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PLAYERS COMPLETING SUSPENSIONS ARE GETTING THEIR BACKUPS READY
SIT AND WAIT: Linebacker Dekoda Watson, top, is one of seven Seminoles who must serve three-game suspensions at the start of the season. AL MESSERSCHMIDT / GETTY IMAGES

A coach's whistle greets Dekoda Watson every time he peers into his Florida State locker these days.

Purchased a few months ago, the whistle provided the Seminoles with some good-humored fun to break up the rigors of summer conditioning.

"All I need is a Mickey Andrews faded hat and Florida State shorts and some long white socks and we'll be all right," said Watson, whose gregarious nature never would be confused with his gruff defensive coordinator.

The whistle, though, also serves a more serious purpose -- a stone-cold reminder of Watson's role for the season's first three games.

A coach. A mentor. But not a playmaker.

"It's my calling right now," conceded the linebacker, left to sit out three more games for academic misconduct.

Watson is one of at least seven Seminoles still serving time for their participation in the cheating scandal. A couple of spots are left so thin that the only players available for FSU's Sept. 6 opener are junior college transfers or true freshmen.

"Some of them are going to have to play," coach Bobby Bowden said, "just to get us through our first three doggone ball games."

FSU officials tried to ease the sting via the schedule, front-loading with lower-division Western Carolina and Chattanooga. But they couldn't avoid drawing No. 23 Wake Forest.

"We don't like it," Andrews said, "but it's not going to go away."

MIX AND MATCH

Andrews has the biggest challenge, asked to patch together a defense without five projected starters and one key backup.

Four of them play the front line, where end Everette Brown is the only projected starter who will take the field. The interior loses not only starters Budd Thacker and Paul Griffin, but top replacement Justin Mincey.

The others are end Neefy Moffitt, Watson and cornerback Patrick Robinson. On offense, tight end Caz Piurowski is the only casualty.

"You don't know how good you have something until you lose it," said Watson, whose disappointment ran deeper when he learned NCAA rules prohibit the suspended players from even watching on the sideline.

"I can't even pat my teammates when the come off the field," he lamented.

Instead, it's the practice field where the suspended seven can have their biggest impact.

Andrews and strength coach Todd Stroud challenged the group when summer began to take the replacements under their wings. The response has been heartening.

More than any time in recent memory, veterans have been pulling aside the young pups to offer pointers and encouragement.

"I can't let my teammates do bad or not get [the knowledge] they need to get for games," Watson stressed.

Said Andrews: "The only way they can help us win those first three games is to help us get these guys ready. They understand that, and they're doing that."

Coaches found encouragement in the dark cloud of last year's Music City Bowl, when a roster far more depleted still stood toe-to-toe with Kentucky for the better part of a 35-28 loss.

"That could have been a disaster," Bowden said. "As it turned out, it ended up being a pretty darn good football game. So it shows you what [we're] capable of doing."

This time, the Seminoles will have had an entire preseason camp to work out a plan. "You have to have two teams," Bowden said. "One for the fourth game and one for the first game."

BUILDING DEPTH

Who knows, there might even be a silver lining to the whole short-handed stretch. When the roster returns to full strength Sept. 27 against Colorado in Jacksonville, the newcomers will have gained valuable experience.

"It's going to pick up the intensity for the whole team," Brown said.

Nor has Andrews or Bowden ruled out the possibility that some of the new blood might keep their jobs.

"We've got to put ourselves aside," Thacker said. "What's done is done. Let's just go out there and win three football games and we'll worry about that when the time comes."

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