Is the offensive line really coming together?
Even the most casual of Florida State fans knows the offensive line was largely to blame when things went wrong this past year, a 9-4 campaign that fell short of preseason expectations. The starting lineup Saturday for the Garnet and Gold Game will feature four sophomores -- one of them a recently-converted defensive tackle in Cameron Erving -- and one junior, and while that junior (Bryan Stork) is a returning starter, he's now at right tackle after playing both left guard and center in 2011. Third-year coach Jimbo Fisher is raving about the potential of Erving at left tackle and believes he's a future millionaire with his wingspan and athleticism, but since spring practices are closed to the media save for the first 15-20 minutes or so, this will be the first time his new skills are truly put on display for mass consumption.
If defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Cornellius Carradine are feasting on signal callers and defensive tackles Everett Dawkins and Demonte McAllister swallow up tailbacks play after play, it could be another long season from a blocking perspective for the Seminoles.
Can the linebackers adjust to their new roles?
While Mike Harris can probably be replaced as a No. 3 corner and nickel back, filling the shoes left behind by Nigel Bradham -- the first FSU defender since the legendary Marvin Jones to lead the team in tackles for three straight seasons -- at the weak-side linebacker position won't be easy. Nevertheless, flipping junior Christian Jones from the strong side over to the weak side should better take advantage of his enviable athletic ability, as he'll be more of an attacker and won't have to spend so much of his time chasing tight ends in coverage. Moving closer to the line of scrimmage after three years at safety, senior Nick Moody has the inside track on replacing Jones as the strong-side 'backer and is no stranger to laying some wood down in the box.
Plus, with senior Vince Williams missing the spring game due to a broken leg, now is the time for junior Telvin Smith to separate himself as the best middle linebacker on the team and perhaps wrestle away the starting assignment for good.
Which running back can make a big splash?
The 'Noles simply have to run the ball more consistently than they did a year ago, when they managed only 112.2 yards per game on the ground (104th in the country) and averaged just 3.3 yards per carry (105th). Compounding things, as sophomore Devonta Freeman misses spring with a bad back, senior Chris Thompson battles back and hand injuries and sophomore James Wilder only recently returing to the squad because of legal trouble, Fisher has been forced to hand the rock to senior fullbacks Lonnie Pryor and Debrale Smiley -- the latter has gotten some praise, however -- probably more often than he would like in practice. Wilder disappointed as a freshman and watched Freeman, a fellow 2011 signee, end up leading the team in rushing, but he has a window of opportunity to be the bruising back Fisher employed regularly when he was the offensive coordinator at LSU.
Should Wilder not impress anyone, there's a good chance early-enrollee freshman Mario Pender will, as the Cape Coral (FL) Island Coast High School product might be the best combination of power and speed at tailback and should receive double-digit carries in the game.
Will Joyner and Brooks be special at safety?
When then-sophomore Lamarcus Joyner was shifted from backup corner to starting safety this past year, an argument can be made that that's the moment Florida State started to resemble some of the great defenses once coordinated by Mickey Andrews during the glory days of the program. But while Joyner's breath-taking speed was only matched by his hound-like nose for the football, senior Terrance Parks didn't make a whole lot of plays at the other safety spot and was an object of ridicule by fans week after week -- Fisher defended Parks following the win at Florida by pointing out his leadership and pre-snap smarts. Taking over for Parks in the starting lineup at the moment is junior Terrence Brooks, who still holds a grudge for only being rated a three-star recruit in high school and seems to be a man on a mission in 2012.
Brooks has managed to hold off Karlos Williams, which is saying something since Williams is unquestionably one of the top pure athletes to ever put on the garnet and gold, but Brooks is certainly a breakout candidate this season because he can really run and really hit.
How much will Powell's departure matter?
One of the MVPs for the Seminoles this past year was punter Shawn Powell, who led the nation in punting average (47-plus yards) yet still showed tremendous touch inside the enemy 20-yard line. He was nothing short of magnificent in the victory over Miami, averaging 54.8 yards on five attempts and also launching one of them 66 yards from the shadow of his own goal post. Expected to replace the All-American is a member of the much-ballyhooed 2012 recruiting class, Cason Beatty from Charlotte (NC) Olympic High School, but he'll be splitting time Saturday with walk-ons like Dillon Kidd and Derek Williams.
Fisher wasn't pleased with his punting in the first scrimmage of spring but was quite complimentary of Beatty in particular after the second, so it will be interesting to see if the 6-3, 215-pounder -- he'll be the one wearing purple cleats, by the way -- can step up and seize the job for good.
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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