Q: Florida State has gotten off to some slow starts this season but turned it on in the second halves. What has been the key to that trend?
Jason Staples: Execution, execution, execution. This team has comparable talent to last year’s team (and better depth in most spots), but there’s a lot of youth in key places and players adjusting to new roles. (Winston’s absence also was obviously a factor against Clemson.)
That said, 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. He’ll be replaced by redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefeld.
The Seminoles’ offensive line has struggled some with quicker defensive linemen and has not opened the kind of seams in the running game you might expect, which has limited the offensive efficiency as the Noles haven’t been as balanced as they’d like to be. You’re just not going to be as consistent when you’re not winning up front.
Interestingly, the Seminoles jumped on Oklahoma State in the opener, only a Winston red zone interception away from starting that game 24-0 before the Cowboys fought back into the game. So it has not just been slow starts but incomplete games overall. It ultimately comes down to inconsistent execution. When this team does what it’s capable of, it’s the best in the country. But there have been occasions where they haven’t been able to get out of their own way.
Q: The defense does not looked as dominant as last season. What has been the difference and why has that been the case?
Staples: The defense has actually looked pretty similar to last year’s at this point in 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. It wasn’t until game five against Maryland that the Seminole defense found itself and became a dominant unit.
This group is a bit younger than last year’s group, however, and it has battled significantly more injuries than last year’s group, which had outstanding injury luck. Starting 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 last week’s game with a knee injury (likely limited against Syracuse), and backup defensive tackles Justin Shanks and DeMarcus Christmas (out for Syracuse) have also missed time. and two of the top three linebackers on the team missed the first four games, with Markuss Eligwe (foot surgery) returning against Wake Forest and Matthew Thomas (suspension) expected to return against Notre Dame.
Both starting corners have also battled through hamstring injuries (getting held out against The Citadel) and are only now rounding into shape. Safety Tyler Hunter had missed the entire 2013 campaign with a neck injury and showed a lot of rust in the first few games.
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, however.
Q: Do you expect Rashad Greene to play against Syracuse? And if he is unable to go, how big of a blow is that to the FSU offense?
Staples: I don’t expect him to play as FSU has a concussion expert on staff and is very conservative when it comes to concussions. It’s a huge loss, as Greene is one of the two best receivers in the country and a huge security blanket for Winston.
Five-star freshmen Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane will step into Greene’s spot, and although there will definitely be a drop off, both have played very well in recent weeks and have been pushing for more time anyway. Long-term, it could actually be better for FSU to get those two additional reps against the Orange.
Q: How is Florida State in the trenches on both sides of the ball? What are their strengths and vulnerabilities along both lines?
Staples: FSU is very talented on both sides but a bit enigmatic on offense at this point (as discussed above) and pretty young on defense.
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 a bit against quickness at different times. New center Ryan Hoefeld is inexperienced and was inconsistent with his shotgun snaps last week, including one that went over Winston’s head, so that’s something to keep an eye on.
FSU has two of the top defensive linemen in the country in Edwards and defensive tackle/end Eddie Goldman, each of whom projects as a first round pick. Edwards is arguably the best run-stopping defensive end in the country and is now sliding inside on passing downs with the emergence of Featherston and fellow true freshman Jacob Pugh.
The nose tackle position is a bit of a concern at this point, as starter Lawrence-Stample is out for the year and replacement Mitchell is ailing. Five-star freshman Derrick Nnadi played well against Wake Forest and will likely see significant time against Syracuse. He’s a terrific prospect but is still raw and isn’t as consistent every play as the veterans have been.
Casher and Walker have been average on the edge most of the season. As mentioned above, Featherston is a freak of nature but isn’t always in the right spot. He’s 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.
Q: Florida State is clearly superior to Syracuse coming into this game. How do they avoid a letdown?
Staples: This team has to play against itself and execute. When this year started, the talk was that they weren’t just playing for a championship, they were playing against history. That’s too much to put on any team, let alone one with so many new moving parts and one that lost so many key leaders from last year.
I’ve felt at times that this team was pressing, with players trying to win games instead of just going out and doing their jobs. Last year’s team was so good in part because they were so process-focused and trusted one another to do their jobs. This team is getting closer to that, but they’ve got to refocus on execution and the results will come.
The other thing is that as long as Winston is on the field, the FSU offense is going to score points, so whoever is going to beat them is likely going to need 35+. That’s a tall order against this defense even if it’s not playing its best, especially for a team that is now playing without starting quarterback Terrell Hunt.