March 24, 2003 TALLAHASSEE As daylight rapidly faded, Chris Rix slowly trudged off Florida State's football practice fields.
He was among the last players to leave on the Seminoles' first day of spring practice. He kept to himself, walking briskly past assembled media. This is a pattern the Seminoles want their quarterback to continue. Silence and solitude are the demands as Rix tries to re-establish himself as a starting quarterback and, more importantly, tries to reconnect with his teammates.
I don't want him to talk; I want him to win the respect of his teammates, said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, explaining the rare off-limits policy. It has nothing to do with you guys (media).
Still, it was significant. Florida State maintains one of the most open-access media policies in college football. Players routinely talk about practices after every practice. Muzzling Rix exemplified the concern about whether he can adequately lead this team.
Some hard feelings linger from Rix's suspension from the Sugar Bowl. He failed to take a final semester exam, then also failed to show for a makeup, triggering an FSU policy that requires all athletes to complete semester exams in order to be eligible for postseason play. (It's known as the Deion Sanders rule, for the player whose academic indifference created the controversy that led to the policy.) Citing personal struggles involving his father, Rix issued an apology at the time, saying he failed to wake up in time for the exam.
For teammates, it was another reason to question Rix's overall commitment. Previously, he had been late for meetings, failed to attend voluntary workouts and didn't participate in early morning weight-lifting sessions during the season.
Quarterbacks, after all, are expected to be at the forefront of leadership. Rix will enter his fourth season at Florida State in August. This was expected to be his time to shine as a third-year starter.
I don't think Chris has to go out of his way to impress people, quarterbacks coach Daryl Dickey said. What he needs to do is be steady and consistent putting the right foot forward every day. That's what's been difficult for him to do. He has to prove to them he's committed and that he's dedicated and willing to sacrifice for the team. It's not a quick fix. It has to happen over time.
Clearly, however, patience is running out. Compounding the problem, Fabian Walker, who started the Sugar Bowl and was counted upon to challenge Rix, is reduced to a spectator role during much of practices. Walker is recovering from shoulder surgery in January to repair a torn labrum. The injury hampered him all last season.
As a result, the Seminoles haven't been able to create an open competition for the starting quarterback spot. However, Rix might soon start feeling some heat.
Freshman Wyatt Sexton, the eldest son of FSU running backs coach Billy Sexton, continues making good impressions. Sexton shined while Rix faltered in the Seminoles' first spring scrimmage. Sexton completed five of 10 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly, he showed his development in reading coverages and applying a deft touch to passes.
The main thing he's got, that maybe a lot of quarterbacks don't have, is that because his daddy is a coach, he's been around it (football) all his life, Bowden said. It's second-nature to him. What impressed me the most (in the first scrimmage) was the touch he had. If a guy was open, he'd take something off it. If a guy was covered, he'd stick it in there. A lot of kids don't have that.
To his credit, Sexton, who was redshirted in 2002, learned media savvy from
his father. He wasn't interested in stirring any quarterback
If you look at it, there's no way as a freshman I could come in and take over anything, he said. Because Chris has two years of starting experience, and experience goes a long way over potential. I've come leaps and bounds from last year. I'm making progress, but it's not hard when you have the receivers like you do here at Florida State. You just have to put it out there for them, and they'll go get it.
If not for his father's positon the elder Sexton has been at FSU for 26 years Wyatt Sexton may have garnered more high school acclaim. Some recruiting analysts in Florida believed he was the state's top quarterback prospect in 2001, when he played on a mediocre team at Leon High School in Tallahassee.
We didn't sign him because he was Billy's son, Bowden said. We all thought he was an excellent quarterback prospect.
Wyatt Sexton believes he needs to continue proving himself under fire.
I think (the scrimmage) was a big step in building confidence, he said, not only in the coaches, but my teammates as well.
Reid, Robinson Help Receiving Corps
In other FSU football developments:
Tailback Willie Reid moved back to receiver, a position he tried as a freshman in 2001 before breaking his leg in a preseason practice. Last season, Reid was a third-team tailback with few carries (27 for 140 yards) until a shoulder injury in November wiped him out.
He's kind of a natural there (at receiver), Bowden said. We got four tailbacks, so if you put him in there, now you've got five. So how are you going to get enough reps (practice carries)? There's more of a need at receiver.
Elsewhere in the receiving corps, Dominic Robinson was elevated to the first team and is being counted upon to lead the unit. A former prep All-American from California, he played cornerback earlier in his FSU career.
During his spring break, Robinson's first duty was to squelch rumors. The Los Angeles Daily News, citing sources, reported he was considering a transfer to Southern Cal. It immediately ignited a fury of message-board babble, which further infuriated Robinson.
I don't know how they (newspaper) got that idea, Robinson said. I have friends on the USC team, but I love Florida State. I'm not going anywhere.
Meanwhile, in an effort to inspire and re-connect with the program's impressive past, FSU coaches asked former players to speak privately with the team. First up was Corey Simon, the former All-American noseguard on the 1999 national title team and now a star with the Philadelphia Eagles.
I think it helps more hearing it from a former player than from a coach all the time, Bowden said. He talked to them about leadership, about what it takes to win.
Finally: Kevin Steele's four-year stint as Baylor's head coach was a disaster, which ended with his firing in November. But he's been welcomed at Florida State as the new linebackers coach.
Steele has immediately won over players with his coaching methods and new philosophy. His coaching specialty always has been linebackers, which is where he made a name at Nebraska and with the NFL's Carolina Panthers. One FSU linebacker called it a night and day difference between Steele and former coach Joe Kines, now the defensive coordinator at Alabama.
FSU linebackers often chafed under Kines' constant screams and, in some cases, a lack of connection with his players. The situation even prompted local prep All-American Ernie Sims, the Seminoles' prized linebacker recruit who signed in February, to say he would not have attended his hometown school if Kines were still coaching his position.