Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher believes his Seminoles still have enough talent to make a run at a second straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship despite all the talent they lost to the NFL.
Eleven players were selected in the NFL draft and another handful of Seminoles signed free agent contracts. Still, Fisher is confident the Seminoles will be right in the middle of things again this season.
“We’ll tweak and turn, we’re learning,” Fisher said. “The infrastructure of our program about how we do things won’t change right now.”
A favorable schedule would also appear to benefit the Seminoles. Games at Clemson in mid-October and a season finale at archrival Florida are likely to be the only times the Seminoles may not be favored to win this season.
Fisher’s major challenges include quarterback EJ Manuel (Buffalo Bills), cornerback Xavier Rhodes (Minnesota Vikings) and defensive end Bjoern Werner (Indianapolis Colts), who were all first-round picks in the NFL draft earlier this year.
And that doesn’t include other Seminoles on last year’s ACC championship squad who are also vying for roster spots in the NFL, like kicking specialist Dustin Hopkins, who departed after scoring 466 points. The points, and his 88 career field goals, are both NCAA marks for FBS schools.
“We lost a lot, but there’s still a lot coming in,” Fisher said.
Jameis Winston and Jacob Coker competed for the starting quarterback job, with Winston prevailing in FSU’s first true quarterback battle since sophomore EJ Manuel challenged senior Christian Ponder in 2010. Although the veteran won the job, Manuel played often in relief that season and both became first-round NFL draft selections. The 6-foot-4 Winston and 6-foot-5 Coker are both mobile and have strong arms. They also have plenty of talent surrounding them with a pair of 600-yard rushers back and a playmaking receiver in Rashad Greene.
The defensive line
FSU is replacing four starters up front, but all of the backups have experience. At end, Mario Edwards Jr. started in the ACC championship game and Orange Bowl as a freshman, recording a combined 10 tackles. Senior Dan Hicks likely will start on the other side. And at tackle, junior Timmy Jernigan has 73 career tackles and two starts, while senior Demonte McAllister had 33 tackles a year ago as a backup.
Considered one of the top place-kickers in the 2012 class, Roberto Aguayo made five of six field-goal attempts in the spring game, including two from beyond 50. It was a strong start for Aguayo, who replaces the ACC’s all-time leading scorer in Dustin Hopkins.
Fisher overhauled his staff in the offseason and hired six new assistants. Among the departures were defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, who is now the head coach at Kentucky, and offensive coordinator James Coley, who took the same job at Miami. Fisher brought in Jeremy Pruitt, who won the past two national titles as Alabama’s defensive backs coach, to take over the defense, while linebackers coach Charles Kelly and defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri are also new. There will be no offensive coordinator in title, Fisher said, but he will have three new assistants in Randy Sanders, Tim Brewster and Jay Graham.
FSU was 31-10 in Fisher’s three seasons, a successful transition from coach Bobby Bowden. But FSU struggled in games in which it was heavily favored, losing ACC matchups to N.C. State and North Carolina in 2010, Virginia in 2011 and finally dropping a 16-point second-half lead at N.C. State in 2012. If the Seminoles are a serious contender on the national stage, they can’t lose those kind of games.