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With Talent, Experience Levels Closer To Normal, Watch Out

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

By Brian Landman St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
August 20, 2002

TALLAHASSEE - About this time of year, someone gently broaches the obligatory subject with Florida State coach Bobby Bowden: retirement. Each time, he patiently repeats a variation on a pat answer.

"I've always expressed it that one day my health won't allow me; my health will be where I don't want to go out on the field today," he said. "That and losing are the only things that would deter me. If I start losing, I'm not going to go through that. That's for young people. I can't stand it. One or two (losses) a year I've been able to survive. I think if I had a bad year, I mean a real bad one, I think I'd try to rectify that the next year."

And if he couldn't?

Well, we might find out. Last season, an inordinately inexperienced and inordinately injury-plagued FSU team finished 8-4, the program's worst performance since 1986.

The Seminoles' unprecedented streaks of 10-win seasons and top-five finishes ended at 14 years. Also gone were the home unbeaten streak of 54 games and the home unbeaten streak against ACC rivals of 39 games. Heck, they even failed to win at least a share of the ACC title for the first time since joining the league in 1992.

Of course, Bowden doesn't believe he'll have to endure another season like that one. He expects a return to normalcy, and the prognosticators agree. FSU is No. 3 in the AP preseason poll and No. 4 in the coaches poll. The main reason is experience.

Last season, the Seminoles had to replace 14 senior starters, including Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Chris Weinke, Lombardi Award-winning defensive end Jamal Reynolds, Butkus Award semifinalists Tommy Polley and Brian Allen, cornerbacks Tay Cody and Clevan Thomas, and safety Derrick Gibson, who like Reynolds was a first-round NFL pick. Then projected starting linebacker Devaughn Darling died after a February workout and, in early August, top receivers Anquan Boldin and Robert Morgan suffered season-ending knee injuries.

This season, the Seminoles return 17 starters, not counting Boldin and Morgan. And Bowden insists a year of seasoning, even one wrought with disappointment and embarrassment, can make all the difference.

"We've got veterans back at nearly every position," Bowden said, "and they've all got ability."

The focus, naturally, will be on redshirt sophomore Chris Rix, who became the first freshman to start the season at quarterback in the Bowden era. His quarterbacks usually spend three years learning the system first, and Rix showed why the learning curve is so steep. He tried to do too much, committing three turnovers in a stunning 41-9 loss at North Carolina and then six in a 49-27 loss to eventual national champion Miami a few weeks later.

"It probably can't be expressed in words how much you learn by going through something like that," Rix said. "You just have to keep it inside you and keep it as fuel for motivation for this year."

He used it that way in the second half of last season. He led the Seminoles to 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points in a 52-31 win against Maryland, threw for a career-high 369 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-27 win at Clemson and rebounded from a tough game at Florida to help FSU beat Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. He finished eighth nationally in passing efficiency, set an ACC freshman record for total offense (3,123 yards) and earned the league's freshman of the year award as well as freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News.

"Can you imagine," Bowden asked, "what would have happened if he hadn't come through?"

As it was, the offense averaged just 33.9 points, the second fewest in 15 years. Rix said he spent the offseason studying film, so he can make better decisions. He also invested more time in mending some fences with some of his older teammates, who perceived Rix as cocky.

"I think we all did in the beginning," said senior tackle Brett Williams, named the top ACC blocker a year ago and a preseason candidate for the Outland Trophy. "I think we all had a problem."

"We've exchanged our words," said senior guard/tackle Todd Williams, who attends the same church and bible study class as Rix. "But we've mended, and I'd live and die for that guy."

If Rix is accepted as a leader this year, he now understands he doesn't have to win games by himself. He didn't necessarily believe that last year, especially after Boldin and Morgan went down. That left FSU so thin at receiver that it couldn't deploy four true scholarship receivers, a long-time offensive signature.

"We've got guys in every position," Rix said, "who can make big plays and make a difference."

Senior receiver Talman Gardner is coming off a break-out year (33 catches, 649 yards, 11 TDs), while sophomores Craphonso Thorpe and P.K. Sam showed flashes of promise. At least three newcomers - juco All-American Chauncey Stovall, freshman Lorne Sam and converted cornerback Dominic Robinson - also should help. Most importantly, if Boldin (41 catches, 664 yards, six TDs in 2000) and Morgan (19 catches, 366 yards, three TDs in 2000) can stay healthy, the Seminoles will have as talented a receiving corps as they've had in years.

