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By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 26, 2017 - 10:32 am

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida State football team has had at least one first-round NFL draft choice in six of the last seven years, and most pundits expect the Seminoles to make it seven of eight when the 2017 draft begins Thursday night in Philadelphia.

Record-setting running back Dalvin Cook leads a group of several Seminoles who could hear their names called during the three-day event. The first round begins at 8 p.m., Thursday, with Rounds 2 and 3 scheduled for Friday and 4 through 7 on Saturday.

Cook, a unanimous All-American as a junior in 2016, is the best bet to become FSU's newest first-rounder.

“I feel like I played a great amount of ball at Florida State, but I just feel like people haven't seen the best yet,” Cook told ESPN's Mike and Mike radio show last week. “Whatever organization drafts me, they're going to get a great running back and a great player off the field.”

Cook's draft projections typically range around the middle of the first round.

ESPN's Todd McShay last week pegged Kansas City (27th overall) as Cook's future home, while four of six NFL Network analysts (Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Bucky Brooks and Chad Reuter) believe he'll end up in Tampa Bay. The other two, Lance Zierlein and Maurice Jones-Drew, project Cook to Washington, where he would share the backfield with former FSU standout Chris Thompson.

“The Tampa Bay Buccaneers really like Cook and will strongly consider him if he's on the board at No. 19,” McShay wrote in a recent draft column, suggesting a reunion between Cook and former teammates Jameis Winston and Roberto Aguayo.

That idea sounds just fine to Cook, who said last month that joining Winston in the Bucs' backfield would be a “dream come true.”

Winston, meanwhile, stopped short of lobbying for the Bucs to draft Cook – he even said he believes Cook will be gone by the time Tampa Bay picks – although he did admit it would be “great to have another Seminole” on the team.

Cook will likely be the first Seminole drafted, but he won't be the last.

All-America defensive end DeMarcus Walker is sure to be picked, and two-time ACC offensive lineman of the year Roderick Johnson and two-year cornerback starter Marquez White are likely selections as well. Beyond those three, fullback Freddie Stevenson and receivers Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield and Bobo Wilson are among the Seminoles who participated in the NFL scouting combine and hope to make their dreams a reality this weekend.

Walker has consistently projected as a second- or third-round pick since wrapping up his FSU career at the Orange Bowl, although ESPN's McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. had the Atlanta Falcons taking Walker 31st overall during a recent televised mock draft.

Walker, never short on confidence, recently told the Florida Times-Union that he doesn't expect to be available when his hometown team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, makes its second-round selection at No. 35.

“I just love pushing myself, showing people and proving people wrong,” Walker said.

Here's where those eight Seminoles stand on the eve of Draft Day.

Dalvin Cook, RB

Projections: Once the first round reaches its midway point, Cook could go at any time. But don't be surprised if he moves a little bit in either direction. There's no denying Cook's ability, which could help him crack the top 10. But this is also a very top-heavy running back class (LSU's Leonard Fournette, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Oklahoma's Joe Mixon are among the other top prospects) which could impact the market for the position.

NFL.com grade: 6.28 (chance to become good NFL starter)

What they're saying: “You could make a case for drafting Cook over top-ranked prospect Fournette. Although Fournette has an awesome projection, his particular profile somewhat matches other running backs who boasted great projections but ultimately disappointed. … It is a bit harder to find a bust whose high projection, like Cook's, had more to do with college production.” – Nathan Forster, Football Outsiders

DeMarcus Walker, DE

Projections: One of the most dominant pass-rushers in college football, Walker has settled in as a second- or third-round pick in most mock drafts, with the occasional first- or second-round projection mixed in. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein expressed concern about Walker's size, but Walker's track record of production and versatility should work in his favor.

NFL.com grade: 5.64 (backup or eventual starter)

What they're saying: “Walker has a good quick step and swim move which had led to him getting a ton of sacks the last two years at Florida State. Here's also durable as he played in 90 percent of the defensive snaps last year.” – Brian Jones, CBSSports.com

Roderick Johnson, OL

Projections: A three-year starter and a two-time recipient of the ACC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy, Johnson is believed by most outlets to be a third- or fourth-round selection, and a few analysts have even projected him as the second Seminole off the board.

