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New Fsu Assistants Have Plenty Of Work To Do

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




Brian Landman
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times

August 30, 2007

TALLAHASSEE — With the buzz he's generated since his arrival in town, heck, since his name first surfaced as a possible hire, you could easily assume that Jimbo Fisher was Florida State's new head coach.

He's not, of course. Bobby Bowden, the all-time leader in wins in major college football, still holds that title and doesn't plan to step away anytime soon. Instead, Fisher's his offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.

But he's also expected to perform another job — miracle worker.

That's if you listen to the giddy FSU fans who are unabashedly predicting that Fisher, one of five new coaches brought aboard in an unprecedented staff shakeup during Bowden's tenure, will be the guy to lift the Seminoles from mediocrity and back among the national elite.

"I hate to inform them, my playing days are over, and I was never good enough to play at Florida State anyway," Fisher said, adding on a more serious note that "you always want expectations. There's nothing wrong with them."

The caveat is that any expectations should be realistic ones. But for Fisher and his offense, they're off the charts.

"That is exactly right; you are telling it exactly like it is, there's no doubt about it," Bowden said. "It'll shock me and all of us if he goes out there and goes up and down the field."

Well, the FSU offense needs to go out there and amass more real estate than it has in recent years or, given its daunting schedule that includes road games against Clemson (the opener on Labor Day), Boston College, Virginia Tech and Florida, this year's record might not be much different than last year's disappointing 7-6.

Consider these numbers:

The Seminoles averaged a paltry 96.5 yards rushing last year, 103rd nationally, and that was, oh my, an improvement from the year before when they averaged 94.0 yards (109th).

The Seminoles totaled an average of 330.3 yards of offense (70th), their worst mark since 1974 when they mustered 315.6 yards a game en route to a 1-10 record.

Those struggles prompted Jeff Bowden, the oft-maligned offensive coordinator/receivers coach, to step down and provided the catalyst for sweeping change.

"If I hadn't lost my son as offensive coordinator, I would never have done all of this," Papa Bowden said. "But when Jeffrey resigned, I felt like, ‘Gee whiz. If it's going to get this drastic, this is my last shot and I'm going to make it the best I can make it. I'm going to get the best coaching staff I can get in here and I don't care what it cost.'"

Exit Daryl Dickey (quarterbacks coach), Billy Sexton (running backs), Mark McHale (offensive line) and, of his own volition for a promotion with his old pal Nick Saban at Alabama, Kevin Steele (linebackers).

Enter Fisher from LSU, which shared a national title in 2003, Rick Trickett (line), whose guys have plowed the field for backs to pick up big yards everywhere he's been, most recently West Virginia, and former FSU standouts Lawrence Dawsey (receivers) and Dexter Carter (running backs). Long-time former assistant Chuck Amato (linebackers) was added after he was fired by his alma mater of N.C. State.

But can new coaches alone solve the plethora of problems?

Reality check, folks: Jeff Bowden's game planning and play calling weren't the whole issue. Injuries, especially to the offensive line, didn't help. The Seminoles also have lacked offensive game-breakers à la a Warrick Dunn or Peter Warrick, a reflection on both recruiting and coaching. And defensively, the Seminoles haven't been as dominating (again injuries have hurt), allowing 20 or more points in nine games last year and 18 out of the last 22 games.

"The staff will fix it if we get the best players," Bowden said. "You've got to get the best players. We're close. We're close."

Talk to rival coaches and they agree, the Seminoles have enough talent, even offensively despite the stats. The underlying problem, they'll tell you, is one of toughness — physical and mental.

"They had lost their toughness on offense," said a defensive coordinator who asked not to be identified. "(The linemen) were overweight, soft and lazy, and that's a fact."

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit agrees.

"I really believe the last two years, their offensive line has battled through injuries and, in some cases, (the linemen) just lacked continuity and toughness," Herbstreit said. "My guess is with Coach Trickett, that will not be an issue. Jimbo Fisher is an outstanding coach; his résumé has proven that. I think he'll be able to get the confidence instilled back in the quarterback, which I think has been lacking."

And coaching can change that.

Fisher's mantra is that success — or failure — begins with a never-back-down mindset.

"Attitude sets the parameters for how you do things," he said. "If your attitude's not right, you're not going to be right."

Unlike Jeff Bowden, Dickey and McHale, Fisher and Trickett, sons of West Virginia coal miners, will get in anyone's face and let him — and anyone within earshot — know exactly what he didn't do properly.

"Get out! Get out!" Fisher yelled at quarterback Xavier Lee after a botched read. He also gets on quarterback Drew Weatherford, calling the former star from Land O'Lakes High "soft as butter" that comes from his hometown.

Meanwhile, Trickett is every bit as exacting and perhaps, saltier, when he's unhappy with one of his players. He called senior Shannon Boatman "soft a--."

