Five FSU questions answered

Jason Staples, publisher of NolesDigest, answers five key questions about Florida State a few days before the big showdown. Read on for his analysis on some key questions Miami fans are wondering about.

1) Jameis Winston has been off this season for a number of reasons. Why is that and what are the chances he gets back to playing on an elite level this week?

Although the numbers don’t entirely reflect it, Winston has actually played better this year than last year on the whole. The primary factors impacting Winston’s less impressive stat line have been the losses of 2013 Rimington Award winner (and current starter for the New England Patriots) Bryan Stork and Kelvin Benjamin, the likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Stork’s absence has left a huge hole in the middle of the offensive line, which was further exacerbated when his replacement, fifth-year senior Austin Barron, broke his arm against Wake Forest. Florida State’s running game has been nowhere near as consistent as it was in 2013, and Winston’s pass protection has been spotty at times as well.

FSU has replaced Benjamin and Kenny Shaw with true sophomore Jesus “Bobo” Wilson and true freshmen Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane. The trio is talented but has been less consistent than last year’s experienced group, with route-running errors leading directly to several of Winston’s interceptions over the past few weeks. None of the three is a physical freak like Benjamin (6’5, 230+), either, which means FSU doesn’t have a ready-made matchup advantage to exploit on the outside on every pass play.

That said, the young receivers have made huge strides over the past month and are getting more consistent, so the passing game is getting more dangerous every week.

Winston is, however, very banged up coming into this game, as his ankle injury is worse than FSU has let on. He struggled to push the ball downfield and outside the numbers last week as he couldn’t push off his back foot like normal, and he’s not a whole lot healthier this week. I expect him to continue to play at an elite level, but he may be a hair off from his peak performance due to that injury.

2) FSU has struggled in a lot of first halves this season. What's the reason for that and what are the chances that will continue Saturday?

There have been several factors. The first is boredom. There have been a few games this year (Syracuse, Wake Forest) where FSU looked like an elite NBA team around midseason—going through the motions until they flipped the switch and turned up the intensity.

The second is youth. Florida State has one senior in its regular defensive rotation, backup defensive tackle Desmond Hollin, along with those young receivers on offense. That has led to a few busts easily chalked up to youth and inexperience.

The third factor is the extra preparation they continue to face in every game. The NC State game was perhaps the best example of this, as the Wolfpack had saved numerous packages and gadgets specifically for the first quarter against FSU. They hadn’t previously shown most of what they ran in the first quarter against the Seminoles, and it took a little time for FSU to catch up and adjust. FSU won the game 49-17 from that point.

The fourth factor is injuries and FSU’s overall lack of depth, particularly on the defensive front seven. The Seminoles were unusually healthy in 2013 but have definitely made up for it in 2014. For example, Florida State was playing without SEVEN scholarship linebackers in the second half against Louisville and was forced to play a backup safety at one of the linebacker spots. FSU is still banged up at linebacker, but all of those players have returned to action by this week (minus Markuss Eligwe, who has since been dismissed from the team).

The defensive line has gone through a similar rash of injuries. Starting nose tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample (Timmy Jernigan’s replacement) is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle and has been a huge loss. His replacement, Derrick Mitchell, missed two games with a knee injury. Mitchell’s backup, Justin Shanks, also missed two games with a knee injury. Top defensive end Mario Edwards, Jr. missed a game and a half with a concussion. Backup defensive tackle DeMarcus Christmas was out for five weeks with a high ankle sprain.

All of that turmoil combined with youth on the defensive line has meant Edwards and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman playing more snaps, which means a lower overall intensity level each snap.

As for this week, the FSU defense is as healthy as it has been all season, and the youngsters have been getting more consistent each week. I still expect a reasonably slow start due to Miami’s bye week providing a chance for a few early wrinkles, but I don’t think it’s going to resemble the Louisville game, either.

3) Miami's done an excellent job against outside receivers all season. The unknown is how well a good tight end will play against them. How involved do you expect Nick O'Leary to be and what type of impact can he have on a game like this?

