Reinvention. It's as inevitable as the rising of the tides and the changing of the leaves in autumn. Every traditional football power has to go through its own period of reinvention. Oklahoma did it. The Crimson Tide did it. Texas and USC will soon begin it. And Florida State appears to be in its own phase of it. And actually after further scrutiny, the argument can be made Florida State in the last four years has reinvented itself twice. First, with Head Coach, Jimbo Fisher being elevated from "Coach-in-Waiting" to Head Coach and second through a complete staff overhaul with former staff (all moving to higher positions in title or more responsibilities and replacing them with new assistants) a shifting schemes and the hiring of a new Athletic Director.
With the aim of generating discussion, and with a bye week before the looming showdown in Death Valley presenting a brief pause, let's inspect some of the notable changes and their current and potential impact moving forward at Florida State; Focusing specifically on the coaching, recruiting and internal administration moves this offseason and where it's lead the program to this point into specific relief.
Coaching: Fisher of Men
In the immediate aftermath of Florida State's regular season, Jimbo Fisher was faced with the daunting task of reconfiguring the Seminole staff for the future. The departure of coaches, for various reasons, forced the Seminole boss to cast a wide net to acquire coaches that best fit both the philosophical direction of the Florida State organization and the financial constraints that are Florida State's resources. And for the first time in his short tenure as a head coach, Fisher has, to use a "Fisherism," a staff full of "Grown-Ass Men" in the profession in the meeting rooms, not just the eleven on the field on Saturday fall afternoons.
So far, so good. Fisher sits at 36-10 as a head coach -- one of the better starts for a first-time head coach in modern history.
However, don't be mistaken, the buck still stops with the headman in charge. Fisher still makes the final decisions on tough calls (most notably naming Winston starting quarterback over Jacob Coker, in an agonizingly tight quarterback race). And Fisher will still take the heat if FSU falters along the way. But the fact there are coaches with BCS level coordinator experience, BCS level head coaching experience and NFL coaching experience now in a meeting room staring back at Fisher is a comfort for the Seminoles' head coach and should be for fans of the Garnet and Gold. He now has credible coaches who can both coach their segments and serve as a measured sounding board. And for Fisher, whose public and private demeanor appears to be more now of a Head Coach growing more and more comfortable in his own skin after going through the stress of:
a) Remodeling project with high and sometimes unreasonable expectations from its fan base
2) Following the all-time win leader in the history of college football with no head collegiate coaching experience, and
d) Dealing with the shock of suddenly having child with a significant illness in one of the most challenging professions in terms of time demands and public scrutiny
While there will be some transition period that will be behind the scenes, the most visible influence of the new members on staff will most likely be evident through improved player relationships and modernized offensive and defensive schemes.
It also seems that the priorities in coaching hires may have changed some -- while in 2010, it was extremely important to add a ton of elite recruiters, perhaps at the expense of some coaching ability, FSU has re-established itself as a program to some extent, and while having great recruiters is still important, the staff now has a more balanced composition -- one that commends more respect for its coaching acumen from Fisher.
Offense: Back to The Future
Let's be clear. It's Fishers' offense. It always has been and it always will be. The design, the structure and the answers of to how to attack a defense that the Seminoles use are an amalgam of lessons learned from stops in Samford, Auburn and LSU. And through FSU's first few games, all of the Fisher standards and coverage beaters are still there: The smash, the progression that gets the quarterback easy vertical and intermediate throw, the receivers and TE/HB running option routes (although much more diligently and with attention to detail). The FSU quarterback reading the safeties and backside while working the post, flag, hitch what makes Fisher's quarterbacks impressive to NFL executives - Yep, all there.
What has changed is offensive personnel and for the first time, coaches who have called plays and game planned verses Big 10, Big 12 and SEC BCS competition are in the offices at Doak watching film along with Coach Fisher. In fact there is speculation by some, barring a large exodus on offense of coaching staff, we could see a gradual handing over the reins of "some" of the coordination aspects of the offense within the next two years and it's part of the reasoning behind some of the offensive staff hiring.
While a shift in responsibilities may be in the future, the present FSU offense has been operating at a high level after the control of the offense has been given to redshirt freshman Jameis Winston--maybe the most talked about quarterback signee at Florida State since perhaps Joe Mauer or Dan Kendra. But though Winston is a once in a generation type of talent, as previously alluded to, the general concepts of a Fisher offense are the same and the philosophy of how to attack defenses hasn't altered significantly, there are differences that may give the casual FSU fan a bit of a déjà vu.
With a lack of tight end/H-Back depth due to transfer or injury, the return to more maturity in the receiving core by its most talented pass catchers, and the confidence of its starting QB in trusting what his eyes sees, the Seminoles have a feeling of familiarity, things fans were used to seeing during the early Ponder era in its early games. A heavy use of perimeter screens as extended runs, an even heavier dose of shotgun, a bit of pistol. The major difference should not be unnoticed offensively is the ability for Florida State to actually run the football and its confidence enough to stay committed to running the football. The troika of Devonta Freeman, James Wilder, Karlos Williams in combination with one of the better offensive lines (and depth) in recent years for Florida State has been paving the way for running the ball. Which in turn is helping to buffer the offense for Winston providing a balanced threat needed in his first successful campaign as in college.
