The goals remain the same for the Florida State Seminoles as they prepare for the 1997 season. Bobby Bowden's 22nd edition of the Seminoles will set their sights on winning a sixth consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference Championship with the ultimate goal of a second national championship sitting just above it. Little has changed in the FSU camp since it became the most successful football program in the country over the last 10 years with a remarkable 107-14-1 record. The Seminoles capped the 1993 season with a national championship and had a perfect regular season and a chance at a national title last year.
The 1997 season should see the Seminoles in the hunt for the national title yet again, but to do so they must overcome the loss of three All-Americans and defeat a schedule that Bowden himself tabbed as the toughest since the legendary "Octoberfest" road schedule of 1981.
The Tribe returns 14 starters, including both kickoff and punt return specialists, from last year's team that finished ranked among the Associated Press Top Four (third in both polls) for an NCAA record 10th consecutive year. The perfect 11-0 regular season extended Bowden's, and the Seminoles', college football record to 10 straight seasons with 10 or more wins. To put that in perspective, the list of schools with current streaks among the AP Top Four reads: FSU 10, Florida 2, Ohio State 1, and Arizona State 1.
The defense lost a pair of first team All-America defensive ends, but returns a host of talented players with what coaches hope will be the right mix between seasoned veterans and talented youngsters. Senior defensive end Andre Wadsworth should contend for All-America honors and he will slide from noseguard out to one of the vacant end spots. Joining in the veteran leadership role will be four-year starter and Butkus Award candidate Daryl Bush. The return of star linebacker Sam Cowart, who missed last year with a knee injury, should help shore up the Tribe stoppers. The secondary is solid up the middle, but must find dependable starters on the corners.
"We relied on our defense to win games last year and they did that," said Bowden. "We're going to have to give them more help this year though, at least early on. We lost a lot of starters, but we did play a lot of young players during the year so we have some guys who have been in the battle.
"Losing Peter (Boulware) early to the NFL draft hurt. I think if he had come back you'd look at the defense and say it's as good as last year. You hope Sam's (Cowart) return kind of off-sets the leadership loss.
"We feel pretty good about the people we've got coming back along the defensive front even with the loss of those two great ends. Jerry Johnson played very well as a freshman at the noseguard position and Julian Pittman was basically a starter at defensive tackle last year. Greg Spires is a guy who catches my eye at every practice and someone we know can do the job.
"Linebackers look strong. With (Daryl) Bush in there in the middle, you've got one who is just about as good as you can get playing the position. He'll have some guys on either side of him who can really run and that's what we need in our style. Depth is a concern, especially during preseason drills."
The offense returns a battery of talent at the skill positions but must rely on inexperienced players to step in along the offensive line and at tailback. All-America candidate E.G. Green is back at wide receiver and is sure to be the main ingredient in what should be a very potent passing attack. Thad Busby will return to his starting quarterback spot, but will face a battle with sophomore Dan Kendra, redshirt freshman Marcus Outzen and 24-year-old freshman Chris Weinke. Center Kevin Long is an All-America candidate and he is joined by Tra Thomas as the only two returning starters along the line.
"We've got to get some young people ready to play up front," said Bowden. "The good thing is we feel like we've got good talent (on the offensive front), the bad news is they don't know what to do yet. It is very important that we develop an offensive unit early in the preseason and give them a chance to work together as much as possible."
Of great concern for the FSU coaching staff heading into the season is the absence of three-time 1,000 yard rusher Warrick Dunn from the equation. When Dunn graduated last spring, he took with him the school record for career yards with 3,959 yards and left FSU coaches with a big hole at tailback. Dee Feaster is the only returnee at the position, but he has shown flashes of brilliance over his young career in Tallahassee.
"We've got to find the right mix at tailback, but we know we're not going to find another Warrick Dunn right away," said Bowden. "It was an important spring for a lot of players. We hope that someone really takes over as a runner.
"Overall, we need a more consistent and productive offense than we had last year. I kept feeling like we were about to break open all last year, but it really never happened. We'll look at some things in the fall that should help us."
"It is a crucial preseason for us. We return fewer starters than we have in a long time. We'll probably be as young a football team as we've been in years. Our team will have 38 freshmen on it when we begin the season. They're very good athletes, but they don't have the experience. However, when you look back at our history I think we played 12 freshmen during the 1993 season when we won the national championship. We've got to have strong leadership on a team this young."
