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Weatherford, Talent, Depth Bringing Back Confidence, Swagger

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

By Brian Landman
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times

August 30, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Florida State coach Bobby Bowden hopes that a good end is an even better beginning.

After losing three straight, including by embarrassing margins of 21 points at Clemson and then 27 at Florida, to close the regular season, Bowden's injury-plagued and seemingly demoralized bunch looked as ordinary as any FSU team had in a generation.

But then the Seminoles bounced back. Big time. They upset No. 5 Virginia Tech in the inaugural ACC championship game, avoiding perhaps a trip to Boise for the MPC Computers Bowl, and then lost a triple-overtime thriller to No. 3 Penn State in the Orange Bowl.

For the Seminoles (8-5), those two games, coupled with hard-fought wins against Miami and Boston College in the first month of the season, weren't a panacea, but they offered more comfort than a couple of aspirin.

"The last two games," Bowden said, "we looked like we were as good as anybody in the country."

When was the last time he could say that and it didn't sound like optimistic coach-speak? You'd probably have to roll tape from the 2000 season, which culminated with the Chris Weinke-led Seminoles playing in their third straight national title game (losing to Oklahoma) and finishing in the AP top 5 for a mind-boggling 14th straight season.

"If that was No. 5 and that was No. 3, where are ya'll?" Bowden asked his players after the 2006 Orange Bowl. "It was something to build on."

That's even with the loss of receiver/punt returner Willie Reid, the MVP of both the ACC finale and the Orange Bowl, top rusher Leon Washington and six defensive starters. Three of the latter were selected in the first round of the NFL draft: linebacker Ernie Sims (ninth), end Kamerion Wimbley (13th) and tackle Brodrick Bunkley (14th). The defense lost a fourth first-rounder, cornerback Antonio Cromartie (19th), who missed 2005 with a knee injury.

Something to build on in 2006? Really?

You bet, chiefly to what those last two games meant for the offense, beginning with quarterback Drew Weatherford. Although the redshirt freshman completed 276 of 469 passes (58.8 percent) for 3,208 yards and 18 touchdowns overall, he threw seven interceptions during FSU's three-game skid. Thirteen of his 18 picks came in a six-week span, Games 6-11. The Seminoles lost four of those six.

"The biggest thing is I put too much pressure on myself to try and make plays," he said. "I almost forgot I was a freshman last year at some point."

When the offensive line lost star guard Matt Meinrod for the year against Wake Forest on Oct. 8, the first of three season-ending injuries to starting offensive linemen that left what was already the thinnest position on the team as shallow as a puddle, the Seminoles ground game all but vanished.

"It's easier to pass protect than it is to run block, I tell you that," Bowden said. "If you're beat up on your offensive line, you're probably going to do better throwing than you are running."

That is if your young QB acts beyond his years.

"We couldn't run the ball very well, and I felt like our backs were up against the wall, and that was a mistake," Weatherford said upon reflection. "That was a really immature mistake on my part, because we had too many weapons for me as a freshman to think I had to force balls on third down."

His play in the losing streak could have divided the locker room. FSU fans had seen that happen before in recent years. But unlike his recent predecessors, Weatherford had earned his teammates' trust as a leader. He played through nagging injuries, assumed responsibility for the interceptions and, most critically, worked hard in the film room and on the practice field.

On the eve of the ACC championship, he proved he deserved their respect. After Bowden and Washington and other seniors addressed the team, Weatherford asked the coaches to leave the room and he passionately, almost angrily, lashed out at anyone and everyone who thought FSU had no chance against the Hokies. Even those in the room.

"I'd been a (FSU) fan ever since I was eight years old, and I had never in my life seen a Florida State team be counted out as much as we were in that game, and that infuriated me," he said, adding that he didn't lose his temper but he "let it all hang out" and "said some things I normally wouldn't say and really called myself out and our team out, in general."

That it came from a freshman took many players aback. Then they knew they had to have this particular freshman's back thereafter.

"That was the night when we said, 'This guy is legit; this dude is for real,'" senior tailback Lorenzo Booker said. "For a freshman to get up there and have the balls to stand up in front of the whole team, and there was no ego about it, it was just Drew. That was the night everybody saw Drew for what he was, that's a natural-born leader, a tough guy, a guy you could follow and know he'd put you in the best situation to make plays."

FSU, at least as an entire locker room, hadn't truly felt that way about a quarterback in years. Think 2000 and Weinke's final year.

Weatherford then went out and hit 21 of 35 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions in the win against the Hokies. Against Penn State and its senior-dominated defense, he hit 24 of 43 for 258 yards and a touchdown and one interception.

Since that long evening in the Orange Bowl, Weatherford has poured over film to learn from his mistakes and protect the ball as he did in those final two games, if not better.

