By Ira Schoffel
Miami (Fla.) Herald
April 19, 2006
TALLAHASSEE -- Bright orange barricades and heavy machines line two of the access roads to Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium, signs of a public university trying to grapple with rapid growth. Meanwhile, another major construction -- make that re-construction -- effort has been taking place inside the house that Bowden built.
Still smarting after another subpar season, the Seminoles took a workmanlike approach to their four full weeks of 2006 spring drills. No newfangled offensive schemes were unveiled. There were no shakeups on the offensive coaching staff. Those would have been cosmetic repairs, at best.
Instead of dabbing on some touch-up paint to hide his team's blemishes, coach Bobby Bowden decided to restore the entire foundation. That meant blocking and tackling. And more blocking and tackling. And did we mention blocking and tackling? More than half of Florida State's 15 practices were in full pads, and the Seminoles appeared to do more live hitting than they have in years.
Bowden tried to downplay the extra contact, saying he didn't think there was significantly more action than in other springs. But players, even fifth-year seniors such as tailback Lorenzo Booker, acknowledged that this was the most grueling spring session of their careers.
"I don't remember working like this," Booker said.
One member of the FSU staff confided that this spring reminded him of the practices Florida State conducted in the early to mid-1990s, when the Seminoles dominated college football. Those dynasty days obviously are long gone, with ACC expansion and the wealth of talent now spread across the country. But this old-school approach could play a major factor in the team's quest to at least return to its place among the nation's legitimate powers.
The Seminoles lost five games again last year, marking the second time in four seasons they reached that dubious distinction. They are 44-20 over the past five years, resulting in a winning percentage (69 percent) that is a far fall from Bowden's career mark (77 percent).
The feeling around the FSU program isn't that there has been a dropoff in talent, but perhaps one in toughness. That manifested itself in an embarrassingly poor running attack last season, when the Seminoles ranked 109th nationally (out of 117 Division I-A teams) with 94 rushing yards per game.
There were reasons for that. During the year, Florida State lost three starting offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. And with the Seminoles starting a freshman quarterback in Drew Weatherford, teams often stacked the line of scrimmage and challenged Weatherford to beat them through the air.
Still, Bowden clearly was bothered by his team's inability to run the ball effectively. In his early morning press conference the day after the Orange Bowl loss to Penn State, Bowden said repeatedly that his chief objective in spring practice would be establishing a ground game. He held true to that statement.
It wasn't always pretty in March and early April, especially considering that the defense knew what was coming in many instances.
"I think the defense had our script," sophomore tailback Antone Smith said after the team's annual spring game, which was dominated by the defenses. "Everything we ran, there were basically three or four people there."
Clearly, the Seminoles devoted the vast majority of their practice time to running the ball, and it wasn't always followed by defensive accolades. After one set of drills, Bowden said it had been years since the offensive line blocked so well in the spring.
That should have been encouraging news to Florida State fans, especially knowing that one likely starter was held out this spring while recovering from knee surgery and another potential starter had just arrived on campus.
Senior Cory Niblock, who has started at guard and tackle during his FSU career, will be the Seminoles' top right guard once he recovers from a torn ACL. Right tackle Shannon Boatman was in the starting lineup this spring, just three months after transferring from junior college.
Though spring drills ended April 8, the next four months could have an even larger impact on whether the Seminoles can get the ground game going. Second-year line coach Mark McHale firmly believes that his unit's success or failure begins in the weight room, and his players already are well into an intense offseason workout program.
Assuming that the running attack improves, Florida State's coaches feel good about this offense. They say that Weatherford, with a year's worth of starting experience, looks like a different player. He has a better grasp of the offense, reads defenses quicker, and the game is starting to "slow down" for him.
The Seminoles didn't throw the ball as much as usual this spring (the ratio in scrimmages was typically 60-40 in favor of the run), but Weatherford was extremely accurate when called upon. He didn't throw his first interception in a scrimmage situation until the spring game, and even the blame for that miscue went to a receiver who ran the wrong route.
Florida State's defense, meanwhile, appears to be business as usual. Despite a slew of losses to graduation and early entry to the NFL draft, coordinator Mickey Andrews' unit didn't seem to experience much dropoff, if any.
