By Steve Ellis
Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat
April 12, 2004 SPRING 2004 OVERVIEW TALLAHASSEE A Bowden says Florida State cannot win a national championship with him. Many students boo their classmate, and one even turned Chris Rix in when he parked illegally in a handicapped parking zone. As Rix prepares to enter his fifth season with the Seminoles, coaches still lament his poor decisions. But consider what FSU would be like in the fall without its No. 1 quarterback, who has thrown for more than 7,500 career yards. Maybe ABC analyst Terry Bowden is right, and Rix won't lead the Seminoles to college football's promised land. But how good would the team be if rising sophomore Wyatt Sexton, the only other scholarship QB in spring camp, had to start the 2004 season? Nobody at Florida State wants to find out that answer, and if Rix continues his long run of good health, coaches probably won't have to concern themselves with it this fall. Rix, with three years of starting under his belt, has experience on his side. And he is FSU's most athletic quarterback ever even more so than 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward. This spring a sideline full of banged-up players, including leading receiver Craphonso Thorpe (recovering from broken leg) and All-American tackle Alex Barron (shoulder surgery), provided daily reminders that FSU is merely one injury away from playing a quarterback who has thrown the ball just five times in college. Yes, FSU will welcome prep All-American quarterbacks Xavier Lee and Drew Weatherford in August camp, but it will be Sexton who starts against Miami in the nationally televised Monday night season opener if something happens to Rix. Did Sexton improve enough this spring to suggest he would be able to handle such a high-profile assignment? "He shows enough that he can be good," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "To a degree, he would be excellent, but he has so much yet to learn. He's the second-best quarterback. You play with what you've got." Sexton, the son of FSU running backs coach Billy Sexton, needs to put more weight on his 215-pound frame and build on what he learned in the spring. As the No. 3 QB last fall behind Rix and Fabian Walker, who transferred to Valdosta State for his final season of eligibility, Sexton never saw action with the first units. "I've developed more this spring over the last three or four weeks," Sexton said, "than I did my first two years here." In addition to the quarterbacks, the focus of FSU's recently concluded spring practice was mostly on the program's next generation of quick, hard-hitting linebackers, led by rising junior A.J. Nicholson and coached by ace assistant Kevin Steele. Nicholson, defensive MVP Ernie Sims, Sam McGrew and Buster Davis, whom Bowden called one of the spring's surprises, made coaches feel better about a front seven that lost six starters from the 2003 team. They dominated in March and April, but with so many offensive linemen missing part or all of spring drills, it was sometimes hard to gauge success for a defense that is considered by some analysts a question mark. The group lost potential NFL first-rounders Darnell Dockett and Michael Boulware and many other standouts. The leadership lost won't be easily replaced, either. Defensive lineman Travis Johnson, who admits to having an average 2003 campaign following offseason legal problems, remains a big question in that regard. The secondary likely will be better especially at both safety spots, where a healthy Pat Watkins could become a household word among ACC fans this fall. Another safety, Jerome Carter, has emerged as a top leader. Another positive sign for the Seminoles is that defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews should have enough depth to rotate in replacements without missing a step at many positions. That's been a key to success for every FSU defense under Andrews. Although absenteeism was heavy on both sides because of injuries, FSU coaches filled the spring with enough full and mini-scrimmages to see signs that this will be a physical bunch. "You have to like the fact that there is a lot of good competition at nearly every position," Steele said. "There are lot of reasons to be excited about this group but, of course, we still have a lot of work to do." Bowden also likes his defense, which will be challenged to match last season's success. FSU ranked second in the ACC in total defense and first in rushing defense in 2003. "I think (the defense) will be better than last year," Bowden said. "And our linebackers really came on." Although Rix picked up the coaches' vote as the team's official MVP, tailback Lorenzo Booker was the real highlight of spring practice. At Bowden's insistence, Booker was given more chances to catch the football. In the spring game, he caught two passes for 22 yards and ran for 53 yards. Former FSU and Miami Dolphins running back Sammie Smith, on hand for part of spring drills, likened Booker to former FSU great Warrick Dunn. With power back Greg Jones off to the NFL, Florida State again will feature smaller yet more athletic backs in Booker and Leon Washington. Look for FSU to throw to its backs more often in 2004 and maybe allow Rix to play more out of the shotgun, where he is clearly more comfortable. Smith was one of more than 30 former FSU players who showed up for the team's spring-ending scrimmage, as part of a reunion put together by Deion Sanders and Derrick Brooks as a message of unity. The group of former athletes spoke of plans for several projects designed to enhance the program, including some speculation about significant financial donations. Although it has been a quiet 2004 thus far off the field, Sanders and others also spoke to the players about doing the right thing. On the field, Booker wasn't the only player taking the right steps. Coaches applauded Rix for being a better leader. Rix, who joined Coleman and tight end Paul Irons on a mission to South Africa during spring break, will stay in Tallahassee all summer instead of splitting time in his home state of California. Sexton welcomed that plan, as did Rix's coaches. "I think he has matured," Bowden said. "I think he is where he ought to be. He acts like a senior and plays like a senior. I am very pleased. I think the kids recognize it." The offensive line that must protect Rix was thinned by offseason surgeries, and then by more injuries during spring drills. But with projected starters Barron, Ray Willis, David Castillo, Matt Meinrod and Bobby Meeks out for all or some of the spring, backups such as Cory Niblock and David Overmyer made measurable improvement. The same went for backup center John Frady, at least before he missed practices because of injury. Meanwhile, the departure of receiver P.K. Sam to the NFL a year early still has FSU coaches scratching their heads. That, and the rehabilitation of Thorpe, allowed Sam's younger brother Lorne to see more action. Coaches saw enough of him to know he has to decrease the dropped passes. Although Chauncey Stovall and Dominic Robinson had flashes at wideout, spring practice made it clear that for FSU to reach its potential offensively, Thorpe must be healthy, Booker must be ready and Rix must play smart.
Florida State With Focus On Rix, Rebuilt Defense, Bowden Liked What He Saw
By Steve Ellis