Another factor should help Rix's continued development. Unlike in the recent past, the pressure probably won't be squarely on the passing game this fall.

"We have the potential to be the best offense in the nation and as explosive as we ever were, if not better," Brett Williams said, "because I think our running game can be a little better than it's been in the past."

The Seminoles haven't had a 1,000-yard runner since Warrick Dunn in 1996, but powerful, 248-pound junior Greg Jones might just end that streak.

"There's no way possible I can't get 1,000 yards with the offense we've got," Jones said. "It might come back on me at the end of the season, but I can't see any way."

FSU also has senior Nick Maddox, a speedy complement to Jones, as well as redshirt freshman Willie Reid. Newcomers Lorenzo Booker, a Parade All-American, and Thomas Clayton, a SuperPrep All-American, also are available, although they're most likely to contribute on special teams.

"The sky's the limit for this offense with the weapons we have," Rix said. "We have the receivers, the running backs and, most importantly, the line. That's where it all starts. That's one of our mottos - to lay it on them. And they can definitely handle it. ... I plan on us setting some records this season."

That might be necessary, if a year of experience doesn't help the defense. Last season, the historically staunch, justifiably cocksure Seminoles allowed an average of 356.4 yards (32nd nationally) and 26.1 points (43rd) per game. You have to go back to 1984 to find an FSU team that gave up more ground, and one year earlier to find a D that conceded more points and deserved an F.

"That was the biggest dropoff last year that we had, was our defense was not as productive as it had been the 14 previous years," Bowden said. "Everybody talks about an inexperienced quarterback, and that's true and some other things happened, but we simply weren't as good defensively as we've been in the past."

Yes, the defense - like the offense - was inordinately young, with seven new starters. Yes, the defense - like the offense - was inordinately injury-prone.

Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, one of the four returning starters, reported to camp too heavy, which put extra strain on his already ailing Achilles tendons and slowed him all season. Middle linebacker Bradley Jennings (knee) and outside linebacker Kendyll Pope (shoulder) were bothered by their injuries all year and had to be kept out of contact drills.

"There were times when all three linebackers were wearing blue jerseys," defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "We were doing it to get them healthy enough to play on Saturdays. But it's hard to get better in blue. ... And it wasn't just them."

Cornerback Stanford Samuels played much of the year with injured thumbs. End Alonzo Jackson missed two games with a knee sprain and had to play against Florida with a cast on a badly cut right thumb. End Eric Powell was shot in an apparent robbery attempt and missed the last 10 games as he

"The main thing you want to see when you play is effort," Andrews said. "It wasn't a lack of effort. If it were a lack of effort, it would really concern you. Intensity wasn't a question. It was a matter of playing with a maturity and an experience level and the confidence to make plays every play."

The talent dropoff appeared most acutely at end and cornerback. During the regular season, the Seminoles had just 14 sacks. The year before, Reynolds had 10 himself. Without a consistent push up front, and without corners who could shut down receivers long enough to help the rush, FSU allowed countless big plays. That forced Andrews to abandon his signature bump-and-run defense for a more passive zone coverage.

"Florida State football has always been a group of young, wild football players running around hitting, just devouring their opponents," Samuels said. "We're going to get back to that. That's been missing a little bit, and we're going to get back to that."

The skeptic may ask, how? Eight returners are back from the group that struggled so mightily last year, and that's good? Maybe.

"What's different is most of those guys are back," Jackson said. "Guys who can look (at tape and say), 'Oh. When they did such and such, I was caught out of place, and that's why they scored or that's why the hole was there.' So now, he's not going to do such and such anymore. ... We're trying to take what happened last year and build on it."

It could happen. The defensive depth may not be back to capacity yet, but there are potential playmakers everywhere - Jackson and junior Kevin Emanuel at end, future pros Michael Boulware and Kendyll Pope at linebacker, young headhunters Jerome Carter, Kyler Hall and Claudius Osei at safety, experienced hands Samuels and Rufus Brown at cornerback.

"Probably the biggest thing we've got now is we don't have many guys that you'd throw in the coward category - hopefully none," Andrews said. "If you can find toughness in a player, I'd take mental first every time, because if he's mentally tough, the physical will come."

And probably very soon.