Noles Insider

Noles Insider - Tim Linafelt - Blogs 2016

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

By Tim Linafelt 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 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 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 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 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

“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 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 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 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.



“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.”

By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 07, 2017 - 4:03 pm

By Tim Linafelt Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As of Friday morning, the TV trucks had already converged around Doak Campbell Stadium.

That, along with clear skies and unseasonably cool temperatures in Tallahassee, made it easy to imagine that, if only for a minute, football season was here.

There’s still more than four months to go until Florida State kicks off its season against Alabama in Atlanta. But the Seminoles’ annual Garnet and Gold spring game, which will take place Saturday at 3 p.m., might give a compelling preview.

The scrimmage is the last of 15 practices during a spring camp that has been beset by injuries but, in the end, has left coach Jimbo Fisher satisfied with the team’s progress.


“I’ve been pretty pleased,” he said. “It’s been a pretty physical spring, with most of our guys learning what to do and how to compete.”

For the first time in three years, Florida State went through the spring without a marquee position battle at quarterback: Deondre Francois is FSU’s first returning starter at the position since Jameis Winston in 2014, and all indications are that his job is secure.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there haven’t been any position races over the past few weeks. And while Fisher likely won’t write anything in stone based on what he sees Saturday, players can at least give themselves a leg up on their completion with strong showings.

With that in mind, here are five things to watch during the Garnet and Gold Game.

1)    Meet the new guys

Early-enrollees have been a part of the college football landscape for several years, and the Seminoles have gotten more than their share of them since Fisher took over in 2010. But this year’s crop might have more buzz than any in school history.

FSU’s group of seven enrollees includes a pair of five-star prospects (RB Cam Akers and DE Joshua Kaindoh), two highly-touted defensive backs (Stanford Samuels III – the son of former FSU DB Stanford Samuels Jr. – and Cyrus Fagan), a potential quarterback of the future (Bailey Hockman), one of the nation’s top JUCO linebackers (Adonis Thomas) and reinforcements at tight end (Tre’ McKitty).

The newcomers will get their first taste of game-like action on Saturday, and FSU fans will get a first look at them.

Of particular interest are Akers and Kaindoh, not just because of their prep pedigrees, but also because they play at positions where FSU lost key pieces from a year ago. Akers, a Mississippi native, will look to soften the blow from Dalvin Cook’s departure, while Kaindoh is hoping to bolster a defensive end rotation that will be without sack-master DeMarcus Walker.

“I think he is going to be able to help this team tremendously as a true freshman and the years to come,” Francois said about Akers. “I can see a very mature young man in him.”

2)     New look on the line

Roderick Johnson and Kareem Are are both gone, while Alec Eberle (hip) and Landon Dickerson are both hurt (knee). Which means that Florida State has spent this spring working with four new offensive linemen – five during a stretch in which right tackle Rick Leonard nursed an injury of his own.

So while FSU’s starting five won’t be settled until everyone gets healthy, offensive line coach Rick Trickett has at least had an opportunity to see what he has in a number of younger players.

And there are still plenty of options: The Seminoles 15 scholarship linemen, including a few with previous starting experience. Trickett has tried out a number of combinations. Tackles Josh Ball, Brock Ruble and Jauan Williams have all received a heavy workload, as have guards Ethan Frith and Cole Minshew and centers Andrew Boselli and Baveon Johnson.

As usual, protecting the quarterback is a top priority: FSU quarterbacks were sacked 36 times a year ago.

“They still have a lot of work to do,” Fisher said. “I don’t care if it is an experienced O-line coming back or not, it is all about constant communication. (Offensive line) is one of the hardest positions to teach and coach by far.”

3)    Cosentino, Hockman in spotlight

As a redshirt junior – and the only FSU quarterback besides Francois to take a collegiate snap – J.J. Cosentino has the inside track to be the Seminoles’ top backup this fall, and Fisher said he has made good progress this spring.

But Fisher has also been steady in his praise of Hockman, a left-handed Georgia native who has impressed with his quick grasp of the offense.

That, along with an injury suffered by Cosentino in FSU’s first scrimmage, allowed Hockman to get some extra reps over the last few weeks.

“Bailey has picked things up,” Fisher said. “He throws the deep ball really well and intermediate stuff. He is still picking the offense up, but I like what I am seeing out of him.”

Whether Hockman can climb to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart remains to be seen, but having depth at the position is never a bad thing, especially after FSU lost two quarterbacks (Sean Maguire and Malik Henry) from last year’s roster.


4)    New era on the edge

There’s no easy way to replace DeMarcus Walker, and several Seminoles have said as much in recent weeks. But with the pieces FSU has returning, the Seminoles believe they can at least replace Walker’s production. And, if things go really well, maybe exceed it.

That’s because in Josh Sweat and Bryan Burns, might still have the best defensive end tandem in the ACC.

Burns had 9.5 sacks as a freshman a year ago, and Sweat had seven. And while that combined total barely even eclipses Walker’s 16, the fact that each player seemed to get stronger as the season progressed is an encouraging sign.

