Welcome Guest. Login/Signup.
ACC Sports Journal Logo

Nasty Defense, Maturing Offense Make Return To Glory Possible

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

By Brian Landman St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
August 25, 2003

TALLAHASSEE — During a half-century of football, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden has looked forward to the start of few seasons more than this one. That's understandable enough, given the flops (the Seminoles hadn't lost as many games, five, since 1983), frustrations (dissension in the locker room) and felonies (think Adrian Mc-Pherson and his nationally televised gambling trial for starters) that marked 2002. “Any time you have the distractions we had last year, you just say, ‘God, I'll be so glad when this is over and we can start anew,'” said Bowden, who has been a bit peeved about the coverage of his program over the last nine months and is more guarded and less accommodating with the media. “That's where it is right now. Last year is history. That's over.” But can the Seminoles return to yesteryear on the field? Unlike the good old days, Bowden isn't talking about winning another ACC title, playing in the Sugar Bowl, the Bowl Championship Series finale, winning 10 games or finishing in the top five. “I've purposely tried not to be real optimistic, because I feel like I have in the past and we haven't lived up to it,” he said. “I feel like now, we're at the point where we need to go prove something before we start talking about how good we are.” But he insists his team should be better for a number of reasons: more experience, more cohesion and, he hopes, more maturity off the field, which will only help on Saturdays. This is the season Bowden has been waiting for in regard to his quarterback. It's Chris Rix's fourth year in the program, the same time that others such as Charlie Ward, Danny Kanell and Thad Busby first took over as the starter and offensive leader. “You look at the history of Florida State since I've been here, you don't start until you're a redshirt junior,” Bowden said. “Here's a guy who has 22 starts under his belt and he's a redshirt junior. So now he's reached the maturity where he is supposed to produce, and I'll be shocked if he don't.” Yet the mercurial Rix has been a lightning rod for shocks to date. After committing three turnovers against Notre Dame last October, Rix, never the most popular guy in the locker room anyway, was on the receiving end of vociferous criticism from several players, including defensive captain Alonzo Jackson. Jackson openly called for the coaches to promote McPherson. Rix did, in fact, lose his starting job for the next month. He regained the job after Bowden dismissed McPherson when police began investigating a stolen $3,500 check from a Tallahassee business, and Rix then led the Seminoles to a resounding win against Florida. As he left the field that night to cheers of “Rix, Rix, Rix,” he cried. A few weeks later, his road to redemption took another turn; he overslept and missed a final exam, costing him his Sugar Bowl eligibility. He apologized to the team in January and has worked at winning some friends and earning universal respect. “I feel the guys I had a good relationship with, I'll continue on those relationships and spend time with them,” Rix said. “Also, the guys I didn't spend a lot of time with and didn't hang out with as much, I'm trying to surround myself with them and help improve that relationship.” He made sure to get to meetings and early morning workouts on time. He played basketball in the summer with senior cornerback Stanford Samuels and, more recently, treated some of his receivers to a movie. Maybe his efforts, or the absence of McPherson, is paying off. During one of the team's first practices, linebacker Buster Davis came through on a blitz and hit Rix, a no-no. Junior tackle Ray Willis and other linemen immediately confronted Davis. “He was just a guy who was being a little too aggressive with our quarterback,” Willis said. “I can't really fault him. It looked like a pretty clean shot on film, but it was a situation where I didn't feel comfortable with Chris getting hit.” He and others insist Rix is their guy, their leader. “I don't think there's anybody on the team that has something out for Chris Rix,” junior receiver Dominic Robinson said. “All that tension is gone.” It probably will stay that way as long as Rix shows he's learned from the past and performs as intelligently and maturely as he did in his last start. Although he completed just 13 of 29 passes for 194 yards against the Gators, he threw no interceptions, threw the ball away when he needed to, and ran 14 times for 83 yards and no fumbles. It probably didn't hurt that quarterbacks coach Daryl Dickey moved from the press box to the field beginning with that game, switching places with offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden. Being able to talk to Rix face-to-face rather than through a headset was key, Dickey said later. The younger Bowden, on the hotseat as a playcaller, said the arrangement helped him better see the entire field. Of course, no quarterback can do it alone, and FSU has a couple of offensive concerns. The most productive receivers, Anquan Boldin and Talman Gardner, are gone, leaving an unproven group. Speedster Craphonso Thorpe, the ACC 100- and 200-meter track champ, is the top returnee (17 catches, 377 yards, four TDs), followed by injury-prone P.K. Sam and Robinson, a former cornerback. Chris Davis, a heralded member