O’Leary is the clear second option in this offense at this point. He is among the best pass-catching tight ends in the country and is especially adept at creating contact and getting space on option routes between the hashes. Because of FSU’s inexperience at receiver (other than Rashad Greene), defenses have been bracketing O’Leary to take him away, but if Miami tries to single-cover him, I expect him to have a big day.

One thing he has done well in the past that FSU hasn’t done of late is a shake route, which is a stutter-post where he gets vertical in the seam between two deep safeties. With as much attention as he has drawn on option routes of late, don’t be surprised to see that shake route if Miami tries to cover him aggressively underneath.

One concern for FSU coming into this game has been Winston’s tendency to force the football to O’Leary at times, which has led to two or three interceptions this year.

4) Florida State's defense has given up lots of yards and points this season. What's been the biggest difference since last season when they seemed much more dominant?

Simple. Personnel and health. I’ve already detailed the health problems above, but FSU had to replace a ton of experienced NFL talent with a lot of youth.

Last year's team rotated six experienced 300 pound DLs:

Timmy Jernigan
Demonte McAllister
Jacobbi McDaniel
Mario Edwards, Jr.
Eddie Goldman
Nile Lawrence-Stample

This year that group has been narrowed to two: Edwards and Goldman. Derrick Mitchell has been added, but he was available last year also and just didn't play much.

Then add this behind all that beef:

DB Lamarcus Joyner (playing extremely well in the NFL)
LB Telvin Smith (ditto)
S Terrence Brooks (starting for the Ravens)
LB/DE Christian Jones (playing for the Bears)

FSU has gone from what may have been the best dime secondary in college football history:

P.J. Williams
Jalen Ramsey
Terrence Brooks
Nate Andrews
Ronald Darby

To this one:

Tyler Hunter
Lamarcus Brutus

That’s a downgrade at three spots in the dime secondary.

Add to that replacing Jones with a combination of true freshman Lorenzo Featherston and sophomores Chris Casher and Demarcus Walker on the edge and replacing one of the best coverage linebackers in FSU history (Smith) with a combination of Reggie Northrup, sophomore E.J. Levenberry, and redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas, who was suspended for the first six games.

There's going to be a drop off when that happens. The fact that they have continued to win despite all those losses is a testament to how good last year's team was. I don't know that we'll see another like it for awhile.

That’s not the only factor, either. The defense has actually played better than people realize, but the offense’s rash of turnovers has repeatedly put them in bad spots. For example, according to Football Outsiders, just over 17 of Virginia’s 20 points last week should be considered directly attributable to turnovers.

5) A lot of Miami fans are wondering about the health status of several FSU players going into the game. What's the latest injury update and how do you think that will impact Saturday's game?

Winston is very banged up (ankle, right thumb), and his ankle may be a factor in how well he’s able to throw the football in this game.

Starting center Austin Barron has missed the last five weeks with a broken arm but has returned to full participation in practice this week. The line was better with Barron in the lineup when he was injured, but it’s unclear whether he’s fully ready after all that time off. I expect him to be the starter in this game, but it all depends on whether he’s truly ready. Otherwise, Ryan Hoefeld will get the start.

Guard Tre’ Jackson continues to battle a knee injury but will play. RT Bobby Hart is also banged up but will play.

Linebacker Terrance Smith missed practice on Tuesday with a knee laceration but should be healthy for Saturday.

Linebacker Matthew Thomas (shoulder, knee) is not fully healthy but will play.

Running back Mario Pender has fully participated the last two weeks and will be fresh for this game after rehabbing from a high ankle sprain sustained at Syracuse.

RB Dalvin Cook has been practicing on his hip injury, but I am less optimistic about how much we see of him in this game.

DE Lorenzo Featherston has an arm injury that is significantly limiting him but is expected to play in some packages.

I think Winston’s ankle is likely to have some impact on his ability to throw with his usual precision, while Pender’s return may give FSU more of a chance to help Winston with better balance.

Defensively, FSU is still banged up, but they’re on the upswing of recovery which should help against a physical Miami squad.

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