When Jimbo Fisher arrived at Florida State in 2007 to be Florida State's offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, he noted that FSU had few, if any, players who could play at Fisher's old school, LSU. It wasn't that Florida State hadn't been bringing in quality talent. Their 2005, 2006, and 2007 classes were decently rated, but the coaches Fisher would replace were beyond lazy in their player evaluations and the practical effect was that FSU continually managed to pick the overrated of the most highly rated, or the attitude problem children that other programs shied away from. So Fisher and his newly hired offensive assistants hit the recruiting trail. Hard. Their work ethic put pressure on some of the coaches who were still around from the pre-Fisher days. They didn't want to get shown up, so they worked a bit harder. Florida State reeled in a top 10 class. Last season after the Noles had the top offense in the ACC, the ACC's offensive coordinator of the year reeled in another top 10 class. The key though, was to make sure those players qualified (avoiding the bad apples), and to get players that fit a specific vision instead of just grabbing highly ranked players without regard to fit.
The plan seems to be working, but you wouldn't know it from watching television. While everyone in the media seems to want to talk about the youth movement happening at Miami, Florida State has just as many starters from their rebuilding classes of 2008 and 2009. The Canes have 8 starters who are either freshmen or sophomores, and the Noles have 8 as well. Both teams have a number of freshmen or sophomores who contribute as well. And not just when the outcome of the game is no longer in doubt. The Noles are counting on young players on offense, defense, and special teams to make big plays in clutch moments.
The most obvious of these on defense is Sophomore linebacker Nigel Bradham (shown above). A physical freak, Bradham was the #1 rated outside linebacker in the 2008 recruiting class. After shining on special teams as a freshman, Bradham has exploded this year. Outside of Senior cornerback Patrick Robinson, Bradham is the Seminole's best defensive player. Not only is he FSU's biggest and strongest linebacker, but Bradham has been exceptional in coverage as well. Against Miami Bradham was the Nole's most consistent run stopper, but he also covered the Cane's kick returner and running back Greg Cooper, staying with him step for step on many plays. In Florida State's 54-28 obliteration of #7 ranked BYU, Bradham did a great job of covering the underneath pick routes BYU was running. Despite the ref's reluctance to call some of BYU's more blatant pick routes, Bradham was able to re-route his man several times, forcing him just slightly off his intended path. Nigel had the Nole's only QB hurry against BYU, and at the end of the game he also tallied an interception to erase any doubts of of a comeback in even the most hopeful of Cougar fans.
While Bradham was impressive, the Nole's defense is getting big plays from it's smallest player. 5'9" 165lb freshman cornerback Greg Reid is fast becoming a household name, not only for Seminoles fans, but for college football fans across the country. Against Miami, Reid came on a corner blitz and hit Miami quarterback Jacory Harris as he threw, forcing the ball to pop up into the air and into the arms of Junior Markus White (a JUCO transfer from the 2008 class), who returned it for a touchdown. He also stepped in front of another Harris pass for an interception along the sideline in the second quarter. Reid's electric kickoff returns made Miami change their kickoff strategy. When the Canes began kicking the ball short, Reid took it upon himself to change spots with another player right before the kickoff. Without realizing, Miami kicked short and right into the arms of the freshman they were trying to avoid and Reid had another electric return. But it was Reid's play against BYU that launched him into the national spotlight. Late in the second quarter, BYU began to find their tight ends. Concerned about this, to open the 3rd quarter FSU's coaches put the 5'9" 165lb Reid on the 6'6" 260lb Andrew George, figuring that he was quick enough to pester and stick with him underneath. They would deal witht he size disadvantage if BYU adjusted. On BYU's opening drive of the 2nd half, the Cougars opened up by running the ball at the Nole's undersized front. They targed Pitta and the pass was incomplete as FSU was flagged for pass interference. Then Reid took George who had split out in the slot.. On 2nd and 11, it happened:
Reid jammed the much larger Groege, who then threw a forearm to try to get away. Reid grabbed to stay with the tight end and just undercut the route. There was offensive pass interference on the push and defensive pass interference on the pull and the refs let them play. A few seconds later the Noles were up 37-14 and the Cougars quit. FSU forced 5 turnovers against BYU. 4 by underclassmen, and 3 of those were from freshmen.
