Florida State's Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason
Addressing the media in the wee hours of Tuesday morning after his team's thrilling 34-31 victory over Auburn in the BCS National Championship, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said—only half-jokingly—that his Seminoles had about 48 hours to celebrate before it was back to work preparing for next year.
There is every reason to assume FSU will be in the thick of things for another national title in 2014, despite the fact that several key contributors are out of eligibility and a few others have already made it known they will make themselves available early for the NFL draft. With the roster and coaching staff Fisher presently has in place, not to mention another top-flight recruiting haul ready to sign on the dotted line come February, the 'Noles are once again a dominant program on the college football landscape.
Most importantly, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston—he was the MVP in Pasadena, too—will only be a sophomore and figures to continue lighting up the scoreboard in record-setting fashion.
The offensive side of the ball will stay remarkably intact next season, as fullback Chad Abram, receiver Kenny Shaw and center Bryan Stork were the only seniors of consequence in 2013. Defensively, while it will be difficult to replace a graduating class that includes linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and defensive backs Terrence Brooks and Lamarcus Joyner, this unit managed to lead the country in scoring defense despite losing Bjoern Werner, Xavier Rhodes, Cornellius Carradine, Brandon Jenkins, Nick Moody, Vince Williams and Everett Dawkins to the draft the year before.
Nevertheless, if Florida State is indeed going to repeat—the sport says goodbye to the controversial BCS and hello to the four-team College Football Playoff—these are the questions that must get answered during the offseason.
Who Will Be the No. 2 QB Behind Winston?
Fortunately for Florida State, Winston stayed healthy and managed to make all 14 starts this past season, as it's safe to say the offense wouldn't have been quite the same without him.
Rising junior Jacob Coker, who was beaten out by Winston for the starting job even though he had an extra year in the program under his belt, could probably be QB1 for a hundred or so FBS schools because the 6'5", 230-pounder has a Howitzer for an arm—he's a more fluid runner than the Heisman Trophy winner, too. On track to graduate in three years, the Mobile native is a threat to transfer elsewhere and play immediately, perhaps for coach Nick Saban at Alabama.
Coker missed the stretch drive of 2013 following surgery to repair a torn meniscus, which meant Winston was backed up the last few games by fellow redshirt freshman Sean Maguire.
While Maguire made some impressive throws in garbage time and appears to have a handle on Fisher's sophisticated scheme, it remains to be seen if he's good enough—Fisher beams about him when given the opportunity, though—to hold on as the primary reserve. J.J. Cosentino, a 4-star commitment from Pittsburgh, may not have the luxury of redshirting if Coker does leave Tallahassee.
The last thing Seminole fans want is for Winston to become the next Sam Bradford, who won the Heisman and then returned to Oklahoma only to get injured, but Fisher and Co. need to be prepared just in case.
Is Anyone Capable of Being Another Joyner?
Arguably the single hardest player to replace from this graduating class, not only was senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner an All-American on defense, but his leadership in the locker room and accountability with the media showed how special a young man he really is.
As for his gridiron faculties, while he was a difference-maker at both safety and corner over the course of his career, he excelled as the nickelback in obvious passing situations—first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt deserves a lot of credit for taking full advantage of the 5'8", 190-pounder's high football IQ. He could defend any receiver in man or zone coverage, plus he stuffed the run like a linebacker and rushed the quarterback like a defensive end.
Blessed with a plethora of multi-talented defensive backs, Pruitt features his nickel and dime packages frequently in order to match up with the pass-heavy spread offenses prevalent in today's game, with the nickelback in particular needing to possess a wide range of skills.
At 5'11'' and 189 pounds, rising senior Tyler Hunter is built a lot like Joyner and has also lined up all over the secondary, including nickelback in 2012 when Joyner was still at safety. Lost for 2013 after three games due to a neck injury, Hunter's primary responsibility will be to get himself healed before the coaching staff determines if he can serve in a Joyner-like capacity—at least on the field.
