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ACC spring practice preview: Florida State

Defense needs to reign supreme to return ‘Noles to prominence in post-Bowden era. Dave Miller

Print This March 19, 2010, 05:00 PM EST

Florida State Seminoles
2009: 7-6 (4-4)

For the first time since 1975, Florida State began preparing for a football season without the legendary Bobby Bowden leading the team. As spring practice began on Tuesday in Tallahassee, former offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher was no longer the “head-coach-in-waiting.” After the Bowden era closed out with a victory over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, Fisher assumed full control of the Seminoles program. And based on the athletic signing class he brought into Tallahassee this offseason, it looks like the ‘Noles are in good hands.

But Fisher ultimately will be judged on what happens on the field, and for FSU to reclaim its role as a national power, the defense will need to rebound from one of the worst seasons in the program’s storied history. The ‘Noles couldn’t stop the run, couldn’t stop the pass and probably wouldn’t have stopped the opposition’s mascot on a crucial fourth-and-one. The team ranked 108th in total defense (434.6 yards a game) and 94th in points allowed (30 points a game) in 2009, leaving many to wonder how the wheels came off so quickly.

All but one member of the defensive staff is gone, as new coordinator Mark Stoops was brought in from Arizona to replace Mickey Andrews. Fisher, along with several of the new coaches, have used the word “multiple” many times to describe the numerous zone coverages that the ‘Noles will employ on defense — making it more difficult for opponents to game plan week after week. Fundamentals will be preached throughout the spring as the team gets used to the new system. And D.J. Eliot was brought in to coach a group of defensive ends that struggled mightily a season ago.

The good news is that the new staff will have plenty of talent to work with as it prepares for 2010. The question is whether the players will buy into the new coaching lessons.

Defensive end Markus White has yet to live up to the mighty expectations placed upon him since arriving from junior college in 2008. He had just two sacks last season, but maybe a new scheme is exactly what White needs to succeed. Fellow end Brandon Jenkins was impressive in his limited opportunities as a freshman, showing a quick first step and the ability to effectively shed blockers. He can only be a bigger force with added bulk. On the inside, Jacobbi McDaniel will be leaned on to be a difference-maker with an increased role in Stoops’ defense. At linebacker, can the solid Nigel Bradham become more of a playmaker? Though he led the team in tackles with 93 last year, he hasn’t developed into the elite player that many believe he could be by the end of his career. Fellow linebacker and early enrollee Jeff Luc could also develop into one of the best freshman defenders in the conference by the end of the year.

The one Seminole most people are talking about on defense is sophomore cornerback Greg Reid, who is the best athlete on the team. The ‘Noles could use a big year on defense from Reid, who averaged 18.4 yards per punt return to lead the nation in ‘09. He will have an opportunity to replace Patrick Robinson at cornerback, and could be a key piece to the secondary with only Ochuko Jenije returning to his starting role in the defensive backfield. If Stoops could help him refine his mechanics and fundamentals, watch out. He could be a stud.

While most of the talk around the Seminoles focuses on the defense — rightfully so — FSU’s offense has some intriguing storylines that will play out over the offseason. While the unit ranked 28th nationally in 2009, former tight ends coach James Coley will now run the offense in place of Fisher. But how much will Fisher still be involved in game planning and play calling in his first year as head coach?

Before missing the last four games of last season with a shoulder injury, quarterback Christian Ponder led the conference in total offense at 321.8 yards per game. If he stays healthy and plays to his ’09 form, could he be a darkhorse Heisman candidate? While he is still rehabbing the separated shoulder, the signal caller put on a helmet for the first time on Tuesday since his season-ending injury at Clemson. He was just in shorts and no pads — like his teammates — but doctors had expected him to be limited this spring. While Ponder believed he was ahead of schedule, even he didn’t think he would progress so fast.

“Originally, I was told spring was going to be pretty limited and [Tuesday] I went through the whole practice,” he told the Orlando Sentinel afterwards. “And there’s still a lot of room to go. I’ve got to get my feel back and my touch back and my arm strength back and everything.

“But I definitely didn’t think I’d be going through a full practice on the first day.”

Ponder hopes to be able to play in the team’s spring game on April 10. Even if he is limited, there’s no question now that he will be back to full strength for the start of preseason practice in August.

While a starting job may not have been promised to running back Jermaine Thomas, FSU's leading rusher in ’09, it’s his job to lose. The ‘Noles were 3-1 when he ran for at least 100 yards, and he had four 100-yard games in his final six contests. The soon-to-be junior turned it on after a slow start, and there’s no reason not to expect a big 2010 season. Still, there is talent behind him in Lonnie Pryor, who had a nice freshman season, and Ty Jones, who has battled inconsistency but also has shown much potential.

No matter who is carrying the football, he will be running behind perhaps the best offensive line in the entire ACC. Coach Rick Trickett’s unit returns all five starters who have combined for 142 career starts — tops in the league. Guard Rodney Hudson should be an All-America candidate, while center Ryan McMahon, guard David Spurlock and tackles Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders will be together for a third straight season.

With an improved defense and their two toughest division opponents — Boston College and Clemson — coming to Tallahassee, the Seminoles have a great chance to reclaim their spot atop the Atlantic Division standings in 2010. And with a date at Oklahoma on September 11, the ‘Noles will have the opportunity to prove that they are ready to come back to the national stage, as well.

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