NFL.com grade: 5.52 (backup or eventual starter)

What they're saying: “There are a lot of teams in need of offensive line help from the 2017 NFL Draft. Given this year's weak class of tackles, Johnson could end up going higher than expected. … Cleveland is taking a long-term approach to building in the roster, so the team could have the patience to give Johnson time to develop.” – Charlie Campbell, WalterFootball.com

Travis Rudolph, WR

Projections: Florida State's leading receiver in each of the last two seasons, Rudolph is a fifth- or sixth-round pick, per NFL.com.

NFL.com grade: 5.49 (backup or eventual starter)

What they're saying: “Rudolph will need to get stronger, but he's already a willing blocker in the run game which helps his cause. Could be an early backup who works himself into snaps fairly quickly.” – Lance Zierlein, NFL.com

Marquez White, CB

Projections: Part of a deep crop of cornerbacks, White is considered to be a Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) pick.

NFL.com grade: 5.3 (backup or eventual starter)

What they're saying: “He's super-aggressive and is the definition of ‘chip on his shoulder.' It can get him in trouble but as Mike Tomlin will say, better to say ‘whoa' than sic ‘em.'”

Freddie Stevenson, FB

Projections: Fullbacks are becoming harder and harder to come by in today's NFL, but Stevenson could stand out thanks to his abilities as a receiver. He's projected as a late-round pick or priority free agent.

NFL.com grade: 5.05 (back end of the roster)

What they're saying: “There will be a very limited amount of teams interested in a fullback this season, but Stevenson has enough ability to make a roster if he gets a shot.” – Lance Zierlein, NFL.com

Other Draft-eligible Noles

Kermit Whitfield, WR

Bobo Wilson, WR

Kareem Are, OL

Sean Maguire, QB

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 25, 2017 - 10:18 am

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As the reigning ACC player of the year and Florida State’s leading scorer for each of the last two seasons, Shakayla Thomas’ body of work speaks for itself.

Now on the heels of FSU’s Elite Eight run that ended minutes short of the Final Four, Thomas is set to add another line to her resume: Senior leader.

When the Seminoles take the floor this fall, they’ll do so without standouts Leticia Romero, Brittany Brown and Ivey Slaughter, three of the most accomplished and winningest seniors in the program’s history.

Which means that, in addition to her abilities on the court, Thomas will be counted on to guide a young team as it transitions into life with a new core of players.

“I’m trying to be a leader now,” Thomas said. “The people here are going to look up to me, whereas I used to look up to (the seniors). It’s big shoes to fill and I’m ready for the ride.”

Thomas has the on-court part of the job pretty much down pat. Her blend of strength and athleticism might be unmatched in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and her ability to both drive to the basket and pull up for jump shots make her a near-impossible matchup.

But Thomas, who arrived in Tallahassee three years ago as a shy freshman from Sylacauga, Ala., said she’s focused on using her voice and energy to complement her scoring touch this fall.

It’s not something that always came naturally, but Thomas is using two fine examples as a guide.

“I know I learned a lot from Brittany and Ivey,” she said. “Being a leader, being vocal and keeping everything together.”

Replacing the departed seniors will be no small feat for the Seminoles.

That group won more games than any senior class in FSU history, two members (Romero and Kai James) were selected in the WNBA draft earlier this month and two more (Brown and Slaughter) are in WNBA training camps.

Still, FSU coach Sue Semrau believes that if anyone can soften that blow, it’s Thomas.

“No question,” Semrau said. “I think she’s just been waiting for it. I’m excited to see her become a leader and a more complete player.”

If she can do that, then FSU ought to once again be able to make some noise in a women’s college basketball landscape that looks drastically different in the wake of South Carolina’s victory in the NCAA tournament.

The Gamecocks claimed the national title after knocking off Mississippi State, which shocked the sports world by beating No. 1 Connecticut and snapping the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak in the Final Four.  

As she watched the Huskies go down for the first time in two years, Thomas felt both shocked and excited – Mississippi State hero Morgan William is a childhood friend of Thomas’ – but she also couldn’t help wondering what might have been.

FSU lost to South Carolina, 71-64, in the Elite Eight.

