Some fans have even called for highly-regarded line coach Rick Trickett's job to be on the line this year, thanks to the disappointing performance of last year's offensive line—this in spite of a steadily improving offensive line beginning with Trickett's appearance at FSU in 2007.
There is no question, however, that the FSU offensive line took a huge step back in 2011, thanks in large part to an unusual rash of injuries that led to ten different players starting at least one game (ten!), including eight different players at the three interior offensive line positions. Those numbers don't even include the injury that kept one of FSU's top 2011 backups (Henry Orelus) off the field. Good seasons up front are usually contingent on staying healthy, and FSU was already thin on the offensive line thanks to weaker than ideal recruiting and the departures of John Prior (left the program due to family concerns), Jordan Prestwood (attached at the hip to Aaron Lynch, following him first to Notre Dame and now to USF), and Aubrey Phillips (weight problems, with a likely-related heart problem discovered later).
Florida State in 2011 managed the dubious achievement of getting worse at all five offensive line positions at once compared to the prior year. Take a look at the 2010 starting lineup next to the lineup that started in the 21–7 win at Florida in 2011:
RT: Zebrie Sanders (Bobby Hart)
Very clearly, the player on the left was better than the option on the right in each case. Usually, when an offensive line gets better or worse from season to season, it does so incrementally, with one position's improvement (often due to increased experience and physical improvements from returning starters) compensating for another position getting weaker (due to a new starter, for example). This was not the case for FSU in 2011, where not only the offensive line as a whole but each individual position on the offensive line got worse. And since the offensive line works as a unit, when each position gets worse, the decreases reinforce one another so that the unit is even less than the sum of its parts.
The good news for FSU fans is that the ‘Noles look poised to experience exactly the reverse phenomenon in 2012, with each position on the offensive line improving when compared to 2011:
LT: Zebrie Sanders (Cam Erving)
LG: Jacob Fahrenkrug (Josue Matias)
OC: Austin Barron (Bryan Stork)
RG: Garrett Faircloth (Tre Jackson)
RT: Bobby Hart (Menelik Watson)
Rather than two green true freshmen forced into duty or a natural right tackle (who played a bit stiff even on the right side) at the left tackle spot, FSU is able to field a legitimately big and athletic offensive line with each player at his natural position. Yes, there is a good bit of inexperience up front for the ‘Noles, but several things should work in this group's favor:
1) Unlike 2011, this young FSU offensive line has managed a healthy spring and fall together (with Watson added in the fall). In a zone-blocking scheme where communication between players is vital for avoiding missed assignments, that is huge. Even though they have limited game experience, this group actually has significantly more experience together than nearly any unit FSU trotted out in 2011.
2) The schedule sets up very nicely, allowing the group to gain experience and gel in the early games before they're really called upon to play outstanding football.
3) The sheer size of this group is on a different level from any offensive line Florida State has had since the graduations of Ray Willis and Alex Barron in 2004. While many fans have longed for a bigger line that could drive a defensive line off the ball in short-yardage situations, this kind of size is even more important for a line to stay healthy. When Rick Trickett took over in 2007, he took over a depleted unit so small and thin that he essentially started over with the linemen he was able to recruit right away—Rodney Hudson, Ryan McMahon, Andrew Datko, David Spurlock, and Zebrie Sanders. Of this group, only Sanders had true natural size (and he lacked the athleticism of the others), and when smaller guys have to play early, they get dinged up, which is precisely what happened to that group over their tenure at Florida State. That was one big reason Trickett told me as far back as 2009 that he was looking forward to getting more size up front in the future. Well, the future is now, with the 2012 FSU offensive line qualifying as huge—and without sacrificing athleticism. That size should help FSU avoid the catastrophic injury trouble experienced on the offensive line in 2011.
4) The tight end position was a major weak point at FSU the last several years, with numerous missed assignments from that position (especially in short yardage) making the offensive line look even worse than it should have. FSU hasn't had a reliable blocking tight end since Caz Piurowski's mid-year injury in 2009. Until now, that is. Now FSU has two true blocking tight ends, in addition to reports coming out of fall camp that highly-regarded youngster Nick O'Leary has also stepped up on the blocking side. Good blocking from the tight end should be a huge help for the offensive line.
Setting Reasonable Standards for 2012
All this bodes well for 2012, but Florida State fans are surely a jaded bunch by now, what with a team that has seemed to roll into every year with potential, only to wind up with disappointing results (the overachieving 2010 team excepted). Florida State fans rightly want to start seeing on-field results now, and they don't want garnet and gold glasses-wearing apologists to tell them at the end of the year that the offensive line was really good when their eyes told them something else. What remains then is to establish some reasonable benchmarks for the 2012 offensive line, objective standards that can tell exactly how good (or bad) the offensive line is in 2012.