As far as debut campaigns, could one have of predicted this level of success for the offense and specifically Winston? Well definitely not to this degree. However, if one were to go back to evaluate tape from Hueytown during Winston's time there, it's easy to see why he would be a natural fit philosophically in what Fisher likes to do. He's physically gifted, he's bright and on tape he's already been asked to do a miniature version of what he's been asked to do (Hueytown relied on a ton of bubble screens his during his later time there and somewhat similar concepts).
The question for Winston was never whether or not the uber-talented recruit from Alabama would pick up the playbook, but rather, would Winston, who has a bit of "Brett Farve" daring in him because of confidence in his ability, get dialed back enough to not take unnecessary risks and use his personnel around him? To rephrase it, just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should do something as it relates to decisions, on the field. By and large, thus far he has, though the spotlight of a national TV audience in primetime verses a ranked opponent will be the biggest challenge for the young signal caller.
One last thought to consider moving forward in Winston's accession to the starting quarterback position: Florida State will most likely have the same person under center for two years moving forward and allow new offensive coaches to grow with him and around each other as they work together as a staff which may also east the eventual handoff of many of the offensive coordinator duties are made with more seasoned coaches roaming the sideline.
That being said, though the offense has been high scoring thus far this season, what has been of more interest by Seminole fans and the subject of much dissection and discussion is the other side of the ball.
Defense: From Read & React to Hunt & Confront
Upon his arrival in Tallahassee, Mark Stoops' mission was clear: Bring consistency, competence and clarity of purpose to a defensive unit that was severely lacking in those areas and had begun to become dysfunctional. Using a defensive scheme heavier on various zones in coverage than FSU had been used to in the past, the Seminoles used their athletic advantage to force overmatched teams to execute over and over, and do so the length of the field.
Side note: A good analogy in this case would be golf. I may be able to beat Tiger Woods on one hole of golf. But the more holes of golf we play, the more likely that he's going to have the advantage and beat me over time.
The theory was sound and this more conservative approach created a tremendous amount of success. And tension -- From both a fan base and occasionally internally on the coaching staff because of lack of getting to the quarterback and in some cases, the lack of putting some of Florida State's best athletes on the field.
The priorities of Fisher in transitioning post-Stoops' departure were clear: Stop the run, affect the quarterback (physically or mentally), be versatile enough to deal with the immediate threats in conference (Clemson, UNC and other emerging spread & up-tempo teams in conference that prevent substitutions) and be opportunistic when opportunities for turnover occur.
Of the coaches Fisher investigated, most mentioned names ferreted out by the media (Ellis Johnson, the believed first choice, who went to Auburn, for example), had these qualities in their defensive philosophy and background and also had to convince Fisher not only could they scheme their defense to handle the usual suspects that can challenge FSU on a yearly basis but could also install it. And so enter Jeremy Pruitt.
According to some, it was Pruitt's ability to demonstrate the ‘how' he would install philosophical and technique changes to a defense (specifically handling no-huddle) and do so quickly that ultimately won Fisher over. Pruitt was hired (with Sunseri in tow, with Tennessee partially picking up the tab salary-wise) to, well to be blunt: To bring the pain and from various directions to get the athletic advantage FSU should have on the field.
To be fair, FSU was multiple before in terms of defensive coverage and fronts with Stoops to many degrees (though later in his tenure he seemed to fall in love with cover-2 man). But fans are beginning to see that this new look FSU is evolving to a different kind of multiple. It's a transition from more of a read and react mentality to a hunt and confront mentality. It's also a philosophy that places a premium on hybrid-athletes, of which there are abundance in the southern states which will allow Florida State to play multiple fronts to adjust to the opponent.
And while there will be more blitzing to cause confusion, some of the blitzing will be done to force the quarterback into throwing quickly (and short) and covering it with the extreme speed advantage FSU should have in the majority of its contests. Theoretically you get the best of both worlds. Creating a sack or errant throw if you get to the quarterback and if you don't short check down throws that FSU defenders should be able to get to for minimal gain which is hard to do the length of the field.
Also, pretend you're Jimbo Fisher for a moment and take into consideration what hiring Pruitt means. Just as the defensive scheme being brought is multiple, so are the benefits of what many viewed an unconventional hiring when it was initially announced. First, he brings a philosophical approach that Fisher believes FSU needed and he's already schooled in much of Florida State's organizational approach being directly under Kirby Smart and Nick Saban at Alabama, where philosophies organizationally are similar. Second, his youth and inexperience as a coordinator allows for a bit of a cheaper price in terms of contract. Which is important for fiscally conscious Florida State. Finally, and perhaps equally as important as an X& O acumen is Pruitt is one of the strongest recruiters in one of the most talent-rich recruiting territories in the nation. And perhaps it's in this third benefit, though inconspicuous at first to some when he was named DC, under further examination foreshadowed the a more significant shift for FSU that has been taking place.