2016 season preview: FSU Seminoles
The Seminoles are entering a period of transition searching for their new, long-term quarterback. An experiment with Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson produced mixed results in 2015, perhaps resulting in a change of strategy. Rather than take a quick-fix approach, Jimbo Fisher now seems committed to giving their young recruits a chance. The rest of the roster is flushed with talent, including a couple of elite NFL prospects.
Unconvincing performances have tempered the hype around Sean Maguire. A preseason foot injury, which has ruled him out for around a month, has further damaged his prospects. At this point, redshirt freshman Deondre Francois looks like the favorite to start. In his 240 career attempts, Maguire has a negative overall grade, throwing 12 touchdowns to eight interceptions. Those figures do not inspire confidence, opening the door for Francois to seize his chance. Can the freshman play well enough to end the notion of an open competition?
A strong running game would certainly help the young quarterback’s development. Thankfully, Florida State possess one of the best backs in college. Dalvin Cook’s vision and explosion make him a home-run threat. Overall, he ranked tenth last season amongst FBS running backs, averaging 4.0 yards after contact per attempt with 56 broken tackles. Once he hits the second level, Cook’s gone the majority of the time. He remains somewhat deficient as a pass protector, and needs to overcome a fumbling issue, but is already an elite NFL prospect.
Additionally, the remaining 2015 skill position starters will be returning to Florida State. Wideouts Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield led the Seminoles in snaps a season ago. Whitfield looks especially promising. Working predominantly from the slot, he caught 57 passes for 790 yards and six touchdowns. The senior also broke 11 tackles and dropped just three passes. Inconsistent hands limited Rudolph’s production last season (nine drops from 68 catchable passes), but he certainly has ability. Overall, he snagged 59 passes for 916 yards, seven touchdowns and nine broken tackles. The Seminoles might lack a truly elite playmaker on the perimeter, but their corps as a whole is very strong.
In the trenches, the starting five aren’t as strong as they have been in previous years. Each of the projected starters graded negatively in the run game. Cook’s presence nullifies the detrimental impact to some extent, but frequent muscular injuries mean he’s not always available. At least FSU’s front is solid in pass protection. Starting tackles Roderick Johnson and Brock Ruble gave up just 11 knockdowns (two sacks) and 23 hurries combined in 2015. The center position remains the biggest concern. Discovering Alec Eberle toward the end of last season offers hope of a solution. He’ll need to stay healthy after backups Corey Martinez and Ryan Hoefeld ranked 380th and 390th respectively last season.
Losing possibly the best defender in the FBS last season will inevitably hurt the Seminoles’ defense. Their success, however, has been built on depth throughout the roster rather than individuals. The three remaining starters in the secondary all stood out in 2015, to varying degrees. Hybrid Derwin James was the best of the bunch, ranking second behind only Jeremy Cash amongst safeties. He should be well supported by Nate Andrews, who might even be an upgrade on Lamarcus Brutus at the other safety spot. The former starter gave up five touchdowns and an 86.7 QB rating when targeted last season. His replacement allowed only nine completions from 19 targets for 66 yards, and a QB rating of only 56.0.
The outlook at corner is harder to predict. Marquez White has one side locked down, but needs a partner to emerge across from him. White was incredibly reliable in 2015, giving up just 20 catches on 43 targets for 225 yards and one touchdown. He also picked off a pass and deflected a further three, culminating in a QB rating allowed of only 60.7. At the other spot, FSU are likely to depend on a young, inexperienced player stepping up.
On the defensive line, four of the six major contributors (minimum 400 snaps) will be back. Derrick Nnadi was more disruptive than departed counterpart Nile Lawrence-Stample, amassing 17 combined pressures last season. Top pass rushers Demarcus Walker and Josh Sweat should also be improved with the added years’ experience. Walker was especially productive collapsing the pocket in 2015, registering 11 sacks, ten hits and 16 hurries. In contrast, Sweat only managed four combined knockdowns. He did manage 27 hurries, but will want to ensure the quarterback feels his presence more frequently next year.
Generally, the Seminoles’ run defense has been excellent the past few years. That trend will be tested in 2016. Nile Lawrence-Stample was FSU’s best at the point of attack, while role player Giorgio Newberry will also be missed. The programme is also facing a complete overhaul at linebacker. Ro’Derrick Hoskins is the only returner with any experience (more than 100 snaps), and he graded negatively in 2015. The losses of Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith might result in an adjustment period for the defense entering next season.
Derwin James is a hugely influential defensive weapon, but he can’t take over games the way Cook does. In many ways, Cook is similar to Adrian Peterson. His skillset, deficiencies and injury problems all echo the traits of the Vikings’ star, even if Cook is not quite on that level as a prospect. Both Peterson and Cook possess the acceleration to convert medium gains into touchdowns. As a result, the quick-twitch hamstrung muscles are often strained. Those are the positive similarities. Neither Cook nor Peterson excel in the passing game. The FSU stud ranked 234th of 244 qualifying backs in pass protection a season ago, giving up two hits and six hurries. He also dropped four of 28 catchable passes and fumbled three times. Peterson has similar issues without the ball in hand. Even with those concerns Cook, like Peterson, is amongst the best players in his league
FSU isn’t short of candidates for the rising star label, with talent across the board. DeMarcus Walker earned plenty of plaudits for his sack numbers, highlighting his off-the-scale potential. Consistency, however, differentiates the outstanding players from the merely good. With 37 combined pressures from 387 snaps, Walker could still push the pocket on a more regular basis. He clearly has the raw tools to emerge as a truly elite edge rusher, but needs to perform on every snap to reach that standard.
Jimbo Fisher expects his lineman to contribute in both phases of the game, which is why Walker has earned so much trust and playing time. He led the ‘Noles with 706 snaps last season, defending the run on 288 of them. Walker was the ground game, generating 26 stops from 288 snaps. His run stop percentage of 9.0 was tenth in the FBS.
Ultimately, the Seminoles’ fortunes will depend on their young quarterback. Maguire’s injury has gifted Francois the upper hand in the race to face Ole Miss in week one. The rest of the roster has the talent to carry FSU to multiple wins this year, but reaching the playoffs will be a big ask in a stacked Atlantic division. Jimbo Fisher is never likely to accept lowered standards, but FSU might need another season before they again crack the top four.