Florida State Seminoles Season Preview 2010: Running Backs

RB Coach Eddie Gran

This is second in a multi-part series previewing the 2010 Florida State Seminoles.  Today we'll be looking at the backs.  Florida State only lost 2 starters from its record-setting 2009 offense.  Even more impressive, FSU returns 19 of the 22 players in the offensive two-deep and looks to be one of the best in the country for the second consecutive year.  

Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Pass Catchers | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebackers | Defensive Backs 

The running back position received a major upgrade with the addition of coach Eddie Gran.  FSU fans will remember that former RB coach Dexter Carter was effectively relieved of his duties as running backs coach around mid-season after his backs missed 70% of the proper holes in the Boston College game (backs combined for 15 carries for 23 yards).  The backs were poorly coached and the offensive coaches were clearly unhappy that the under-qualified Carter had been forced on them.  Enter Gran, who is widely regarded as one of if not the top running backs coach in the country.  You can read up on Gran here.  And a tremendous profile of Gran the family man here.  Having coached backfields that led the SEC in rushing 5 times, Gran has a reputation for being very detail oriented.  Most teams stash their best recruiter at running back coach, even if he can't coach.  Gran is arguably FSU's best recruiter, but he is also a tremendous coach.  He's also an excellent special teams coordinator, a role he will continue to fill at Florida State.

Florida State carries six scholarship running backs, though 4th-stringer Tavares Pressley will miss the season with another torn ACL.  

The Tailbacks

RB Jermaine Thomas

The backs begin with Jermaine Thomas.  The Junior from Jacksonville's First Coast HS has been a standout performer for the Noles in his first two seasons.  The 6'1" 197 LB Thomas led the Noles in rushing last season with 810 yards and an impressive 5.10 average.  Thomas greatly benefited from the Carter role reduction.  Just have a look:

Carter Post-Carter
Vs.
#
Yds (Avg) Vs.
#
Yds (Avg)
Mia 7 10 (1.4) GTech 19 98 (5.2)
Jax St 2 8 (4) @ UNC 4 17 (4.3)
@ BYU 6 23 (3.8) NCST 20 186 (9.3)
USF 1 15 (15) @ Clem 26 119 (4.6
@ BC 10 21 (2.1) @ Wake 25 149 (6)
Maryland 11 44 (4)
@ UF 7 21 (3)
WVU 25 121 (4.8)
Total
26
77 (3.0) Total
137
755 (5.5)

Thomas went from 3.0 yards per carry to 5.5 yards per carry under the instruction of the offensive line coach instead of the running backs coach.  It should also be noted that Thomas battled injuries earlier in the year, but the improvement was noticeable across the board for all of the backs. 

Jimbo Fisher was rumored to be very disappointed with Thomas early in the year.  Could it be that some of that frustration was caused not by Thomas, but by the guy instructing him?  Perhaps, but Thomas did not have a good Spring and entered Fall camp as the #2 tailback behind Chris Thompson.  The move was made because Thompson was outplaying Thomas.  However, Thomas stepped his game up and seized the starter role last week after Thompson had a disappointing scrimmage including some ball-security issues. Thomas' main issues had to do with assignments and blocking.  He has apparently improved on those enough to hold onto the starting job.

In any case, Thomas is a good back who fits Florida State's zone scheme.  Some believe that Thomas will become Florida State's first 1000 yard-rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996.  If he can keep his 5.1 average, he would need 196 carries to get there.  That's 33 more carries than last season.  It's possible, but remember that while at LSU, Jimbo Fisher's offense once led the SEC in rushing without having a single back eclipse the 550 yard mark. 

Thomas played a lot of receiver in high school and has excellent hands. As with all the backs,  look for him to have an expanded role catching passes out of the backfield in 2010.  He caught 17 balls for 129 yards last season that could increase this year.  

Inside, find the writeup on the remaining four backs!

RB Chris Thompson

Next up is Sophomore Chris Thompson.  The 5'8" spark plug from nearby Madison is another one of the promising players from the 2009 offensive class.  Thompson battled injuries and the death of his grandfather last season, but still played well when called upon.  Chris Thompson rushed for 120 yards on 23 carries, a 5.2 average.   He also caught two balls for 10 yards.  Thompson has tremendous hands and it's entirely likely that he catches more balls as he has an increased role in the offense.  Thompson is a quiet, no-nonsense, yes sir, no sir kid with a tremendous work ethic.  He knows his role in the offense and is not afraid to stick it in there and block when called upon to do so.  Thompson is incredibly quick and is surprisingly effective between the tackles.

He had a tremendous off-season and is now up to a rock-solid 185 lbs.  As I detailed above, Thompson actually gained the starting job over Thomas for a time following a great Spring and a good fall camp.  That lead was small, however, as Thomas re-took the lead over Thompson after Thompson had a poor scrimmage.  Regardless of who starts, both players project to get a large amount of playing time and are weapons for FSU's offense.  If Thompson proves he can hold on to the ball, he'll likely see a larger role.  

RB Ty Jones

Carlton Jones, AKA "Ty" came to FSU from Tampa Middleton HS as a relatively unheralded two-star recruit.  Even those who followed Tampa HS ball were not that impressed with Jones, though he did show some flashes.  But he overcame some academic issues and made it to Florida State in the Fall of 2008.

But academics aren't Jones' biggest problem.  Jones struggles with Type-1 Diabetes.  He failed to manage it over the last two seasons and as a result, his weight fluctuated wildly.  He did not do what was expected of him and going into Spring was essentially still a freshman in terms of physical development.  Jones has also struggled picking up the mental part of the game, with costly missed assignments and blocks. 

