I don't want to ruin anyone's vision of grandiose, this early, but aren't we getting a little too caught up in all this praise and tough talk? Are we so naive to believe our own bluster that we forget this team lost four games (three of them by a bunch of points), last year?
The rope, which raises the curtain on the 2002 season, is taut. Steamy two-a-days oh so slowly and mercifully come to an end and the Seminoles prepare to set the college football world straight.
Fresh off a campaign where some programs would cast their coach's whistle in bronze, FSU pulls itself from the mire of an eight and four season that saw the abrupt end of many a streak. So, the pressure is off. Right? No more worries about consecutive ten win seasons. Top five? Ha! How about clinging to the top twenty? State Champions? Thank goodness FIU has a team, now.
The college football media is quite forgiving of last year, it seems. Most pick a triumphant return to glory paved upon the crushed bones of those who took advantage a mere season ago. A one year anomaly cannot temper the pundits' predictions that the ‘Noles are on a mission and will not fail to reclaim their position right at, or near the top of the field.
Players are heard chirping about how ACC teams "should fear us." We even hear a normally tempered Bobby Bowden talk of "how hungry this team is." Alonzo Jackson is quoted as responding to an emboldened ACC prediction with "that's just whistling past the graveyard."
Tough talk, to be sure, but it IS just talk. While no one should be ready to declare the "Dynasty" dead after one bad season, is it rational to think this team is improved enough to erase the mistakes and disunity of a year ago? This team who was absolutely outclassed by a Peach Bowl Bound North Carolina with a first year coach? Rome wasn't built in a day, nor did it fall in one, but you could see cracks in the Spa that day.
I've been keeping a keen, yet uneasy ear to the rails as our players declare their intentions as loudly as I can recall. In a way, I like hearing a little brashness coming from the troops. This leads me to believe they are either dead set against a replay of last year, or so fearful of a repeat, they're frantically trying to convince themselves that it CAN'T happen, again. Not at Florida State. Not at a school that last had a bad season about the time they were taking their first steps. It can't happen. Can it?
Let's look at reality and perception.
Team Unity/Work Ethic
This seems to be a hot topic. Revelations about the team's confidence (or lack thereof) in their young signal caller shook the football board, last week. Seems young Chris Rix was neither the most liked, nor respected member of the team. Well, whoop-de-doo. You mean one of our guys has an ego the size of Steve Spurrier's Adam's apple? Who could have blamed him? Dude's a Freshman, he's the starting quarterback for one of the top programs in the nation. If you haven't noticed, the guy is Hollywood handsome (It's okay, I'm comfortable). He probably has to "turn down" date requests from willing co-eds on an hourly basis. Wouldn't you be a hyper-egomaniac? Business card? Heck, I'd have a Valet returning my calls.
Jerry Seinfeld once proclaimed that all sports fans are really cheering for is "laundry." Uniforms, in other words. Fact is, if we met many of our "heroes" away from the playing field, we might not think so highly of them. Of course, that's fine as long as they can throw, catch, kick, and tackle while wearing our "laundry."
This recent concern over team unity was spurred by a couple of articles, which talked about the struggles of last year and the apparent immature manner, in which Rix handled them. Imagine that. An immature 20 year old. The key phrase most people overlooked in both articles was "last year." By all accounts, Rix has, or is working on his relationship with the rest of the team, and although wedding bells do not appear to be in the offing, progress has been made. Besides, Rix doesn't have to be best buddies with everyone on the team. He needs to make certain they respect him.
The togetherness and dedication of last year's squad was also hit by the untimely death of Devaughn Darling. Coaches and players, alike suffered from an understandable "extra effort" not to "over-do" it. This year, by all accounts, the team has had an excellent off-season.
There is, however, as caveat; Second year strength coach Jon Jost has come under scrutiny (by fans) for his approach to conditioning. Go ahead and place Jost on your watch list for the "Mark Richt Memorial Scapegoat" award if the ‘Noles struggle, again, this year. Fans used to seeing soaring bench presses of 500+ pounds are startled by the "puny" results, this year. Jost supporters claim this is due to the stricter guidelines for lifting he implemented; detractors accuse him of being a mole sent by Nebraska to avenge all those losses.