Many folks will immediately jump to number of sacks on the season, number of rushing yards, or total offense numbers as important measurements of an offensive line's performance, but these numbers can be deceptive due to not taking pace of play, run/pass balance, or opponent strength into account. In contrast, I suggest the following standards for the 2012 offensive line, from most to least important:
Adjusted Line Yards
Rushing Yards Per Carry
Adjusted Sack Rate
Adjusted Sack Rate and Adjusted Line Yards are opponent and pace adjusted numbers from the numbers gurus at Football Outsiders and match the sorts of metrics used by NFL and NCAA coaches when assessing their units. Sack rate is an important measurement, but overall sack rates are dramatically affected by run/pass balance, so it's important to compare to other teams with similar offensive philosophies rather than just looking at national rank in the category.
Thanks to West Virginia pulling out of their game with the ‘Noles, FSU plays two FCS (1-AA) teams this year; for legitimate measurements, I suggest that these games be thrown out of the final season stats as well (who really cares how many yards per carry FSU manages against a Paula Deen-led Savannah State team?).
I think the numbers put up by a very good 2010 FSU offensive line should serve as reasonable goals for the 2012 bunch. Anything in the ballpark of the 2010 offensive line would spell great things for the 2012 team. Those marks are a bit high for standards for the young 2012 OL, but they should serve as reasonable goals. For standards, we'll adjust downward slightly. Anyhow, here are the numbers for the last few years (unfortunately, I don't have all the raw numbers for adjusted sack rate or adjusted line yards handy at the moment, so I'll be using rankings, which are obviously less helpful here).
The sack rate and yards per carry numbers are limited to BCS conference opponents. The numbers for 2012 FSU are standards that should be sufficient for an ACC championship type season and would mark a good (but not great) year for the FSU offensive line. I think this offensive line is quite capable of exceeding all of these numbers, making these standards reasonable expectations.
Team-Adjusted Line Yards-YPC-Adjusted Sack Rate-Sack Rate
'11 Alabama: (7)- 5.08(14)- (24)- 4.0%
'11 LSU- (3)- 4.68(20)- (70)- 6.3%
'10 FSU- 113.2 (18)- 4.49(20)- 94(69)- 6.9%
'11 FSU- (71)- 3.22(88)- (118)- 11.8%
'12 FSU(standards)- 110(20)- 4.4(35)- 90(70)- 7%
Three things stand out from this chart: First, it's remarkable how good the 2010 FSU offensive line actually was, as it was pretty close to the level of the 2011 LSU line. (The 2009 FSU offensive line was even better than the 2010 OL, which was already beginning to deal with injury problems by mid-year, injury problems that carried over to 2011 and derailed last year's campaign.) Given the strength of the 2011 defense, if last year's offensive line had simply replicated the 2010 numbers, Florida State would likely have been in the running to make the BCS national title game last year.
The second thing that stands out is how precipitous the decline from 2010 to 2011 for the FSU offensive line was, dropping from 18 to 71 in ALY rank and going from a rank of 33 in yards per carry to a putrid 88th, dropping over a full yard per carry. I think FSU fans can count on those numbers reverting to pretty close to their 2010 numbers, and it's reasonable—given the increase in skill talent—to expect the final numbers in 2012 to actually exceed those numbers.
Finally, it's worth noting how much a mobile QB negatively affects sack rates, as Bama's numbers in those departments are better than those of LSU or FSU in any year. That's part of the risk-reward package of having a mobile QB (LSU's sack rate was over a point higher with Jefferson at QB), which is why FSU fans should still expect the final sack rate numbers to be on the higher side of the curve with E. J. Manuel at QB, even in a good season. That said, I'm pretty sure Alabama would be happy to have Manuel and the extra dimension his legs bring to the game under center.
Impact on the Offense
Last year's offense was remarkably good given the problems up front, finishing with a quite respectable F/+ ranking (another Football Outsiders efficiency ranking adjusting for opponent and pace) of 32. But that's a pretty big drop from the 2010 offense, which ranked 7th. Given a reversion back to the 2010 level up front, FSU fans should be able to expect a top-10 offense in terms of efficiency (which is really what matters—what do you do with the ball when you have it).
Should he stay healthy, E. J. Manuel should be the primary beneficiary of the improved line play, as he has lots of talent at his disposal. (Manuel still needs to get the ball off quicker to help his line at times, but that should improve in his senior season anyway.) If the offensive line lives up to the 2010 standards, I would not be surprised to see Manuel making a visit to New York for in December as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Even behind last year's line, Manuel managed a 151.23 pass efficiency rating, good for 18th in the country, with only 8 interceptions to go with his 18 touchdowns. With better protection and a solid running game, those numbers should only go up. Should he stay healthy and the offensive line live up to the standards set in this article, Manuel should be expected to put up over 3200 yards and 30 touchdowns with somewhere around 10 interceptions.
As for the running game, the fact that there are really only three healthy tailbacks on the roster at this point is problematic, as all three need to stay healthy at one of football's most oft-injured positions. That said, unless an injury limits one of the backs and thus gives the other two the bulk of the carries, I wouldn't expect a thousand yard rusher this season, and that should not be the goal for the program. Again, the emphasis should be on yards per carry, and the benchmark for the tailbacks should be 4.5 YPC against BCS-conference competition.
There's a lot of quiet confidence around in the Seminole football program this year, but many fans are understandably at in a wait-and-see mode. At least now, using the benchmarks set forth here, ‘Nole fans should be able to measure the progress of the offensive line using objective standards.