Rebuild and reload. Coming into this season, pundits and fans alike viewed the 2015-2016 Florida State football team as a far cry away from the FSU team that reached the Rose Bowl the previous year.
That former team featured 11 players that were all taken in the NFL Draft, including Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and stalwarts such as Rashad Greene, Nick O’Leary, Ronald Darby, and Cameron Erving. With all of those key players departing, it was quite evident that the Seminoles would take a step back this year.
Head Coach Jimbo Fisher remained cautiously optimistic about the outlook of this team, as he had cultivated a large amount of talent over the years. The spring game was a clear indicator of that talent as young players such as freshmen Derwin James, George Campbell III, and Jacques Patrick made highlight plays. However, that spring game also showed how much youth and inexperience there was on this team as there were several penalties, missed assignments, and bad play at times.
The most troubling aspect of that game was the poor performance by first string quarterback Sean Maguire. Despite making some wonderful throws, Maguire threw a few bad interceptions and was sporadic. It is hard enough following up the first overall pick in former FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, but Maguire certainly did not help himself at all with his performance. With Maguire’s subpar play to conclude spring practice, and the subsequent dismal of backup quarterback De’Andre Johnson and suspension of running Dalvin Cook during the summer, the Seminoles sought a new playmaker that could lead their young offense and generate momentum. To this problem the Noles added a new quarterback to the equation in Everett Golson, a transfer from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Golson had previously led the Irish to the national championship game in 2012 and he had also performed extremely well in a game against FSU at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2014. Throughout his career, Golson had shown a knack for being able to extend plays with his feet, whether it was scrambling for a first down or by avoiding pass rushers until a receiver came open. Coach Fisher was aware that his 2015 offense would feature several inexperienced receivers and offensive lineman so Golson’s abilities seemed like a much needed addition heading into fall camp.
With the new addition, a quarterback battle ensued and the main question being asked after each practice in fall camp was about who would be taking first team snaps under center. The quarterback battle was made difficult as both Maguire and Golson had to study the playbook intensely, all while teaching their counterparts the offense as well. Receivers Bobo Wilson, Travis Rudolph, and Ermon Lane garnered playing time over the years, but they mostly took a backseat behind future NFL receivers such as Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw, and Rashad Greene. Now it was time for the new guys to step up, and early on there were inconsistencies with their performances. At tight end, young bucks Ryan Izzo and Mavin Saunders also had to replace Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary. The physical abilities were evident with all of these pass catchers, but learning route combinations and developing a rapport with the quarterbacks was challenging. It didn’t help that the offensive line lost starters Cameron Erving, Josue Mathias, Tre Jackson, and Bobby Hart to the NFL. Roderick “Big Rod” Johnson started for five games at left tackle with the aforementioned unit and he came into this season as the most experienced player on the offensive line. Junior college signees Chad Mavety and Kareem Are looked to help stable the line, while inexperienced linemen Wilson Bell, Alec Eberle, and Derrick Kelly looked to fill the remaining holes. The only position assured of above average production was at running back. Sophomore tailback Dalvin Cook took over the starting position from his predecessor Karlos Williams midway through the 2014 season and he never looked back, running for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns. Cook along with running backs Mario Pender and Jacques Patrick looked to form a formidable matchup that would test team’s run defense throughout the whole year. Cook undoubtedly was the Seminoles best offensive weapon heading into the season, and getting him the ball in space was going to be paramount if the Noles were to be successful.
On defense, FSU was expecting better results even though the team had lost so many starters to the NFL. The Seminoles had talent on defense the previous year, but the results did not matchup the skill set. Much-maligned defensive coordinator, Charles Kelly had a vision for how his defense would look and he used returnees Jalen Ramsey, Terrance Smith, and Nile Lawrence-Stample to help instill this dream. The main concerns lie with the pass rush, injuries at linebacker, and at boundary corner. Coach Brad Lawing, a defensive line coach, was added to the staff to help aid the pass rush. The other coaches also had to quickly develop guys and players such as Josh Sweat, Derwin James, Marquez White, and Demarcus Christmas had to adjust to new daily information on their opponent and prove themselves capable of handling the scheme and their newfound roles.
Overall, heading into the season, Florida State had far more questions on offense than on defense. Everett Golson was named the starting quarterback for the Texas State game, but that still did not displace the doubt or worries that many had. As the opening of the college football season approached, Coach Fisher knew that he had talent, but whether they would come together as a team was still in question.
Tune in tomorrow on Nole Insider News to see part two, a game-by-game review of Florida State’s football season.