July 20, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - The news that Florida State quarterback Wyatt Sexton will miss the 2005 season after being diagnosed with Lyme disease made headlines across the nation. It crawled across ESPN's ticker. It was hashed and re-hashed on message boards. It dominated conversation on local sports radio.
It was viewed as a devastating development almost everywhere - everywhere, that is, except in the Seminoles' own locker room.
Though they said all the right things publicly - "We're hoping Wyatt will be back with us soon," "Wyatt's still our quarterback," etc. - many of Sexton's teammates had known for weeks that their projected starting QB wouldn't be back this year, if ever. Simply put, you don't get quoted in a police report proclaiming that your name is "God" and "the son of God" and just turn back up at practice a few weeks later as if nothing ever happened.
Though it took physicians nearly a month to diagnose what ailed Sexton, many FSU players already had begun planning their future without him. Truth be told, they weren't particularly saddened by that part of the developments.
That's not a knock on Sexton's ability. When he had time to operate in the pocket last season, he showed that he had the potential to become a solid player. He threw a nice, "catchable" ball. He had plenty of arm strength. And as the son of veteran running backs coach Billy Sexton, he knew everything there was to know about the offense.
But there were plenty of significant concerns about Sexton as well. The biggest issue was that he never appeared to be completely committed to the game - or his team. His quirky behavior - being photographed at a Florida football game wearing a Gators sweatshirt, skipping a team banquet, etc. - initially was laughed off. But at a program such as FSU, where the vast majority of the players expect to make a career out of football, his antics were growing tiresome.
His silly impersonations in the huddle. His off-the-wall sense of humor. They all seemed harmless when Sexton was the team's top backup. But if he was going to be the starter - the guy leading the Seminoles into battle against Miami on Labor Day night - then some changes would be necessary.
Several FSU upperclassmen hammered that point home during a heart-to-heart chat with Sexton a few weeks before his troublesome episode in a Tallahassee neighborhood. The veterans hadn't seen Sexton at any of the team's voluntary summer workouts, and they weren't about to deal with another QB putting himself ahead of the team a la Chris Rix.
So they outlined their concerns. They told him he had to start getting involved with the team. He needed to become not only a better leader, but a better teammate.
Inexplicably, Sexton ignored their pleas. Instead of joining his teammates on the practice fields for player-run passing drills, Sexton trekked to a music festival in Tennessee. It was upon his return from that event that he was taken into police custody and hospitalized.
It should come as no surprise, then, that many of Sexton's teammates shed no tears when school officials announced that he was done for the year. He was the only QB on the roster with any significant college experience, but many Seminoles will happily take their chances with Xavier Lee and Drew Weatherford.
For starters, both redshirt freshmen are immensely talented. Lee has a tremendous arm, and he is such a good athlete that some colleges considered recruiting him as a receiver. Weatherford, who also has a strong arm, showed his athleticism in high school by starring at free safety on defense and in basketball during the offseason.
Both youngsters also have quickly earned the respect of their teammates. Weatherford is one of the team's hardest workers at any position; in one year, he has spent more time in the Seminoles' film rooms than some players do in their careers. Lee didn't take his first year in Tallahassee quite so seriously, but he since has blossomed into a leader, organizing player-run workouts and dedicating himself to film study.
Perhaps just as importantly, both quarterbacks represent the dawning of a new era for the Seminoles' offense.
For the past four years, FSU fans have been dumbfounded about what happened to their once high-flying attack. How could a team that had its pick of the nation's top prospects each year suddenly be incapable of converting a third-and-one play? Or a third-and-two? Or a third-and-anything?
Was it Rix? Was it coordinator Jeff Bowden? Was it the departure of former coordinator and current Georgia coach Mark Richt? Truth be told, it likely was a combination of all three, not to mention the Seminoles' continuously underperforming line.
FSU's coaches and players believe they have the line problem fixed, at least. New assistant Mark McHale, who previously served as the coordinator at Marshall, is drawing rave reviews from players at several positions. That includes some who were unhappy when former line coach Jimmy Heggins (now at Kentucky) appeared to be the fall guy for the offensive staff.
Now that they've had a few months to work with him, some players said they believe McHale will have the same type of effect on the offense that linebackers coach Kevin Steele had on the defense when he was hired two years ago. That's high praise, but it also illustrates the renewed optimism that is permeating FSU's offensive roster.
And why shouldn't the Seminoles' offensive players be optimistic? Rix is gone. The line finally is receiving top-shelf coaching. And no one will have to worry about Sexton's next escapade.
It's a shame that Sexton won't be missed. But it's also the truth.
DEPLETED DEFENSE ANOTHER WORRY
From strictly a talent standpoint, cornerback Antonio Cromartie's torn ACL will deal yet another devastating blow to the FSU defense. That unit already had lost starting tackle Clifton Dickson to grades, and it must await legal news on starting linebackers A.J. Nicholson and Ernie Sims, plus academic news on starting tackle Brodrick Bunkley.
With the speed of a sprinter and the size of a small forward, Cromartie is one of the nation's most gifted players. And this year, during spring and summer workouts, he appeared ready to transcend the "great athlete" label. The junior from Tallahassee, who recently was named to the preseason Playboy All-America team, had devoted himself to the mental side of the game like never before.
Staffers in FSU's film rooms said Cromartie was among their most frequent visitors this offseason. Not only that, but he attended virtually every voluntary workout this summer, often challenging teammates to stay longer for just a few more reps. It was during one of those sessions on July 12, long after many of his teammates had gone home, that Cromartie blew out his left knee.
Prior to the injury, Cromartie also had been developing into a respected team leader. During player-organized passing drills, he started picking up on the tendencies of FSU's receivers - tendencies that tipped him off as to their intended patterns. Instead of holding onto that information, and saving it to help him look good during one-on-one drills in the preseason, Cromartie repeatedly admonished his teammates for their gaffes.
There's no denying that FSU has several talented cornerbacks on the bench, players who will be suitable candidates to take Cromartie's spot in the lineup while he takes his medical hardship.
But none of them will be able to replace the veteran cornerback's blossoming leadership skills, and that could be the biggest blow of all.