Aug. 2, 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 position previews every day this week, starting with running backs and defensive tackles Monday, followed by Tuesday's look at the quarterbacks and defensive ends, receivers and linebackers yesterday, offensive linemen and special teams today and finally the tight ends and defensive backs Friday.
By: Brandon Mellor, Seminoles.com Managing Editor
As it was in the spring and will continue to be in the fall, the offensive line will be the most scrutinized positional group on the No. 7 Florida State football team.
Every body will be watching and waiting to see if FSU's big bodies up front can bounce back from an injury-riddled, mistake-filled 2011 season.
The Seminoles' struggles to generate much of a running game and the team's inability to protect quarterback EJ Manuel (FSU ranked 110th in the nation in sacks allowed with 3.15 allowed per game) are pointed to specifically when the discussion focuses on the reasons for the 'Noles' shortfalls a season ago.
But it's a new year and there's new potential. And new reason for hope.
Despite losing long-time starting tackles Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders to the NFL, FSU's offensive line has the chance to be very good this year because of its depth and number of potentially impactful youngsters that gained invaluable experience last year because of injuries and subpar play by veterans.
"Our Achilles' heel last year at times was our offensive line, and I think it could end up being a very good strength for us now," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "The fact that we had to play those young, talented guys. The older guys coming back give you depth. We've forced ourselves to play that young, talented group of guys and we put a big emphasis on that this spring."
The Seminoles enter fall camp after that spring-practice period that saw the team build off its freshmen-themed Champs Sports Bowl performance.
In the win over Notre Dame, FSU featured four true freshman starters on the offensive line, including Josue Matias at left guard, Austin Barron at center, Tre' Jackson at right guard and Bobby Hart at right tackle.
Hart started a total of eight games last season and split time with redshirt junior Bryan Stork at right tackle during the spring. The competition between the soon-to-be 18 year-old and the veteran will be one of the key positional battles of fall camp and one that may not result in a determined starter until the Sept. 1 opener against Murray State.
Stork is the most experienced offensive lineman on the roster but FSU is bolstered by the return of another upperclassman in Garrett Faircloth, who started seven games at right guard last year before sustaining an injury that cost him all of spring ball.
Faircloth has experience at guard and tackle but will likely be in a battle with projected-starter Jackson for his old spot on the line. Barron started three games at center last season and had a strong spring to solidify his spot ahead of Sterling Lovelady and Josue Matias' strong second half in the bowl game and strong spring has him still perched atop the left-guard depth chart where senior Jacob Fahrenkrug will be pushing the fall in attempt to get back into the first-team rotation.
All of FSU's young offensive linemen lack much playing time but they do at least have some experience from that thrown-to-the-fire first year.
Cameron Erving, however, has none. Not in high school and not in college. FSU's new starting left tackle has a spring practice session under his belt and that's all he has experience-wise after an off-season switch from defensive tackle in time for his redshirt sophomore season.
Erving's lack of know-how on the offensive line didn't prevent him from becoming the 'Noles' spring-time star and a player that Fisher thinks can be a future high NFL draft pick at his new position.
"I think he has a tremendous ceiling," Fisher said. "I thought he adjusted over very quickly, he became a very good leader and very knowledgeable and very instinctive. I think going through the summer will help him. I think it was a great move, I really do … I think it's going to make us a better football team, I really do."
If for some reason Erving cannot continue to progress at his new home on the offensive line, Florida State brought in junior-college transfers Daniel Glauser and Menelik Watson to provide depth and push for starter's repetitions.
Florida State had three legitimate special-teams stars in 2011 but enters fall camp with only one of them.
With punt returner Greg Reid and punter Shawn Powell no longer on the roster, there are open opportunities for many of FSU's players to seize a starring special-teams role alongside Dustin Hopkins in 2012.
Hopkins will begin his final fall camp in Tallahassee Monday as one of the nation's preeminent kickers. A Lou Groza Award finalist a season ago, the Houston, Texas native is already on the watch list for that annual honor bestowed upon college football's best kicker and figures to be in that same conversation at season's end.
Hopkins' senior year will be one that starts with him riding a hot streak following touchdowns as he has connected on a school-record 130 consecutive extra point attempts. Hopkins is also chasing the scoring record at FSU and in the Atlantic Coast Conference as he is just 68 points shy of Derek Schmidt's FSU record (393 points) and Nick Novak's league record for points that he set at Maryland (also 393 points).
While Hopkins has made consistency and scoring a habit over his three-year career, he will need to find a new holder for his extra points and field goals this season. Without Powell, FSU is in need of a new steady hand at that position as well as a player that can help do his best to mask the loss of college football's best punter last year.
Chris Revell is the likely replacement at holder after developing a rhythm and comfort level with Hopkins during spring practices. The job of starting punter is less definitive, though, as freshman Cason Beatty and Dillon Kidd will battle during fall camp for the right to replace Powell on opening day.
Whoever wins the starting punter job will have a veteran giving him the football. Dax Dellenbach returns for his senior season at long snapper with 27 starts to his credit and a scholarship he earned before the 2011 campaign after walking on to the team the season before. Like Garrison Sanborn before him, Dellenbach's consistency has been a big part of the 'Noles' strong special teams play the last several years.
In the return game, Reid's absence means the 'Noles must find someone to replace 90 career punt returns. Sophomore wide receiver Rashad Greene appears to be the most likely candidate as he fielded three a season ago.
The only other player on FSU's roster that has any in-game punt-return experience is senior running back Chris Thompson but he has just one to his credit from the 2010 season. In addition to Greene, there are a host of young players on the roster that could become viable options for punt-return work, including Kenny Shaw, Christian Green, Jarred Haggins, Marvin Bracy, Karlos Williams and the list goes on.
On kick-offs, Lamarcus Joyner and Williams return as the team's top two candidates for return duty. Joyner averaged 30.5 yards per return last year while Williams seemed on the verge of scoring a touchdown every time he fielded the football on special teams.
But just like punt-return duties, FSU's kick-return unit will be open for competition at fall camp with many of the squad's speedy skill players getting an opportunity to showcase their respective returning abilities.
The 'Noles will not only use camp to determine their depth chart on special teams, but they will also use the month of August to work on the gameplan for the new kick-off rules being implemented this season.
Among other new rule tweaks, kick-offs have been moved up to the 35 yard-line with touchbacks coming out to the 25 yard-line -- a change that makes Hopkins' nearly-automatic ability to put kicks into the endzone a near certainty each time he drives his golden cleat into the footballl.
But Fisher and special teams coach Eddie Gran have a decision to make before each of those kicks.
"It's great to kick it out all the time, but do you want to give up that five yards?" Fisher asked rhetorically at ACC Kickoff last month. "If you can kick with height and get a guy to catch it and run it -- because we have good speed, and we're that much closer -- maybe we can win an eight-yard difference in field position. That's something we will continue to pound on."