TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As of Friday morning, the TV trucks had already converged around Doak Campbell Stadium.
That, along with clear skies and unseasonably cool temperatures in Tallahassee, made it easy to imagine that, if only for a minute, football season was here.
There’s still more than four months to go until Florida State kicks off its season against Alabama in Atlanta. But the Seminoles’ annual Garnet and Gold spring game, which will take place Saturday at 3 p.m., might give a compelling preview.
The scrimmage is the last of 15 practices during a spring camp that has been beset by injuries but, in the end, has left coach Jimbo Fisher satisfied with the team’s progress.
PURCHASE TICKETS TO THE 2017 GARNET AND GOLD SPRING GAME
“I’ve been pretty pleased,” he said. “It’s been a pretty physical spring, with most of our guys learning what to do and how to compete.”
For the first time in three years, Florida State went through the spring without a marquee position battle at quarterback: Deondre Francois is FSU’s first returning starter at the position since Jameis Winston in 2014, and all indications are that his job is secure.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there haven’t been any position races over the past few weeks. And while Fisher likely won’t write anything in stone based on what he sees Saturday, players can at least give themselves a leg up on their completion with strong showings.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch during the Garnet and Gold Game.
1) Meet the new guys
Early-enrollees have been a part of the college football landscape for several years, and the Seminoles have gotten more than their share of them since Fisher took over in 2010. But this year’s crop might have more buzz than any in school history.
FSU’s group of seven enrollees includes a pair of five-star prospects (RB Cam Akers and DE Joshua Kaindoh), two highly-touted defensive backs (Stanford Samuels III – the son of former FSU DB Stanford Samuels Jr. – and Cyrus Fagan), a potential quarterback of the future (Bailey Hockman), one of the nation’s top JUCO linebackers (Adonis Thomas) and reinforcements at tight end (Tre’ McKitty).
The newcomers will get their first taste of game-like action on Saturday, and FSU fans will get a first look at them.
Of particular interest are Akers and Kaindoh, not just because of their prep pedigrees, but also because they play at positions where FSU lost key pieces from a year ago. Akers, a Mississippi native, will look to soften the blow from Dalvin Cook’s departure, while Kaindoh is hoping to bolster a defensive end rotation that will be without sack-master DeMarcus Walker.
“I think he is going to be able to help this team tremendously as a true freshman and the years to come,” Francois said about Akers. “I can see a very mature young man in him.”
2) New look on the line
Roderick Johnson and Kareem Are are both gone, while Alec Eberle (hip) and Landon Dickerson are both hurt (knee). Which means that Florida State has spent this spring working with four new offensive linemen – five during a stretch in which right tackle Rick Leonard nursed an injury of his own.
So while FSU’s starting five won’t be settled until everyone gets healthy, offensive line coach Rick Trickett has at least had an opportunity to see what he has in a number of younger players.
And there are still plenty of options: The Seminoles 15 scholarship linemen, including a few with previous starting experience. Trickett has tried out a number of combinations. Tackles Josh Ball, Brock Ruble and Jauan Williams have all received a heavy workload, as have guards Ethan Frith and Cole Minshew and centers Andrew Boselli and Baveon Johnson.
As usual, protecting the quarterback is a top priority: FSU quarterbacks were sacked 36 times a year ago.
“They still have a lot of work to do,” Fisher said. “I don’t care if it is an experienced O-line coming back or not, it is all about constant communication. (Offensive line) is one of the hardest positions to teach and coach by far.”
3) Cosentino, Hockman in spotlight
As a redshirt junior – and the only FSU quarterback besides Francois to take a collegiate snap – J.J. Cosentino has the inside track to be the Seminoles’ top backup this fall, and Fisher said he has made good progress this spring.
But Fisher has also been steady in his praise of Hockman, a left-handed Georgia native who has impressed with his quick grasp of the offense.
That, along with an injury suffered by Cosentino in FSU’s first scrimmage, allowed Hockman to get some extra reps over the last few weeks.
“Bailey has picked things up,” Fisher said. “He throws the deep ball really well and intermediate stuff. He is still picking the offense up, but I like what I am seeing out of him.”
Whether Hockman can climb to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart remains to be seen, but having depth at the position is never a bad thing, especially after FSU lost two quarterbacks (Sean Maguire and Malik Henry) from last year’s roster.
4) New era on the edge
There’s no easy way to replace DeMarcus Walker, and several Seminoles have said as much in recent weeks. But with the pieces FSU has returning, the Seminoles believe they can at least replace Walker’s production. And, if things go really well, maybe exceed it.
That’s because in Josh Sweat and Bryan Burns, might still have the best defensive end tandem in the ACC.
Burns had 9.5 sacks as a freshman a year ago, and Sweat had seven. And while that combined total barely even eclipses Walker’s 16, the fact that each player seemed to get stronger as the season progressed is an encouraging sign.
Burns had 15 of his 23 tackles in the second half of the season, while Sweat had 1.5 sacks in each of FSU’s last three games.
“It feels a little bit different with ‘D-Walk’ being gone, because he was our leader and he kept us motivated,” Burns said. “We don’t have another DeMarcus Walker in our unit, but we all have a mutual understanding of what we need to get done.”
Burns and Sweat won’t be alone. Converted tight end Jalen Wilkerson has settled in nicely at his new position, and redshirt freshman Janarius Robinson is back in the mix after rehabbing an injured shoulder for much of last season.
Finally, there’s Kaindoh, the 6-6, 250-pound freshman who earned prep All-America honors at IMG Academy last year.
“There’s a lot of young talent in there that’s really got to learn to take different roles and play,” Fisher said. “But they have the ability to be some really good players.”
5) Welcome back, Derwin
In keeping with the theme of spring, Saturday’s spring game won’t mark Derwin James’ official return to action. But for James, as well as fans anxious to see him on the field, it’ll do for now. FSU’s star safety returned to practice this spring after missing most of last season with a torn MCL in his left knee.
And so he before resumes tormenting opposing offenses this fall, James will first spend his afternoon trying to make life difficult for his teammates on FSU’s offense.
Given that he’s waited nearly seven months for this moment, here’s guessing that James might have something memorable in store come Saturday.