Aug. 10, 2012
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State's highly-hyped underclassmen may fit into the "wow" category, but its upperclassmen represent the "now."
Back-to-back highly ranked recruiting classes have highlighted the first two years of FSU coach Jimbo Fisher's tenure and have generated much-needed buzz about a program desperate to recapture its place atop the peaks of the college football landscape.
But if the they are to finally traverse the bumpy road back to the top -- and in the process detract the doubters and prove the pundits wrong -- it will have to be the team's upperclassmen that guide them there.
"Everybody talks about all these great recruiting classes," said Fisher, referencing groups that have produced players like Rashad Greene, Timmy Jernigan, Devonta Freeman, Ronald Darby and Eddie Goldman. "Those classes are freshmen and sophomores. These other guys, who are great players also, have to influence those guys in a positive way."
Leading that charge is FSU's unquestioned leader, quarterback EJ Manuel.
A fifth-year senior, Manuel has been a member of a team that went 7-6, experienced the replacement of one of the sport's legendary figures as his coach and has been under center for three bowl victories -- a wide range of highs and lows.
Not only is Manuel in the driver's seat for Florida State's journey to gather some long-overdue championship hardware but he's also leading a quarterback corps that features a combined four freshmen and sophomores as his understudies.
And he's not the only one.
At every position on FSU's depth chart, there are talented upperclassmen responsible for showing touted youngsters how to be champions even though they themselves have never won an Atlantic Coast Conference or national title.
"The whole team is on a mission," said fourth-year junior Bryan Stork, who entered fall camp as the only non-sophomore on the first-team offensive line. "We don't want a mediocre year again. It was a rough decade ... Florida State did some big things but we really didn't do what we are capable of. That's what we want to do.
"We want to be that team."
But does this season's squad have the ability to finally exorcise the program's post-1990s demons?
From Manuel to a now-healthy Chris Thompson to kicker Dustin Hopkins to a defense full of upperclassmen all-star candidates like Brandon Jenkins, Xavier Rhodes, Lamarcus Joyner, Bjoern Werner, Christian Jones, Anthony McCloud, Everett Dawkins and Cornellius Carradine, FSU appears to have the proper pieces to make the case that it does.
Throw in those young players and FSU, at least on paper, warrants the hype and hope it takes with it into the new season.
"The best thing is that we know what we're doing," Manuel said. "That's where Jimbo feels confident in us. The top guys not only know what they're doing, but the substitutes as well. You can put any receiver in and he's going to know what to do at that position; or put any linebacker or quarterback and he's going to know what to do."
"There's something about seniors ... and getting enough of them that have played," Fisher added. "The world just slows down for them. And from that standpoint I see a quiet confidence of guys who know what to do."
Mother Nature has done her best to knock the 'Noles off their early plan of attack behind those veterans.
Daily storms rolling through Tallahassee have forced Fisher and his staff to move practice times and shift schedules so that they can get on the field and work towards the common goal -- even if that means practicing before the sun comes up.
Three times this week FSU practiced at 5:30 a.m. to kick off days still filled with classes, film study, homework and weight training.
Despite the hectic schedule, Florida State's leadership core has helped keep spirits high and focus maintained.
"I mean, we're trying to take this program in a different direction," Joyner said. "Everybody was ready for [the early-morning practices]. We're trying to win. Whatever the head man wants that's what we're going to do. We're going to do what we've got to do to win.
"If that means coming at 4:30 -- an hour earlier -- than that's what we are going to do."
Playing in the "now" means making those types of sacrifices and taking advantage of any and every opportunity, whether its off opponent's in-game mistake or a break in the clouds on a rainy day.
FSU has the players and the makeup to make 2012 a special season; a season that maybe one day Manuel and his teammates can look back on with one appropriate word in mind: "wow."