It could be impossible for FSU quarterback Jameis Winston to improve upon what he accomplished in 2013, as he may have already authored the single greatest season in history for a Seminole signal-caller—as a redshirt freshman, no less.
The 6'4", 228-pounder completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions, finishing as the highest-rated passer in the country (184.9) and winning the Heisman Trophy in the process. Florida State's unquestioned alpha dog in the locker room, despite his lack of experience at the collegiate level, Winston led the 'Noles to an unprecedented 14-0 record and the program's third national championship.
Even with Winston scheduled to return, if coach Jimbo Fisher wants to repeat in 2014, he'll have to replace a handful of senior leaders—a few early entries into the draft, too—with new talent at several key positions on both sides of the football.
Offensively, running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin all gave up their remaining eligibility in order to turn pro, plus center Bryan Stork has graduated. As for the defense, nose tackle Timmy Jernigan will soon be a first-round pick, linebacker Telvin Smith probably hears his name called in Round 2 or 3 and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner was born to be a difference-maker in the NFL.
However, considering how well Fisher and Co. have recruited in recent years, here are seven players poised for a breakout performance that ensures the Seminoles reload—not rebuild—this coming season.
(Note: No commitments for the 2014 recruiting class were considered for this list, only players already part of the program in 2013.)
A 5'10", 192-pound running back from Cape Coral (Fla.) Island Coast High School, Pender was forced to sit out the 2013 season as an academic casualty after missing 2012 due to a severe groin injury.
With both Freeman and Wilder departing a year early for the draft, Karlos Williams is the only returning ball-carrier with significant experience under his belt—and Williams was moved to tailback in September, so "experience" is a loaded term when used to describe him. Florida State has no shortage of potentially dangerous runners ready to step in and contribute, including 5-star signee Dalvin Cook, but Pender in particular has all the tools necessary to be a dynamic addition to the Seminole backfield.
Pender will finally get his chance if he stays healthy and keeps his studies in order, as Fisher has always preferred to rotate his backs regularly and keep fresh legs in the huddle.
A 5'7", 178-pound wide receiver from Orlando (Fla.) Jones High School, Whitfield caught three passes for 89 yards and rushed three times for 110 yards and two touchdowns in 2013 as a true freshman—his 100-yard kickoff return for a TD against Auburn changed the narrative of the BCS title game, as well.
Fisher has been guilty of giving too many pass-catchers regular playing time, sometimes as many as six or seven, but this past season he limited his rotation to Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw—Christian Green only entered the mix in four-wide sets or when one of the starters needed a rest. Young targets like Whitfield were limited to garbage time in blowout victories, when FSU was simply trying to run out the clock and head to the locker room.
Even if Whitfield never develops into the precise route-runner Shaw was, he offers an explosive element after the catch that the 'Noles have lacked from the slot position in three-wide formations.
A 6'4", 200-pound wide receiver from Milton (Fla.) High School, Jones caught two passes for 31 yards in 2013 as a true freshman.
Florida State had what seemed to be a perfectly balanced receiving corps—countless experts deemed it to be the best in the country—this past year, as Greene was the do-it-all guy, Benjamin the physical mismatch on the outside and Shaw the surgeon operating in the middle of the field. Winston took advantage of Benjamin's 6'5", 234-pound frame liberally, highlighted by the game-winning touchdown in the national championship tilt, so Jones has first dibs on becoming the next go-up-and-get-it weapon in the red zone.
Expect Fisher to expand his wideout rotation again, as he simply won't have the experience at the position he did a season ago, and Jones is currently the tallest scholarship receiver on the roster.
A 6'1", 305-pound defensive tackle from Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) Nova High School, Lawrence-Stample recorded 15 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two quarterback hits in 2013 as a redshirt sophomore.
While he technically started six games this past season, for the most part he lagged behind Jernigan, Demonte McAllister and Jacobbi McDaniel for playing time with the first-team defense. With all three of them now gone, it will be interesting to see if Lawrence-Stample can be as versatile as Jernigan on the nose in both three- and four-man fronts.
Don't forget what Lawrence-Stample did in the spring game last April, when he couldn't be blocked on his way to nine tackles—four of them behind the line of scrimmage.
A 6'3", 215-pound linebacker from Miami (Fla.) Booker T. Washington High School, Thomas was credited with four tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack in 2013 as a true freshman, but a shoulder injury limited his participation to five games.
The Florida State defense didn't start to resemble the dominant unit it ultimately became until Christian Jones was moved from a traditional linebacker position to more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end. With Jones now off to the NFL, Thomas is the leading candidate to fill that unique role—provided the aggressive scheme isn't altered too much under new coordinator Charles Kelly—and use his size-and-speed combination to become the ultimate edge menace.
It's plausible that Thomas will be given a medical redshirt by the NCAA following shoulder surgery, meaning he may have a second opportunity at his freshman campaign.
A 5'11", 198-pound defensive back from Valdosta (Ga.) Lowndes High School, Hunter recorded eight tackles, one interception, two pass breakups and three passes defensed in 2013 as a junior, although a neck injury sidelined him after just three games.
Perhaps an odd choice as a "breakout" player considering the fact that he already has three years invested in the program, but Hunter has done well with the limited playing time he's been given over the course of his career. With the skills to excel at both cornerback and safety—not to mention a chip on his shoulder, which tends to be the case for Lowndes graduates (e.g., Greg Reid)—he is an ideal fit to step in for Joyner at the all-important nickelback spot.
Joyner could cover receivers like a corner, stuff the run like a linebacker and rush the passer like a defensive end, and while nobody is expecting Hunter to morph overnight into an All-American, he'll be put in position to make a lot of plays.
A 5'9", 177-pound wide receiver from Miami (Fla.) Christopher Columbus High School, Wilson caught three passes for 23 yards in 2013 as a true freshman.
Not only will he have an opportunity to be a bigger part of the offense as a sophomore with both Benjamin and Shaw departing, but he'll more than likely have a chance to take over for Shaw on special teams as the punt returner. Wilson returned eight punts for 89 yards with a long of 28 this past season—the sure-handed but far-from-evasive Shaw topped out at 26 yards on more than three times as many attempts.
Don't be surprised if Wilson is also returning kickoffs alongside Whitfield, as Williams could very well be pulled from that role if he's going to be the starting tailback.