TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Wednesday marks the beginning of coach Jimbo Fisher’s seventh spring camp at Florida State, and it promises to be among the most compelling and competitive springs of Fisher’s tenure.
There are three promising quarterbacks hoping to unseat a seasoned veteran, a slew of young offensive playmakers looking to emerge and a few tons’ worth of offensive linemen ready to block for them.
On defense, FSU must replace perhaps its most talented defensive back in decades, as well stalwart veterans on the defensive line and at linebacker.
Recruiting, of course, mitigates these losses, and few schools have recruited better in recent years than FSU, which landed the nation’s No. 1 freshman class in February. Seven of those freshmen are already on campus.
While a look at FSU’s roster suggests that the Seminoles have the pieces to get back in the national championship picture, there are still a few holes to fill and puzzles to solve.
Here are five questions facing the Seminoles on the eve of spring football.
Jimbo Fisher observes Deondre Francois during a practice at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
1) Can a quarterback take advantage of his extra opportunities?
First and foremost, Sean Maguire is still in the fold and, as a fifth-year senior, has a heavy experience advantage over his counterparts. In fact, none of J.J. Cosentino, Deondre Francois or Malik Henry has ever started a college football game. Francois and Henry haven’t taken so much as a snap.
But Maguire suffered an ankle injury in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and is out for the spring. Which means that Cosentino, Francois and Henry all have unique opportunities to assert themselves over the next few weeks and stake a claim as Maguire’s top backup – or more.
Fisher said on National Signing Day that Henry, a five-star freshman who enrolled early, has a “tremendous chance” to compete for the starting job. And the same likely holds true for Francois and Cosentino.
Regardless of how it shakes out, the effects of Maguire’s absence will trickle down the QB depth chart: A quarterback who normally takes second-team reps will move up the first team, the third-team moves up to second-team and so on.
For Cosentino, the spring provides a chance to get rid of the sour taste from his brief relief appearance in the Peach Bowl, where he completed just 1 of 4 passes for five yards and was sacked twice.
Meanwhile Francois, a redshirt freshman from Orlando, has garnered plenty of buzz thanks to rave reviews from his work with the scout team last season. He rated as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the high school class of 2015, and he learned under former FSU great Chris Weinke at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Fisher has already promised that Maguire will get back in the mix upon his return this fall, so it’s unlikely that anything permanent will come from spring practice. But any experience and confidence gained by the other three quarterbacks will almost certainly shape the QB race this August.
2) Will a reliable running back emerge to complement Dalvin Cook?
Dalvin Cook enters his junior season as perhaps the best running back in the nation and on the short list of preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. Still, as great as Cook was last year – and his 1,691 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns were the best in school history – it’s hard not to imagine what he might have done if fully healthy.
From the middle of the season on, Cook contended with hamstring and ankle injuries that slowed him down at times and sidelined him at others.
So of course, keeping Cook healthy this season is paramount for FSU’s championship hopes. And reducing his workload – even if by a small percentage – would help. Consider that Cook carried 229 times last year, just 10 behind the school record set by Larry Key in 1977.
The good news is that FSU has some depth in the backfield, which should help Cook carry the load. Injuries have plagued Mario Pender, now a redshirt junior, for much of his career. And he’s got a tall hill to climb as he attempts to work his way back from a collapsed lung. But, when healthy, he’s been both speedy and effective, as evidenced by his 4.9 career yards per carry.
The Seminoles are also anxious to see progress from sophomore Jacques Patrick. The 6-2, 233-pounder would make a perfect balance for Cook or Pender, but Fisher at times urged Patrick to play with more toughness. Having a bigger back like Patrick absorb blows in the trenches could help limit Cook’s wear and tear.
3) Who fills the holes on defense?
While the FSU offense returns every starter, there are guaranteed to be some new faces on defense, where the Seminoles have holes to fill at every level.
Up front, they must replace Nile Lawrence-Stample and Giorgio Newberry. Longtime linebackers Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup are also gone.
