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Skeptics See Holes, But Fsu Sees Opportunity For Fresh Start

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

August 27, 2005

The Big Picture
Florida State: Updates / Analysis

 TALLAHASSEE — If you' re waiting for an invitation to Florida State' s pity party, don' t bother checking the mailbox. It' s not coming.

While the rest of the college football world wonders how the Seminoles are going to re-group after their tumultuous offseason, the players themselves don' t understand the fuss.

So they lost their starting quarterback to a rare disease. So their top two linebackers were arrested in unrelated incidents, and their top cornerback went down with a torn knee ligament. So their most promising defensive lineman flunked out during the summer.

So what?

"This isn' t the first time we' ve had a bad offseason," senior guard Matt Meinrod said. "You' ve just got to roll with it and figure out who your leaders are. We just don' t let it bother us. There' s still 85 guys on this team that want to win."

To understand how these Seminoles can remain positive in the midst of adversity, you first must know what they' ve been through already.

With one exception — sixth-year center David Castillo — the seniors on this FSU squad were freshmen in either 2001 or 2002. That' s significant because those were quite possibly the two most dysfunctional teams in coach Bobby Bowden' s 30-year tenure. The Seminoles lost as many games (nine) as they had in the previous seven years combined. Their four losses in 2001 were the most for any Bowden team in 15 years, and they followed that up with a five-loss season in 2002.

The losses quickly ate away at team morale. After playing in three straight national championship games, FSU' s players suddenly found themselves as a punch line. Soon, they began taking their frustrations out on each other. It didn' t help matters that quarterback Chris Rix was a locker-room lightning rod, with many players who disliked his attitude and doubted his ability.

"We had an offense-defense split going on," Meinrod said. "A lot of guys had their own opinions about who should be at quarterback."

That' s putting it mildly. In 2001, many players believed Anquan Boldin should have been running the offense. In 2002, many wanted Adrian McPherson. Still others didn' t care who took over, as long as it wasn' t Rix. After every big loss, after every Rix turnover, the Seminoles' locker room would grow more tense.

"My freshman year was probably the worst," said senior free safety Pat Watkins, who arrived at FSU in 2002.

Watkins said he and his fellow freshmen were stunned by the disharmony — from the constant bickering among teammates to the public questioning of coaches' decisions. It was then that he and several of his classmates — including tailbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker, and linebackers A.J. Nicholson and Sam McGrew — decided they would be different. When it was their time to lead, they would do things the right way.

"We realized there were things we weren' t going to participate in," Watkins said. "We said that wasn' t going to be our type of class. If we were going to be a team, we were going to be a team. We' re all here for one goal — not to get on each other' s back, but to get on the other teams' back."

Four years later, those players have stayed true to their word. While fans and some in the media have written off the Seminoles, saying that they simply don' t have the firepower to overcome their offseason woes, the players insist they' re as confident as ever.

They understand that it will be difficult to replace cornerback Antonio Cromartie (knee), who was a preseason All-American. They know that the loss of defensive tackle Clifton Dickson (academics) cost them not only a playmaker but a proven player at a position that lacks depth. But there is no panic in their voices or desperation in their actions.

"We don' t worry about things we can' t control," Watkins said. "Those are things we can' t do anything about, so why worry about it? We' ve handled every situation that' s been thrown at us pretty well. That' s the best part of this team in my opinion. We just bounce back and keep moving forward."

Said Meinrod: "You can' t worry about what' s going on. You' ve just got to take care of your own business instead of worrying about what the cornerbacks are doing or what the defensive line is doing. I can' t worry about that stuff. I' ve got to handle my own business. I think guys understand that now. They have a little perspective."

Of course, strong team morale can take a team only so far. FSU will open the season ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, not because the voters are concerned about team chemistry but because there are legitimate questions about personnel.

On offense, the uncertainty revolves around a rebuilt line, a new blocking scheme and a pair of freshman quarterbacks.

On the line, FSU first must recover from the loss of two standout tackles (Alex Barron, Ray Willis) who now are on NFL rosters. Guard Bobby Meeks also is gone, and junior Cory Niblock has moved from guard to tackle. Meinrod is trying to bounce back from a torn ACL, and Castillo is trying to stay healthy through an entire season for the first time in his career.

Despite all of those concerns, the Seminoles insist that they expect their line to be a strength. Most of that optimism focuses on the arrival of new line coach Mark McHale, a former Marshall coordinator who has spent the past six months instilling a zone-blocking scheme.

It' s not only the playbook that McHale has changed. He also has impressed upon his players the importance of working overtime in the film room. They watch and critique their own practice films, and they even study the nuances of the best lines around college and pro football.

