The big question this fall for the Florida State football team will be who starts under center when the season kicks off in Orlando against Ole Miss. Jimbo Fisher has said that Sean Maguire (6’3″ 232) enters camp as the number one starter and I think that’s fair as a 5th year senior who started games last year and is coming off of an injury. Don’t think for a second, though, that this job isn’t wide open. While Maguire has the experience, that doesn’t mean he’s the safer, game manager. He likes to stretch the field and take chances as evidenced by a 59.3% completion percentage while averaging 13.5 yards per completion. Maguire will make mistakes trying to force balls and hasn’t completely rid himself of the “hitch” that he’ll have in his throws occasionally when he’s unsure of a throw. Maguire does have a strong enough arm to make all the throws and he’s unquestionably a leader on this team. By all accounts from players and coaches this offseason, Maguire is a guy that has the respect of his teammates for his toughness and commitment.
Deondre Francois (6’2″ 205) is the other man in what in all reality is a two man battle. Francois is a redshirt freshman with all kinds of physical talent. Francois has the stronger arm and the “hand talent” that Jimbo will mention from time to time. He can fit the ball into tight windows and extend the play with his legs. He’s a pass first guy, though, that showed in the spring game earlier this year that while he call pull the ball down and beat you running the ball, he keeps his eyes down field and would prefer to throw. The big question for Francois is whether he has command of the offense after being on campus for only a year. Jimbo was very pleased with his performance in spring and all indications are that he’s got it mentally, but until the lights are on and he’s out there when it matters, it’s speculation.
Freshman Malik Henry (6’2″ 185) and sophomore JJ Cosentino (6’5″ 230) round out the group. Henry showed some flashes this spring and the battle next year between he and Francois will be really interesting, but at this point I don’t think he has a real shot at starting. He’ll get his shot as everyone does under Fisher, but his body and mind just aren’t ready yet in my opinion. Cosentino looked lost in the Peach Bowl when he came in briefly for an injured Maguire and I don’t think Fisher or the team has much confidence in him at this point.
Quite simply, Dalvin Cook (5’11” 213) is one of, if not the, best running backs in college football. Even battling injuries throughout last year he set the single season rushing record at Florida State with 1,691 yards and wowed Nole fans like few running backs ever have in Tallahassee. He has a great balance of speed, vision, and power combined with an uncanny ability to find creases and cutback lanes with the explosion and quickness to take advantage of them. The amazing thing is that Cook was able to perform like he did last year with an offensive line that above average at best and downright dreadful at times and a passing game that never really clicked on all cylinders. If those two groups improve as expected, it’s amazing to think what Cook could do. Is a 2,000 yard rusher out of the question in Tallahassee?
Sophomore Jacques Patrick (6’2″ 231) will work to hold on to the number two spot in the backfield after an up and down freshman year that certainly showed glimpses of what he could be (162 yards in his lone start against Syracuse). Patrick is a big back at 6’2″ and 231 lbs and he has to learn to run behind his pads a little more. He’s shed a little bit of weight in the offseason, while undoubtedly getting stronger with his first offseason in a college weight room. Patrick should give Jimbo the big power back that he likes and offer a nice change of pace from what Cook brings to the table.
Pushing Patrick for carries in the number two role will be a familiar face in senior Ryan Green (5’11” 204). Green was a solid running back recruit out of high school that showed some positive things early in his career before a position change to cornerback and suffering an injury. With the loss of Mario Pender and a crowded defensive backfield, Green has made his way back to the offensive side of the ball and showed in the spring that the time away from the offensive backfield didn’t hamper him.
Johnathan Vickers (6’1″ 228), a junior, is a pretty nice back to have sitting at fourth on the depth chart, but I don’t expect to see too much of him this year. Amir Rasul (5’10” 196) joins the team as a freshman and the speedy back out of Miami was a 4* rated back out of high school.
Freddie Stevenson (6’1″ 241) returns for his senior year having established himself as an excellent fullback paving the way for Dalvin Cook and the run game. A linebacker when arriving on campus, the 6’1″ 241 lbs bruiser took little time adjusting to his new role on the offensive side of the ball and has been a solid player for the Noles for the past two seasons. While he doesn’t get the ball all that often, Stevenson is capable in short yardage and has nice hands out of the backfield for a big man.
Walk-on Colton Plante (6’2″ 236) is the official backup at the fullback position and returns after seeing action last year. In all reality, I think we’ll see more pony formation (two backs – Cook and Patrick) then we will see Plante in game situations, however.
