The FSU Spring Game: What a Difference a Year Makes


About a year ago, Seminole fans were doing just what they’re doing right now. Piling into RVs. Catching flights. Heading to Tallahassee for the annual FSU Spring Game. So much remains the same. Yet so many differences exist between this year and last.

What’s familiar? Cold beer. Pollen-covered cars. The thumping music of the year’s first Downtown Getdown. Cold beer.

But this year’s Garnet and Gold Game, for all of the familiar images, nevertheless features a number of differences from the state of the program just a year ago. In this case, it seems that the more things stay the same, the more they change.

Before delving into some specifics, let’s think big picture. Think about the 2014 Spring Game. After witnessing one of the most dominant teams in college football history capture a national championship after coming back from 18 points down against Auburn of the “mighty” SEC, FSU fans couldn’t have been riding higher. The ‘Noles hadn’t lost since 2012. An off-season spent watching — and re-watching — highlights of Kermit Whitfield’s electric return, of Winston to Benjamin with 13 ticks left, of Telvin Smith making that final tackle to secure title number three, the inscription on the iconic statue south of Doak Campbell Stadium may as well as have read “Invincible” instead of “Unconquered.”

Compare that to this year. Despite the fact that Jimbo Fisher boasts a better winning percentage than any other coach the last few years, due to a loss of talent to the NFL, many have dubbed this a prospective “down year” for the ‘Noles, a term that, in Tallahassee, means Florida State may well miss the second College Football Playoff yet still be in the picture for a conference title and an appearance in a major bowl game.

Not bad. But, again, miles from where FSU was last year at this time. Why?

Big Changes Up Front

Let’s start where plays begin, with the center and the offensive line. While the now-departed Austin Barron was unproven in the middle at last year’s Spring Game, he was sure to be picked up by one of the more experienced lines in the nation, a group that looked primed to dominate the competition. Well if last year’s line was was one flushed with future NFL Draft picks, this year’s heavies are mostly unknown — at least at the moment — to the FSU faithful. The impressive Roderick Johnson returns at the all-important left tackle spot, but how familiar are the names of the others who have taken snaps on the first team line? JUCO-transfer Kareem Are. Redshirt-freshman Alec Eberle. Redshirt-sophomore Wilson Bell. Redshirt-junior Chad Mavety.

The only thing bigger than this group’s impressive stature may be the accomplished shoes they seek to fill.

Replacing a Legend

A year ago, that unit was charged with one of the more important tasks in the country: protecting returning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, a name that, when history lends its illuminating perspective, will go down as that of the greatest signal caller in Seminoles history. At last year’s FSU Spring Game, Winston had shown his ability to do absolutely everything– except lose. He dominated at Clemson. He drained the Swamp. And he brought the ‘Noles back when Auburn looked prepared to run away with the final BCS Title Game, making him the first freshman in college football history to lead his team to a national championship.

The Seminoles didn’t just have the quarterback situation figured out last year; they went into the Spring Game knowing they would have a distinct advantage at the signal-caller position each and every Saturday.

Sean Maguire looks primed to lockdown the QB1 spot for the coming season, but much of ‘Nole Nation remains unsold on the Sparta, New Jersey product. His is the unenviable job of being the guy to follow Winston, against whom he’ll be judged repeatedly– and, more often than not, unfairly. No one knows what the future holds, but Maguire’s got a gun for an arm, and seems to have picked up Winston’s propensity for throwing a quite catchable ball. The biggest step I’ve seen Maguire take this spring, however, has been his readiness to assume a leadership role on this team.

He’s not No. 5, in neither game nor personality. But No. 10 looks ready to double-down on his role as a team leader.

Running Back Recollections

Much like last year, Florida State fans are buzzing about the feature back position. Last year, Karlos Williams was a sexy Heisman pick at this stage, and he appeared on track to draw first-round money in the Draft. Fast forward to the present, when Williams may not even get drafted, but the buzz remains, this time regarding returning freshman Dalvin Cook. Cook didn’t even play in FSU’s opener last year against Oklahoma State, yet still managed to climb from third to first on the running-back depth chart, while amassing more freshman rushing yards than any player in program history.

So here we go again. Cook could well garner the Heisman hype many thought Williams would generate. He’s got a better shot of doing so, given superior instincts, a better ability to change directions, and more experience at the running back position, something Williams couldn’t really help, having been switched from safety to linebacker to running back.

