of the 2004 NFL draft by New England, Sam made the Patriots' roster but had no catches through mid-October.

In retrospect, junior college signee Milford Brown was the best of the offensive linemen in the 2001 class, but he played only one season (as a starter at guard) before the NCAA ruled in August 2002 that he had exhausted his eligibility. He applied for hardship status and was taken by Houston in an NFL supplemental draft in September. He remains with the Texans, though he currently is out with a knee injury.

The other blockers the Seminoles signed in 2001 haven't worked out as expected, either.

"To me, that's the glaring position," Lilly said. "I think we signed seven that year. That was the position that probably we felt the best about going in and have gotten the least out of, and it's not necessarily their fault. A bunch of them have gotten hurt."

Lunford has been given plenty of opportunities, but he's generally considered an extremely large "nice guy" who can't get the job done. Andrew Henry-Kennon also didn't appear to have the hoped-for tenacity; he quit the team in the spring of 2004, though he remains in school completing work on a finance degree.

Matt Heinz had career-ending back surgery in August, and prep All-American Eric Broe has had recurring knee problems. His August surgery raised some doubts that he'll ever play again. Matt Meinrod became a starter at guard this season but had season-ending knee surgery. Blake Williams, the younger brother of former standout FSU tackle Brett Williams, gave up football because of injuries. Another promising blocker in the 2001 class, fullback James Buchanan, suffered the same fate.

Out of Florida State's group of 30 newcomers in 2001, including walk-on punter Chris Hall, only eight are starters this season for the Seminoles: kicker Xavier Beitia (a four-year starter), safety Jerome Carter, Davis, Dean, Hall, tight end Paul Irons, Moore and receiver Craphonso Thorpe. As players who have redshirted at some point in their FSU careers, only Dean and Hall from that group have one more season of eligibility in 2005.

The other 2001 signees who may be able the help — and possibly start for — the Seminoles next fall (assuming they return and/or get healthy) are one-time redshirts Broe, Jones, Lunford, Meinrod, tight end Donnie Carter, safety Kyler Hall, tight end Matt Henshaw, receiver Willie Reid and cornerback Gerard Ross. Kyler Hall, a senior, played three games for FSU to start this season but suffered a season-ending neck injury and will appeal to the NCAA for an additional year of eligibility.

"Individually, I'd say we've pretty much come close to (our expectations)," Robinson said. "Some guys have done some great things, and I think some guys have some positives in the future. I believe some guys may do better when they get to the NFL, maybe a different system, something like that. But I was convinced we were gonna play for the national championship every year. That was a given for me, and in my mind we (as a team) haven't reached our expectations."

FLORIDA STATE

Recruits: 30
Points: 175 (5.8 per)

All-ACC Selections/Candidates: 3

Starters: 10
% Starters: 33.3

Second Team: 9
% Contributors: 63.3

Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 5

FL PK Xavier Beitia* Four-Year Starter
GA OL Eric Broe Career Reserve
JC OL Milford Brown Juco/Starter
FL FB James Buchanan Medical 2002
GA DE Donnie Carter Second Team# (TE)
FL DB Jerome Carter* Three-Year Starter
FL LB Marcello Church Career Reserve
FL DE Chauncey Davis* Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
AL LB B.J. Dean Two-Year Starter (FB)
VA P Chris Hall^ Starter
FL DB Kyler Hall Second Team#
FL OL Matt Heinz Medical 2004
FL OL Andrew Henry-Kennon Left Team 2004
TN QB Matt Henshaw Second Team (TE)
LA FB Paul Irons* Two-Year Starter (TE)
FL LB Willie Jones Second Team (DE)
FL OL Ron Lunford Second Team
MN QB Joe Mauer Pro Baseball
FL QB Adrian McPherson Dismissed 2002
FL OL Matt Meinrod Starter#
FL DE Eric Moore* Re-Sign/Two-Year Starter
FL LB Ray Piquion* Second Team
GA RB Willie Reid Second Team (WR)
CA DB Dominic Robinson* Second Team (WR)
FL DB Gerard Ross Second Team
GA WR P.K. Sam Starter/NFL
KY RB Eric Shelton Transfer/Louisville
FL WR Craphonso Thorpe* Two-Year Starter
CA DE Justin Tomerlin Non-Qualifier/Juco
FL OL Blake Williams Medical 2002

^ – 2001 walk-on ! – I-A transfer # – injured
* – never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall

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