As a whole this group has a lot of young talent that Nole fans should be excited about that will mix in with veterans with tons of experience. Last season the top three wide receivers, Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield, and Jesus Wilson, caught 59, 57, and 58 balls respectively. Amazingly distributed among those guys, but the next highest wide receiver reception total was six…SIX! There simply was no one that stepped up that the coaches or quarterbacks were comfortable enough with to get into the rotation. I think that changes this year.
Travis Rudolph (6’1″ 192) returns at the X-WR and while leading the team in receiving last year with a very solid year, many with close ties to the program are predicting a breakout campaign for the junior. Consistency was the biggest issue for Rudolph last season, though how much of that is due to the revolving door at quarterback and substandard play there is up for debate. The ability is certainly there and was shown in flashes over the past two seasons. If he can perform at a consistent level with improved play at quarterback, Rudolph could turn into a major threat this year.
Junior Ja’Vonn Harrison (6’2″ 196) enters the fall slotted as the backup after a disappointing sophomore season. Harrison garnered a lot of praise last off season and big things were expected the wide receiver who was raw but so talented out of high school. He managed just six catches and wasn’t a big part of the offense, however.
Pushing Harrison and the other upperclassman wide receivers is going to be sophomore Auden Tate. Tate is a 6’5″ 225 lbs monster who was primed to make an impact last season as a true freshman before injuries derailed his season. Nole fans got a good look at him this spring as Tate was probably the breakout star of the spring game. He gives the Noles a large target on the outside that has been absent since Kelvin Benjamin’s departure two years ago.
Senior Kermit Whitfield (5’8″ 182) developed into one of the Noles most dependable wide receivers last season after making an impact mainly on special teams his first couple of years on campus. With blazing speed, he was an immediate threat as a freshman, but improved route running and hands allowed him to more than quintuple his production from his sophomore to junior year.
Sophomore Nyqwan Murray (5’11” 176) is the top guy that will push for time in the slot position for the Noles. Murray played in a handful of games last year and was another of the promising freshman wide receivers that was effected by injuries. Probably the most polished route runner of the young guys (think Kenny Shaw), Murray should be another guy to take some reps away from the veterans.
Da’Vante Phillips (6’1″ 206) , a sophomore, is another of the excellent freshman class from 2015 that could push for more playing time this year. A four star Under Armour All-American in high school, Phillips played in 10 games last season, mostly on special teams.
Jesus Wilson (5’10” 184) returns for his senior season after a solid, but inconsistent, last couple of years. While one of the top returning receivers in catches, Wilson tends to have maddening drops from time to time. Wilson is a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. He runs good routes, not great; he’s quick, but not lightning; and he’s fast, but not a speedster. Undoubtedly, he’ll have a role in this offense, but of the three returning wide receivers, he’s the most likely to possibly be supplanted at some point this season.
Junior Ermon Lane (6’3″ 209) is listed as the number two guy here on the pre-fall depth chart, but for this to be come an actuality, Lane will have to show some substantial improvement. The former five star standout made a bit of a splash as a freshman making a few big plays, none more crucial than the catch and run against Louisville on the road during the Noles second half comeback. However, he saw his production dip last season and seemingly the coaches confidence in him. He wasn’t talked about a whole lot in spring, either. That said, Lane saw a lot of time in four wide receiver sets as a sophomore for one big reason – he’s an outstanding blocker out on the edge while using his size to be physical.
George Campbell (6’4″ 207), a sophomore, was the most heralded of the incoming freshman a year ago, but injuries derailed his campaign before it really got started. He had a solid spring and has boat loads of talent. He’s one of the guys to really keep an eye on this fall to see if he makes the jump his sophomore season and pushes for increased playing time.
Auden Tate, mentioned above at the X position, could certainly be in the mix at the Z as well. Lastly, Keith Gavin (6’3″ 225) is a 4 star Under Armour All-American freshman who will be hard pressed to break into the lineup, but is someone the Noles were really high on in the recruiting process.
Ryan Izzo (6’5“ 245), a redshirt sophomore, is a popular pick to be a breakout player in 2016. He had a very nice spring and has reportedly improved as both a pass catcher a blocker. He has great size for a tight end that allows him to mix it up on the line and present match up problems running routes. He’s undoubtedly the number one guy right now at the tight end position.
The number two tight end position might depend on what the Noles are trying to do. Mavin Saunders (6’5″ 257), another redshirt sophomore, is more of a pass catching threat at tight end. He’s a very athletic former basketball player that came in pretty raw out of high school. Saunders can even split out wide in certain situations.
Jeremy Kerr (6’6″ 270) enters his redshirt junior season as mainly a blocking tight end. Kerr has just one catch in his career thus far, but basically adds an additional offensive tackle on the end when he comes into the game.