"We've also got to overcome a very difficult schedule. We are on the road for virtually all our games against Top 10 teams. We've got to win at USC, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. It's the toughest schedule we've had since 1981 when we played at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame and LSU; but I'm probably as excited as I've ever been. We've got a lot of young players fighting for playing time along with some outstanding leaders. I'm excited about the recruiting class we will have coming in as well, some of those will have to contribute right away."
"I know it sounds old, but it could be the same as the last few years. If we can stay away from injuries and have a little luck, we could be right there with a chance to win it all at the end. That remains our goal."
Senior Thad Busby returns after leading the Seminoles to an undefeated 10-0 regular season (he missed the Wake Forest game with a broken wrist) and the No. 1 ranking at the end of the regular season. He completed over 55 percent (134-of-243) of his passes and threw for 1,866 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. However, the competition he will face to keep the starting job may be as tough as any in the Bowden era.
Sophomore Dan Kendra has already proven he can win, leading last year's team to a 44-7 rout of Wake Forest in his only start. His tremendous athletic ability and "linebacker-mentality" have already made him a household name.
Add to that mix a pair of freshman with intriguing backgrounds. Redshirt freshman Marcus Outzen led his Ft. Walton Beach High team to the state championship as an option quarterback and he brings some unique skills to the position. Chris Weinke was the national offensive player of the year as a high school senior in 1989. He signed with FSU and was on campus for four days before leaving to play pro baseball in the Blue Jays' organization. Six years later, he has taken Coach Bowden up on a promise to keep a spot for him and enters Florida State as a 24-year-old freshman with an impressive resume.
There is little chance Florida State can replace the likes of Warrick Dunn right away. While his three consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons and school record 3,989 career yards are nearly impossible to duplicate, what he gave the program in terms of leadership, determination and dependability are even more difficult to replace. FSU coaches are optimistic that one of several young players can rise to the challenge.
Dee Feaster will enter fall practice as the only tailback in camp who has seen any meaningful playing time. He rushed for 60 yards on 20 carries as a sophomore last year, but 41 of those came on one run.
Four freshmen will enter fall drills hoping to unseat Feaster for the starting tailback honors. Redshirt freshman Vannez Gooch was slowed early last year by an ankle injury or he might have been one of the few true freshman to see playing time in 1996. He will battle newcomer Jeff Chaney, who enrolled in January after not attending any college last year. Chaney brings more size to the position. Hoping to get in the mix right away are a pair of true freshmen running backs who posted legendary numbers in high school. Travis Minor was USA Today's offensive player of the year at Catholic High in Baton Rouge, where he followed Warrick Dunn as their star, and like him, signed with FSU. Davey Ford played at Cardinal Newman High in West Palm Beach last year, but hopes to play right away at FSU.
While the tailbacks will be inexperienced, the fullback position will see two veterans battle for the starting assignment. The fall should provide a showdown between juniors Khalid Abdullah and Lamarr Glenn for starting honors. Pooh Bear Williams, who moves to tight end as a senior, and Abdullah plowed the way for Dunn most of last season, but Glenn made a push for playing time late in the year and won starting honors in the spring.
All-America candidate E.G. Green will lead a very talented group of receivers into 1997. Several players battled for starting duties during spring, but there is little question who the man to watch will be. Green averaged over 19.5 yards per reception in 1996, while grabbing a team-leading 34 catches for 662 yards and seven touchdowns. He gained over 1,000 yards receiving as a sophomore and has caught a pass in 27 consecutive games, just three short of the school record.
Peter Warrick emerged from spring as the starter at flanker where he will replace three-year starter Andre Cooper. Warrick's combination of speed and the ability to make the difficult catch has FSU coaches excited and he proved last year he can make the big play. Ron Dugans also had a good spring and has improved steadily. He gives the offense a tough possession receiver who can make the crucial catch in traffic. Sophomore Germaine Stringer, who was voted most improved receiver in the spring, should see action here as well along with duties as the Seminole punt and kick return specialist. The only real unknown at the flanker spot will be Tres Walton, who comes off a knee surgery that limited his ability to practice last fall. He had a successful spring and should contend for playing time right away.