“If we had come in like we normally play, that could have been us,” Thomas said. “I feel like UConn going down, it opens a lot of windows for different programs. That shows that anything can happen.”

With her final year at FSU on the horizon, Thomas hopes that “anything” means Florida State’s first trip to the Final Four.

After stopping on the doorstep of the national semifinal in two of her first three seasons, Thomas is planning to lead the Seminoles right through that door as a senior.

“That’s what I’m here to do,” she said. “Break records, make history.”

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 21, 2017 - 5:45 pm

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEEE, Fla. – Mavin Saunders started mentoring at Tallahassee’s Riley Elementary as a way to earn credit for his criminology class at Florida State.

A year and a half later, Saunders has received far more than just class credit.

For the last 18 months – far beyond his course requirements – Saunders, a tight end on the FSU football team, has hopped on his scooter twice a week and driven the two miles to Riley Elementary, an inner-city school in Tallahassee’s Griffin Heights neighborhood.

While at Riley, Saunders would spend two hours speaking to groups of students both large and small, and he also zeroed in as a mentor to two boys – one in the fourth grade and the other in fifth.

“I continued doing it outside of the classroom,” Saunders said, “because I realized how much of an impact that was made on the few kids I’ve been able to reach out to.”

Safe to say that impact was real: Riley Elementary honored Saunders earlier this week by naming him its Outstanding Adult Volunteer for the 2016-17 school year.

“A lot of our kids come from disadvantaged homes,” said Trace Laing, the mentoring coordinator at Riley. “But our principal, Mr. (Karwynn) Paul, he welcomes mentors into the school because it does make a difference. It does open their eyes and see that they can get out and do something with their lives.

“And that’s what Mavin kind of brings to the table.”

Saunders credits two older brothers, Elvaughn and Elvis, with setting him on the right path while growing up in Bimini, Bahamas.

But upon his arrival at Riley, Saunders realized that many of the students were living without positive role models.

That was the case last year, when Saunders mentored a boy who was a sharp student but didn’t receive much support from home.

“His dad is in prison. He has an older brother, but he’s not doing the right thing,” Saunders said. “I was stressing to him the importance of making the right choices, being respectful in school and having the right attitude toward the administrators at school and his grandma and everyone that’s trying to help him.”

Saunders didn’t just show up and go through the motions for two hours, either. Riley’s mentoring program required that he follow an academic curriculum, and Saunders spent much of this year brushing up on his algebra so that he could tutor a fifth-grader.

“I’ve been teaching him math skills,” Saunders said. “And how important it is – not just to do the work in school – it’s important that, when you get home, you look over your work … In order for you to learn something, you have to take time out on your own.”

When Saunders first started at Riley, most kids were star struck by his mere presence. Riley has about 60 mentors, but it’s still not every day that a 6-foot-5, 257-pound football player walks through the door.

After a while, though, Saunders said that he and the students connected on a more personal level – and that they’d spend less time talking about FSU football and more time talking about what’s going on in their own lives.

“They know I’m going to ask, ‘Hey how are things going at home, how’s your school work,'" Saunders said. "(I try to) remember specific things about the kids, showing that you actually do care and you’re not there just for show.”

A fourth-year junior looking to expand his role in a revamped FSU offense, Saunders has big plans for this season and beyond.

Laing, however, believes that whenever Saunders is finished with football, he’d be a natural fit in front of a classroom.

“I told him, ‘You might want to get out of whatever degree that you’re in and become a teacher one of these days,” Laing said. “He just does well. … He’s made a big difference at Riley Elementary.”

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 18, 2017 - 10:20 am

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – About a week ago, Florida State pitching coach Mike Bell approached head coach Mike Martin with a small piece of good news.

“Coach Bell came in and said, ‘Boy, ‘Birdy’ just had the best bullpen (practice session) I think I’ve seen him have in three years,’” Martin said.  

“I said, ‘Well great, I’m sure he’ll get an opportunity.’”

The “Birdy” in question is Alec Byrd, the Seminoles’ senior left-handed reliever. And given an opportunity in the biggest moment of FSU’s season thus far, Byrd delivered perhaps the finest outing of his career.

With FSU and No. 3 Clemson engaged in a back-and-forth duel in Monday’s rubber match of a three-game series, Byrd tipped the scales toward the Seminoles by pitching three strong innings to earn his second win of the season in a 7-6 victory.