Back in Spring I wrote:

But when Jones is on, he can really play.  He's just been wildly inconsistent.  This Spring, Jones needs to show a serious dedication to taking care of himself.  He has a ton of ground to make up in the weight room.  Jones is not an effective player at 200 lbs, but could be very good at 225.  It's very likely that Jones 2010 season will decide whether he finishes his career at Florida State or transfers.  And Jones must really put it together right now in order for him to even get a look during the regular season. 

Thanks to some personal dedication and the great new strength and condition program installed by coach Fisher, featuring a strict nutrition regiment and mental conditioning, Ty Jones has been much more impressive than anybody thought.  Per Fisher, Jones was up to 218 lbs in May.  He's likely 215-220ish right now.  

"People don’t realize, Ty has severe diabetes and he didn’t eat right ... and his weight would fluctuate,'' he said. "It affected his performance, his attitude, his mood, everything he does.''

That's really encouraging.  We've also received reports that Jones has been more motivated with his academics and is attending class regularly.  That speaks to his maturity.  Jones still needs to work on his blocking and his assignments, but getting his body and his mind right was clearly the first step.  Jones offers a unique blend of power and leverage and if he earns the opportunity, he could do some damage in this offense.

The All-Purpose Back

RB Lonnie Pryor

Next on the list is Lonnie Pryor.  The 6'1" 214 lb sophomore from Okeechobee was a sensation as a freshman.  Many felt he would need time to acclimate himself to Jimbo Fisher's scheme due to concerns that he did not fit within the zone scheme.  That was unnecessary, however, as Fisher simply did not ask him to run in the zone scheme.  Pryor showed that he is an incredible team player and thrust himself into the offense with his willingness to block.  He understands the offense.  He blocks.  He has excellent hands.  And he really is the do-it-all guy for the 'Noles offense.  Pryor never seemed to mess up.  Ever.  Even at 210 lbs, FSU stuck him at fullback a few times and held his own

But where Pryor really excelled was as a Shotgun back.  He protected Ponder and Manuel with crushing blocks.  He did a nice job on draws (including the game winner against Maryland).  And he was sensational catching the ball out of the backfield.  Oh, and he was tremendous on special teams as well.  And he's a great glue guy.  It's tough to do anything but praise Pryor. 

In Spring I wrote:

So how does a guy who was arguably the freshman of the year improve?  It would be tough.  Pryor could probably add 10-15 LBs to his frame without sacrificing much, if any quickness.  The bigger question is whether he has improved to a point as a runner where he can consistently run in the zone scheme.  It's a minor worry, but opponents could pick up on a tendency when Pryor is in the game.  The best guess is that Fisher will continue to find ways to use the talented sophomore.

Pryor didn't add 10-15 lbs to his frame.  He added 5 or 6, but also increased his agility.  That could allow him to run more in the base offense.  Pryor is easily a 400+-snap player, but the question is "where?"  Pryor will play a good amount at the fullback position and will also see time from the tailback spot.  FSU has shown that it will run some more non-zone plays and Pryor might be featured heavily with those this year.  He's an excellent weapon to have and a matchup problem for opposing defenses.  Great offenses always have a guy like Lonnie Pryor.  He just does it all.

The Hammer

Next up is the 6'0" 235 lb Debrale Smiley.  Smiley is a Redshirt Sophomore who enrolled this January.  He originally played for Thomas County Central HS in Thomasville, Georgia and spent two years at Itawamba CC (Mississippi).  Smiley is a freak of an athlete and unfortunately it appears his film has been removed from Youtube due to the use of an unauthorized soundtrack.  He can move really well for a back his size.  I would compare him (stylistically, not talent level) to a young Jerome Bettis.  There is a ton of hype surrounding Smiley. 

But that hype needs to be controlled.  Because he wanted to have three seasons of eligibility at Florida State, Smiley took a redshirt year last season at his JUCO and focused solely on academics.  He last played a football game in November of 2008.  His first carry in Spring ball was the first carry he had in 15 months.  He was not in great shape when he arrived, but FSU didn't expect him to be considering he took the year off.  But Smiley is a very mature guy.  Smiley looks about 40 years old.  Suffice to say, he is not your typical sophomore. 

In Spring, I wrote:

As for Spring, Smiley comes with a ton of questions.  What kind of shape is he in?  How is his hip flexibility?  How quickly can he grasp the scheme?  What plays can he run?  Can he catch?  How much fullback will he play (Smiley understands that he needs to play some fullback to showcase his talents to the NFL)?  How much of a role will he have in the offense? 

Answers to all of these questions should be forthcoming, but the one issue that is not in doubt is that he is a very large grown man who runs extremely hard. 

Smiley did a nice job answering the questions.  He came in and worked hard, whipping himself into shape (losing about 12 lbs of bad weight while gaining strength).  He worked to learn the offense and accepted his role at full back behind Lonnie Pryor.

Expect Smiley to get some carries on the goal line.  If he shows the ability and willingness to block (and he might turn into a tremendous blocker), he could see a larger role in the base offense, perhaps even earning non-goal line carries.

Outlook

Florida State has a nice, deep collection of backs.  None of these runners are likely to contend for the Heisman or conference player of the year, but they all complement each other well and FSU fans should be confident that the running game will continue to be quite good for the third year in a row-- particularly if teams continue to focus on stopping the pass.  If I had to rate this group as a unit within the ACC I would place it behind Virginia Tech (obviously), Miami and Clemson.  BC certainly had Montel Harris and there's an argument for BC, but they don't have anything impressive aside from him so I hesitate to call the BC unit better.  I am convinced the backs will play a larger role in the passing game this season and believe it is something FSU needs to do if it wants to have the best offense in the country.

What are your thoughts?  Which back are you most looking forward to seeing? 

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