Florida State football preview 2013: Offense

Stacy Revere

Let's chat about the offense.

How good can Florida State's offense be in 2013? Will it be simply good? Or will it be great? Perhaps somewhere in between. To answer, let's first look at what it was in 2012.

In 2012, Florida State had the fourth-most yards/play in the country at 7.9. That's a tremendous number, and one of the best in school history. But while Jimbo Fisher repeatedly touts that measure, and yards/play are a much better indicator of offensive proficiency than total yards, they do not tell the whole story. Why? It does not account for the quality of opponent.

When opponent quality is accounted for, FSU's offense dropped to 23rd in the country. 23rd is not terrible, but given FSU's talent level, that FSU's offense stayed relatively healthy, and had a fifth-year quarterback, it was not what FSU fans wanted. Granted, FSU did lose its best player, Chris Thompson, for the final third of the season, but placing behind 23 other teams is not where Florida State needs to be.

One interesting note is that FSU was much, much better on standard downs (1st down, 2nd and 6 or less, 3rd and 4 or less) than it was on passing downs (2nd and 7 or more and third and five or more). Why? I can't say for sure, but Bill Connelly has an idea:

I've long held the theory that standard downs are the game-planning and execution downs, and passing downs are the "Hey quarterback, go make a play" downs.

Last year's top 10 in Standard Downs S&P+ (Georgia, Oregon, Arkansas, Nebraska, Florida State, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas A&M) featured some of the better offensive coordinators/play-callers in the country. Meanwhile, the Passing Downs S&P+ list (Texas A&M, Clemson, Alabama, Arizona, Baylor, Georgia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Oregon, USC) featured some of the best quarterbacks. Yes, there is plenty overlap there, and no, this is not meant as some black-and-white, rigid truism. But you can't play-call your way out of second- or third-and-long -- somebody has to make a play.

We can nitpick Jimbo Fisher's playcalling here or there, as one can with any offensive coordinator, but it's pretty safe to say that playcalling was not the reason FSU's offense underachieved. That, however, is not so say that other parts of his duties as offensive coordinator were not sub-par. They very well may have been, and will be discussed later in the article.

But this is a very interesting trend. In 2009 and 2010, with Christian Ponder, Jimbo Fisher's offense was much, much better on passing downs than standard downs, which, as it says above, is a credit to the QB more than the playcaller.

With a new quarterback in E.J. Manuel, the script flipped, and Fisher's playcalling and gameplanning was comparatively better than it had been, but his quarterback played considerably worse when the defense knew the offense was going to pass.

Manuel's completion percentage on first down (71%) and second down (74%) compared to third down (57%) would seem to support this a bit, but instinctively, one would figure that a lower completion percentage would occur on third down, since the needed yardage is more.

Why all the talk about E.J. Manuel? To figure out how good Florida State's offense will be, we must first look at how big its major loss will be.

Given the above, and that Florida State's running game was much better than its passing game, (5th best rushing game, against the 21st best passing game, by one measure), I don't think Florida State will miss Manuel as much as any team in recent history has missed the top quarterback drafted (Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, etc.).

Part of my hunch is that Manuel wasn't anywhere near as good as those quarterbacks listed above. The other major part, however, is related to the talent level of the new quarterback, Jameis Winston.

If you're reading this, there is a good chance you're aware of the Jameis Winston hype. He's yet to throw a pass in a game and his bio in Florida State's media guide reads like an epic.