The hard-hitting Tigers had scored five runs – all via home runs – prior to Byrd’s arrival. But the Miami Shores native held Clemson to just three hits overs the final three frames, and the Tigers’ only run during that stretch came after an FSU fielding error.

“I was just trying to keep us in it,” Byrd said. “I’m not going to lie. This was a huge game. I know we’ve been struggling, and our team played really well.”

Indeed, after the game Martin cautioned against overstating the significance of this win. The Seminoles still have a long road to travel and difficult opponents ahead. 

Still, given the circumstances – FSU entered Monday’s game having lost four of five and hadn’t won a weekend series in three weeks – it sure felt like a big deal.

And, were it not for Byrd, it might not have happened.

He entered the game in a jam, with two on and no outs after the Tigers had roughed up the usually reliable Drew Carlton.

But thanks to some solid defense – right-fielder Rhett Aplin saved a run with a spectacular throw home after a base hit – followed by a grounder to third and a strikeout, Byrd kept the Tigers off the scoreboard.

“He did a great job of keeping it low,” catcher Cal Raleigh said. “Anybody can hit a fastball or curveball that’s up in the zone, chest-high. He did a great job of keeping his curveball and fastball low to where if they did get a good hit, it was just going to be a groundball.”

Byrd might have been even more impressive in the top of the eighth when, after the Tigers plated an unearned run, he ran a full count against Clemson’s Reed Rohlman, the ACC’s fifth-leading hitter (.374), before fooling him with an off-speed pitch for an inning-ending strikeout.

Finally, nursing a one-run lead in the top of the ninth with the heart of Clemson’s order due up, Byrd worked around a two-out single to retire the side and give FSU its most important victory of the season.

Along the way, he set down Seth Beer, the reigning ACC player of the year, as well as promising freshman Logan Davidson and fifth-year senior Andrew Cox.

Those three have a combined 21 home runs and 80 RBIs between them.

“It was very impressive,” Martin said. “Because those folks can hit. They were tough outs.”

Added Byrd: “The crowd roaring in the ninth inning, I don’t think I’d ever experienced that in that close a game. Especially nationally televised. It was very fun.”

The game represented a startling return to form for Byrd, who finished last season with the team’s lowest earned-runs average (2.20) and opponent batting average (.159) but had stumbled to a 7.41 ERA in 16 appearances this year.

Byrd attributed his early-season struggles to a bout with back spasms, which not only caused pain but also threw off Byrd’s pitching motion.

“After those back spasms,” he said, “I kind of felt like I tried to fix stuff in my motion that didn’t need to be fixed to compensate.”

Byrd’s road back featured a lot of extra time with Bell, as well as a few overtime shifts in the film room.

It took a while, but, after that bullpen session last week, Byrd began to feel like himself again.

And, with two strong outings against one of college baseball's top offenses now in the books (Bryd threw a scoreless ninth in FSU’s 7-3 victory on Sunday), he looks like a potential late-innings anchor as the Seminoles embark on the home stretch of their season.

“It was really fun. I enjoyed it,” Byrd said. “…Hopefully it keeps working out for me.”

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 14, 2017 - 4:39 pm

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s been more than 20 years, but Mike Martin still remembers it clearly.

And, yet, he’s still not sure he believes it.

In February 1997, the Seminoles were opening their season against UNC-Asheville, and FSU junior slugger J.D. Drew stepped to the plate at the outset of what would be one of the best individual seasons in college baseball history.

What happened next has been the subject of embellishment over the last two decades, but, to Martin, the reality is even better than any legend.

“He hit a home run that literally scared him,” Martin said. “Because he could not believe how far it went. Next day they measured it at 565 (feet). It was a blast.”

And the ball might have gone even farther had it not landed in an oversized oak tree beyond the right-centerfield wall at Dick Howser Stadium.

The home run, one of 31 that the left-handed Drew hit on the way to the 1997 Golden Spikes Award, prompted FSU professor James Carr to do some research, and he determined that the ball was 90 feet in the air when it struck the oak tree.

Chip Baker, FSU’s director of baseball operations who was then the team’s third-base coach, remembers asking UNC-Asheville’s second baseman what the homer looked like from his perspective.

