By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer
@Tim_Linafelt on Twitter
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It was one of Florida State’s biggest questions entering the 2012 ACC Championship Game.
How would Mario Edwards Jr., a freshman defensive end making the first start of his career, fare in a front-and-center role against Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense?
Just fine, it turned out.
Edwards delivered seven tackles and spearheaded a defensive effort that limited the Yellow Jackets to just 183 rushing yards in FSU’s 21-15 victory.
“I think that was my coming-out game,” Edwards said this week. “For me to do it in college was definitely big. It was a big confidence boost.”
Edwards doesn’t usually lack for confidence, but still had to navigate some difficulties as a freshman.
He arrived in Tallahassee as one of the most-hyped recruits in recent FSU history, a 6-3, 300-pound defensive lineman who ranked as the nation’s No. 1 high school player for the Class of 2012.
But, like it does with so many highly regarded prospects, college football dealt Edwards a reality check.
Sub-par conditioning and a loaded FSU depth chart at his position relegated Edwards to the bench early in the season.
Coach Jimbo Fisher even said that Edwards would likely redshirt before an injury to starter Brandon Jenkins forced him into action.
“As everyone knows, my freshman year I played overweight,” Edwards said. “… Then I started getting more playing time.”
Even then, Edwards labored through a slow transition from high school star to productive collegiate player.
With upperclassmen Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine getting most of the action, Edwards appeared in 11 regular-season games as a freshman but recorded stats in just three. His best outing was a three-tackle performance against Maryland.
The postseason, though, was something else entirely.
With just minutes to go in a loss to Florida, Carradine suffered a torn ACL that sidelined him for what little remained of the season.
Which meant that Edwards would be thrust into the spotlight against Georgia Tech.
The task seemed tall. Edwards had to serve as the first line of defense against a rushing attack that came into the contest averaging 323.3 yards per game.
Edwards, though, had a secret. The triple-option offense that Georgia Tech runs is awfully popular among high schools in North Texas, where Edwards starred at Ryan High in Denton.
He’d seen it countless times already.
“Honestly, my freshman year I told them this would be quite easy for me,” Edwards said. “Because I played against them in high school.”
Edwards and the Seminoles’ defense made it look easy against the Jackets and helped to pick up an FSU offense that sputtered at times on its way to the school’s first ACC title in seven years.
The game showed Edwards for the first time that he could be an impact player at the college level.
And it served as a launching point to several breakout performances in 2013 – including a starring role in the BCS National Championship Game – and first-team All-ACC honors this year.
“You saw the potential and what he can be (in 2012),” Fisher said. “To go out there and perform like he did in that game was huge.
“And I think it really kicked his career off in a good way.”