Another candidate is rising sophomore Nate Andrews, who led the Seminoles in interceptions with four right out of high school and packs a serious wallop at 5'11" and 208 pounds.
Where Is a Play-Making Punt Returner?
Senior receiver Kenny Shaw was a reliable punt returner this past season, with his sure-handedness the main reason he got the assignment, but he didn't strike fear into the hearts of opposing coverage teams.
Shaw averaged 9.7 yards per return, which was 29th in the country, as there wasn't a whole lot of pressure on him to break off a big one with Winston and Co. scoring 51.6 points over the course of 14 contests. Because his longest effort was a rather pedestrian 26 yards and he never sniffed the end zone, maybe Fisher will look for more of a field-position flipper in the return game—Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield just proved how effectively a quick strike on special teams can punch an enemy in the mouth.
Rising senior receiver Rashad Greene averaged 15.4 yards on 20 punt returns in 2012 and took two of them all the way to the house before being pulled from the role due to fumbling issues, so perhaps he deserves another opportunity.
Will Stork's Departure Damage the O-Line?
Bryan Stork started his Florida State career at guard and even played some tackle in practice, but he eventually developed into a fantastic center and was awarded the Rimington Trophy this past season as the best snapper in the country.
Aside from Stork, who was a fifth-year senior, the other four starters along the offensive line—left tackle Cameron Erving, left guard Josue Matias, right guard Tre Jackson and right tackle Bobby Hart—will be back next season. Erving, Matias and Jackson are all graded highly enough by NFL talent evaluators that they felt the need recently to announce their decisions to stay for their senior campaigns.
Stork will be drafted himself in May, and even though his presumed replacement, rising senior Austin Barron, looks the part at 6'3" and 300 pounds, the mental part of the game is where Stork was most valuable.
How Good Are All the Young Linebackers?
With future draft picks Christian Jones and Telvin Smith on their way to the pros, plus lesser contributor Dan Hicks out of eligibility, a handful of highly-touted linebackers will all be battling for increased playing time in 2014.
Rising juniors Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup are expected to be in the starting lineup, with Smith getting lots of snaps with the first string this past season once Jones was transitioned to his hybrid position as an outside linebacker/defensive end. Northrup saw enough time as a reserve and on special teams—he flashed on the coverage units quite a bit—to finish eighth on the team with 46 tackles.
Next year's sophomore linebacking corps includes Ukeme Eligwe, E.J. Levenberry and Matthew Thomas, with Thomas actually hoping to be a freshman again if the NCAA decision-makers grant him a medical redshirt following season-ending shoulder surgery in October.
This embarrassment of riches gets all the more embarrassing if FSU's current commitments at linebacker do indeed opt for garnet and gold, with Jacksonville's Kain Daub, Tallahassee's Jacob Pugh and Pensacola's Delvin Purifoy all sporting 4-star status—Daub and Purifoy project on the inside, while Pugh probably lines up outside. It wouldn't be unreasonable to see at least one of them make an impact defensively right away.
Jones and Telvin Smith were both unique linebackers, with Jones simply a freak athletically and Smith's all-out competitiveness overcoming his undersized frame, yet the cupboard is far from bare going forward.
Can Beatty Improve After Two Subpar Years?
If FSU had a glaring weakness in 2013, and you have to look very hard to find one, the punting of sophomore Cason Beatty was it.
Because the 'Noles were so electrifying on offense for the vast majority of the season, Beatty didn't even have enough attempts to qualify for the leaderboard at his position. His average of 41.1 yards per punt was a steady improvement from an underwhelming 38.3 in 2012, but he would have only been 61st nationally—well below the standard set by All-American Shawn Powell before him.
Beatty also had a nasty habit of outkicking his coverage, evidenced by Florida State surrendering four punt returns longer than 20 yards, three longer than 30 and two longer than 40, which tied for 96th, 103rd and 101st in FBS, respectively.