“I’m just glad he got under it,” he answered.

Twenty years later, the oak tree is gone but the story remains. So do countless other tales, many of which are likely to be told this weekend when Drew gathers with family, friends and former teammates for a number-retirement ceremony before FSU’s game against Clemson on Saturday.

Drew, who wore jersey No. 39, will join former FSU player, coach and stadium namesake Howser as the only Seminole baseball alums to receive the honor.

“This is going to be a fun night for J.D. and his family and certainly all Seminoles,” Martin said. “He did so much for this program the three years he was here. We’re just proud we’re able to retire his jersey because he’s certainly worthy of the recognition.”

One of four Seminoles to earn the Golden Spikes Award – college baseball’s version of the Heisman Trophy – Drew hit a startling .455 as a junior while becoming the first player in college baseball history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season.

He went on to enjoy a 13-year career in the Major Leagues, the highlights of which include a World Series championship with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and an All-Star selection in 2008.

Drew was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016.

“He’s the best college player –  I’ve seen a bunch – he’s the best college player I’ve ever seen,” said Mike Martin Jr., who played with Drew during the 1995 season. “He was the most dominant, most consistent, and he did it from Day 1. ... It’s a combination of power and speed that I don’t know that you’ll ever (see again).”

Martin Jr., a senior at FSU during Drew’s freshman year, has a few favorite Drew tales of his own.

Like the time Drew was taking batting practice and hit a ball off the top off the cage and out of the stadium.

Or all the times Drew called his shots – he called it “walking the dog” – by naming exactly where his home runs would land during practice.

“He’d hit one out to right field,” Martin Jr. said. “Then he’d hit one out to center, and he’d sit there and work his way back to left field. Like it was nothing. I’m serious.”

It’s the kind of thing that Martin Jr. won’t soon forget.

And come Saturday, when his No. 39 is commemorated above the wall in left-center field, no one else who sets foot inside Dick Howser Stadium will soon forget J.D. Drew either.

“J.D. Drew,” Martin said, “is a guy that will be remembered by Florida State University for the rest of the time our baseball program is in existence.” 

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 13, 2017 - 12:05 pm

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida State’s 2018 football schedule features yet another high-profile, Monday-night game, as well as non-conference clashes against some familiar opponents. While FSU's history with the schools on its 2018 slate ranges from storied rivalries to brief encounters, all are against teams that have provided the Seminoles with some memories over the years. Here’s a look at what happened the last time FSU faced Virginia Tech, Samford, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame and Florida.

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 12, 2017 - 10:18 am

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Top-ranked Florida State and No. 3 Florida offered similar sentiments when previewing their Wednesday-night showdown in Gainesville (7 p.m., SEC Network).

Fans of trash talk and bulletin-board material will be sorely disappointed.

"It's another middle-of-the-week game," UF coach Tim Walton told FloridaGators.com.

“Every game is the same for us,” FSU third baseman Jessica Warren echoed. “Prepare for every game like it’s our last game.”

The truth is that this won’t be Florida State’s last game. And the Seminoles have goals that reach far beyond winning in Gainesville in mid-April.

But, despite rising to the top of college softball during coach Lonni Alameda’s nine-year tenure, there’s still a blank space on FSU’s resume:

The Gators have had FSU’s number for an awfully long time.

The Seminoles haven’t beaten Florida in more than three years and, remarkably, are 1-16 against UF since 2007.

That, of course, will have little bearing on what happens Wednesday: FSU’s seniors know what it feels like to beat Florida, and, anyway, the Seminoles’ freshmen were still in elementary school back in 2007.

Still, for a team that’s won 24 straight games and has legitimate national-title aspirations, conquering their rivals to the southeast – at their place, no less – could be an important milestone.

“It’d be awesome,” senior Ellie Cooper said.

“It would be great to get a ‘W’ down there,” Warren added. “But we’re not really focused on winning the game before we start the game.”

Warren said she’d rather focus on the things that have gotten the Seminoles this far – specifically an intense devotion to scouting and preparation.

When she turns on UF’s film, Warren will see a pitching staff that boasts the nation’s best earned-runs average (0.72) and has allowed opponents to hit just .146.