The Loss of Hands– and Toughness?

As far as pass catchers goes, the ‘Noles came into last season with an undisputed leader at both the receiver and tight end positions. WR Rashad Greene would go on to finish as FSU’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yardage, registering more reception yards than any player in ACC history. The indomitable Nick O’Leary figured to go down as the most prolific tight end in school history, delivering on that potential and capturing Florida State’s first Mackey Award.

Quick: who’s FSU’s starting tight end this season? Exactly. Ryan Izzo probably holds a slim lead over Mavin Saunders, but each player redshirted in his freshman season last year, making tight end the position at which the Seminoles’ sport the least amount of experience.

The receivers are rather young as well. Junior Jesus “Bobo” Wilson has taken over as the de facto leader of the position group, but he struggled with drops last year, and the next three WRs in line for significant playing time, Travis Rudolph, Ermon Lane, and Ja’Vonn Harrison, have just a season of experience under their belts. After that, it’s true freshmen George Campbell and Da’Vante Phillips, the last of whom is recovering from groin surgery and did not participate in spring practice.

Fisher has been harder on the wide receiver group than any other this spring, questioning their toughness on more occasion than one. So, at tight end and wide receiver, where the ‘Noles featured stalwart rocks last year, they’re faced more, at present, with question marks– but question marks that teem with potential.

Defensive Line Youth

At last year’s FSU Spring Game, depth was more the concern on the defensive front. Eddie Goldman, Mario Edwards, Jr. and Nile Lawrence-Stample were in line to lead the big uglies up front, and a cast of talented newcomers were set to try and add depth in the trenches. A year later, Goldman looks to be a certain first-round pick, MEJ could sneak in there as well, while NLS returns. Translation: the ‘Noles are no longer in a position of hoping for contributions from young players up front; they now need players to step up and assert themselves as producers, and do so immediately.

Spring practice has yielded promising results. Sophomores Derrick Nnadi and Keith Bryant have impressed, as has fellow second-year man Rick Leonard, who has flourished in the absence of Jacob Pugh, Chris Casher, and Lorenzo Featherston. The spring game will provide the public its first glimpse at just how far these young, hungry players have come.

Linebacker Depth Concerns

We’ve been here before. The ‘Noles struggled to keep ‘backers healthy last season, and that trend has carried over. Last spring saw the ongoing wait for Matthew Thomas, and his shoulder surgery has sidelined him again this time around. Reggie Northrup is out after ACL surgery, and Delvin Purifoy has been out with an ankle injury.

What we will get to see is just how the FSU depth looks. Ro’Derrick Hoskins impressed in last year’s Spring Game; can he duplicate the performance? And what of Tyrell Lyons, the DB-turned-LB who’s also been getting first-team reps at the injury-decimated position?

A Shuffled Secondary

Much like the offensive line and quarterback positions, every Seminole fan last year simply knew the FSU secondary was going to be the best in the country. After all, P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby were sure-fire day-one draft picks, Jalen Ramsey was back from a standout freshman campaign, and Tyler Hunter was returning from injury. It didn’t quite work out that way, as the Florida State DBs gave up more big plays than they should have.

Ramsey returns as the leader of the secondary, but he’s been moved from his familiar star position to corner, where the ‘Noles needed to add depth. Opposite him is the unproven Marquez White, while the also rather inexperienced Trey Marshall steps in at star. Hunter is out with a torn meniscus, which has opened the door for man-child freshman Derwin James, who has climbed the depth chart from third-string at the commencement of spring ball to seeing time with the ones in recent practices.

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A Familiar Foot Note

I’ll end on one facet of FSU football that remains strikingly similar. The best kicker in the country, Roberto Aguayo, will be booting for the garnet and gold yet again, out of the returning hold of Cason Beatty, who will field snaps from the now-seasoned Stephen Gabbard. In a year that could once again feature a number of close games for the ‘Noles, that familiarity should also double as a luxury.

Spring Forward

Make no mistake about it: the playoff loss to Oregon is most certainly in the rear-view mirror. This is is no longer the winter of FSU fans’ discontent. This is, quite literally, a new season, one in which hope “springs” eternal. So, perhaps it’s called the Spring Game for a reason other than just the fact that it’s played in April. Spring, after all, is the season of rebirth, of renewal, of rejuvenation. It’s also when we question what the year ahead may bring. As in nature, so on the football field.