of the 2002 class who suffered a season-ending knee injury before last season, Chauncey Stovall, a juco transfer who sat out last season, and converted tailback Willie Reid figure to be the main backups. “The biggest thing we're going to do,” Robinson said, “is catch the ball.” That might sound simplistic until you consider the Seminoles had 35 drops a year ago. They included a touchdown by Boldin in the first half against Notre Dame (FSU had four drops in the first half) and sure scores by Gardner against N.C. State and then Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. FSU lost all three of those games. In hindsight, Jeff Bowden (also the receivers coach) candidly admits he should have monitored the dropped passes in practice more closely and perhaps tweaked the depth chart based on that stat. This year, there isn't much separating the first tier from the next. The coaches know it, as do the players. “You just think about it like this: You drop the ball, you don't get on the game field,” Thorpe said. “That's pretty much cut and dried.” Meanwhile, the offensive line is young and thin. Tackles Ray Willis and Alex Barron both started at times last year, as did center David Castillo, but the Seminoles have only question marks at guard. Can Bobby Meeks, who battled asthma problems in the preseason, develop? Depth also is a serious concern on the line, which repeatedly was abused by FSU's blitzing defense in August drills. Fans will be scrutinizing line coach Jimmy Heggins, who's in his 18th year in Tallahassee but is considered by some to be the weak link on the staff that still feels the recent losses of Chuck Amato and Mark Richt. Bobby Bowden concedes his line must stay healthy, a tall order. If the linemen perform, the strength of the offense figures to be in the backfield. Even with Greg Jones coming off knee surgery, the Seminoles have sophomore Leon Washington, who started against Florida and shredded the Gators for 134 yards on 26 carries (5.2 average) and a touchdown, and redshirt freshman Lorenzo Booker, one of the nation's top recruits in 2002. “I wouldn't swap our tailbacks for anybody's,” Bobby Bowden said, confident the offense will improve. Eventually. If you use the NFL draft as the barometer of talent level, then the Seminoles' overwhelming edge in raw ability over the ACC and most of the nation is gone. After the 2000 season, which culminated with FSU reaching the BCS title game for a third straight year, eight Seminoles were drafted in the top four rounds of the 2001 draft. That included first-rounders Jamal Reynolds and Derrick Gibson. The Seminoles had six players picked in the top four rounds of the 2002 and 2003 drafts combined, including just one first-rounder, receiver Javon Walker. But Bowden's quick to point out that Jones could have been a first-round pick had he come out; he didn't, after suffering a season-ending right knee injury against Wake Forest on Nov. 9. Linebackers Michael Boulware and Kendyll Pope also were contemplating early exits but stayed to give the Seminoles 10 returning defensive starters. “We've got all the defense back, and if you're going to get better, that's the place you better get better at,” Bowden said. “I think you can take a great offense with a good defense and you'll go about 8-3. But you can take a great defense and a good offense and you might get them all or you might go 11-1. At least you've got a chance.” Although the defense has struggled to meet FSU's lofty standards of late, the returners say they've learned from the good, the bad and the ugly of the last two seasons. “There shouldn't be any excuses like, ‘Hey, I didn't know I had this man,' or “I thought you were supposed to have him,'” Pope said. “Everybody has game experience. The players we have here, we can win that state championship (Miami and Florida), win the ACC championship and shoot for the national title.” There are eight seniors in the probable starting 11 on defense, and they have a sense of urgency they lacked as sophomores and juniors. “It seems like we're on strike two,” said senior tackle Darnell Dockett, healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. “We've got one more strike, and I don't think anybody's trying to strikeout. We haven't played to our standards yet. It's either this year or never.” For the first time in a several years, the gap in talent and/or experience between the first- and second-teamers seems less pronounced. Tackle Brodrick Bunkley, end Kamerion Wimbley, linebackers A.J. Nicholson, Sam McGrew, Buster Davis, Marcello Church and true freshman Ernie Sims, cornerbacks Bryant McFadden and Leroy Smith, and safeties Pat Watkins and Kyler Hall all seem ready to perform. So, instead of the starters going 70 plays, a tall order in the heat and humidity of September and October, defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews may be able to rotate them in and out and limit their snaps to 50. Think that might keep them fresher in the fourth quarter? “It will be better,” Andrews said. “Getting everybody back doesn't make you a better ball club. Getting players back and playing better makes you a better ball club. The thing we tried to do from the start is (preach), ‘You can't have an off day, you can't have a slack period, you can't have a play off.' They've stuck to it pretty darn good, and because of that you've got to say we're making progress.” “It better be better,” senior end Kevin Emanuel said of the defense. “The offense has a lot of young guys. We have to play a big role this year — a big role.”