"He's real confident back there," senior receiver Chris Davis said. "The sky's the limit (for him)."

Coming into this season, Bowden said he has his most stable quarterback situation since Weinke last played here, a not-so-subtle reminder of the inconsistency that marked the Chris Rix era.

"I see more consistency out of him," Bowden said. "There'd be a lot of teams would like to have Drew Weatherford as a quarterback."

That comes with a couple of caveats. Can the offensive line gel as it continues to learn how to better zone block, a scheme second-year line coach Mark McHale introduced last season? Can the line, which remains relatively thin in bodies, let alone bodies ready to play at this level, avoid the injuries that have plagued the unit for the last couple of seasons?

Those things didn't happen last year. FSU finished last in the ACC in rushing (94.0 yards, 3.2 average per rush), something that focused the ire of fans once again on oft-criticized coordinator Jeff Bowden.

"Jeff Bowden does what I tell him to do," Papa Bowden said, getting a bit defensive. "We go out and play the game we played against Virginia Tech and Penn State, and people still want to criticize him. I feel like if he wasn't my son, you'd probably never hear anything about it."

That doesn't mean he was pleased with the imbalance on offense. Hours after the Orange Bowl, Bobby Bowden promised the team would spend the offseason trying to improve the running game's effectiveness.

"That ain't hard to figure that out," he said of the need to do more on the ground in 2006. "An idiot could figure that out. That's why I can figure it out, I guess."

While the offensive players seem more invigorated, even showing a hint of that old FSU swagger pre-2001, the defense needs to build even more on what it showed at times in those last two games of 2005. The Hokies largely were shut down until the final quarter, when they scored 19 points. Although the Nittany Lions became the ninth consecutive opponent to score at least 20 points, an unprecedented streak in FSU history and five more points on average than is the team goal, they mustered just 16 in regulation and two in the second half.

"Maybe there's not a lot of returning starters," said junior defensive tackle Andre Fluellen, who started 12 of 13 games last year, "but there's a lot of people who played. That's really going to help us. We've got guys who are just as good as the people last year, they just don't have the same experience. They're really going to step up this year."

The FSU coaches also are high on several newcomers, including heralded safety Myron Rolle and tackle Paul Griffin, a junior college transfer. Both enrolled in January and went through the offseason conditioning program, spring practice and then the voluntary workouts in the summer. Both are expected to start, if not by the opener against Miami, then soon afterward. They're that good.

Long-time defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews is convinced there's plenty of talent, as usual, but he's more interested to see what he calls the "want-to," the relentless drive to be great.

"It's a new team," Andrews said. "What are you going to allow defensively? What kind of mentality are we going to get out on the field on every play?"

Players with want-to are the ones who force fumbles, come up with interceptions and stop offenses short by being in the right place at the right time and then finishing it off with a sure tackle or pass breakup.

"If we can win one-on-one battles, I'm talking the corners, the safeties, linebackers, ends and tackles, if we whip blockers and play great technique and finish like wild people," Andrews said, "you'll be writing good things about this defense."

For the Seminoles to regain their position in the top tier of college football, and they haven't finished better than No. 11 since 2000, they'll need that. Or this year's end will look like last year's.

Minus the ACC championship game and the Orange Bowl.

Florida State Insider: Updates/Analysis

  • Florida State's 31-man 2006 signing class, which included six players who enrolled in January and took part in spring drills, figures to be the backbone for the program's long-term future. The Seminoles actually put 29 of those 31 signees in uniform at the start of two-a-day drills, losing only linebacker Tim Rawlinson (academics) and wide receiver Brent Brewer (pro baseball).

Not only did the Seminoles address virtually every need, they did so with many players who should contribute early. As many as 16 members of the class should play this season, with offensive tackle Shannon Boatman, defensive tackle Paul Griffin, tight end Caz Piurowski and safety Myron Rolle likely starters at some point. Boatman and Griffin were junior college superstars.

  • A rash of injuries last season forced offensive line coach Mark McHale to shuffle his lineup on a week-to-week basis. McHale still lacks the 12 linemen he would like to have on scholarship, but he's making the most of his experienced and talented players with a crash course in cross-training.

With only seven linemen ready for action, McHale has spent countless hours cross-training four players to play multiple positions. With offensive tackles Mario Henderson and Boatman and guard Jacky Claude the exceptions, John Frady (center/guard), Dumaka Atkins (center/guard), Cory Niblock (guard/tackle) and David Overmyer (guard/tackle) will give the Seminoles a variety of options in their zone blocking scheme. Niblock, who is battling Overmyer for the starting right guard spot, is the most versatile of the group, capable of playing four of the five line spots.

  • Stop us if you've heard this before: Reintroducing the tight end and fullback positions to the offensive arsenal for the first time in more than a decade appears to be a reality. In an effort to diversify its attack, FSU plans to utilize those positions as it did in the early years of its 14-season dynasty. Really.