Burns had 15 of his 23 tackles in the second half of the season, while Sweat had 1.5 sacks in each of FSU’s last three games.

“It feels a little bit different with ‘D-Walk’ being gone, because he was our leader and he kept us motivated,” Burns said. “We don’t have another DeMarcus Walker in our unit, but we all have a mutual understanding of what we need to get done.”

Burns and Sweat won’t be alone. Converted tight end Jalen Wilkerson has settled in nicely at his new position, and redshirt freshman Janarius Robinson is back in the mix after rehabbing an injured shoulder for much of last season.

Finally, there’s Kaindoh, the 6-6, 250-pound freshman who earned prep All-America honors at IMG Academy last year.

"There's a lot of young talent in there that's really got to learn to take different roles and play," Fisher said. “But they have the ability to be some really good players.”

5)    Welcome back, Derwin
In keeping with the theme of spring, Saturday’s spring game won’t mark Derwin James’ official return to action. But for James, as well as fans anxious to see him on the field, it’ll do for now. FSU’s star safety returned to practice this spring after missing most of last season with a torn MCL in his left knee.

And so he before resumes tormenting opposing offenses this fall, James will first spend his afternoon trying to make life difficult for his teammates on FSU’s offense.

Given that he’s waited nearly seven months for this moment, here’s guessing that James might have something memorable in store come Saturday.


By Tim Linafelt
Posted April 06, 2017 - 5:06 pm

By Tim Linafelt Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – During an era in which receivers are bigger, faster and stronger than ever, it’s not always easy being a 5-foot-10 defensive back.

But Levonta Taylor has made a habit of playing bigger than his size suggests he could. And, just in case he needed some extra inspiration, he’s got a list of Florida State defensive backs – all of them under 6-foot – who blazed the trail that he’s now walking.

Taylor, a sophomore cornerback who measures 5-10, 169 pounds, said Wednesday that he’s modeled his game after former FSU stars Greg Reid and Lamarcus Joyner. With a little bit of the taller Deion Sanders mixed in for good measure.

“That’s why I chose Florida State,” Taylor said Wednesday. “Because they had DBs at my size that played and were All-Americans. That was a big reason I came here.”

Reid (2009-11) and Joyner (2010-13) are fine examples to follow.

The two were among the most electrifying FSU defenders in recent memory, with a combined 15 interceptions between them and a combined average of more than 24 yards per kick return.

More than that, though, Reid and Joyner often found themselves looking up at opposing receivers – they both measured just 5-foot-8.

If they could play at a high level – both literally and figuratively – at FSU, Taylor believed he could do the same.

“A lot of (NFL) GMs are looking at bigger cornerbacks,” Taylor said. “But that’s why every time I touch the field, I want to play bigger than I am. So I can turn a lot of heads.”

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said that Taylor has spent spring camp doing just that.

Bouncing between the traditional cornerback position and FSU’s “star” hybrid spot, Taylor has made an impression with his toughness and intelligence.

Fisher believes Taylor to be well-suited for any number of roles in the Seminoles’ defense, and where he lines up this fall could be determined by FSU’s opponent and game situation.

“He loves the game, will do anything,” Fisher said. “Very coachable. I mean, I’m very happy with him.”

Taylor is happy, too, after a freshman year that he admits was tough at times.

A former five-star prospect from Virginia Beach, Va., and the No. 1 cornerback recruit in the nation, Taylor arrived at Florida State with heavy expectations for himself.

“I had plans to come in and try to be a freshman All-American,” he said. “Have big things going on.”

But a series of slight injuries limited Taylor’s production and he finished with a modest 16 tackles and one pass break-up.

Nothing to scoff at – especially given that he contributed three tackles and a momentum-shifting tackle for loss in FSU’s Orange Bowl win over Michigan –  but also not enough to satisfy a player who forced 10 turnovers during his senior year of high school.

“It hurt me a lot with injuries, so last year was a really sad situation for me,” Taylor said. “But I had to man up and just sit back, take a look back and just relax and just tell myself everything happens for a reason.”

Along the way, Taylor found his reason: Slowed by injuries and behind a handful of more experienced players on the depth chart, Taylor devoted himself to learning FSU’s defensive playbook and understanding the ins and outs of each position in the secondary.

Which is why he can now effortlessly move from one role to another while competing for a starting job.

As for which spot he prefers, Taylor isn’t yet sure. He said he “loves” playing cornerback, but, after watching the way Joyner thrived at the star position as a senior in 2013, Taylor likes the thought of following in those footsteps, too.

“You’re blitzing, you’re covering, doing a lot of man-under type of deals,” Taylor said. “I like playing star. I feel versatile. Lamarcus Joyner played it. Ty Mathieu played it at LSU. There’s a lot of great guys – Jalen Ramsey played it, too. So, you’re going to be in a lot of great situations to make plays.”

Fisher is confident that Taylor will be making plays no matter where he lines up.

“He’s a very gifted corner,” Fisher said. “He’s not a big guy, but he’s not a little guy. At the same time, you have to be special. And I think he’s one of those little special guys that can play the game and has great instincts.”

  Per Page
1-10 of 279