But it's not just the Nole's youth on defense that has people excited.
The Noles start 5 sophomores on offense. In fact, the Seminole offense is younger than the defense. There are only two senior starters touching the ball in Tallahassee. FSU had the best offense in the ACC last year, and this year they are even better. Against two ranked opponents (Miami and BYU), the Noiles are averaging over 450 yards and 44 points per game. The Nole's dismantling of BYU was one of the best in Seminole history. 2 Seniors, 5 Juniors, and 5 Sophomore starters.
It starts up front. Last season, the FSU offensive line was the youngest in the country, starting 3 true freshmen and two sophomores. Fisher had to gameplan around them, and that he still had the top offense in the ACC with the youngest offensive line in the country may be Fisher's finest coaching job (including the National Championship with LSU). This year, the FSU offensive line is the strength of the team. They are talented and cohesive. In their two games against 1A competition, they have allowed Ponder to be sacked only twice in sixty seven pass plays. That's a sack rate of less than 3% and rates as one of the best in the country. FSU rushed for more than 100 yards against Miami and the Seminoles considered that a "down" game. But Miami was loading up against the run and FSU carved them up with the pass. Against BYU, the cougars were scared to put too many players up against the run, for fear of FSU's athletes beating their defensive backs, and the Seminole offensive line had a field day. They did not allow a tackle for loss. They did not allow a sack. The Noles rushed for 313 yards. It was a truly dominant effort. How dominant? BYU's two leading tacklers were their cornerbacks. FSU's young offensive line would not allow the Cougar linebacker to make tackles. The announcers referred to them as "Velcro", because their blocks just stuck.
It's not just the young big uglies who are carrying the team, however. FSU's youngsters are contributing at the skill positions as well. Florida State scored 7 touchdowns Saturday. 5 came from underclassmen (2 from sophomores and 3 from freshmen). Sophomore running back Carlton Ty Jones leads the team in rushing. Jones consistently hits the right hole and does it with power. Sophomore Jermaine Thomas, and freshmen Lonnie Pryor and Chris Thompson also get in on the act. Against BYU, they accounted for 186 yards on 26 rushes. The Noles receiving corps is also littered with underclassmen. Sophomores Jarmon Fortson, Bert Reid, and Taiwan Easterling are all leaned on heavily. Fortson is the most talented of the group at 6'3" 228' with good speed and amazing athleticism. Fortson has 11 grabs for 148 yards this season. Of the Nole's 271 yards passing per game, 130 go to underclassmen.
But the most impressive play of the day in my eyes probably went unnoticed by most. Leading 20-14 and having just given up a touchdown drive to BYU, FSU faced 3rd and goal at the Cougar 5. The Noles got in the shotgun, with 3 wide receivers, a tight end, and a running back. That back was true freshman Lonnie Pryor, who would score two touchdowns on the day. When I saw the formation, I figured that FSU was running a draw. Surely they would ask a true freshman running back to pick up the blitz from a 3-4 defense. Right? BYU brought the blitz, an overload to Pryor's side. The play was a pass. If FSU was to score, Pryor would need to block the blitzing outside linebacker, who outweighed him by 30lbs. The blitzer never got within three yards of quarterback Christian Ponder, as Pryor set, drove his hips, and stoned the 'backer, then drove him past the pocket. Ponder made his reads and then, with excellent protection, found tight end Caz Piurowski for the 27-14 lead, right before half. Fisher trusted a freshman running back to pick up arguably the most important block of the game. Credit FSU running backs coach Dexter Carter for schooling Pryor and having him ready to play. When you play freshmen in important roles and give them the skills to succeed, their confidence skyrockets.
Florida State has just 12 scholarship seniors (15 if you count walk-ons who earned their scholarship at the completion of fall camp). There are only 11 scholarship Juniors. Where FSU failed to bring in the right players in 2006 and 2007, those who stuck around are a nice compliment to the excellence that is Fisher's first two recruiting classes (2008 and 2009). The Noles have 27 sophomores and 25 sophomores. 70% of the scholarship players are underclassmen.
The Noles will return 16 starters in 2009, and lose few important reserves. While they may encounter some growing pains this year, that experience could help the Noles reach special heights next season.