Fullback Joe Surratt was the team's leading receiver in the spring game and was a fixture on pass routes throughout two-day drills. So was Matt Dunham, the Georgia high school state record-holder for touchdowns, who appears equally adept as a short-yardage runner or a receiver in the flat.

FSU also plans to make the most of its heralded freshman tight ends Piurowski and Brandon Warren, perhaps turning the table on opponents who have victimized the Seminoles from that position in recent years. Piurowski appears to have a leg up on the starting spot, but Warren has displayed the ability to get free down the seam for big gainers.

Their usage signals a dramatic departure from recent seasons, when fullbacks and tight ends basically were banished to blocking roles more worthy of uniform numbers in the 60s and 70s. The last time the fullback played an integral part in FSU's offense was in the 1993 national championship season, when William Floyd was in the fold. The Seminoles have not had a great receiving weapon at tight end since Melvin Pearsall in 1997.

  • Quarterback Drew Weatherford spent the summer and two-a-day drills solidifying his position as the starter and team leader for the Seminoles. But don't be surprised if backup Xavier Lee sees significantly more action -- in some kind of planned scheme -- this season. Lee, who has recovered from offseason surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum and bone chips, has shown marked improvement with his passing accuracy and decision-making.

The coaching staff would like to get Lee more work in game situations as an insurance policy on Weatherford, if nothing else. One way to do that might be to put in a package of plays that accentuates Lee's mobility, much the way Texas designed its offense around Vince Young last season. Lee appeared extremely comfortable directing FSU's first-team offense in a late August scrimmage, earning him the kind of confidence that might allow the staff to take that step.

The Big Picture

Upsetting Virginia Tech to win the inaugural ACC title game did not merely salvage the 2005 season for FSU. It may have served as the wake-up call the program desperately needed. After enduring his worst ACC record (5-3) in 14 seasons of league membership, Bobby Bowden said the win over the Hokies may have been the biggest his program has authored, excluding national title games. It may have taken suffering nine league losses over five years, but the 12-time conference champs appear more focused than ever on regaining their edge and avoiding the mental lapses that brought them back to the pack.

The PooP

There were times last season when new offensive line coach Mark McHale was frustrated that FSU abandoned the run game too quickly. Don't expect McHale and coordinator Jeff Bowden to be at odds as much in year two. The Seminoles are committed to improving the worst rushing offense in Bobby Bowden's 30 seasons. Not only do McHale's linemen have a better handle on the zone blocking scheme, they are noticeably bigger and stronger, and carrying a mammoth chip on their shoulders after being blamed for last season's struggles.

Done For Me Lately Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 8-0 (1) 11-1 Sugar Bowl (L)
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)

ACC: 70-10 (.875)
Overall: 100-26 (.794)

Building Blocks

When FSU puts the ball in the air, it will lean heavily on a trio of receivers - Chris Davis, De'Cody Fagg and Greg Carr - to get the job done. Though the Seminoles have a solid receiving corps, they may lack field-stretching speed following the dismissals of Fred Rouse and Kenny O'Neal. FSU still will be able to go over the top, preferably to the 6-6 Carr, but expect more short- and mid-range passes. The addition of Ron Dugans as a graduate assistant has paid instant dividends. Receivers are running routes more crisply, catching the ball with greater frequency and delivering critical downfield blocks. Those were trademarks of Dugans, the wideout opposite Peter Warrick on the 1999 champs.

Coming On Strong Kevin Steele's skills as a recruiter aren't hard to discern. An outstanding communicator with the all-important NFL background, he has been reeling in some of FSU's most talented players for four seasons. Not surprisingly, many of those have been linebackers, Steele's position of responsibility. Despite the loss of four front-line players, the Seminoles remain knee-deep in talent. While Buster Davis garnered most of the preseason recognition, Lawrence Timmons is on the verge of stardom, and Geno Hayes and Derek Nicholson aren't far behind.

Cause For Concern? Depth long has been FSU's antidote for rebuilding, and while it's hard to argue the talent level of the players replacing 12 starters, there is room for worry. With only five fifth-year seniors still around from the 22-member 2002 signing class, the Seminoles are short on top-end experience. Nearly two-thirds of the roster is freshmen and sophomores. A closer look at the scholarship situation reveals that there were only 81 scholarship players at the start of camp, four of whom arrived as walk-ons. Some of those grants would have been better spent on offensive linemen, cornerbacks and safeties, where depth could be an issue.

The Whole Truth "I got after our players after last year, and I got after our coaches. We play good people, and we play pretty good. We play people that we are favored over, and we don't play them good and get beat. We have to play good every Saturday if we want to get back to where we were."

- Florida State coach Bobby Bowden

Chart By: The FSU Insider