5 Questions: Florida State

Jason Staples of NoleDigest.com answers 5 questions about Thursday nights game between Louisville and Florida State..

1. There's been so much attention focused on Jameis Winston both on and off the field before this season and as the Seminoles have played throughout the season. But the team has remained focused on the opponent in front of them. How have they kept that focus?

Firstly, this team has bought into Jimbo Fisher’s refrain about “eliminating clutter” and has looked at the process of preparation and practice as a welcome respite from the circus going on outside. On the other hand, they haven’t completely ignored the distractions— they’ve used them as fuel. This team knows the facts of the Winston case, believes he has been victimized by an overzealous press in much the same way as the Duke Lacrosse team, and they’ve taken an “us against the world” mentality in response. I don’t think most outsiders have any idea how well liked Winston is on the team, and they’ve really rallied around him. Thirdly, most of this team was on last year’s national championship team, and they know how to make plays when it counts. It’s always tougher to knock out a champion.

2. Louisville has struggled on the offensive line. What can the Cardinals expect from the Florida State defense, specifically the defensive line?

Defensive end Mario Edwards, Jr. and defensive tackle/end Eddie Goldman are among the best defensive linemen in the country, and each will likely go in the first round of the NFL draft. FSU will move both of them around quite a bit, with Edwards playing both inside and outside and Goldman playing everywhere from a five technique to a zero technique over the center. The other starting defensive tackle, Derrick Mitchell, has been solid despite missing two games with a knee injury.

But the FSU front is thin after those three, as original starting nose tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample is out for the year with a torn pectoral muscle. Backup defensive tackles Justin Shanks and Desmond Hollin are a huge drop off from the starters, and true freshman Derrick Nnadi has great talent but hasn’t quite gotten to the point where the coaching staff can trust him.

One weakness this defense has continued to have is on the edge opposite Mario Edwards, Jr., as (RS-SO) Chris Casher and (SO) Demarcus Walker have been underwhelming and have been passed up by 6’7 true freshman wunderkind Lorenzo Featherston, who is capable of wreaking havoc but isn’t always assignment sound. Featherston’s addition has helped the pass rush substantially, but he’s only 225 pounds and is not as strong against the run at this point. He’s also liable to bite on backfield action and lose contain against a reverse or similar action, though he’s so quick and long he can sometimes recover.

3. The Louisville defense has been solid all season, shutting down the run and limiting the opponents through the air. The Cardinals are among the tops in the country at sacks and tackles for a loss. Will they be able to get pressure on Winston in this game?

Probably. Perhaps the must surprising development so far this season has been the struggles of Florida State’s senior-laden offensive line, which returned four starters from last year’s dominant unit. But none of the four have played at the level they did in 2013, and the new starter, center Austin Barron had struggled before fracturing his arm against Wake Forest. Barron’s replacement, redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefeld, struggled mightily against Notre Dame.

The offensive line is one of the bigger groups in the country and really should be a dominant unit, but they’ve taken their turns just whiffing or turning guys loose all year. If they ever get back to consistency, they’re as talented as any line in the country. They have, however, struggled against quicker defensive linemen most of the season, which doesn’t bode well against Louisville’s active defensive front.

If starting tailback Karlos Williams doesn’t play, that will be another big loss in the passing game as he’s the most reliable back on the roster in pass protection and is like another receiver as an outlet in the passing game.

Winston is capable of getting the ball out of his hand quickly if the rush is there, so he’s unlikely to get sacked a bunch, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Louisville get some pressure on Winston in this game in longer yardage situations. I expect to see FSU spread the field and throw the ball a bunch on first down to limit those situations and test the Louisville corners in better passing situations.

4. A lot of chatter about Jameis Winston. He had Heisman Trophy numbers during an amazing season last year. How would you grade his performance this season on the field, knowing he has so much hype to live up to, and what kind of a kid is he to deal with on a regular basis?

Winston has in many respects been even better on the field the last few weeks than he was last year. His touchdown numbers are down somewhat, but given FSU’s difficulties running the ball and the fact that the Seminoles have been breaking in a new group of receivers around senior Rashad Greene, he has been better than the numbers (which are still excellent) would suggest. I’d put the second half against Notre Dame alongside the second half of last year’s BCS Championship Game as the two best halves he’s ever played.

The best way I can describe Winston is to say he’s a class clown, a performer who really wants to be liked. He actually reminds me of stories Clay Shiver used to tell about Deion Sanders, who was an exceptionally hard worker, a great teammate, and a regular member of the team. But when the media came around, Deion would take on an entirely different persona, putting on a show as the brash, arrogant “Prime Time.”

Sanders would sit in the locker room and say, “Hey, wait till you guys see what I got for ‘em this time,” and the rest of the team would watch and laugh while Sanders hammed it up as Prime Time. And once the cameras went and the media left, he was right back to being normal Deion. It was all a game, an inside joke—and one that the whole team could enjoy.

Winston is very much like Sanders in that respect—he’s a showman who likes to be the center of attention. But he’s able to do it without losing the respect of his teammates because so much of it is a performance, even a performance for their entertainment at times. And again, Winston is very well liked among his teammates and is the clear leader of this team. And don’t let Winston’s goofball side fool you. He’s a cutthroat competitor who is all business the moment it’s time to work, and his work ethic has earned him the total trust of his coaches and teammates.

5. The Seminoles just seem to keep on winning no matter what they come up against. What's been the biggest key for them this season and is there a place where Louisville can take advantage of a weakness?

The biggest key has been FSU’s ability to win key situations. Florida State is second in the country in red zone scoring (26 out of 27 trips against FBS) and eighth nationally in red zone defense (19 scores in 28 trips). The Seminole defense has also given up first downs on only three of 12 fourth down attempts. Winston and the offense have answered with a score nearly every time FSU goes down. The bottom line is that FSU has top-shelf playmakers on both sides of the ball (most notably Winston, Greene, Edwards, Goldman, Terrance Smith, and Jalen Ramsey) who have continually stepped up big when the Seminoles have needed them most.

The biggest key for Florida State at this point is getting better and more consistent performances on the line of scrimmage. FSU’s offensive line can’t continue to allow penetration in the running game, and the Seminoles need to have better offensive balance. And the defensive front needs to do a better job putting pressure on the quarterback, which has become a significant weakness.

Louisville needs to maintain balance on offense, stay patient with the short passing game, and score touchdowns in the red zone. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cards need to take some chances with safe pressure (zone blitz looks) on first down, as their best chances to beat FSU is to hit Winston while keeping their safeties deep.

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