A battle for starting honors in the three wide receiver set seems assured between the players listed behind E.G. Green at split end. Laveranues Coles returns along with Damian Harrell and freshman Marvin Minnis. Coles impressed coaches so much in his first year at receiver that they are leaving him there during the preseason despite the fact that he has the potential to be the answer to the lack of depth at tailback. Harrell probably brings the most intrigue of all the talented receivers. He showed flashes of brilliance as a junior two years ago despite playing with an injured knee. Surgery corrected the problem, but forced him to sit out last year. He's back at full strength and ready to go. Minnis, a redshirt freshman, has been extremely impressive so far and gives the passing game another dimension along the goal line with the ability to go up and get the ball that reminds some of Cooper.
The bad news for the offensive line is that only two starters return to the lineup for 1997, the good news is that both of them are outstanding and there is some exceptional talent ready to fight for a spot among the starting five. Kevin Long is an All-America candidate in his senior year at center and Tra Thomas proved he could handle the job at the difficult tackle position as a starter last year. Long gives the entire Seminole offense a strong backbone of both courage and determination and he'll be counted on as a coach on the field.
Behind Long at center is Eric Thomas who proved in two starts last year that he is ready to play. Talented freshman Jarad Moon was just a jersey grab away from playing last year and coaches are anxious to put him in game situations this fall to see his ability.
Backing up Thomas at tight tackle will be freshman Tarlos Crumitie. He has the size and athletic ability to play the position, but still needs experience to be productive at this level.
Donald Heaven was exceptional in his first spring practice as the starter at tight guard and appears ready to take over the position this fall. He was impressive on the scout team last fall and has all the tools to be a great one at the position. Also hoping to win the spot are sophomore Jeremy Brett, who must recuperate from off-season shoulder surgery, and freshman Justin Amman.
Jason Whitaker started the first three games of last season as a redshirt freshman and will be the starter at split guard going into his sophomore campaign. He won the most improved player award along the offensive line in the spring and should be a much more effective player as a sophomore. Redshirt freshman Jerry Carmichael will use the off-season to show coaches he is ready to see action.
Split tackle was also up from grabs during spring practice, but injuries will force coaches to wait until preseason practice to make a personnel decision. Larry Smith moved over from defensive end and he brings the attitude and determination that coaches hope will make him a great offensive tackle. He has mobility and strength, but suffered a knee injury in the first week of spring practice and must now try and learn the position during preseason drills. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Ross Brannon made good use of his work with the first team during spring drills and will enter the fall as the probable starter at the very challenging position.
Melvin Pearsall returns for his senior season after starting most of last year. He totaled eight catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns in 1996, but had coaches plotting ways of getting more passes to the tight end all season. Behind him is junior Myron Jackson, who hopes to shake the nagging injuries that have held him back over the last two seasons. Also in the mix for the first time will be true freshman Carver Donaldson, who played high school football last fall before graduating early and enrolling at FSU in January. Walk-on Ryan Sprague impressed coaches in his rookie year last fall and will see considerable playing time on special teams.
Before Florida State last season, no team in the history of the Associated Press All-America poll has had two first team players at the same position. So the loss of defensive ends Reinard Wilson and Peter Boulware meant more than just the loss of an incredible 69 career sacks. Few programs could sustain that kind of loss and still consider the position a strength going into the fall, but some proven performances by younger players have the Seminoles in just that position. Andre Wadsworth, Julian Pittman, Greg Spires and Jerry Johnson have all proven that they are ready to take over a defensive front that has become one of the most dominant in all of college football.
Wadsworth will slide from the noseguard position, where he has started for most of the last two seasons, to one of the defensive end spots. Big and fast, Wadsworth was one of the keys to FSU's defense being ranked as the best in the nation against the run last year. With his leadership ability and great determination, he could also earn a place on next year's All-America team.
Lining-up as the starter at the other defensive end this season will be senior Greg Spires. One of the unsung heroes of the 1996 defense, Spires is a player who FSU coaches tried to get into the lineup as often as possible. He can play any position along the defensive front and should excel as a pass rusher in 1997.
