Five Questions: Florida State

We ask, they answer. NoleDigest.com's Jason Staples stops by Irish Eyes to answer five pressing questions regarding the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles.

1.) 6-0, winners of 22 straight, a returning Heisman Trophy quarterback that's never failed to lead his team to fewer than 34 points -- and dropped in the Polls. Life is rough. Do the 'Noles care? (Assuming the fans do). Will this be a motivating factor, or is a visit from No. 5 Notre Dame enough?

Staples: Some of the fans care, but many others are actually pleased to see FSU get bumped from the top spot, hoping the team feels disrespected and comes out even more motivated as a result. As for the team itself, I don’t think they care much. This team has been very businesslike all season; they care about the rankings at the end of the year and know how little rankings matter at this stage. That said, they probably will use it as further evidence of an “us against the world” situation that they have rallied around for awhile now.

In terms of motivation, I don’t think it will make much of a difference. I don’t think most “bulletin board” material or anything else really makes much difference these days. I do think this team has shown signs of boredom at times this year, flipping the intensity switch like an elite NBA team during the regular season. I expect that a visit from a top-5 Notre Dame team will provide enough motivation on its own for them to be fully focused throughout.

2.) Jameis Winston has has dealt with off-the-field distractions and accusations for the better part of this winning streak. Assuming his robotic ability to put blinders on when he gets between the lines continues, what can the Irish defense do to get him ever-so-slightly off his game. When he struggles, relatively speaking, has there been a common denominator? 

JS: The common denominator when he hasn’t played as well has been defenses that have been able to pressure Winston with three or four rushers while pressing the receivers and keeping safeties deep. Teams that have tried to blitz Winston have gotten torched. No quarterback plays as well against a defense that can pressure without blitzing and cover tightly in the secondary, but nobody has really been able to do it to Florida State for four quarters since Winston’s arrival.

Winston’s primary weakness since taking over the job last year has been an unwillingness at times to check down to his backs and take the easy throw. He sometimes forces the football downfield when he has an easier throw short, though he has improved in this regard so far in 2014.

The best bet remains getting pressure with four and forcing him to be patient and throw short and underneath all game. I’d probably try a few zone blitzes as well to try to get pressure without committing too many players to the rush. Bottom line is that to beat Winston, a defense is going to have to beat his offensive line first.

3.) The Florida State defense entered the season with three consecutive top six finishes in terms of scoring defenses, including No. 1 last fall. What's holding this group back? Is it more than a three seasons of NFL attrition?

JS: Attrition definitely has something to do with it, as last year’s defense was senior-laden through the depth chart while this year’s group only has one senior (backup DT Desmond Hollin) in the two-deep. You can’t lose NT Timmy Jernigan, DB Lamarcus Joyner, S Terrence Brooks, LB Telvin Smith, and backup DTs Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister without having an initial drop in performance.

In addition to youth, this unit has also battled significantly more injuries than last year’s group, which had outstanding injury luck. Jernigan’s replacement at nose tackle, Nile Lawrence-Stample, is out for the year with a torn pectoral muscle, star defensive end Mario Edwards missed the second half against Clemson and the full NC State game with a concussion, defensive tackle Derrick Mitchell missed the last two weeks with a knee injury, and backup defensive tackles Justin Shanks and DeMarcus Christmas (out for ND) have also missed time. Mitchell will play against Notre Dame and DT/DE Eddie Goldman is among the best in the country at his position, but FSU’s defensive tackle depth is a concern at this point.

The team’s most talented linebacker, Matthew Thomas, was suspended for the first six games (failed drug test) and is expected to return against Notre Dame, while Markuss Eligwe, who was expected to start at another linebacker spot, missed the first four games and only played portions of the fifth after returning from spring foot surgery.

Both starting corners also battled through hamstring injuries during the first month, missing FSU’s second game, and are only now rounding into shape. Safety Tyler Hunter also had missed the entire 2013 campaign with a neck injury and showed a lot of rust in the first few games, though he has looked much better the last two contests.

That said, the defense has actually looked fairly similar to last year’s through the first few games of the season. Last year’s defense struggled some early in the year, as FSU trailed in three of their first four games in 2013 (Pittsburgh, Nevada, and Boston College) and gave up 17 first-quarter points and a bunch of first-half yards to BC in the fourth game—almost exactly the same script as FSU’s win at NC State this season. It wasn’t until game five against Maryland that the Seminole defense found itself and became a dominant unit last season.

One continuing concern for this defense is on the outside of the defensive front, where Florida State has struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks and hasn’t set the edge especially well against the run. That’s not an issue on Mario Edwards, Jr.’s side anytime he’s on the edge, but (RS-SO) Chris Casher and (SO) Demarcus Walker have underwhelmed, getting passed up by 6’7, 225 pound true freshman wunderkind Lorenzo Featherston, who has helped the pass rush but isn’t always assignment sound. Featherston is also liable to get pushed around against the run because of his lack of bulk at this stage.

4.) Other than Winston and Rashad Greene, who should Irish fans worry about on the Seminoles offense.

JS: Nick O’Leary is one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the country and is the second option in the FSU passing game. He’s outstanding running option routes and understands how to create contact and find space as a receiver. He also has enough speed to stretch the middle of the field if the safeties get too wide.

Jesus “Bobo” Wilson provides an explosive and consistent option opposite Greene and has fully earned Winston’s trust at this point. He’s a Steve Smith type receiver who lacks size at 5’10 but makes up for it with elite acceleration and terrific route running. If Notre Dame tries to take Greene away, I expect Wilson to have a big night.

Kermit Whitfield plays quite a bit in the slot and sometimes in the backfield. He’s arguably the fastest player in the country (his 10.15 100m time was the 3rd fastest in prep history) and is obviously a home run threat anytime he touches it. They’ll feed him the ball on bubble screens and jet sweeps if the defensive alignment warrants it.

The FSU tailbacks are probably the fastest group of backs in the country as well, with Karlos Williams, Mario Pender (looking unlikely to play with an ankle injury) and Dalvin Cook all possessing home run speed if the line provides a crease.

Two five-star true freshman wide receivers have also earned a much bigger role the last few weeks. Ermon Lane (6’3, 215) is the bigger of the two, but Travis Rudolph (6’1, 190) has shown a knack for big plays and is fully in the rotation at this point.

5.) Three potential All-American offensive linemen and Karlos Williams at running back, yet the FSU rushing attack hasn't wowed anyone. What's been the issue to date and are they trending up as a unit as we reach the midway point? Will Williams be back this week? Will C Austin Barron?

JS: Williams will be back, but Barron is out for the foreseeable future with a broken arm. The primary issue in the running game has been the offensive line simply turning guys loose, making the sorts of mistakes you wouldn’t expect from a senior-laden group. They’ve also struggled some against quicker defensive linemen, who have been able to get penetration and cause problems against the run.

The running game is definitely trending up, however, as FSU has averaged a yard per carry more the last two games than they did the first four (which included an FCS team to boot).

Barron’s replacement at center, redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefeld, had some issues with high snaps in his first real action against Wake Forest but snapped it much better against Syracuse. He also blocked well in his first start, and the unit did not have some of the communication problems and missed assignments that had been the norm through the first month of the season.

Obviously Notre Dame has a better defensive front than FSU’s last two opponents, but the FSU offensive line is as big and talented as any in the country if they just take care of their own business. That’s really where this game will be won or lost in my opinion. If FSU’s offensive line performance starts to approach the level it should, it’s going to be tough to get to Winston and tough to limit the running game. But if Notre Dame is able to win this battle, that’s the first step toward limiting what Winston and the FSU passing game can do.


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