ON THE BEAT: Florida State

Nole Digest beat writer Jason Staples spoke with Pack Pride about the Wolfpack's next opponent, Florida State. Staples talked about the team's strengths, weaknesses, and much more in this exclusive interview.

Nole Digest beat writer Jason Staples spoke with Pack Pride about the Wolfpack's next opponent, Florida State. Staples talked about the team's strengths, weaknesses, and much more in this exclusive interview.

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Jameis Winston's completion percentage is very good and his yardage is as well, but just three touchdowns with two interceptions through the air in his two starts. Was that more of a product of scoring on the ground or is there some chemistry still being built with the wide receivers?

It’s really a combination of factors, the first being that he’s only really played a game and a half so far this season. Against Oklahoma State, FSU got a defensive score and two touchdowns on the ground (one from Winston), which limited the opportunities through the air, though Winston threw a key red-zone interception that prevented the Seminoles from starting that game with a 24-0 lead.

He looked like the Winston of last year against The Citadel as the Seminoles’ first team offense scored on all six of its drives, but he had two touchdowns dropped in the end zone that turned into field goals.

There’s naturally going to be some adjustment in terms of chemistry after losing receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw from last year, but I’m less worried about FSU’s receiver position than most FSU pundits. No, they don’t have a Kelvin Benjamin type mismatch this year, but they have improved in the slot and have more speed at the receiver position.

They just haven’t had much chance to all be on the field together, especially since FSU’s second receiver, Jesus “Bobo” Wilson, was suspended for the Oklahoma State game, meaning the Seminoles’ full passing personnel has only played about a half together.

How would you assess Winston's overall play so far?

He looked a hair off against Oklahoma State at times, missing in the strike zone on a few throws he made with frightening consistency last year. He also threw two bad interceptions in that game, each one the result of forcing the ball downfield. Wilson’s absence was probably a factor, as he gives FSU an explosive and reliable threat opposite Greene.

As I said above, he looked like himself against The Citadel a week later, but again, that was against an FCS team and with a reduced workload.

The more interesting thing is that it has been three weeks since Winston last played a game; the receivers admitted to being a bit out of sync when he took back over on Monday. It’ll be interesting to see just how sharp he is early in this one after the bye week and suspension against Clemson.

Talk about the rotation Florida State has at Running back with Karlos Williams, Mario Pender, and Dalvin Cook.

This is probably the fastest collection of running backs in the country, with all four backs in the 10.9 or better range in the 100m in high school. Williams is the big back at about 6’1, 235 and will be the main ball carrier against NC State. He’s as good a combination of size and speed (ran 10.6 in high school) as there is in the country but has missed a few cutback lanes in the early games as he adjusts to his first full season playing the position after playing his first 3 ½ years at safety. Williams is an excellent receiver, and FSU will likely try to sneak him up the sideline on a wheel route at some point in this game.

Pender is about 205 pounds and blazing fast—he won the majority of his 100m matchups against former Clemson WR Sammy Watkins when they were in high school—but he didn’t practice this week after getting a concussion on a nasty hit in the Clemson game and is out for the game.

Cook is a 205 pound true freshman and the fastest of the bunch. Most of his time so far came against The Citadel, where he flashed solid instincts and elite burst. He’s not as natural out of the backfield as the rest, but he’s a big play threat anytime he touches it.

FSU also just got sophomore Ryan Green back from a hamstring injury this week, and he has actually stepped into the #2 role with Pender out. Green (5’10, 200) is a versatile back with excellent receiving skills and flashed the ability to run inside and out as a freshman last year.

I’d expect to see Williams shoulder most of the load (probably around 20 carries) this week. As a power back, he’s not as apt to make something out of nothing as Pender, who has more ability to make himself small and wriggle through smaller creases, so FSU will have to do a better job up front than they have if he’s going to have success. That said, if Williams gets to the second level with his size and speed, look out. Not many are going to catch any of this bunch once they’re in the secondary.

The offensive line is being hailed as a strength, but there has been some concerns there. What are the issues and how do you feel FSU will correct them moving forward?

The FSU offensive line came into the season hyped as the best unit in the country and have been far from it so far. It’s a unit of five seniors, four of whom return from last year’s unit and are expected to be drafted in the first three rounds. So this is not the kind of unit one expects to struggle.