Complicating matters is that UF has three quality starting pitchers, all with sub-1.00 ERAs and all with a different skill set that can keep opposing hitters off-balance.

Walton has yet to announce which of Kelly Barnhill (14-0, 0.24), Delanie Gourley (13-2, 0.83) or Aleshia Ocasio (7-0, 0.84) will get the nod on Wednesday.

“There’s three different looks,” Alameda said. “They all spin the ball and they all mix speeds. Hitting is all about timing and the ability to mess with that timing. You’ve really got to prepare for three different looks and, in a single game, that’s tough to do.”

Then again, the Seminoles haven’t run into many pitching staffs they couldn’t handle this year.

FSU leads the nation in team batting average (.367), on-base percentage (.469) and ranks second in runs scored (315).

The Seminoles’ pitchers are hardly slouches, either – fifth-year senior Jessica Burroughs is 20-1 with a 0.60 ERA, while third-year sophomore Meghan King is right behind her with a 17-0 record and 1.50 ERA.

“This is going to be a fun game,” Alameda said. “I love rivalry games. We have a great one with Florida. They’re a great program. So we’re really excited. But, in reality, we’ve had a great schedule this year.”

And it’s about to get even better.

After they leave Gainesville, the Seminoles will head to Columbia, S.C., for two games at Southeastern Conference foe South Carolina. From there, FSU will play at Troy and then at Louisville to wrap up a stretch of 11 straight road games.

“We couldn’t be at a better time for us right now as a team to go into what we’re going into, with playing Florida and South Carolina on the road,” Alameda said. “It’s a good time for us to get this level of challenge.”

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 09, 2017 - 5:52 pm

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Jacob Pugh plans to make the most of his last season at Florida State.

And he has the hardware to prove it.

After four weeks of spring practice that coach Jimbo Fisher described as “the best spring of anybody we’ve ever had,” the senior linebacker added an exclamation point by receiving both defensive MVP honors and the Hinesman Award at halftime of the Garnet and Gold spring game.

The Hinesman Award is presented each year to the “most dominant” player of spring camp. Recent winners include Jalen Ramsey, Jameis Winston and Rodney Hudson, among several others.

“He’s running up the stairs, now,” Fisher said. “I mean, he has been a super player and done a tremendous job. Probably has done as good a job as anyone on this team.”

Pugh’s production matched Fisher’s praise during Saturday’s scrimmage: He had three tackles – including two solo stops – a sack, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry for the victorious Gold team.

And Pugh’s success often came at the direct expense of the Garnet offense.

Early in the game, Garnet quarterback J.J. Cosentino dropped back and scanned the middle of the field in search of a tight end on a crossing route. The only problem? Pugh jammed the tight end at the line of scrimmage and effectively derailed the play before it started.

Pugh didn't get credit for the play in the box score, but it didn't go unnoticed by his head coach.

“(That’s) something, that a lot of folks don’t see, that screwed the whole play up.” Fisher said. “I mean, he’s doing every little thing right. Really staying focused on what he’s doing.”

Which Pugh admits is something of a recent development.

A former standout at Tallahassee’s Godby High School, Pugh found success as a freshman but said his focus waivered some over the next two years.

Not that his statistics necessarily reflect that. He still posted 32 tackles as a sophomore and then contributed 43 tackles (six for loss) and 4.5 sacks as a junior.

Even better, Pugh got better toward the end of last season and had one of his best games (six tackles, one sack) in FSU’s Orange Bowl win over Michigan.

Still, as he set out on his senior year a few weeks ago, Pugh couldn’t help feeling like he could do more.

According to Fisher, it’s a common phenomenon – a player sees that his time is winding down and, suddenly, they’re driven by a newfound sense of urgency.

“Coach stayed in my ear and let me know what I was capable of, that I had a lot of potential,” Pugh said. “It’s my last year, so I’ve got to make something happen. Do or die.”

Armed with a fresh mindset, Pugh dominated throughout the spring and emerged as one of the most talked-about members of FSU’s defense. Which is no small feat on a unit that features Derwin James, Josh Sweat, Brian Burns and Matthew Thomas.

“Jake is just an all-around great player,” Burns said. “He covers, he plays the run, he can rush the passer, he does everything. He’s had a great spring.”