"I think we watch more film than the NFL," Castillo said. "He' s a great teacher, and that' s helped us tremendously, just learning techniques and angles. It' s a physical game, but it' s more mental than anything."

Even if the line comes together quickly, the Seminoles will have to overcome their extreme youth at quarterback. With Rix finally gone and Wyatt Sexton (Lyme disease) out for the season, FSU has only a pair of talented redshirt freshmen – Xavier Lee and Drew Weatherford. Both were recruited heavily out of high school, but neither has attempted a pass in college.

Yet FSU' s players point to the youngsters as another reason for optimism. When asked why people should expect this crop of Seminoles to be better than the 9-3 squad from a year ago, Meinrod and several others mentioned the change at quarterback.

"It' s a new attitude," Meinrod said. "Everybody knows that we' ve had so many changes — a new quarterback, we' ve got McHale in as a new coach — everyone feels there' s going to be some changes. And it' s already starting to show during two-a-days. This defense that we thought was invincible in years past, we' re starting to find some holes in it. Everyone' s excited on the offense."

Said senior defensive end Kamerion Wimbley: "We have an upbeat attitude, not to say that the teams of the past didn' t. But we have a new quarterback, which will be exciting. We had the offensive line coach change. … I think (people are) looking forward to see if we can improve."

Change is good, especially when you struggle the way FSU did on offense last season. The Seminoles were atrocious (24 percent) on third-down conversions and never seemed to establish an offensive identity. Two weeks after rushing 39 times for 192 yards against Virginia, the team went almost exclusively to the air against Maryland, attempting 51 passes and running 23 times. Two weeks after that, they reversed again, running 50 times and attempting 18 passes against N.C. State.

That likely won' t be a problem this fall. During preseason scrimmages, the Seminoles seemed determined to control the game with a power running attack. And why wouldn' t they? They will be breaking in a new quarterback, and they are loaded at running back.

Behind starter Leon Washington, who ran for 195 yards in the Gator Bowl, the Seminoles boast a fleet of former high school All-Americans in the backfield, including junior Lorenzo Booker and exciting true freshman Antone Smith.

"Even though we' re not throwing the ball 60 yards downfield, we' re doing it in a different way," Booker said. "We don' t have to throw the ball like we used to, because our running game is unlike it' s ever been if you ask me."

Defensively, the Seminoles will be led by one of the nation' s premier groups of linebackers. Junior Ernie Sims and senior A.J. Nicholson have resolved their respective legal problems, and they will team with junior Buster Davis to give FSU three of its top four tacklers from last season. Watkins and senior rover Kyler Hall give the Seminoles a wealth of experience and play-making ability at safety.

After that, FSU will be young at nearly every position. With Cromartie sidelined, the Seminoles have no cornerbacks with any starting experience. And their four projected starters across the line have combined to start 11 games, with nine of those belonging to senior nose guard Brodrick Bunkley.

It' s easy, then, to understand why some analysts are predicting a tough season. A new QB, a re-tooled offensive line and an inexperienced defense don' t usually add up to success on Saturdays. And as good as the Seminoles' team chemistry was during the offseason, even some people close to the program are wondering what will happen if they start the season with a seventh consecutive loss to Miami.

The players insist that won' t be a problem.

"We feel like we do have something to prove," Nicholson said. "Not just this one game with Miami, but to everybody in the nation that we are a championship-type caliber team. And we need to be recognized as such.

"We' ll find out on Sept. 5. Just like you all will."

The Big Picture

At Florida State, an average of nine wins over the past four seasons is viewed as a step backward, but matching that mark in 2005 actually may represent a step forward. Though the Seminoles remain well-stocked with talent, they are short on experience and/or depth along both lines, plus at receiver and cornerback. Mix in the necessity to start a redshirt freshman at quarterback with Atlantic Division road games at Boston College and Clemson, and a division title would constitute a success. Everyone better get their licks in now, though, because this team may be back to top speed in 2006.

The PooP
Coming off the team' s worst statistical offensive season in two decades, many FSU fans are clamoring for the head of coordinator Jeff Bowden. Though agitated by the criticism of his son, coach Bobby Bowden instructed Jeff to spend time with guru Norm Chow (Tennessee Titans), the staffs at Auburn and Louisville, and Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon. Brandon is the guy who designed Urban Meyer' s offense at BGU, and his teams have put up remarkable numbers with inexperienced QBs. The Seminoles are determined not to play it close to the vest this fall, and that plays to Jeff Bowden' s strengths as a strategist.

Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason

1995 7-1 (1) 10-2 Orange Bowl (W)

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)

ACC: 72-8 (.900)
Overall: 102-23 (.816)

Building Blocks
One look at FSU' s recruiting class speaks volumes about the direction of the offense. The Seminoles are loading up on open-field playmakers; that' s something the team has lacked since Peter Warrick' s departure. Tailback Antone Smith fits the mold, as do incoming receivers Fred Rouse, Rod Owens, Richard Goodman and Greg Carr. Rouse is expected to take over as the deep threat, Owens and Goodman work the intermediate routes well, and Carr (6-6) is the tallest wideout in school history. With redshirt freshman speed merchant Kenny O' Neal and sophomore De' Cody Fagg also in the mix, the Seminoles will utilize four- and five-wideout sets from spread formations with a lot of motion.

Coming On Strong
It took new line coach Mark McHale all of two days of August practice to determine that he has his blockers plugged into the right spots. Transitioning exclusively to a zone scheme, the Seminoles will forfeit a little size for better execution under McHale, who is equal parts clinician and tactician. In addition to the change in scheme, FSU scrapped its flopping of linemen to the strong and weak sides, which required every player on the front to learn to pull left and right. Simplifying the assignments may pay off quickly.

Cause For Concern?
There is no replacement for first-team All-ACC cornerback Antonio Cromartie (knee). Six players – without a start among them – will vie for the starting spots. Unless the Seminoles can produce a consistent pass rush, they will be exposed in one-on-one coverage. Coordinator Mickey Andrews already has reverted to an old cover scheme, aimed at masking weaknesses on the edges. Senior safeties Pat Watkins and Kyler Hall must help speed up the learning process of youngsters Tony Carter, J.R. Bryant and Trevor Ford.

The Whole Truth
"I' d rather have talent and no experience than experience without talent. What if we had two four-year quarterbacks coming back and they didn' t have talent? That' s a bad sign."

-- Florida State coach Bobby Bowden


Florida State Insider: Updates / Analysis

FSU continues to pay the price for a pair of recruiting classes gone sour. The 2001 class included seven offensive linemen, but only two (starting guard Matt Meinrod and career backup Ron Lunford) remain in the program. The Seminoles signed only one lineman in 2002. Cory Niblock, perhaps the least heralded player of that class, now finds himself as the heir-apparent to two-time consensus All-American Alex Barron.

Things aren' t much better on the defensive front, where only two of five scholarship players on the interior line have played a single snap of college football. The 2002 class included three potential contributors at tackle, but Chris Anderson and Chris Turner failed to qualify and never made it to Tallahassee, and Chris Bradwell was dismissed last season.

Furthermore, 2002 signee Wyatt Sexton' s withdrawal from school to recover from Lyme disease left the quarterback cupboard with only redshirt freshmen Xavier Lee and Drew Weatherford battling for the starting job. That class also lost receivers Dishon Platt (failed to qualify) and Lorne Sam (transfer to UTEP), leaving the current squad with only three wideouts with a collegiate reception.

Many in the national media painted the Seminoles in the same light as legally troubled Georgia, Southern California, South Carolina and Tennessee this summer, following a few adventurous months off the field. In reality, FSU' s troubles didn' t quite measure up.

Linebackers A.J. Nicholson and Ernie Sims were arrested on misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and domestic battery in separate incidents. It was the second ugly event in several months for Nicholson, who also had been arrested on a DUI charge. Each accepted plea agreements for significantly lesser charges, and FSU coach Bobby Bowden (per his long-standing policy) said both would be disciplined in an unspecified manner but would not miss the opener against Miami.

Sexton' s bizarre behavior had police surmising that he was under the influence of drugs when they discovered him half-dressed, doing push-ups in the street and proclaiming he was God. It turned out that the Seminoles' projected starter was suffering from a severe case of Lyme disease that later led him to withdraw from school while receiving intense medical treatment.

Still, there were other issues that cast the program in a negative light. FSU lost its best interior defensive lineman (Clifton Dickson) to academic ineligibility. Also, five signees from a heralded recruiting class failed to qualify, including three defensive players who had an opportunity to contribute immediately.

The NCAA' s decision to ban 18 schools with American Indian mascots or logos from hosting postseason competition, or displaying those nicknames or logos as postseason participants, dominated the headlines in August.

Florida State' s rally against the policy passed by the NCAA executive committee garnered national attention. FSU president T.K. Wetherell, a former wide receiver for the Seminoles, vehemently struck back at the suits from Indianapolis. With the full support of Florida governor Jeb Bush and the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida, Wetherell threatened to take legal action against the governing body of college athletics and gained nationwide support in the court of public opinion.

"I' ll put my money on T.K.," Bowden said, supporting a man he once coached.

FSU' s protest, which would have little if any impact on the football program because the NCAA has no direct authority over the BCS or bowl games, seemed to galvanize the university community. A week after its decision, the NCAA quickly back-peddled on the new policy, signaling an important victory for the Seminoles and perhaps others.