The only new starter is center Austin Barron, who stepped in for 2013 Rimington Award winner Bryan Stork. Barron lacks elite size and really struggled against Clemson, but the whole unit hasn’t looked like itself so far this year as each of the senior starters has taken his turn missing assignments or whiffing on blocks.

FSU has not done well cutting off backside pursuit—key to their zone running scheme—most of this year, and they have had some difficulty with quick defensive linemen so far.

FSU has worked on contingencies in case Barron continues to struggle since the preseason, with the primary option involving Erving moving to center. I spoke to Jimbo Fisher about that earlier this year, and he was adamant that Erving has shown himself to be an outstanding option at that position thanks to his elite size and athleticism.

After Barron’s struggles last week, Erving has spent this week entirely at center, with usual right tackle Bobby Hart at left tackle and junior college transfer Chad Mavety at right tackle. Whether FSU initially comes out with that lineup or not, I expect to see it at some point in this game, especially if FSU struggles against NC State’s outstanding defensive tackles early.

Break down the skill positions...wide receiver and tight end.

It all starts with Rashad Greene, who is right there with Alabama’s Amari Cooper as one of the top two receivers in the country. Greene is a Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne type receiver who doesn’t have elite size but is extremely smooth, understands how to run routes, and runs away from people in the open field. FSU will do what they can to get the ball in his hands as often as possible this year, often on quick crossing routes designed to get him the ball on the move.

Wilson is the number two receiver and is somewhat similar to a guy like Steve Smith. He’s about 5’9 but is very strong and has elite acceleration and leaping ability, which make him a vertical threat from anywhere on the field.

Fifth-year senior Christian Green was a five-star prospect coming out of high school but has never lived up to his billing. He’s a bigger body and again has some big-play ability.

The fourth receiver is Levonte “Kermit” Whitfield, who may be the fastest player in the country (his 10.15 100m time was the third-fastest prep time in history). He’s small and not yet a polished receiver, but FSU will move him around, even putting him in the backfield at times to get him the ball in space. He’s also one of the more dangerous kick returners in the country.

FSU will play as many as eight receivers, with five-star freshmen Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane, senior Jarred Haggins, and four-star freshman Javon Harrison also getting time.

FSU has one of the best receiving tight ends in the country in senior Nick O’Leary and will use him on option routes and occasional seam routes all game. He does a terrific job initiating contact and working to open space as a route-runner and has terrific hands. He’s an average blocker on the edge, though he has worked hard to improve in that area.

When FSU goes to a second tight end, Kevin Haplea is the guy. The 255-pound Penn State transfer is a reasonably good blocker but not the receiving threat O’Leary is.

Is Nile Lawrence-Stample being out a big loss?

Absolutely. The biggest question mark coming into the year for FSU was whether they could adequately replace nose tackle Timmy Jernigan, and Lawrence-Stample was the top guy at that spot. He played well through the first three weeks and probably played his best game at FSU against Clemson.

That said, Eddie Goldman (6’4, 315) has been terrific and played like an early first-rounder against Clemson. FSU has also gotten better than expected production from DT Derrick Mitchell (6’4, 300), who will now replace Lawrence-Stample in the starting lineup. FSU also gets Justin Shanks (6’2, 330) back from an ankle injury this week and five-star freshman Derrick Nnadi (6’2, 315) looked good in his time the last two games as well.

The talent is there to absorb the loss, but there’s no question Lawrence-Stample will be missed.

If I read the #s correctly, FSU has just two team sacks through three games. Is that an area of concern?

No. Florida State plays a lot of match coverages with pattern-reading principles, meaning the focus of the defensive line is staying in their rush lanes and compressing the pocket rather than launching up field in search of sacks. This is all the more important against dual-threat quarterbacks like J.W. Walsh and Deshaun Watson, who can really hurt teams that play a lot of match or man coverage with their legs.

The Citadel runs a flexbone triple-option, so sacks aren’t going to happen there, either.

How has the back seven performed?

Like NC State, FSU really runs a base nickel, with five defensive backs on the field most of the game.

FSU starts three cornerbacks who will be first-round draft picks, but two of them—P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby—have been battling through hamstring difficulties since preseason camp. Neither played against The Citadel as they rested for the Clemson game. Despite fighting through injury, they’ve still played well.