The two wildcards at the position are both freshman. Redshirt Freshman Jalen Wilkerson (6’4″ 273) was one of the top tight ends out of high school in 2015 and after a redshirt freshman year, is ready to compete for field time this season. True Freshman Nasir Upshur (6’2″ 249) was also one of the top tight ends in the county out of high school in 2016 and is a guy that tight end’s coach Tim Brewster has really been excited about since he committed last year.
As is the case basically every year with every team, Florida State’s season will in large part be dictated by how well the offensive line performs. Last year, despite Dalvin Cook’s sensational year, the Noles line didn’t have a very good year. Florida State running backs were stuffed behind the line 23.7% of the time, 107th in the nation. They struggled some in pass protection as well, though having different quarterbacks not necessarily comfortable in the offense surely didn’t help matters. Injuries also created havoc for the line as the Noles repeatedly were forced to start different lineups. The silver lining of that, however, is the Noles enter 2016 with the most experienced depth they’ve had in quite some time.
This is the surest position on the line right now with Roderick Johnson (6’7″ 311) ready to anchor the blind side for the 3rd consecutive season. The junior is one of the top left tackles in the nation and a pretty good candidate to leave early for the NFL draft after this season.
Behind Johnson on the depth chart heading into fall is sophomore Ethan Frith (6’7″ 316). Frith saw limited time last season and will only be battling for a backup spot right now.
Possibly pushing Frith for the backup spot at left tackle is Abdul Bello (6’6″ 312), a redshirt freshman who missed last season and this spring with injury.
Kareem Are (6’6″ 325) returns for his redshirt senior season. The former JUCO transfer is the odds on favorite to hold down the left guard spot that he had for a good bit of last year. As did much of the offensive line, Are missed time and was slowed with injury last season. He’s a road grader inside and when he and Johnson were consistently in games healthy together, the left side of the line was the preferred side for Dalvin Cook to eat up yards.
Redshirt freshman David Robbins(6’4″ 324) is the current back up on the depth chart. Robbins was another player that missed last season battling injuries, but he had a nice spring that’s propelled him to this spot heading into the fall.
Possibly the most important position on the line for Florida State given the things that Rick Trickett and Jimbo Fisher ask their center to do both physically and mentally. That was evident in 2014 after the departure of Bryan Stork until Cam Erving moved inside. Last year, there was upheaval from the start as Ryan Hoefeld and Alec Eberle started the season banged up giving Corey Martinez the start at the season. Eberle took over toward the middle of the season and really looked good as the season neared the end.
Alec Eberle (6’4″ 294), as mentioned above, took over the starting spot the second half of the season and, I think, solidified himself during the spring. The redshirt sophomore will have a big say in how the 2016 offensive line gels.
Ryan Hoefeld (6’2″ 306) is a redshirt junior that has started 8 games over the last two years and provides a lot of experience in a backup role.
Redshirt sophomore Corey Martinez (6’4″ 298) started the season as the starter last year, but struggled and lost the job as soon as Hoefeld returned from injury.
Though I don’t expect him to challenge for a starting spot, true freshman Baveon Johnson (6’3″ 326) is the nations top center out of high school and a top 30 player nationally.
Along with Roderick Johnson, Wilson Bell (6’5″ 320) was the only other lineman to start every game for the Noles in 2015. Bell, a redshirt junior, is one of the key lineman that needs to take a step forward for the offensive line to experience the improvement needed to push the Florida State offense forward.
Cole Minshew (6’5″ 338) as a freshman last season had a lot of praise thrown his way by Jimbo Fisher in camp. Unfortunately, his health wouldn’t cooperate and he missed the entire season. A big, physical, mean player in the middle he could push Bell for the starting spot this fall and this will be one of the key position battles to watch this fall.
Brock Ruble (6’8″ 319), a redshirt sophomore, started six games last season with mixed results. While there’s no questioning his size, he lacked the feet and strength necessary to handle talented defensive ends.
Junior Rick Leonard (6’7″ 306) was moved from the defensive side of the ball for the spring, and indication of the coaches desire for improved play at the position. Leonard brings a whole different level of athleticism to the position and, while he enters the fall number two on the depth chart, it’s widely expected that he’ll be the starter come seasons beginning.
Derrick Kelly (6’5″ 323), a redshirt sophomore, started four games last season before a season ending injury. While Kelly was probably the best of the three players that played right tackle last year, it was a still a weak spot on the line. Kelly was out this spring as well, but looks to push Leonard for the starting spot.