March 31, 2005
TALLAHASSEE Entering spring practice with a multitude of offensive changes on the table, Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden promised a wide-open quarterback battle.
"It is definitely wide-open," Bowden said, before sending his 2005 team onto the field for the first time.
In actuality, how wide-open could the battle be? Redshirt junior Wyatt Sexton was 5-2 as a starter last season, while spelling injured and ineffective senior Chris Rix. Promising redshirt freshmen Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee have exactly one collegiate snap between them. The answer is quite simple: It's not really wide-open at all.
With the Seminoles set to host Miami in their Sept. 5 opener, only the most wishful dreamers truly believe that Weatherford or Lee has a shot at being behind center to start the season. When prodded, even Bowden eventually admitted as much.
"They simply have to unseat Wyatt," Bowden said. "He's the quarterback right now. They've got 15 days to do it. If they don't, they get three weeks of practice before the first game. If they don't (at that point), they've got the rest of the season to try and do it."
Most coaches are creatures of habit, and Bowden's habits have been formed over a half-century, culminating with more Division I victories than anyone in the game.
That's not to say that the coach isn't sincere in his attempt to give Weatherford and Lee long looks. In fact, over the first few days of practice, Bowden let all three quarterbacks take turns directing the first-team offense, albeit against the first-team defense.
"Our plan is to work Wyatt and Weatherford and Lee equally behind the first unit when we can," Bowden said, "and then wait and see if somebody pulls away."
The team's early practices proved to be a mismatch, in large part because the offensive line has three potential starters veterans David Castillo, Matt Meinrod and Cory Niblock on the shelf while recovering from postseason surgeries.
Couple that with a new blocking scheme and a defense that appears to have the potential to match last season's havoc-wrecking unit, and there hasn't been a lot of time for any of the quarterbacks to set their feet and throw.
The defensive dominance was clear in the team's first mini-scrimmage, when tacklers registered more than a half-dozen sacks and as many tackles behind the line of scrimmage. While there was only one interception, safety Pat Watkins' theft of a Weatherford pass, it was already abundantly clear that the quarterback position will remain the focal point right through the April 16 spring game.
"We're a quarterback away from being where we want to be," Bowden said. "We've got runners, we've got receivers, we've got to build that offensive line up. If you get that dadgum quarterback in there that can get that job done, fill out that straight if we can stay healthy, I really feel like our defense will be as good (as last season)."
Sexton, because of his experience, figures to have the upper hand in those practice skirmishes that will go a long way toward determining the final pecking order.
"(Sexton) was a year ahead of himself last year," Bowden said. "He got by with it until people finally figured out this. He's like the old pitcher who goes into his first game and throws a shutout, and they found out he sticks his tongue out on a fastball, and they knock him out of the park the next week."
Sexton, slower afoot than his challengers, did not handle the blitzing schemes geared to confuse him in 2004. That was especially evident in the losses at Maryland and home to Florida, as well as the near-miss at N.C. State.
"He did well, but he still hasn't learned to read coverages enough and doesn't know where to dump the ball when he gets in trouble and took losses," Bowden said. "I think this year, if ol Wyatt will commit himself, which I think he will, I think you'll see some real improvement."
Quiet Changes Will Reflect McHale
You won't hear Bowden openly disclose exactly what changes the Seminoles plan to make offensively this season.
"I won't tip anything off," he said. "If we do anything that's different, I won't tell anybody, because we play Miami first ballgame and they read, too."
But you don't need a graduate degree to figure out that new offensive line coach Mark McHale will have an influence.
McHale was the offensive coordinator of Marshall's predominantly one-back offense, which at times featured tailbacks lined up in the slot, the use of an H-back, plenty of motion and a healthy dose of shotgun. In short, FSU should look a lot like some of its point-a-minute offenses from a decade ago, at least when it comes to how it will attack opponents.
Expect to see a lot of sets with tailbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker on the field together in various roles, with fullback Joe Surratt and tight ends Matt Henshaw and Donnie Carter used in the H-back position.
Offensive Line In Trouble Early
Seven weeks after having the dislocated middle finger on his snapping hand surgically repaired, sixth-year graduate student Castillo was cleared to return to practice. Unfortunately, it took all of one day in pads for him to re-injure the same finger and cast doubt on whether the hopeful medical student will be able to return.
It's one of the many questions facing McHale as he tries to install his zone blocking scheme. Out of necessity with Castillo, Meinrod and Niblock on the shelf the Seminoles already are taking a long look at a group of untested youngsters.
In addition to learning a new scheme and new terminology, FSU has scrapped its 29-year-old preference for flopping its line based on the split and tight sides. The Seminoles now will designate the sides left and right exclusively, as most teams have done for a long time.
"It's really going to cause a lot of learning," Bowden said. "What I'm hoping is we'll come out of spring training with a good, full understanding of our base offense."
Comprehension, however, is only part of the equation. Barring the healthy returns of the aforementioned trio, there could be some serious personnel shortcomings.
With John Frady moving from center to guard, the starting interior line includes two redshirt freshmen (center Dumaka Atkins, right guard Jacky Claude) and a sophomore (Frady). Sophomore David Overmyer, who made his first start in the Gator Bowl, is starting at right tackle, while junior Mario Henderson is at left tackle.
Atkins, thrust immediately into the fire when Castillo was injured, was responsible for five fumbled exchanges with quarterbacks during early spring drills. How long McHale can hold off from moving Frady back to center will be determined largely by how much patience he can have with Atkins.
Perhaps the most troubling position is left tackle. Henderson, who started in the Orange Bowl for All-American Alex Barron as a true freshman, has not developed as rapidly as hoped. Henderson is backed up by senior Lucky Lunford, who never has gotten himself into the type of physical or mental condition to realize his tremendous upside. As a result, McHale told Niblock (a 2004 starter at guard) to focus all of his attention on the left tackle position, while serving as a student assistant during his recovery from shoulder surgery.
Privately, several of the veterans said they would be surprised if Niblock does not win the left tackle job outright. After senior defensive end Kamerion Wimbley (three sacks) turned Henderson and Lunford into revolving doors during the first scrimmage, there was ample evidence to support that theory.