Rarely, have FSU fans been so equally excited and terrified simultaneously. Chris Rix has shown signs of being an absolute superstar. He's also been far too philanthropic with the rock. If you took away half of his turnovers, last year, FSU fans would be beside themselves with giddiness over this guy. The problem is; you CAN'T take away those turnovers. You also can't take away the thing that caused many of them; Bad decisions and a tendency to boot-scoot when standing tall made more sense.
The leap of faith most FSU fans have, at this point, is that his year at the helm will automatically make him better. But will it? Michael Vick had a better freshman year than sophomore. Did Thad Busby "really" get that much better with age? Some will add that Virginia Tech's dominant defense wasn't so dominant Vick's sophomore year and THAT's why Vick "suffered" (Relative term for the number one pick in the draft). But can we expect our defense to be THAT much improved so as not to put Rix in "must score" situations? That's a bigger leap than expecting Rix to get better.
Again, this is an area FSU fans seem to think that "a year older, a year better" is the answer. Sure, there is talent at this position, but not one of the returning running backs has rushed for over 800 yards in a season. They "should" be better, but if Greg Jones gets injured (which he has been prone to do), are we to expect Nick Maddox to suddenly live up to his billing four years in arrears? That's not a knock on Maddox, who has been pulled nine ways to Sunday and played out of position over half of his career. But think about those prospects.
The biggest question in the backfield has little to do with who carries the ball. Rather, it deals with who will LEAD them into the hole? The fullback position will basically be filled through attrition. The last guy standing with a "forty-something" number on his jersey gets the job. Why didn't I go into coaching?
Another group bustling with potential. Certainly the return of ‘Quan Boldin and Robert Morgan is a lift, but how healthy are they? This last week has shown we may be a twist of a knee from a similar form from last year. And, what of the psyche of team if one of the them goes down, yet again. Like it or not, Bowden admitted the scene of ‘Quan pounding the turf shook everyone's confidence. P.K. Sam and Cro Thorpe made strides, last year, but without the leadership of the aforementioned, can they continue to progress and become the dangerous receivers we need them to be?
"Potentially, the best group we've ever had." If I had a penny for every year we proclaimed this about our offensive line, well, I'd have about fifteen cents. But, that's not the point. The point is this "should" be the best line we've ever had. But will it? Some believe our coaching at this position could turn Larry Allen into Tim Allen and that, alone points to an ultimate disappointment.
The fact is this line will have no excuses, this year. In the past, we might be able to look at the Snail Darter-like backs who might, or might not follow the path to the proposed hole. This year, however, the line is blessed with a 250 Ogre who finds little pleasure in taking a step to the side. If a play is designed for the three hole, he'll meet you there, on two … BREAK!
It is THIS position where I suspect Jon Jost's bed will either be made, or burned. His claim of increased emphasis on the lower body should be on display here, and create gorges for Greg Jones to plow through. Bench press be damned! It is the hips of this offensive line which hold the key to a successful season.
As talented as it is thin, this group needs to reassert itself as the true stalwarts of the Florida State dynasty. The paradox of the 2002 edition is the strength and fragility of this position. It was as much the brute toughness of Simon and Johnson that won the 2000 crown as Peter Warrick's dazzling aerobatics.
Darnell Dockett, Travis Johnson, Tony Benford, and Jeff Womble can each dominate a game and force the offensive line to draw their double teams to the middle. If FSU is to regain its sack attack prowess, this core of linemen will cause it to happen. Without them, expect another mediocre sack tally come December.
The problem is, as I write this, only Benford appears to be healthy. That's not good and is an ominous sign for both the defensive ends and linebackers, who rely on a solid push upfront to perform their heroics. Sure, there is talented and tough freshman Broderick Bunkley, but can you tell me the last time a true freshman dominated the defensive line (without using the words Ron or Simmons)?
