TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Here’s how you know expectations are high at Florida State: The Seminoles will begin the 2016 season ranked No. 4 in the preseason Coaches Poll – their second-highest preseason ranking in head coach Jimbo Fisher’s seven years – despite not knowing who will be their starting quarterback when they take the field against Mississippi to open the season next month.
That’s the biggest question facing Fisher on the eve of the Seminoles’ first practice of fall camp, but it’s not the only one.
FSU will need improvements virtually across the board from last year’s 10-3 team – except, perhaps at running back – and there are several compelling position races set to begin this week, with All-Americans to replace in the secondary and the kicking game.
Still, regardless of how things shake out over the next few weeks, it’s plain to see that FSU has the respect of the college football world. In addition to their ranking, the Seminoles also enter the campaign with a Heisman Trophy frontrunner (running back Dalvin Cook), the top offensive lineman in the ACC (left tackle Roderick Johnson) and a sophomore safety who is already garnering buzz as one of the best defensive players in the sport (Derwin James).
The team should hardly lack for motivation, either. The Atlantic Coast Conference placed two teams in the preseason top five, which means that, despite its own national championship aspirations, FSU will start the season looking up at No. 2 Clemson in both the national polls and the ACC projections. Conference media picked the Tigers to defend their ACC title last month at the league’s Football Kickoff.
There’s a long way to go – and several challenging games – before the Seminoles meet the Tigers inside Doak Campbell Stadium on Oct. 29. In the meantime, here are five questions facing FSU as fall camp begins.
After months of analysis and speculation, Sean Maguire and Deondre Francois finally go toe to toe as the top two candidates for the starting job.
The case for each is clear: Maguire is the seasoned veteran with a big arm, a mastery of Fisher’s complex offense and the adoration of his teammates, many of whom he has known for nearly five years. Francois is the talented youngster who has yet to take an in-game snap, but who made big strides in the spring (while Maguire nursed an ankle injury) and gave a tantalizing glimpse of his abilities at the Garnet and Gold Game. “Both (Francois) and Sean have gotten rave reviews,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “At times (teammates) will say, ‘Well, Sean may be a little better, Coach’ and then they’ll say, ‘Well, Francois is throwing back.’ But that’s the way you want it, the back and forth and the competition.”
History tells us that it will be a few weeks before Fisher makes his decision, but, with the two set to settle things on the field, some clarity should be coming soon. Third-year sophomore J.J. Cosentino and freshman Malik Henry are also in the mix.
FSU is set at one cornerback position, where senior Marquez White is back after having one of the most quietly impressive seasons of any Seminole defender. Despite playing opposite All-American Jalen Ramsey, White was targeted on just seven percent of throws by opposing quarterbacks, and he allowed a completion on just 32.1 percent of those throws. But Ramsey’s departure to the NFL means that the Seminoles will be breaking in a new corner this fall, and after spring practice, sophomores Marcus Lewis and Tarvarus McFadden appeared to be the top two choices.
“They’ve definitely got the tools,” White said. “Tarvarus is big and long, Marcus is big and long. They’ve got similar tools to Jalen.”
McFadden brings a top prep pedigree and was one of FSU’s most-prized signees in the recruiting class of 2015. But Lewis has more than held his own, and he commanded respect in the locker room after a strong outing in the spring game.
“A lot of people don’t see him emerging,” senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker said. “But mark my words: Watch for Marcus Lewis this year.”
Having signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in February, it stands to reason that FSU will see some freshmen on the field this fall. That’s especially the case on defense, where the Seminoles lost key contributors on the defensive line, in the linebacker corps and in the secondary. Fortunately, FSU signed blue-chip prospects at every level. That includes five-star cornerback Levonta Taylor – who seems like a ready-made candidate for either the “Star” or “Money” positions and maybe some kick return duties as well – as well as early enrollees like linebacker Josh Brown and defensive linemen Wally Aime and Cedric Wood.
Brown in particular has a chance to make a fast first impression, as FSU’s linebacker depth could be a little thin after the departures of senior stalwarts Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup. FSU also welcomed a crop of six new offensive linemen, and while they might not unseat an incumbent starter, they’ll at least provide a much needed wave of depth.
The Seminoles seem solid at three positions, with All-American left tackle Roderick Johnson and senior left guard Kareem Are anchoring the left side and junior Wilson Bell back at right guard.
While the other two spots aren’t as clear, the good news is that FSU returns multiple players with starting experience at both center (Alec Eberle, Ryan Hoefeld and Corey Martinez) and right tackle (Brock Ruble and Derrick Kelly). Eberle started the final six games of last season, which means he ought to have the inside track. But he’ll be pushed by Hoefeld and Martinez, as well as redshirt freshman Cole Minshew, who was off to a promising start in last year’s preseason camp before redshirting with an injury.
On the right side, the team will be without Chad Mavety, who is out with a medical issue after finishing the season as the team’s top choice at right tackle. Kelly and Ruble will each look to reclaim their starter status, but they’ll have additional competition in the form of Rick Leonard, the former defensive end who switched to right tackle in the spring. By all accounts, Leonard looked right at home at his new position and should have a say in how the race plays out.
“Rick came over here and made it look easy,” Johnson said.
With redshirt junior Ro’Derrick Hoskins left as the only obvious starter at linebacker, it’s a perfect time to welcome Matthew Thomas back in the fold. A former five-star prospect, Thomas flashed plenty of potential during portions of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but, thanks to a shoulder injury, he hasn’t played a snap since the Rose Bowl against Oregon.
Now a redshirt junior, Thomas is looking to add a jolt of energy and athleticism to a group that’s long on potential but a little short on experience. Thomas returned to the team for spring camp and finished with one of the more impressive efforts by a defender in the Garnet and Gold Game (three tackles, one sack). Even better, Thomas emerged healthy and, apparently, ready to contribute this fall. “He can help us,” senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker said. “He can help this team – not just the defense.”