Being the “head-coach-in-waiting” in college football is kind of like being the backup quarterback in the NFL. Everyone loves you because you are intriguing and have yet to fail on the job — the complete opposite of a face of the program or starting signal-caller who has experienced his share of ups and downs in the position.
For Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, the intrigue will soon turn into criticism and overanalysis — with everyone from the media to the fans to people within the program pretending he or she is an expert.
But if the honeymoon period for Fisher is supposed to be ending soon in Tallahassee, it sure doesn’t seem like it.
For the first time since 1975, Florida State is preparing for a football season without the legendary Bobby Bowden leading the team. The former offensive coordinator for the Seminoles, Fisher now has full control of the program after his three-year apprenticeship under Bowden — and he has everyone associated with FSU as excited about a football season as anytime in recent memory.
But if the Seminoles yearn to return to prominence and reclaim its role as a national power in the post-Bowden era, defense will need to reign supreme.
It’s a good thing that new coordinator Mark Stoops will have a lot of toys to work with on the defensive side of the ball.
Brought in from Arizona to replace Mickey Andrews, Stoops will lead a unit looking to rebound from one of the worst seasons in the program’s history. The Seminoles struggled mightily both against the run and the pass, finishing the ’09 season ranked 108th in total defense (434.6 yards a game) and 94th in points allowed (30 points a game).
One of the biggest differences on defense in 2010 will be the multiple zone coverages that Stoops will employ, making it more difficult for opponents to game plan week after week. A refocus on fundamentals was also preached throughout the spring as the team became more familiar with the new system. Assistant D.J. Eliot was also brought in to coach a group of defensive ends that struggled mightily a season ago.
In terms of personnel on the field, defensive end Markus White has not yet lived up to the high expectations placed upon him since arriving from junior college in 2008. He had just two sacks last season, but the new scheme should allow him to become more of a presence on the outside. 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. On the inside, Jacobbi McDaniel will be leaned on to be a difference-maker, while linebackers Nigel Bradham and early enrollee Jeff Luc could ultimately thrive more than any other defenders on the unit. Bradham led the team in tackles with 93 last year and Luc could be one of the best freshman defenders in the conference by the end of the season.
Sophomore cornerback Greg Reid, who is the best athlete on the team, will get a chance to replace Patrick Robinson at cornerback, and he could be a key piece to the secondary with only Ochuko Jenije returning to his starting role in the defensive backfield.
Recruiting coordinator James Coley will now run an offense that ranked 28th in the nation in ’09 and is led by quarterback Christian Ponder, who led the ACC in total offense at 321.8 yards per game before missing the last four games with a shoulder injury. If Ponder stays healthy and plays to his ’09 form, he could be a darkhorse Heisman candidate. The talent is obviously there, and he proved that the work ethic is, as well, after an accelerated rehab of his separated shoulder.
The ‘Noles are loaded at running back, where their leading rusher from ’09, Jermaine Thomas, was passed on the unofficial depth chart by Chris Thompson. Lonnie Pryor is coming off a nice freshman season, while Ty Jones has battled inconsistency but also has shown much potential. Whoever is carrying the football will be running behind perhaps the best offensive line in the entire conference, as coach Rick Trickett’s unit returns all five starters who have combined for 142 career starts — tops in the league.
It would seem odd that a team coming off a six-loss season would garner so much hype, but with an improved defense and their two toughest division opponents — Boston College and Clemson — coming to Tallahassee, the Seminoles are set up to reclaim their spot atop the Atlantic Division standings this fall. A date at Oklahoma on September 11 will also give the ‘Noles an opportunity to prove that they are ready to come back to the national stage, as well.
Fisher has not only learned from Bowden during his time with the Seminoles, but he was also lucky enough to be Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU. Maybe that’s why Fisher has instituted wholesale changes at FSU — almost a pro-like atmosphere — complete with hired nutritionists and psychologists, as well as restricted media access. But change was sorely needed for Florida State. Being average and apathetic just wasn’t good enough.
With high expectations for immediate results and an athletic signing class brought into Tallahassee this offseason, the ‘Noles look like they are in good hands with Fisher at the helm.
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