Florida State began last season with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, loads of experience, high expectations and the talent to back it all up.
All the elements of success were already in place.
The 2015 version is missing all of that with one notable exception: There is still plenty of talent, which is not a bad place to start any season.
During the past two years, FSU has had 18 players drafted by the NFL, the most of any school during that stretch. Being able to retool each year has been the trademark of coach Jimbo Fisher’s tenure and will be tested again.
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“We’ve got a lot of potential,” Fisher said. “I like to say potential means you haven’t done it, but it also means you have the ability to do it.
“Now what we have to do is make sure the desire and knowledge is where it needs to be. Right now we’re growing in those areas. We’re emphasizing teaching, and they’re emphasizing learning.”
The retooling starts at quarterback. Everett Golson was named the starting quarterback over Sean Maguire on Monday. Fisher was in no rush to anoint a successor to Jameis Winston, the No. 1 NFL Draft choice by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It’s no secret,” Fisher said before naming a starter. “When you’re good, and you’ve got the right guy, and that guy has won the job, then you name it. If it’s today, tomorrow … The other team is going to figure it out when they get out there. I’m not putting a timetable on it. We’ll know when we know.”
Maguire waited patiently for three years to get control of the Seminoles’ offense. He wasn’t as highly touted a recruit as Winston or Jacob Coker and hasn’t led a team to the national championship game like Golson, but if Maguire is handed the reins during the season, it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom.
Last year, he was thrust into a starting role against the 22nd-ranked Clemson Tigers because Winston was suspended. With only a week to prepare, Maguire led a fourth-quarter comeback that FSU eventually turned into an overtime win. He finished with 304 yards on 21-of-39 passing against what finished the season as the No. 1 defense in the nation.
It could be saying something that most casual FSU fans know more about Maguire’s competition, Golson, who has been on campus for three months, than they do Maguire, the man who has been on campus for three years. Golson led Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season and into the 2013 national title game before losing to Nick Saban’s Alabama team.
There is reason for Seminoles fans to be excited over the transfer from South Bend, Indiana, but that should be met with caution. Golson accounted for 37 touchdowns a season ago, but he also turned the ball over 22 times. He has been known to struggle in high-pressure situations, and it has been three years since the undefeated run in 2012. Since then, he was suspended for the 2013 season for academic fraud and lost his starting job to Malik Zaire after 2014.
“He [Golson] has become just one of the guys,” Fisher said. “It’s happened much quicker than I would have thought. He has that demeanor and look in his eye. To me, that’s the perfect sign.”
The Seminoles have plenty of question marks at other positions. Young and inexperienced could describe every position group. Thirteen of 18 skill-position players on the roster are in their first or second seasons, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent.
Travis Rudolph learned from Rashad Greene, one of the best receivers in Seminoles history last season. Greene, a former Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas star, set career school records in receptions (270) and yards (3,830) and was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fifth round. Rudolph could surpass all of that.
If the Seminoles are going to put points on the board, Rudolph will need to thrive as the No. 1 option. The former top-ranked receiver recruit, according to Rivals, had 38 catches for 555 yards and four touchdowns. Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield are two other receivers who could make the offense go, regardless of who’s at quarterback.
Fisher has done a great job of loading up on talent at receiver with plenty of stars next to their recruiting pages, but he was very critical of the receiving corps earlier this fall.
“I think the receivers stink,” he said early in fall training camp. “They don’t get open, ain’t catching the ball; we can’t count on them right now.”
That might be in part because they are facing one of the best secondaries in the country every day in practice. FSU is loaded at defensive back — Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews are All-America candidates — but if the defensive line is unable to rush the passer, the secondary won’t be able to hold its coverage.
Brad Lawing was brought in as the defensive ends/outside linebackers coach after spending the past two years under Will Muschamp at Florida and has also worked with Nick Saban. He is being tasked with generating a pass rush that was weak last season.
“I like the way the D-line is getting to the quarterback,” senior linebacker Terrence Smith said. “Bringing in coach Lawing has improved on their technique and their pass rushing skills. But it’s not just getting to the quarterback. After they get there, they turn and run and chase the ball downfield. That’s one of the big things we’re working on is pursuing as a defense overall.”
This season has been called a bridge year, but a relatively soft schedule could mean Florida State finds itself in the college football playoff picture again. Remember, 2013 was supposed to be a bridge year as well with a lot of young talent and a first-time starter at quarterback.
That isn’t to say this team should be held to that standard, but with expectations down, the 2015 team can finally concentrate on football and not worry about having a target on its back every week. Fans were unhappy with narrow victories last season, but with so much youth and inexperience a “W” by any margin will be all that matters this season.
“Sometimes with a young team ignorance can be bliss,” Fisher said. “It can be very good. The ignorance of not being able to realize what you’re walking into, and just play and don’t worry about it, can be very good at times.”
ELEMENT OF SUCCESS:
FSU can feel confident knowing it has at least one advantage over every opponent this season: Kicker Roberto Aguayo. The 2013 Lou Groza winner might be the most dependable weapon in college football. He’s hit 48 of 52 field goals over the last two seasons, including a game winner against Boston College and a 53-yarder that sparked a comeback win in Miami last season. If Aguayo is called on to decide the fate of the game, Seminole fans can rest easy.