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Florida State junior quarterback E.J. Manuel battled inconsistency in preseason camp since he was facing one of the best defenses in the country each and every day.
Manuel has all the skill-position talent he needs
Junior quarterback E.J. Manuel certainly appears to have an embarrassment of riches surrounding him at running back, tight end and wide receiver, including five scholarship tailbacks capable of rushing for 100-plus yards on the ground on any given Saturday. Manuel obviously benefits from having seen his fair share of playing time the last two seasons backing up the oft-injured Christian Ponder, so he isn't the typical first-year starter and has already earned the trust of his teammates and coaches -- also, coach Jimbo Fisher won't have to adjust his play-calling one iota. Look for Manuel to extend plays once his protection breaks down and move the chains whenever he has to tuck it and go, but the Seminoles aren't going to be all they can be offensively unless the 6-5, 245-pounder consistently makes sound decisions in the pocket and proves his career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 6-to-10 isn't a sign of things to come.
As far as his receiving corps is concerned, while it's nice to have a bevy of targets worthy of seeing the ball from snap to snap, it will only help Manuel's development if somebody steps up and can be counted on to get nine yards on 3rd and 8.
Defensive line should never be tired at any point
Just like the good-ole days when Bobby Bowden and Co. had a three-deep rotation more talented than any starter the opponent could line up, Florida State is nothing short of loaded along the defensive line and should be able to throw a fresh body into the huddle each and every play. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops has 10 tackles at his disposal, with at least six of them deserving significant playing time, including freshman Timmy Jernigan -- the Lake City native blew everybody away in preseason camp and has instant star written all over him. And then at the end position, junior Brandon Jenkins is an All-American candidate, sophomore Bjoern Werner was at times unblockable last season, junior-college transfer Cornellius Carradine may be the strongest player on the entire roster and sophomore Dan Hicks is quietly going about his business rather impressively.
It would be wise for the enemy to run as much hurry-up offense as possible in order to cut into FSU's substitution packages, as otherwise both the D-tackles and D-ends will have hardly broken a sweat by the fourth quarter.
Datko and Sanders must stay healthy up front
Saturday, the final practice of camp, was the only time the proposed starting lineup for the O-line was intact: senior Andrew Datko at left tackle, sophomore Bryan Stork at left guard, junior Jacob Fahrenkrug at center, senior David Spurlock at right guard and then senior Zebrie Sanders at right tackle. Spurlock didn't participate in a lot of full-contact drills as he continues to battle concussion issues, and ultimately Fisher decided to move the 6-4, 300-pounder from left guard -- that's where Rodney Hudson, who is now a Kansas City Chief, used to play -- back to his more familiar spot at right guard. But the key for Florida State's offensive line is a healthy bookend combination of Datko and Sanders, mostly because the communication up front is so much better and there won't be nearly as many missed assignments.
One thing to watch in the trenches is Fahrenkrug in the shotgun formation, as he has struggled here and there with his snapping in part because his experience at the junior-college level was at guard, not center.
Joyner's presence ramps up the aggressiveness
No matter who lines up at the safety positions, the Seminoles are going to feature a trio of tremendous cornerbacks in junior Greg Reid, sophomore Xavier Rhodes and senior Mike Harris -- the veteran reserve probably starts for just about any other team in the country. However, now that sophomore Lamarcus Joyner has transitioned from being a backup corner to a starter at strong safety, the closing speed and physical prowess he brings to his center-fielder role allows Reid, Rhodes and Harris to be even more aggressive when breaking on the ball and gambling for turnovers. The "co-starter" situation at free safety between senior Terrance Parks and junior Nick Moody doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things since both are quality in-the-box defenders and each is going to play a great deal, but Joyner could be special on the back end and feels more at home now than he ever did a year ago.
Don't be fooled by Joyner's 5-8, 204-pound frame, as he packs enough of a punch to separate the ball from any enemy pass catcher in the middle of the field.
Expectations can be dangerous for this team
For a team that was blown out 47-17 at Oklahoma this past year and lost back-to-back games to ACC also-rans North Carolina State and North Carolina, Florida State is getting an awful lot of attention from various media outlets and considered a national-championship contender -- ESPN's Desmond Howard, as a matter of fact, not only has the Seminoles winning it all, but he has Manuel winning the Heisman Trophy. Ranked No. 5 in the coaches' poll and No. 6 in the AP poll, the highest preseason rankings Tallahassee has seen in almost a decade, Fisher did his best to ride his players hard throughout camp and hasn't allowed them to look ahead to the Sept. 17 rematch with the Sooners, this time at Doak Campbell Stadium. This is still a young team at almost every position on the field, plus if anything happens to Manuel, freshman Clint Trickett doesn't yet inspire the same confidence that Manuel did taking over for Ponder.
Instead of a 50-0 blowout, perhaps the 'Noles would be better served in the long run if they actually struggled Saturday in the first half against Louisiana-Monroe and were on the receiving end of a colorful tongue-lashing from Fisher in the locker room.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
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