It goes without saying that recruiting is essential to success in college football; the more talented team wins more often than not. But the key to winning championships is not just having good players across the board—it’s having true difference makers, special players who can seize control and change the game at any time.
Florida State’s 2013 national championship team had as many special playmakers as any team in recent memory. Not only did the Seminoles have a generational talent at the quarterback position in Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and probable top pick in the NFL draft, they had difference makers at every position on the field.
Receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Rashad Greene are both NFL talents at the receiver position and consistently made game-changing plays, most notably on the last drive of the title game against Auburn. Tight end Nick O’Leary leaves as the Mackey Award winner and the top player at his position in school history. Running backs Devonta Freeman, James Wilder, Jr., and Karlos Williams also made their share of game changing plays. All five starting offensive linemen will wind up having been drafted as well, with Cam Erving projected as high as the first round.
That Seminole defense was arguably even more loaded with playmakers. The secondary alone had five legitimate playmakers: Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, P.J. Williams, Jalen Ramsey, and Ronald Darby. (In fairness, Darby was less a playmaker than a play-stopper, since teams chose to target any of the others instead of throwing at Darby.) Telvin Smith, Timmy Jernigan, Eddie Goldman, and Mario Edwards, Jr. all also made their share of game-changing plays that helped lead to a championship. The leadership of Smith and Joyner was also especially crucial in 2013, the absence of which was a big factor in the Seminoles’ failure to repeat as champions in 2014.
Every one of those special, NFL-caliber playmakers is gone except one: Ramsey, who is finally moving to his natural cornerback position. As of right now, FSU has only three definite game-changing players: Ramsey, sophomore running back Dalvin Cook, and kicker Roberto Aguayo. Spring practice has so far been a search for who will step into the shoes of some of these other departed playmakers and become special players.
Early returns have been mixed. There is obviously no replacing Winston, who was the kind of quarterback even a program like FSU is lucky to have once a decade. Redshirt junior Sean Maguire has had the best spring of the Seminole signal-callers, but reports out of practice have not been glowing about the group as a whole.
But there is no shortage of talent elsewhere on the Seminole roster; unfortunately, talent alone is not enough to become a Joyner or Telvin Smith, the kind of player who both plays with consistent intensity and makes the splash plays that change the numbers on the scoreboard and alter the momentum of a game.
Jimbo Fisher expressed his frustration with his young group after the last scrimmage, observing, “They’ve got to grow up. [There are a] bunch of young guys [who] think they’re real good and they’re nowhere close. Nowhere close. Got ability, but have to learn to play with intangibles. [We’re] a little bit soft as a team. Both sides.”
A few players seem close to making the leap. Outside linebacker Jacob Pugh has taken a big step forward this spring and has shown signs of being able to provide the pressure off the edge FSU lacked in 2014.
Left tackle Roderick Johnson was outstanding after stepping into the starting lineup late last year and came into the spring in excellent shape but has not been quite as consistent as hoped in the second half of the spring, with Fisher commenting, “Rod is the one who is starting to drop [production]. He needs to pick it back up.”
Several other offensive linemen have impressed with their consistent play throughout the spring, most notably guards Kareem Are and Wilson Bell but also right tackle Chad Mavety and guard Derrick Kelly, though the latter two have been limited by injuries
Tight end Mavin Saunders has flashed rare athleticism at nearly 260 pounds and unquestionably has the raw talent to be special, but his inconsistent effort has been a point of frustration all spring, and a balky hamstring has limited him over the past week.
The wide receiver position has been a bit of a disappointment this spring, as there is no shortage of talent at the position, but no one has stepped up and become a reliable playmaker. There is no excuse at this point for Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane not to take the next step, as the former five-star recruits are now veterans with plenty of game experience. On the plus side, true freshman George Campbell and sophomore Ja’Von Harrison have begun to push for more time by flashing potential game-changing ability in their opportunities.
Two other true freshmen have flashed promise during the spring and could become special players as early as this season: safety Derwin James and running back Jacques Patrick. With starting safety Tyler Hunter out for the second half of the spring, James has benefited with even more reps and has continued to impress. I’ll be surprised if James isn’t in the starting lineup by midseason. Patrick has been better than expected and will get immediate carries, particularly in short yardage and goal line situations.
Trey Marshall has been very solid at the star position and has the chance to become a game changer in that role.
The cornerbacks have generally won their battles with what should be a very good receiving corps, but that is partly due to the receivers underachieving, and the second cornerback position is still up in the air.
The biggest question mark remains the defensive line, where Nile Lawrence-Stample is a reliable rock on the interior, but it’s unclear who (aside from Pugh) is going to make the plays on the defensive front. There’s still reason for optimism about Derrick Nnadi and DeMarcus Christmas, and Arthur Williams, and Keith Bryant has had his best spring after rededicating himself at the beginning of the year. Lorenzo Featherston has a chance to be a game changer after gaining a few extra pounds in the offseason. But none of them has gotten to that point yet, meaning continued uncertainty on the defensive side going into the summer.
That word—uncertainty—is probably the best way to describe where this team stands with less than a week remaining in the spring. There is no shortage of talent, but as of right now there are very few special, game-changing players. If that doesn’t change, this team will have its struggles and will almost certainly lose more games than it should in the fall. But if players like Pugh, Rudolph, Nnadi, Marshall, James, and Featherston take that next step forward, this team could quickly become more of a contender than expected. It’s just all so uncertain at this time.