If Saturday was any indication of the future, the Florida State program in very good hands. With the ACC in another down year (though I suspect it's not quite as down as the first week suggested), this football team has to be considered a frontrunner for the conference championship. Although Western Carolina might well have been the weakest teams we have played in a number of years, the focus, intensity, and discipline showed through most of the game suggests that Florida State may have finally turned the corner. (As I mentioned in the last roundtable, USC was 6-6 in Norm Chow's first year. They went 11-2 his next year. Expecting a similar second year under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State is not unreasonable.)
The quarterbacks, even though they're young and green, are a HUGE upgrade over anything we've put on the field since 2000. We have gone from this position being a weakness to it being potentially a major strength. Both Ponder and Richardson run better than any quarterback we've had this decade—and as Fisher himself has noted, "both of those guys would be very good quarterbacks [even] if they couldn't run."
Aside from a bobbled snap by Richardson, a couple loose throws early by Ponder, and a missed WR or two by D'Vontrey on plays that turned out to be positive-yardage scrambles, they played as well as could be asked. Best of all, they each seem to have taken on Jimbo's personality on the field, with each exhibiting command in the huddle and a willingness to take shots downfield when they're available.
The offensive line will at least not be a weakness this year. I will wait until they have faced a better defense to declare them a strength, but aside from some early jitters that resulted in a couple false starts, they looked good. Most exciting was watching them get downfield on passes to receivers—several times the linemen got into the picture downfield after catches. That shows Rick Trickett's emphasis on finishing plays and also testifies to the conditioning of the OL. This is not the fat and lazy group of the past, and they will only get better through the year.
The receivers had me smiling all night. Dawsey's emphasis on downfield blocking has finally begun to bear fruit. Make no mistake: the number of big plays by the offense on Saturday was a direct result of better downfield blocking by the receivers. Surrency in particular was a monster on the edge—even better is that it seems his example has lit a fire under FSU's other marquis big receiver, who was witnessed blocking well on several occasions. The player who really stuck out to me as someone to watch this year was Rod Owens, who not only blocked well, but showed that his burst is finally back after tearing up his knee a couple years ago. He is quietly one of our most explosive receivers when healthy and seems to have a great on-field rapport with Ponder. I would give the receivers a solid "A" for the night—the only group I'd grade that high. And that's without Preston Parker on the field.
We're thin at running back, but if the OL continues to develop, we should be okay there. I still like our backs a lot better than UF's (and now we have two QBs who can run to go with them).
Our defense needs to get better in a hurry. We will be very vulnerable in the middle going into the Wake Forest game; our DTs did not get the kind of push we need. McCray, however, did show some potential, reminding me of a very young Fluellen. If we can get through the Wake game, the depth added by these first few games will be a benefit. We're going to need a healthy and motivated Mincey later in the year to take some pressure off our ends.
Our corners remain a concern. Tony Carter is an excellent corner in the short to intermediate area, but he struggles when the ball is above his head and continues to have some difficulty against bigger receivers. Garvin looked quite improved, but he (like Carter) still tends struggles in downfield coverage. On the positive side, Jenije looked as though he might actually be turning the corner; he had a couple rough plays but was generally in position most of the night. The experience will be good for him. One major positive was the play of Korey Mangum, who was in excellent coverage every time he was tested. Mangum gives us another bigger corner, which will be critical later in the year.
The other major positive on defense was the play of the free safeties; Robinson's TD-saving breakup in the end zone displayed excellent range from his safety spot. The rover spot remains a strength.
Toddrick Verdell might be the best linebacker on roster this year. I love his range and how quickly he flows to the ball at that size. The linebackers in general looked good, though Nicholson still isn't quite as strong at the point of attack as he is flowing to the football from the Mike spot.
Overall the team's attitude seems to have taken a major 180. The housecleaning done over the last two years has finally resulted in a roster of players who have bought into this staff's vision. The aggressive, loose, and disciplined approach is something we haven't seen in a number of years. The increased attention to detail especially on the offensive side of the ball is obvious.
In his post-game interview, Jimbo Fisher commented how happy he was with how the young quarterbacks had gotten us into the correct plays and checks all game, saying "we put some run/run checks and two or three play packages together and let them check it … and iced it and freeze and let them check at the line a lot and they did a pretty good job of it." This probably sounds like Greek to the average fan, but it's a very important part of what makes Jimbo's offenses so successful.
Run/run checks are when the quarterback comes to the line with a couple run play options (it may be as simple as picking which side of the formation it will run towards) and then makes the call at the line as to which run play it will be.
When Jimbo is talking about two and three play packages and "ice" and "freeze," he's talking about giving the quarterback two or three different plays that are called in the huddle. On a "freeze" play, the quarterback goes through the whole cadence and lets the defense shift, forcing the defense to show itself. The quarterback then checks to the best option of the plays called in the huddle based on certain keys the defense is showing at the line of scrimmage.
This of course places a lot of responsibility on the quarterback to consistently get the team into the right plays (requiring a lot of study), but the benefit is that Jimbo's offense is virtually never forced to run a play into a defense designed to stop that play—instead, the quarterback is able to quickly check to a play that is designed to beat that particular defensive call. That kind of adjustment is invaluable (and absolutely necessary) in today's offensive and defensive chess games. In essence, Jimbo's offense always gets the last word as long as the quarterback understands the offense and does his job. One can only imagine how much better the offense gets as the quarterbacks get more experienced and comfortable in Jimbo's system.
There's a lot to look forward to this season. We still aren't where we need to be, but we just might have turned the corner.