"He's extremely intense," Weatherford said, "and does the best job I've ever been around of putting as much pressure on you in practice as you're going to feel in the game."

"Compared to Coach Dickey, he's extremely different," added Lee. "If you make a mistake, he's all over you."

It takes some getting used to. It takes a raw hide. And it takes the discipline not to fire back. Or more precisely, try to. Fisher doesn't tolerate someone making an excuse. His father, John Sr., never did.

"He said, ‘I don't want to hear it; get it done,'" Fisher said.

Lee said the offense has responded to Fisher's tough love.

"We needed that," Lee said. "Everyone was kind of lax. We knew we weren't tough and didn't have the right mindset."

Do they have the right mindset now? Some suggest that will be, well, miraculous.

"There's no easy way to win," Fisher said. "If winning were easy, everybody would do it. It takes time. It's a process. How quick it happens is how quick we can get our players (to embrace that attitude). We're trying. We're pushing."

FLORIDA STATE INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS

  • Toughness was the one common denominator Bobby Bowden sought in the off-season replacement of five assistant coaches.

"We've gotten soft," said Bowden, who brought in offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and offensive line coach Rick Trickett to correct the matter. Couple those additions with the return of linebackers coach Chuck Amato after his exile in Raleigh, and workaholic receiver coach Lawrence Dawsey's return to his alma mater, and it's not hard to spot the effect of Bowden's selections.

The emphasis on accountability began in the spring and carried over throughout the offseason conditioning program, where new strength and conditioning coach Todd Stroud got back to the basics with his T.E.D. (Toughness-Effort-Discipline) program. Through the first 25 practices — the large majority of which took place with the heat index well in excess of 100 degrees — only five players were treated by trainers for heat-related issues.

Improved fitness allowed the new coaches to get right to work, where it became evident that the offense was taking its cues from Fisher and Trickett. Spouting words unfit for family publications, they put the Seminoles under extreme pressure. On-the-spot demotions were the norm. It wasn't uncommon to see Trickett rip off his hat and whack it across the helmet of an offensive lineman when a mistake was made, then replace him with another potential candidate.

While attempting to sort out the quarterback position, Fisher employed what he described as his "prison guard mentality" of coaching. Admonishments were the norm, and often followed by phrases like, "get out of my sight." Receivers and backs were just as likely to absorb the same type of mental blows.

"I think his objective at times is to really just try to break you out there and try to see how much of it you can take before you're going to fall apart," junior quarterback Drew Weatherford said of Fisher. "His objective is to put the amount of pressure that you're going to feel in a game, in practice."

Weatherford answered the call, earning the start against Clemson, by performing more consistently in his duel with Xavier Lee.

Players understood from the outset that conformity was the only path to the playing time, and midway through the first week, players and coaches were clearly working from the same script.

  • Several potential trouble spots were easily identifiable by the midway point of preseason practice, most of which can be traced to the Seminoles' lack of depth at several positions.

Committed to bringing the running game back from the depths of consecutive seasons ranked among the worst 20 in the country, it took only a few days to realize that tailback Antone Smith is irreplaceable. With Smith in the lineup, the Seminoles could move the ball on the ground. Without him, the ground game is no better than a hit-or-miss proposition.

Smith missed or was limited in at least half of the practices, first for what was described as a hamstring strain, then later by a sore toe. Not only was No. 2 tailback Jamaal Edwards incapable of making plays, but he's in jeopardy of losing his job. Jitter-bug Russell Ball, who has never played a down, may be the next best option. Marcus Sims appears to be the best option in short-yardage situations, despite jockeying between the tailback, fullback and H-back positions.

   The fullback/H-back and tight end spots are woefully short on both experience and healthy bodies. Fullback Seddrick Holloway was the only healthy scholarship player to finish the preseason (aside from Sims). Sophomore tight end Charlie Graham is the best option at that position, at least until juco transfer Jonathan Hannah gets into shape. The position is so thin that converted senior center John Frady could actually slip into the mix, at least in short-yardage packages.

Defensively, the team is deep along the interior front and in the secondary, but the linebacker corps can ill-afford injuries. Incumbent strongside backer Geno Hayes missed three scrimmages with a neck injury, while Derek Nicholson and Marcus Ball were repeatedly sat down as they continued their returns from reconstructive surgery.

Athletic and versatile, sophomore Dekoda Watson appears to be the only other linebacker with play-making potential as this point.

  • If there was a position segment that rose to the occasion in the preseason, it was Dawsey's receiving corps. What many believed was the weakest link among skill-set positions could be a strength.

The dropped balls which have been prevalent each of the past two seasons, appeared to vanish. Routes are being run more crisply and the down-field blocking is vastly improved, areas where Dawsey excelled as a player. Greg Carr, still saddled with the second-teamer tag despite his 21 career TD catches, has shown he's willing and able to improve in both areas.