The biggest question marks are at the two safety positions, where a pair of seniors have departed and a talented freshman is competing for a starting role. New Jersey native Myron Rolle was regarded by some recruiting services as the nation's top high school football prospect last fall, and he looked every bit of that during spring practice.
After graduating from high school early and enrolling at FSU in January, Rolle turned in several dominating performances in the final week of drills. He topped it off with a jaw-dropping performance in the annual spring game. Playing with the second-team defense, he intercepted one pass and returned it 64 yards for a touchdown, deflected two other passes (that should have been interceptions) and forced a fumble near the goal line.
"He's raised his stock," Bowden said of the 6-2, 218-pounder. "The thing he has shown us is that what we read must be true."
If the Seminoles are going to have a glaring weakness this season, it could be the fact that they will depend heavily on Rolle and several other untested players like him. The team had 20 seniors on its roster last season, and more than half were starters. Compare that to the 2006 squad, which will have only seven seniors.
But if spring practice was any indication, the youngsters could be up for the challenge.
Florida State's coaches tabbed Smith, a true sophomore who carried the ball just 36 times last season, as the team's most dominating offensive player this spring. He broke long touchdown runs in nearly every scrimmage.
After one of those runs, a reporter asked Andrews to evaluate the young tailback.
"I'm glad he's on our team," the veteran defensive coordinator said. "I'm glad he's a Seminole, I'll tell you that. Come to the games next year and find out (how good he is)."
Of course, the reality is that Rolle, Smith and FSU's other skilled athletes will be only as successful as their teammates are tough. A tailback is only as good as the holes he is running through. A safety can't run free to make plays if his linemen aren't plugging gaps up front.
It's probably still too early to judge. But after four weeks of hand-to-hand combat, the Seminoles were feeling pretty good on both counts.
Spring 2006 Overview
Five years ago, the Sports Journal correctly predicted what was then unthinkable: the return to mortality of a program that had a ridiculous 14 straight top-four finishes nationally. FSU re-claimed the conference title in 2002 and 2003, finished second to newcomer Virginia Tech in 2004, then won the inaugural ACC championship game in 2005. Along the way, though, the Seminoles' relatively pedestrian records (8-4, 9-5, 9-3, 8-5) raised concerns that they were beginning to look a lot like everyone else. That's not exactly the case -- this program remains a perennial title contender -- but it's true that the team's talent/depth combination no longer is so overwhelming that it can render irrelevant any serious injuries, chemistry issues or off-the-field distractions. A mostly soft (Troy, Rice, Western Michigan, Florida) non-conference slate should help this year's cause.
Probable 2006 Starters
- -- redshirted ^ -- six/more 2005 starts
- -- injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
Sophomore tailback Antone Smith and junior linebacker Lawrence Timmons are the latest examples of FSU's amazing ability to develop elite-level talents to help replace their NFL-bound predecessors. Rock-solid returning starters: QB Drew Weatherford, DT Andre Fluellen, LB Buster Davis, CB Tony Carter. Also looking good: RB Lorenzo Booker, WR Greg Carr, LT Mario Henderson, DE Everette Brown, LB Geno Hayes, LB Derek Nicholson, RV Myron Rolle.
Cause For Concern?
Injuries to key players on the line and at receiver prevented the first-team offense from building continuity in the passing game. Also: fullback, tight end, inconsistent kicking, new punter, offensive depth.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: DE Alex Boston (hamstring), CB J.R. Bryant (shoulder), DE Darrell Burston (shoulder), CB Tony Carter (shoulder), FL Chris Davis (no contact), FB Matt Dunham (academics), SE De'Cody Fagg (shoulder), OC John Frady (shoulder), DT Letroy Guion (ankle surgery), QB Xavier Lee (shoulder), OL Cory Niblock (knee), DE D.J. Norris (shoulder), WR Rod Owens (knee).
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: OL Courtney Abbott (academics), CB Antonio Cromartie (NFL draft), DT Clifton Dickson (academics/arrested), FS Kenny Ingram (academics), DE Willie Jones (chose to graduate), OL Cornelius Lewis (dismissed), RB Lamar Lewis (transfer), OL Ron Lunford (chose to graduate), CB Joe Manning (dismissed/Southern), WR Fred Rouse (dismissed), WR Lorne Sam (transfer/UTEP), QB Wyatt Sexton (gave up football), LB Ernie Sims (NFL draft), DE Barry Wright (academics).
Chart By: David Glenn