Sept. 2, 2011
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State players have been clamoring for a reason to hit someone other than their own teammates.
Saturday they finally get that chance.
A long but productive offseason yields to a new year this Saturday when No. 5/6 FSU opens its 2011 season live on ESPNU with a 3:30 p.m. game against Louisiana-Monroe at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Warhawks will come to Tallahassee to face a Seminoles squad that not only is looking to build off last season's 10-win effort but regain conference supremacy and national relevancy.
To do so, FSU must first handle business against an experienced ULM team that returns nearly all of its starters. On the heels of an intense fall camp, it's an objective that the 'Noles are ready to cross off on their season to-do list.
"I loved the guys' attitudes throughout camp," FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We've worked very hard, continued to get better, and a lot of our younger guys, you could see where some of their contributions could possibly be made and they're developing some depth for the rest of our unit. But I was very happy with the veterans and how they performed and how they conducted themselves throughout camp with their leadership and with their practice habits."
The veteran leadership all starts at the quarterback position where the Seminoles boast what could best be described as a "very experienced" backup quarterback now at the helm.
EJ Manuel has never started the first game of a season but that changes at the onset of his redshirt junior campaign. The Virginia Beach, Va. native has taken over under center for former signal-caller Christian Ponder and does so with a 4-2 career record that he earned over the past two years as an injury replacement.
Manuel also has two bowl-game victories to his credit.
It's those credentials and the resulting trust of his teammates and coaches that has everyone associated with the program excited about his prospects as a full-time starter.
"The good thing about it is we haven’t even turned him loose yet with his legs," said Fisher, noting that Manuel will finally get to return to his dual-threat ways when the no-contact practice jersey gets removed on Saturday. "That brings a special dimension to him that changes things … being able to create and make plays. If you look in the NFL right now. if you’re a statue in that pocket, they don’t care who you are, you’re not getting it. You need to be able to move and create and do things. That’s another thing that has me excited. He’s making good reads, he’s in the pocket … he throws down the field well, and he understands progressions.
"I think he’s progressed very nicely."
Manuel may be able to generate special moments with his right arm and legs but he can only be as good as those around him on offense.
FSU battled with minor injuries to nearly all of its returning offensive linemen through camp but begin the season with a healthy unit. Senior starters Andrew Datko, David Spurlock and Zebrie Sanders lead a group against ULM that also features first-time starters Jacob Fahrenkrug and Bryan Stork.
At the skill positions, Chris Thompson appears to be ready for the opener despite missing most of camp with a sore back. The deep tailback depth chart also features senior Ty Jones -- whom Fisher praised for having the best camp of his career -- senior Jermaine Thomas and freshmen Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr.
Nearly all five could get carries on Saturday.
On the outside, rising junior Willie Haulstead will likely miss the ballgame after sustaining a concussion in the team's final scrimmage of camp. Fellow junior Rodney Smith and senior Bert Reed are the other top returners and both are healthy for a unit that is heavy on youngsters like sophomores Jarred Haggins, Kenny Shaw, Greg Dent and freshmen Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Christian Green.
Saturday will provide FSU fans the first real opportunity to see highly-touted freshman Nick O'Leary at tight end, who is backing up seniors Beau Reliford and Ja'Baris Little. The same is true for rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and safety Karlos Williams.
“I think they’ve adapted well and got themselves into the rotation and a position where we can count on them and they can be dependable," Fisher said about the freshmen. "There will be other freshman as the year goes on. Hopefully they keep developing but from that standpoint, we’re anxious to see how they do … we think they’re ready to go out there and play for us.”
Speaking of defense, coordinator Mark Stoops' group figures to be the driving force for a Seminoles team expecting to make travel arrangements later this year for a BCS bowl game.
The Seminoles have built impressive depth on all three levels of the defensive unit and will rely heavily on the sheer number of talented players very early on. ULM is known to oftentimes run a hurry-up offense that will put an added premium on fresh defensive bodies.
Junior Brandon Jenkins is the star of the defense and has already generated several first-team All-American nods during the preseason. He's just one student-athlete across a defensive front that the Warhawks will see is bigger, stronger, faster and deeper than it has been since FSU was hoisting end-of-season trophies on a regular basis.
Like the defensive line, the linebackers rely on a veteran playmaker in Nigel Bradham. In the secondary, Greg Reid, Xavier Rhodes and Mike Harries form a terrific trio of cornerbacks that will be used to counteract ULM's spread attack. Former cornerback Lamarcus Joyner may burst on to the national scene in his new safety spot and the rotation at the other safety position between Terrance Parks and Nick Moody should keep Warkhawks quarterback Kolton Browning guessing all day.
The increased depth means that not only does FSU have more than enough capable bodies on defense, it can also throw different looks at ULM with personnel that likely isn't featured in last year's game tapes.
"We have more depth in what we’re doing,” Fisher said.
Much has been made and will continue to be made about the 'Noles' title-implications game against Oklahoma on Sept. 17 but Saturday's tilt isn't being overlooked.
Upsets have become more prevalent with increased parity in college football and ULM knows that very well. The Warhawks were on the happy sideline in 2007 when they took down Alabama 21-14 in Tuscaloosa.
"Our kids know that everybody has got a good football team," Fisher said. "… I think we just have to worry about ourselves and try to play the best we can play."