FSU’s best player in the secondary is sophomore “Star” (nickelback) Jalen Ramsey, who is a freakish athlete that the Seminoles will move all over the field.

Safety Nate Andrews also moves around quite a bit and will play near the line of scrimmage quite a bit; he lacks elite range but has been a turnover-magnet over the past two years.

The other safety is Tyler Hunter, who missed 2013 with a neck injury but started against NC State in 2012. Hunter is very talented but seemed to play a little bit soft at times this year (understandable as he settles back in after his injury) and hasn’t had the same range from his center field role that Terrence Brooks had last year for FSU.

Linebacker Terrance Smith has been outstanding in every facet all year. At 6’4, 230 he moves like a safety but has the size to hold up in the box and the length to tackle in space. He won’t come off the field when FSU is on defense.

The other linebacker position is split between Reggie Northrup (6’1, 220) and E.J. Levenberry (6’3, 240), both of whom are a bit better in run support than pass coverage at this point.

Defensive end Mario Edwards, Jr. has been ruled out for the weekend with a concussion. How big a loss is this for the Florida State defense?

Huge, and it magnifies the loss of Lawrence-Stample. Edwards is, in my view, worth a field goal at minimum for this FSU defense. With Lawrence-Stample out with injury, FSU needs the rest of its defensive line to step up. That will be even more difficult without Edwards, who may be the best run-stopping defensive end in the country.

FSU asks Edwards to do a lot of two-gapping, which is rare for defensive ends, and his ability to do that gives FSU a ton of flexibility up front and can free up an extra player in coverage. With Edwards out, FSU loses a lot of size up front and will have more difficulty stopping the run and compressing the pocket against the pass. That said, FSU did play well without Edwards in the second half against Clemson, so they’ve shown they can do it. It’s just not going to be easy.

What are the strengths/weaknesses of the defense?

FSU has elite players at each level of the defense. The biggest strength is probably at the cornerback position, where as I said before, the Seminoles have three players almost certain to go in the first round.

Goldman is also one of the most disruptive and versatile defensive linemen in the country, giving FSU a lot of flexibility up front.

In terms of weaknesses, OLB/DE hybrids Demarcus Walker and Chris Casher are big players who are sometimes asked to drop in coverage and also had some difficulty with speed on the edge against Oklahoma State, though they both played well against Clemson. Without Mario Edwards, however, they will both be expected to play a bigger role in this one, and they don’t have the same level of size and physicality Edwards brings to the table.

In Edwards’ absence, one potential weakness is the pass rush, since pass rushers Markus Eligwe (Lisfranc injury) and Matthew Thomas (suspension) have yet to play in 2014 and are doubtful and out, respectively, for this game.

If I were coordinating against this defense, I’d want to force Northrup/Levenberry and Walker/Casher to cover athletes in space and would try to test Hunter’s range on verticals down the sideline. But honestly, there’s not a whole lot of weakness on this defense, which really started to hit its stride in the second half against Clemson.

How do you believe FSU is approaching this game?

It’s another business trip for this team, which tries to take the “nameless, faceless opponent” approach and believes it is playing against itself more than its opponents. That said, some of the older players still remember the 2012 loss and will have a little extra revenge on their mind.

Finally, how do you see this game playing out?

This is a tough game to project, as the Wolfpack have played an extremely soft schedule, while FSU has done its best to play handicapped so far.

When FSU is on offense, I’ll be watching the interior line to see whether it holds up against NC State’s defensive tackles. If FSU is able to have success on the ground in this game, they’ll score a lot of points. If not, this game could get interesting.

One could make the case that NC State has been “Quarterback U” over the past decade-plus, and Florida State’s losses to the Wolfpack have all come when an NCSU quarterback (Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, and Mike Glennon) got hot. Jacoby Brissett is cut from similar cloth, and FSU needs to pressure him enough to keep him from finding a rhythm and getting hot like his predecessors.

If FSU manages to do both of those things, this game will be a rout, with the Noles rolling by 24+. If the Wolfpack win one of these two matchups, the game will stay close. If they win them both, they could pull the upset.

In the final analysis, I think NCSU is ultimately a couple years away and has a bit too much youth to keep this close through four quarters, and FSU finally starts to put everything together after stumbling through the first three games. I think it could be interesting early but FSU pulls away in the second half.


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