The Seminoles still appear to lack a breakaway threat like Peter Warrick, but there are playmakers in the bunch, led by slimmed-down De'Cody Fagg. Fagg, who has dropped close to 15 pounds, has excelled after the catch. Four sophomores with limited experience — Damon McDaniel, Preston Parker, Rod Owens and Richard Goodman — join senior Joslin Shaw to give the Noles what looks like a seven-man rotation at the wideout spot.

  • No position group has been more maligned than the offensive line Trickett inherited, which, based on the changes made, was a just criticism. FSU's preseason depth chart indicated the Seminoles returned three starters, but no one from that trio figured to line up against Clemson in the same position as a year ago.

"I'm trying to find five guys I can trust," said Trickett, who has done plenty of whittling along the way.

Seniors Frady and left guard Jacky Claude, who lead all Seminoles in career starts, almost certainly were out of the opening night lineup.

As mentioned, Frady has moved to tight end. Claude was chased from his starting spot by true freshman Rodney Hudson, while last year's right tackle Shannon Boatman has been getting the majority of snaps at right guard.

From left to right, the starters should be sophomore Daron Rose, Hudson and converted defensive tackle Ryan McMahon, who is the lone lock as the starting center as a redshirt freshman. If Boatman stays put he could well line up next to fellow senior right tackle David Overmyer. That's a lot of youth, especially when you consider the second unit has Claude and virtually no one else with game experience.

The Big Picture

Seminole Boosters will be paying former offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden for another five years, after he agreed to a $527,000 buyout. But how long will FSU pay for a slip in production and toughness in recent years? Even Bobby Bowden has allowed that the Seminoles became soft. They lost 26 times in the six seasons following their last appearance in the national title game, following the 2000 regular season. That's also the span of the Jeff Bowden Era. Former LSU coordinator Jimbo Fisher promises to be less predictable and more productive on the ground, but FSU will need to bring in playmakers the caliber of Peter Warrick and Warrick Dunn before it can get back into the title hunt.

The PooP

The return of Chuck Amato as linebackers coach is a boost for a defense that needs to carry the offense as it goes through growing pains under Fisher. The former N.C. State head coach wants his group to attack more, and he has some promising playmakers in Marcus Ball and Geno Hayes if they can stay healthy. FSU lost five games by seven or fewer points last season, and Bowden has made it clear that the defense must share some of the blame.

Done For Me Lately

Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 8-0 (1) 11-1 Sugar Bowl (W)
1998 7-1 (1) 11-2 Fiesta Bowl (L)
1999 8-0 (1) 12-0 Sugar Bowl (W)
2000 8-0 (1) 11-2 Orange Bowl (L)
2001 6-2 (2) 8-4 Gator Bowl (W)
2002 7-1 (1) 9-5 Sugar Bowl (L)
2003 7-1 (1) 10-3 Orange Bowl (L)
2004 6-2 (2) 9-3 Gator Bowl (W)
2005 5-3 (1A) 8-5 Orange Bowl (L)
2006 3-5 (5A) 7-6 Emerald Bowl (W)

ACC: 65-15 (.813)
Overall: 96-31 (.756)

Building Blocks

Antone Smith spent more time playing spectator during preseason camp than Fisher would have preferred for his featured back. But that didn't dampen expectations for better results from a ground game that ranked 103rd in the nation last season. Fisher is superb at disguising his intentions. The wide receivers under new coach and former FSU All-American Lawrence Dawsey are more physical blockers. And while ex-Marine Rick Trickett may have only six linemen he can count on, the group is better conditioned and more physical.

Coming On Strong

FSU has the potential to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks if its interior line stays healthy. Tackle Andre Fluellen received most of the preseason hype, and deservedly so. If fellow tackles Letroy Guion and Paul Griffin can stay healthy, everyone will be well-rested, and pressure and sacks should increase. What will really make this group dangerous is if end Everette Brown quickly meets expectations as an exceptional pass rusher.

Cause For Concern?

FSU quarterbacks haven't received this much hands-on instruction since Mark Richt left for Georgia. But Fisher's reputation as a mentor – five of his LSU quarterbacks were selected in the NFL draft – already is being tested. Drew Weatherford, the starter over Xavier Lee, threw two interceptions in the final full scrimmage of preseason camp. Weatherford has been picked 29 times in 25 games yet is regarded as the better decision-maker of the two.

The Whole Truth

"To think that ol' Jimbo (Fisher) is here now and we are going to run up and down the field the next year, it doesn't work that way. … He isn't going to run it up and down the dadgum field, but he is going to have a good offense. I know him enough to know that. That's why I hired him."

– Florida State coach Bobby Bowden

Chart By: The FSU Insider