The Florida State Seminoles enter 2014 looking to win another championship—this time in the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff. As center Bryan Stork and running back Devonta Freeman are set to become NFL draft picks in May, Florida State will be using this spring to replace those two critical blockers.
From a numbers standpoint, returning four of the starting five linemen is a good problem to have in Tallahassee. However, replacing the 2013 Rimington Trophy winner is no easy task. Stork played a lot of football, and his experience in recognizing defensive fronts and pressure packages is a resource that is far more difficult to replace than his actual physical talents.
Enter Austin Barron, a senior who played the backup role to Stork over the last few seasons. His experience dates back to his freshman campaign in 2011, and in the last three seasons, he's been active as a reserve, as well as starting at times due to injuries.
With the starters penciled in, depth becomes the next major concern in protecting quarterback Jameis Winston. In 2013, the Seminoles experienced unprecedented luck with respect to offensive linemen; for the most part, Florida State's unit was intact.
But banking on the starting five working through the season largely unscathed is a losing proposition, and that means getting Ruben Carter, Wilson Bell, Ryan Hoefeld and early JUCO enrollee Kareem Are ready to step in.
Although Stork is the big name to replace when it comes to protecting Winston, the running back position will likely prove more difficult of a hole to fill in terms of blocking. Freeman, simply put, was among the nation's best in pass blocking from the running back position.
Karlos Williams, who is set to start at running back, brings plenty of physical skills to the spot. He's physically more gifted than Freeman and showed he is as comfortable running the ball outside as he is between the tackles or catching passes out of the backfield. However, he has to demonstrate he can also fill Freeman's shoes when he is not getting the football.
As Freeman heads to the NFL, the Seminoles are losing a player who seemed to be the rare running back who appeared to relish the opportunity to step into the hole and stone a charging linebacker. More importantly than enjoying it, he did it well so consistently. He maintained a good base, did not get overextended and never guessed on whom to block.
Most importantly, he did not get his quarterback killed by an added rusher.
He also understood when to attack versus when to let the defender come to him. He figured out when to cut versus when to meet his targets head on. The junior also was effective at chipping, giving his linemen legitimate help on pass-rushers before he got out into the pattern to make himself a target.
In a system that is looking to be balanced, having Williams on the field on every down is a must, and for him to be there, he must be a reliable blocker. Having him out on the turf for runs and passes makes it impossible for defenses to key on him, and that is exactly what a balanced attack requires.
For Williams, that means using the spring to get more comfortable with sinking his 6'1" frame to play the low man against oncoming rushers. While he possesses ample strength, pass protection is a leverage game. To stone linebackers in the hole, he has to play with a low pad level.
The rising senior's development in pass blocking, and comfort with making the proper reads to protect the quarterback, is paramount this spring—especially as one of Williams' backup candidates, early enrollee Dalvin Cook, suffered a shoulder injury and is out for the spring, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Fisher needs running backs to block, and if reserves Mario Pender and Ryan Green can demonstrate mastery of that skill, it will help them push for more reps.
Florida State has a great head start on protecting Winston. With the team returning four starters on the line, plus having an experienced replacement to its award-winning center, spring will be about improving depth up front. Meanwhile, replacing Freeman as a secondary pass-blocker will be critical, and that starts now with Williams.
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