Backing up the defensive ends will be a host of talented young players. Junior college transfer Tony Bryant, who enrolled in FSU for the spring semester after an outstanding junior college career, will be out to prove he deserves immediate playing time. Sophomore Chris Walker will also see a lot of action at defensive end and on Florida State special teams. Freshman Roland Seymour will begin practice listed at third team at both left and right defensive end.
Pittman is ready to start at noseguard as a senior and coaches already know that he is ready to play. Extremely strong and very tenacious, Pittman has the ability to control the middle of the line against the run and break free to chase the quarterback when needed. Beginning the fall as a backup at noseguard will be Corey Simon, who has been sensational when he has been healthy. If he stays injury free, FSU coaches will try to get him as much playing time as possible. Solid sophomore Billy Rhodes shook off a preseason injury to have a fine year and he provides valuable depth at noseguard.
One of the great discoveries on the defensive side of the ball last year was Jerry Johnson, who stepped in to start three games at noseguard late in the year and performed better than coaches had hoped. He'll go into his second season with FSU as the starter at defensive tackle after winning both most improved and most dependable awards for the defensive line following spring drills. Listed at second team are senior David Tulloch and freshman Bryne Malone, who hopes to impress coaches in preseason practices and push for playing time this fall.
Florida State's defense returns two starters to its three linebacker set with a lot of talent to choose from in filling the open spot. Academic All-American and two-time Butkus Award semifinalist Daryl Bush returns for his senior season at middle linebacker and the entire defense starts with him. An exceptional talent, Bush is the man charged with getting FSU's defense in the right set before every snap.
One of the big reasons for the great expectations of the '97 defense is the return of weakside linebacker Sam Cowart. The Seminoles leading tackler in 1995 and a sure All-America candidate, Cowart missed all of last season after undergoing knee surgery. He is healthy and has switched to wearing jersey #1 to make sure everyone knows he is back for his final season with the Seminoles. Sophomore Theon Rackley will begin work behind Cowart on the weakside and freshman Tommy Polley is ready to make a run at moving up the depth chart.
Backing up Bush at middle linebacker will be Demetro Stephens who missed all of spring drills after off-season knee surgery. Sophomore Bobby Rhodes had an exceptional spring and his play not only made him a factor in defensive game plans, but it convinced coaches to give him a scholarship. Walk-on Ed Mitchell is also in the mix in the middle.
Veteran Lamont Green is ready to be the regular starter at strong side linebacker after making big plays last year as a reserve. Also working their way up the depth chart are Deon Humphrey and Brian Allen and coaches are anxious to see both of them perform in the preseason scrimmages. Humphrey won the most improved player award at linebacker this spring and Allen reminds many of his cousin, Reinard Wilson.
FSU will begin spring drills with Samari Rolle as the player to beat for one vacant cornerback spots. Rolle started two games last season and brings experience and talent to the secondary.
Junior Troy Saunders started four games last year before an ankle injury slowed his progress. He will push for starting honors at either corner position during preseason drills, however he is listed at second team left corner this summer.
Freshman Coronta Cody will get a look at right corner, while sophomore Todd Frier will see playing time at both corners in preseason drills.
The Seminole secondary should be strong up the middle with the return of Shevin Smith, who scored three defensive touchdowns in '96, at rover and Dexter Jackson at free safety. Smith was the big play man on the defense last year and should contend for All-America honors after walking on at FSU. Jackson is big, athletic and loves to hit from the safety spot.
Freshman Shawn McCorkel started in right field for the ACC Champion FSU baseball team and is hoping to work his way into contention at free safety after a redshirt season. Sean Key will backup Smith at rover and he will likely see a lot of action when the Tribe shifts to its nickel package.
Scott Bentley hit 89 percent of his field goals last year and Sean Liss threatened a school record for punting average -- unfortunately both graduated in the fall and the Seminoles must replace their kicking game.
Bill Gramatica is a redshirt freshman who is the heir apparent to the kicking chores if he can stave off a charge by true freshman signee Sebastian Janikowski during preseason drills. True freshman Keith Cottrell punted for Boone High in Orlando last year, but enrolled early at Florida State and has a chance to win the punting job as a rookie.
The good news for the special teams is that the Seminoles welcome back all their return men with Dee Feaster, Peter Warrick, Laveranues Coles, and Germaine Stringer going into fall drills in a fight for the punt return and kickoff return spots.