And the secondary must deal with perhaps the biggest departure of all in cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who is on his way to becoming a top NFL draft pick. Add in the loss of safety Lamarcus Brutus, and it’s obvious that coordinator Charles Kelly will have his hands full.
And while this spring offers plenty of opportunities for established players to take the next step – think Demarcus Christmas, Josh Sweat, Derwin James and Ro’Derrick Hoskins – it could be even more crucial for a few underclassmen looking to make names for themselves.
FSU has nine defensive linemen who are redshirt sophomores or younger. And several of that crop, including third-year players like Arthur Williams and Adam Torres, are still looking to make their first significant impact.
The linebacker corps, meanwhile, could receive its biggest boost by welcoming back an old friend. Matthew Thomas, now a redshirt junior, is back after missing last season with a suspension. When available, Thomas has been one of the defense’s most explosive players. However, he’s appeared in just 12 games since 2013 and hasn’t played at all in more than a year.
Fisher, though, said after a recent offseason workout that Thomas is looking like his old self.
“He runs so smooth and athletic,” Fisher said. “I’ve been real pleased with him.”
Tyrell Lyons is also back after tearing his ACL last season, but Fisher expects him to be limited to individual drills.
Finally, the secondary will no doubt miss Ramsey and Brutus, but FSU under Fisher has recruited DBs as well as any school in the country, and there is no shortage of talented players waiting in the wings.
That includes James, FSU’s top returning tackler (91 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and a player who teammates say has filled Ramsey’s shoes as a leader despite only being a sophomore.
Elsewhere, the Seminoles have four more sophomore DBs – corners Tarvarus McFadden and Marcus Lewis and safeties A.J. Westbrook and Calvin Brewton – who should be in the mix to take over at their respective positions. McFadden rated as a consensus five-star prospect in the recruiting class of 2015.
4) Which young receiver emerges?
FSU in 2015 signed one of the top receiver classes in the nation, with high school All-Americans George Campbell and Da’Vante Phillips, as well as Florida prep standouts Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray, joining the fold.
But FSU fans anxious to see the new blood at receiver didn’t see much: the four combined for just 10 catches a year ago.
Fisher offered a few reasons for this. Some dealt with injuries. Others weren’t yet ready to contribute at the college level. But, perhaps more than anything else, the Seminoles already had three established receivers – Travis Rudolph, Bobo Wilson and Kermit Whitfield – ahead in the rotation.
That trio isn’t going anywhere, and each of Rudolph, Wilson and Whitfield made big strides in 2015. But FSU would do well to get some of its younger (and taller) wideouts involved this year. That’s especially true in the red zone, where the Seminoles scored touchdowns on 57.7 percent of their opportunities last year.
The 6-foot-5 Tate and 6-4 Campbell seem like the best candidates to help in that regard.
This spring will also be important for Ja’Vonn Harrison and Ermon Lane, juniors who are looking to hold off their younger counterparts on the depth chart.
5) Will there be a shakeup on the offensive line?
With a health issue clouding right tackle Chad Mavety’s future, the answer is already “yes.”
But don’t be surprised if line coach Rick Trickett does some more shuffling. Fisher has already confirmed that Mavety, Derrick Kelly, Ryan Hoefeld and Abdul Bello are out for the spring. And, outside of All-American left tackle Roderick Johnson, there could be four starting jobs up for grabs.
Incumbent guards Kareem Are and Wilson Bell are the favorites to remain, and Alec Eberle finished the season with six straight starts at center and is the likely frontrunner there.
But with more available linemen than ever – FSU lists 14 scholarship linemen, and that number will grow to 19 when five more freshmen arrive this fall – there are plenty of options for Trickett to try.
The sooner he can establish a starting five, though, the better. The Seminoles employed nine different starters across several combinations a year ago and, at times, it showed. FSU allowed 26 sacks (2.0 per game) in 2015, good for 59th in the country and eighth in the ACC.