And who leads the defensive charge opposite Alonzo Jackson? Kameron Wimbley? Eric Moore? Eric Powell? I trail this group in college sacks by less than five. Combined!! Yet, to hear everyone talk, we're on the verge of returning to Reinard, Andre, Peter, and company. It's good to be optimistic, but being realistic will keep you from flinging yourself off a Doak Campbell Stadium spire.
This group can be looked at as the perfect metaphor; A doughnut. Fast, talented Michael Boulware and Kendall Pope make up a strong perimeter of quick strike assassins. The middle, however, is still a void. Sure, Jerel Hudson performed admirably against Virginia Tech, but they were the perfect offense for him to excel against. A straight-up- the gut running attack, which required little lateral movement. Something Hudson hasn't done since he changed seats at Denny's. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Hudson is FSU's version of Lavon Kirkland; A freak of nature who could cover the wind at 270 pounds. If it were true, why hasn't he shown it up until now? Oh. That's right. He's a year older. Personally, I believe every offensive coordinator on our schedule is devising more center screens than are legally allowed.
Depth could also present an issue. Given Jabba the Hud(son)'s high level of conditioning, how can he be expected to play an entire game? Assuming he can trot to the sideline, who fills his role as chief run stuffer? Nate Hardage? Sam McGrew? If you look at their summaries in the Forrest Davis' recruiting magazine, you'll think we've nothing to fear, but these two have less college tackles than the defensive ends have sacks.
HA! You thought I'd forgotten about this one. Right? All the way through this article, you've argued my points in your mind. Can't be THAT bad. Can't it? Well, we're finally at the position where you might actually feel worse than I do. Once again, this group's motto is "A year older…". But this unit was so bad last year that even "improvement" is not enough. There needs to be an exponential leap of skills, attitude, and toughness. True, the only losses were safeties, but is that the good news, or bad?
Stanford Samuels and Malcom Tatum are hardly going to put forth a test for Andre Johnson no matter WHO takes it for him. Alas, the last couple of future Deions have yet to arrive. Bryant McFadden is the last real hope to supplant one of the starters. That is when he not playing Sonny Liston on the nearest light post. Leroy Smith? Could be, but he reminds me of Tay Cody (the EARLY years). Prime Time II? Have a nice life running end-arounds. Simply put, we face too many passing teams, this year to only be "better" at this position than we were last. Sure, the pass rush has to help, but go back to THAT paragraph and tell me you feel better about this one.
Well, I've got good news and I've got bad news. The good news is Xavier Beitia is back splitting uprights with deadly accuracy (My sources tell me he even makes it through the ugly ones).
The bad news is Chance Gwaltney had the most misleading statistics of any player on the team. Sure, he averaged 40 yards a punt, last year. The unfortunate thing is we were kicking from their 35 most of the time. I honestly don't think we downed a punt inside the opponent's 40, last year. Which, if repeated will certainly stunt any improvement measured by our defense.
There. After writing this rather cathartic column, I feel much better. Don't you? The point is; we have the potential to be a very, very good team. We remain, however, a very, very vulnerable team. Vulnerable to injuries, a lack of depth to absorb those injuries, and a simple lack of proven skills in the line of fire.
The thing that concerns me the most about the whole thing is this; All this braggadocio sounds fine in front of the media at the ACC media day. It looks pretty silly, if, upon getting your chinstrap loosened, for the first time, we resort to the habits of last year. Besides the Offensive line, this is still a young team, and young teams sometimes struggle when the going gets tough. And, like it or not, the ACC is sowing a similar field of oats. Where does that leadership come from the first time we're behind in the third quarter? Where will the toughness arise from when one of our "stars" goes down with an injury? Will we reinstate that old swagger, or tuck our tails like we did against UNC? Only time will tell.
That said, I pick us to go 14–0 and smash Okla-Winfrey in the Fiesta Bowl.