It’s that versatility that has Fisher most excited.

As Florida State’s “Buck” linebacker, Pugh’s responsibilities can carry him all over the field. From one play to the next, Pugh could be rushing the quarterback, supporting the run defense or dropping into coverage.

It’s a role that, if played well, can be one of the cornerstones of the Seminoles’ defense.

“You saw it today at times,” Fisher said. “Rushing and (playing) physical and the way he covers.”

But even with his breakout spring in the books, and a wave of optimism carrying into the summer, Pugh said he was still surprised when he learned of his accolades.

“Honestly I didn’t expect that. I really didn’t,” he said. “I just came out there to play and have fun with my team. It caught me off-guard.”

But, given Fisher’s philosophy – which emphasizes a detail-focused process while not focusing on results – perhaps it shouldn’t have.

“It’s funny, when you play your best, it’s when you start doing everything right and you don’t worry about the results,” Fisher said. “Youre not worried about what’s going on. (You’re) just trying to do what’s right every day.

“When you do that, and you have the ability he has, you start becoming a dominant, productive player like he has been. And that’s what he did all spring.”

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 09, 2017 - 10:27 am

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Midway through Saturday’s Garnet and Gold spring game, freshman running back Cam Akers caught a pass over the middle of the field and darted through the heart of Florida State’s defense before colliding, full speed, with star safety Derwin James.

It was the type of collision – and James is the type of heavy hitter – that would send most college athletes flying in one direction while their mouthpiece flew in another.

But, as he set out to prove on Saturday afternoon, Akers is no ordinary college athlete. He bounced off of James, caught his balance and kept his legs churning before James regained the upper hand and brought him down after a 17-yard gain.

Score it a draw for the unstoppable force and the immovable object.

“That’s what (Akers) does all the time,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said following the Gold’s 17-7 victory. “He did it every day in practice. In those goal-line scrimmages we had, Derwin, the (linebackers), the D-linemen – all those guys had shots on him.”

During a day in which points and big plays came at a premium, James and Akers – both of whom wear jersey No. 3 – provided more than their share of memorable moments.

James, making his return to action following a seven-month recovery from knee surgery, rewarded fans for their patience by posting a team-high seven tackles (three for loss) and two sacks.

And the box score doesn’t show the way James almost singlehandedly derailed the Garnet offense during the first half.

Or the way he broke up a fourth-down pass by delivering a punishing hit to walk-on receiver Gilbert Henric.

So much for shaking off the rust.

 

“He’s better than he ever was,” quarterback Deondre Francois said.

“He’s all over the field,” senior linebacker Jacob Pugh added. “He’s Superman.”

And although it might be a little early to give Akers a cape, the freshman early-enrollee at least gave every indication that he’ll be ready to contribute sooner rather than later.

Bolstered by a 35-yard run, Akers led the Florida State rushing attack with 87 yards on just 10 carries.

But much like James, Akers’ contributions go beyond his statistics. At 5-10, 213 pounds, Akers is strong enough to run through defenders who dare try to arm-tackle him, and he’s also got the speed and vision to find and burst through holes at the line of scrimmage.

“He’s very natural,” Fisher said.

Akers’ outing was part of an encouraging afternoon for FSU’s running backs: Playing behind a reworked offensive line, three Seminole running backs averaged more than five yards per carry, and, removing quarterback yardage, the Garnet and Gold backs combined for 240 yards on 43 attempts.

That, of course, is welcome news for an offense looking to fill the oversized shoes left in the wake of All-American Dalvin Cook’s departure.

“I thought (Akers) and Jacques (Patrick) ran well and I thought Ryan Green had some really nice runs,” Fisher said. “I thought Jacques had some really nice power runs and inside runs and ran good, and Cam got the chance in space.”

Akers made the most of that chance in the third quarter, when he took a handoff, bounced to his right and accelerated down the right sideline for a 35-yard gain.

And he might have scored, were it not for James’ relentless pursuit. The safety caught up with Akers downfield and brought him down from behind.

“I thought (Akers) bounced a little bit and should have gotten more stout, but he’ll learn open-field running,” Fisher said.

Still, if this is just Akers’ opening act, the Seminoles have to be eager for what’s in store.

