An Offseason Look: Florida State

Before Florida State began its spring football practice calendar, coach Bobby Bowden worried about its completion. The offensive line didn't have most of its starters. Half the backfield was missing. Three of the top four returning receivers couldn't participate.

So many players, in fact, 18 total, were limited or unable to endure contact while recovering from surgeries or past injuries.

It caused Bowden to rethink even having a spring game.

"I suggested that to the coaches," Bowden said. "I suggested let's just not waste that day, maybe we would be better off having a practice rather than waste that day.

"(But) we all felt we could get more out of it, (provided) we could have as close to a scrimmage game as we could get."

Even with scrimmages, however, it was hard to get an accurate gauge on this team. Quarterback Chris Rix excited Bowden enough to say, "He plays like a senior and he acts like a senior," but teammates and fans are developing a more wait-and-see attitude with the enigmatic Rix.

Receivers Dominic Robinson and Chauncey Stovall were the only scholarship receivers available the entire spring.

The offensive line was patchwork, although No. 2 center John Frady returned to help relieve converted noseguard Brian Ross. All spring, defense dominated, except in goal-line and situational drills.

Despite the limited roster, Bowden remained visibly upbeat and has talked with optimism about the team's production.

"I think we have been able to accomplish everything we set out to accomplish in spring these 15 days," he said. "I have nearly felt like from scrimmage to scrimmage, the blocking by the offense has been better and the tackling, hitting of our defense has been better.

"They should come out of it a better football player than how they went into it."

The Seminoles believe they have the right components to contend for a national title again. This was the season Bowden and his coaches privately circled as the one to challenge for No. 1.

Go down the checklist.

Quarterback? Rix becomes the first four-year starter in Bowden's tenure.

Offensive line? The group returns intact.

Running backs? Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington have flashed their potential.

Receivers? Plenty.

Defense? While only three starters return, the Seminoles finally got back last season to playing two groups. Hence, there are plenty of experienced players ready to step in.

"Guys are starting to get hungry again," said center David Castillo, a senior, who is one of the team leaders. "We starting building it up last year and it's carried over. This team definitely has what it takes to get back to the level all of us are used to seeing.

"We're a family again. The chemistry on this team is tremendous."

Team unity was an issue Florida State addressed prior to last season. Two tumultuous years of on-field woes and off-field transgressions left questions as to whether the Seminoles were imploding.

Last summer, former quarterback Adrian McPherson's well-publicized gambling trial, which caused Bowden to testify, created a dark cloud.

The skies have cleared. Bowden created a unity council, consisting of players representing each class, to meet weekly with him and prevent problems from forming.

"We made so many strides in that team togetherness aspect, and being a family," Rix said.

It made a difference in Bowden's personality during the spring. He appeared more like his old self, not the coach who looked bothered every time he met with media.

"Number one, we don't have as many question marks as we did the year before, and the year before that," he said. "But I think, more than anything, probably less problems on the field and off the field.

"It's never a good feeling when you have to come off the field, like I did, and know I've got a problem to straighten out. (The mood) has probably been a lot better because of the atmosphere and enthusiasm of the kids."

Preseason Predictions: Ranked fourth nationally by Lindy's; fifth by Street & Smith's, ninth by Athlon. OT Alex Barron, 1st team All-America by all three of those publications. WR Craphonso Thorpe, 2nd team All-America by Lindy's. Backfield ranked ninth by Lindy's. Receivers ranked eighth by Lindy's. Offensive line ranked third by Lindy's, second by Athlon. Defensive line ranked seventh by Lindy's. Defensive backs ranked seventh by Lindy's, fifth by Athlon.

Key Game Sept. 6 at Miami -- Yes, we know it's the first game, but it means everything for Florida State. After five consecutive losses to the Hurricanes, the 'Noles cannot have this streak continue. Another loss will linger and create more problems, possibly stirring a QB issue. The winner takes a giant forward leap in the ACC race. For FSU, the game is equally important for its psyche.

The Mindset: Mid to late June is supposed to be a quiet time on the college football calendar. Not for the Seminoles. Florida State settled the lawsuit filed by the family of Devaughn Darling for $2 million. Darling was an 18-year-old freshman who died after a strenuous offseason workout in February, 2001. Florida State also promised to place a memorial to Darling in its athletic building and will also endow a scholarship in his name.

The Seminoles also suffered the embarrassment of losing two of their NCAA championship trophies. Thieves stole two Waterford crystal footballs symbolizing the 1993 and 1999 national championships. Florida State is offering a $2,500 reward for information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the crime. The championship trophies are valued at $30,000 each and were kept in a locked wooden and glass case. Florida State president T.K. Wetherell said the school plans to replace the trophies in short order. "When we get those (recruits) up for those ballgames, we're not going to have empty (trophy cases)," Wetherell said after a board of trustees meeting. "At some point we'll go in there and do it. My guess is when you have your first home game you're not going to bring people in and show them rings and trophies and go, 'By the way, they stole our (national championship) trophies.' " The new trophies will be bought by Florida State boosters.

Big Shoes to Fill: DT Darnell Dockett -- He was the rock on the defensive line and emerged last season as a locker room leader. The Seminoles are excited with young players like Clifton Dickson and Broderick Bunkley, who may have even more talent than Dockett. But for leadership, it's time for senior DT Travis Johnson to exert himself.

Quote to Note: "We were very close to doing it, putting everything together last year. If we win that Clemson game, we probably would have been in the Sugar Bowl (for the BCS title). I know what this team is capable of. All the coaches and players know it. Now, it's a matter of everything coming together." -- Florida State QB Chris Rix on how he sees the state of the Seminoles.

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