ATLANTA – Amid the frustration and disappointment of Florida State’s 38-24 defeat to Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a prevailing sense of optimism made its way into the Seminoles’ locker room, too.
Thanks to an offense that returns every member of its two-deep depth chart and a rising sophomore class that’s among the most promising of coach Jimbo Fisher’s tenure, FSU already has its sights set high for 2016.
“We know we have a chance to do something special,” freshman running back Jacques Patrick said.
“I feel like we’re going to go hard this offseason,” freshman safety Derwin James added. “I feel like we’re going to have a good chance to have a pretty good year next year.”
Florida State appears to have a manageable amount of roster turnover to contend with during the offseason.
With offensive veterans like Sean Maguire, Dalvin Cook and Travis Rudolph set to return, as well as nine linemen that played a significant amount, the Seminoles should be able to draw from plenty of experience while younger players grow into larger roles.
That wave includes Patrick, who FSU hopes can ease some of Cook’s burden, as well as a crowded but talented group of underclassmen receivers.
In Rudolph (59 catches, 916 yards), Wilson (58-622) and Kermit Whitfield (57-798), the Seminoles have three receivers who flirted with 60 catches in 2015.
Meanwhile, rising juniors Ermon Lane and Ja’Vonn Harrison, as well as the freshman quartet of George Campbell, Auden Tate, Nyqwan Murray and Da’Vante Phillips, are waiting in the wings.
And although Maguire will be a fifth-year senior and the heavy favorite to win FSU’s quarterback job, third-year sophomore J.J. Cosentino and redshirt freshman Deondre Francois will also be in the mix.
Francois didn’t play as a true freshman, but he did gain plenty of experience leading the scout-team offense against Florida State’s first team defense in practice on a daily basis.
“I’m excited to compete with a guy like Sean,” Francois said. “He’s a natural leader and he’s helped me a lot. He’s a nice guy. We’re real cool, we’re real good friends. We both want to compete. We’re excited for spring ball.”
On defense, FSU must contend with the loss of eight seniors, as well as the potential departures of juniors Jalen Ramsey, DeMarcus Walker and Marquez White.
But the good news is that two of FSU’s most promising young players, safety Derwin James and defensive end Josh Sweat, played major roles in 2015, and each will be an important piece of the Seminoles’ defense moving forward, regardless of who else is on the roster.
As the former No. 1 recruit in the country, James arrived in Tallahassee with the heaviest of expectations and somehow managed to exceed them.
His 91 tackles are the most among FSU’s returning defenders, and he also added 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
He feels like he has plenty of room to improve, too.
“I think I got off to a pretty good start,” James said. “I’m just looking to come out next year and make more plays for my team to put us in better position.
“I feel like, this year, I left a lot of plays out there that I could have made. I made a lot of plays, but I left a lot of plays out there, too. That just comes with experience. Each week I’m learning more.”
The same goes for Sweat, who surprised and delighted FSU fans by returning from a knee injury suffered in high school and became a regular contributor to the Seminoles’ defensive line rotation.
Sweat made an instant impact – he and James often teamed up to form a pass-rushing tandem – but the way his freshman year ended left him hungry for more.
“I’m not satisfied with the outcome, as far as the team,” Sweat said. “I feel like I could’ve helped them a lot better, with bettering myself and getting more sacks and tackles for loss. But I felt good about it.
“We’re going to come back strong. I know that for a fact.”
And, as always, further reinforcements are on the way.
National Signing Day sits one month away, on Feb. 3, and Fisher is putting the final touches on a recruiting class that’s in line to rank among the nation’s best.
ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports all have FSU’s group of pledges in their top five.
“We’ll look forward to having a great year,” Fisher said after the Peach Bowl. “I think we’re very excited to going into next year, almost everybody back, and have an opportunity to have a very special team again.
“And (we will) look, hopefully, to learn from this experience and grow and help us down the road. And I think the best is still ahead for this program.”