“I feel like his production will be better than his talent,” Francois said. “And that’s a good attribute to have. He’s a smart kid and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.”

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 08, 2017 - 8:07 pm

Box Score | Coach Fisher Quotes | Player Quotes

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Like most coaches, Jimbo Fisher prefers that his defense be ahead of his offense at this stage of the year.

With that in mind, Fisher had to be pleased with the results of Florida State’s Garnet and Gold spring game.

Limited to just two scholarship receivers and facing a bevy of talented and disruptive defenders, both offenses found little room to operate for much of the afternoon. A pair of Deondre Francois-led touchdown drives – including a 90-yard march in the second quarter – proved the difference in a 17-7 victory for the Gold.

Francois threw for 133 yards and a touchdown, and the Gold rushing attack, paced by freshman Cam Akers and junior Jacques Patrick, averaged nearly 5 yards per carry.

Otherwise, the day belonged to the defenses, which combined for 12 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and one interception returned for a touchdown.

That includes a game-high seven tackles and two sacks for safety Derwin James, who looked simply dominant in his return from a season-ending knee injury.

 

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“I liked the scrimmage today from a standpoint of it was very physical,” Fisher said. “Guys tackled well, played well. … Even though there wasn’t a lot of scoring, there wasn’t a lot of missed assignments. Guys just really beat a block or made a play. …

“I’d much rather be ahead on defense right now, which I think we are.”

Which is not to say that offense didn’t have its moments, especially on the ground.

Akers, the blue-chip, early-enrollee from Mississippi, made a fine first impression by racking up a game-high 85 rushing yards on just 10 carries – a figure boosted by a 35-yard scamper down the right sideline during the second half.

Patrick added 64 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries for the Gold, while fifth-year senior Ryan Green led the Garnet by carrying six times for 36 yards.

“I liked the way we ran the ball,” Fisher said.

And, despite watching his four quarterbacks combine to complete just 26 of 64 passes (40.6 percent), Fisher isn’t concerned with his passing game, either.

With sophomore Keith Gavin still nursing an ankle injury (he played a few snaps in the first quarter before Fisher thought the better of it and pulled him), FSU had only Nyqwan Murray and Da’Vante Phillips available from its pool of scholarship receivers.

Murray (5 catches, 59 yards) and Phillips (5-45) each led their respective sides in receiving, but, otherwise, the teams had to get creative when moving the ball through the air.

Both teams featured their tight ends, and several walk-on receivers took advantage of chances to make plays in front of a crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium.

More often than not, though, the depth and talent in Florida State’s secondary made passing yards – or, for that matter, completions – hard to come by.

“I ain’t worried about it,” Fisher said. “We’ve always been able to throw the ball. We’ll throw it and we’ll throw it well. We did earlier in spring.”

After a relatively low-key three quarters, the game offered a bit of drama in the fourth.

With the Gold leading 10-0 and holding the ball, Garnet defensive back Kyle Meyers stepped in front of a Francois pass that was intended for Phillips and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown.

Then, after forcing three straight incompletions on the Gold’s ensuing drive, the Garnet took over with 1:36 to play and a chance to take a late lead.

But in keeping with the overall theme of the game, the Gold defense tightened up and sacked quarterback J.J. Cosentino on back-to-back plays to force a turnover on downs.

A few moments later, Francois connected with tight end Ryan Izzo for a 1-yard touchdown to provide the final margin.

“I’s hard when there’s a lot of guys that you’re not used to, and I didn’t have the receivers that I usually have,” Francois said. “So, it was good to work with some guys who I’ve never worked with before, but there are pros and cons that come with that.

“But it’s all good, and I feel comfortable with how the spring ended.”

He’s not the only one.

Fisher reminded throughout the week that the Garnet and Gold Game is a game in name only – he’s worried far more about how the Seminoles grow and improve than anything in the box score.

And, to that end, Fisher believes the Seminoles are right on schedule. FSU’s season opener against Alabama is now just 147 days away.

“We’re far from a finished product,” Fisher said. “We’ve got a lot of things to do, but there’s a lot to work with there and the attitude is coming in the right direction.

“So I really am pleased with where we’re at. I know we’ve got a lot of thing to do, but I like the group we’ve got.”

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