July 30, 2012
Florida State's 2012 season officially kicks off Monday, Aug. 6 when the team holds its first practice of fall camp. In preparation for the start of the new season Seminoles.com will roll out a position preview every day this week, starting with running backs and defensive tackles today, followed by a look at the quarterbacks and defensive ends Tuesday, receivers and linebackers Wednesday, offensive linemen and special teams Thursday and finally the tight ends and defensive backs Friday.
By: Brandon Mellor, Seminoles.com Managing Editor
What was a question mark during the spring could be an exclamation point for the Florida State football team during fall camp.
The Seminoles boast impressive depth and playmaking ability at the running back position but had to go through spring practices without much of either. Chris Thompson was limited in the spring after sustaining a season-ending back injury at Wake Forest last year and his starting replacement, Devonta Freeman, didn't practice at all while rehabilitating his own ailing back.
Rising sophomore James Wilder, Jr. was the only returning running back with any experience that was healthy enough to participate in the spring but he was held off the practice fields until the final week while sorting out a legal issue. With early-enrollee Mario Pender the only cleared-to-play true tailback in the spring, fullbacks Lonnie Pryor and Debrale Smiley received their share of opportunities to carry the football for the EJ Manuel-led offense.
Fast forward a few months and FSU's fearsome foursome of quality runners are all ready and cleared for camp. With Pryor and Smiley boosted by their their extra work as spring-time tailbacks and Eric Beverly added to the mix after redshirting as a freshman last season, FSU has plenty of options in the backfield.
With so many different weapons boasting so many different running styles, the No. 1 task that head coach Jimbo Fisher and running backs coach Eddie Gran face during fall-camp practices is sorting out a depth chart.
Despite missing what would have been his second spring in Tallahassee after enrolling early a year ago, Freeman would seem to have a leg up on the competition for the starting job. He started the final seven games for the 'Noles last year after Thompson's injury and showed flashes of his ability to potentially be a 1,000-yards 'back.
When asked recently if Freeman would indeed be the starter when camp opened, Fisher said, "He'll be right there along with Chris Thompson," who has bounced back from his 2011 injury and the broken hand he sustained earlier this year during spring practices.
A healthy Freeman-Thompson tandem gives the Seminoles a one-two punch of players that have shown the ability to gain large chunks of yardage due to their speed on the outside and willingness to go between the tackles despite their smaller statures.
If Freeman and Thompson begin the fall as "1a" and "1b" at running back and remain that way into the season-opener Sept. 1 against Murray State, that probably wouldn't preclude Wilder, Jr. from still getting his own touches as the Seminoles' battering ram in the backfield. At 6-foot-2 and 226 pounds, Wilder, Jr.'s linebacker-like size could be used in a variety of ways and could help provide change-of-pace options for FSU's ground game.
The speedster Pender could also work his way into the rotation while Pryor and Smiley provide additional options for Gran's gameplan in addition to their own duties at fullback.
After finishing last season ranked 104th in the nation in rushing offense at just 11.15 yards per game, Florida State's running game must improve in 2012 if the Seminoles' are to meet their typically lofty expectations.
"Being much more physical and being able to run the football on offense is critical for us," Fisher said.
In the discussion of FSU's deepest position for 2012, the wide receivers are mentioned most. But just like the pass catchers, Florida State's defensive-tackle depth chart features 10 scholarship student-athletes ranging from proven veterans to exciting youngsters.
The 'Noles were deep, talented and productive in the middle of the defensive line in 2011 and it was the ability of those tackles to penetrate, pressure the quarterback and stuff the run that sparked FSU's season-long defensive dominance.
After finishing last season ranked No. 4 in total defense (275.0 yards allowed per game) and No. 2 in rush defense (82.69 yards allowed per game), the Seminoles figure to be even better in the trenches this time around.
Seldom-used Darious Cummings and converted offensive tackle Cameron Erving are the only players not returning to defensive tackle coach Odell Haggins' group for fall camp while the FSU coaches went out and snagged two of the nation's best high school prospects at the position in Eddie Goldman and Justin Shanks.
Timmy Jernigan proved last year that an upperclassmen-heavy depth chart won't prevent a rookie from getting into the rotation if he earns his spot on the practice fields. Jernigan finished his first year in Tallahassee with freshman All-American honors after leading all of the 'Noles' interior linemen in total tackles.
Like Jernigan, Goldman and Shanks come to FSU with high expectations and both will be given the same opportunity to wreak havoc on opposing offensive linemen if they so earn it once camp gets started Aug. 6.
As for Jernigan, he enters his sophomore campaign on the Outland Trophy Watch List and with the potential of becoming a national name. FSU's spark plug at defensive tackle must bounce back from a knee injury that sidelined him for most of the spring but Fisher said last week that "Jernigan is fine" and that "he's back training [and] fully healthy."
The same, however, might not be true for another defensive tackle that once-upon-a-time led the Seminoles in tackles amongst interior linemen as a true freshman also.
Jacobbi McDaniel accomplished that feat as a rookie in 2009 and has since racked up 65 career tackles as a stalwart at defensive tackle. The 2011 season was McDaniel's least productive but that was because the former Madison County High School (Fla.) star's junior year was cut short after a scary leg injury at Duke.
Rehabilitation has gone well for the former five-star recruit but he "is not quite all the way back," Fisher said.
The FSU coaches will monitor McDaniel's health throughout fall camp and into the early part of the season knowing that he is eligible to redshirt in 2012 if needed.
"He's open to it. I've talked to him about it and we've had that discussion," Fisher said about a potential McDaniel redshirt. "We are not planning on it but if that's what happens that's what happens. It has nothing to do with him or I. It's a physical stature where he's at with his recovery. I think it will be only fair to him because I think he has a chance to play at the next level.
"He's a great teammate and a great player."
If McDaniel isn't able to play this season, FSU still boasts impressive depth -- particularly of the veteran variety.
Everett Dawkins returns as the team's most experienced defensive player and -- like Jernigan -- is on the Outland Trophy Watch List. Dawkins started all 13 games for Florida State last year along with fellow senior Anthony McCloud, who started 11 and became a run-stuffing force for a team that last year ranked first nationally in yards allowed per rush (2.35).
Moses McCray's career has been hampered by injuries but he has shown flashes when healthy. Redshirt junior Demonte McAllister got better as the season progressed last year and also provides valuable depth.
Redshirt freshmen Nile Lawrence-Stample and Derrick Mitchell round out the defensive tackle rotation and the FSU coaches have high hopes that both can push for and earn playing time despite the number of veterans ahead of them on the depth chart.