PERSONAL:Nation's top quarterback prospect in the class of 2012, who was also considered a top baseball prospect in the 2012 Major League Baseball Amatuer draft...USA Today 2011 All-USA first team All-American...2012 Parade All-American...SI.com second team All-American, ESPNHS first team All-American and Under Armour All-American...selected the 2011 Alabama Gatorade State Player of the Year...rated a five-star quarterback by Scout and a four-star QB by Rivals, ESPN and 247Sports...named to the 2012 USA Football National Team (U19) for the 2012 International Bowl on Feb.1...dual-threat quarterback who played in the shotgun spread where he excelled as a passer in the pocket and on the move...also a dangerous runner...can make all the throws and does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield when plays break down...named the Alabama Sports Writers Association's Class 5A Back of the Year as a senior after completing 69 percent of his passes for 2,424 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushing for 1,065 yards (7.4 yards per rush) and another 15 touchdowns...guided Hueytown to a 13-1 mark and the Class 5A state semifinals...named the 2011 Birmingham News Metro Player of the Year...the four-year starter totaled 6,871 career passing yards with 67 touchdowns, completing 60 percent of his 790 passes and threw only 25 interceptions... averaged 6.5 yards per rushing attempt for 2,912 yards and 35 touchdowns on the ground which adds up to 9,853 career yards and a part in 103 touchdowns...No. 1 on the Mobile Register's Super Southeast 120 and Elite 18 list of the top Alabama prospects...named a co-MVP of the Elite 11 national quarterback challenge last summer in Malibu...turned in an MVP performance in the Under Armour All-American game completing 8-of-9 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns...named to the ASWA Super 12 and Class 5A all-state teams as a junior and senior...No. 14 on the ESPNU 150 and No. 1 QB nationally, No. 5 player regionally and No. 1 player in Alabama by ESPN...named to the 2012 247Sports All-American team as the No. 1 dual-threat QB, No. 3 player in the state and No. 26 in the Top247 List...on the baseball diamond, shines as a switch-hitting centerfielder and right-handed pitcher who possesses a fastball in the 90's and was clocked at a 6.59 in the 60...rated by Perfect Game as the nation's No. 22 prep baseball player for the Class of 2012 and was named a Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American...named Birmingham News Metro West Player of the Year as a sophomore in baseball...hit .424 with seven homers and 36 RBIs during the Golden Gophers' Class 6A state semifinal run and finished 8-3 with two saves, a 1.92 earned run average, 92 strikeouts and six complete games as a sophomore...2011 ASWA all-state and Birmingham News All-Metro selection in baseball as a junior hit .370 and was 7-2 on the mound while playing shortstop, outfield and pitching...selected in the 15th round with the 486th overall pick by the Texas Rangers in the 2012 MLB firt-year player draft...selected Florida State over Stanford, Alabama, LSU and Ohio State.

Winston has all of the physical tools. His arm is strong and he's shown the ability to put the ball on the money, with varying arcs and velocities. He's plenty smart and was strongly pursued by Stanford. And his athleticism is excellent. Oh, and he's added about 20 pounds of muscle during his time in Tallahassee, checking in at 6'4 and 227 pounds.

But he hasn't thrown a pass.

Pretty much every coach who comes in contact with Winston loves the kid. When I was out covering the Elite 11 in Oregon, and the Elite 11 tour across the country this summer, coaches Trent Dilfer and Yogi Roth could not stop praising Winston. They called him a "dude," meaning he had the it qualities, that the moment was not too big for him, etc. And of course, they loved his physical tools.

Winston's legend grew after he threw a football over the Pike fraternity house. It grew more after he went 12-15 for 205 yards in the spring game, with one of the misses a beautifully placed deep ball where the only person who could catch the ball was the receiver.

Winston grasped the offense in spring much faster than everyone expected him to. In talking with sources, they would tell me that Winston was great. "Great, or great for a freshman?," I'd ask. Well, great for a freshman was the response, but the giddiness was evident in their tone.

Winston then went on to have a good summer, handled the media like a 10-year NFL veteran at Florida State's media day, and was widely considered one of the top breakout players in the country. People asked if Johnny Manziel could win the Heisman Trophy as a red-shirt freshman, could Winston, too?

Then came fall camp, and Winston did not exactly continue on the extreme growth track he was on in the spring. There were concerns that he was too focused on trying to make big plays happen, and wasn't playing within the context of the offense that he was so quick to grasp in spring. Coupled with the play of the very talented Jacob Coker, Fisher has an unexpected, but very real quarterback battle on his hands. Despite some believing that Coker outplayed Winston in fall camp, Fisher named Winston as the guy.

Florida State feels very confident about its quarterback depth now, with Jacob Coker as the No. 2 (as of this writing he has not transferred), and Sean Maguire emerging as a strong No. 3.

But how good can Jameis Winston be in 2013? For some context, let's have a look at the performances of all freshmen quarterbacks in the BCS from 2007-2012 against D1 teams. The chart shows a statistic known as "adjusted yards/attempt." This is the best quick and dirty measure of quarterback play, because is disregards misleading numbers like completion percentage (completing passes is good, but how far they go matters a lot more), and touchdowns (heavily skewed based on the preference of the offensive coordinator to run or pass in the red zone).

Adjusted yards/attempt takes the yards per attempt of a quarterback, and then factors in a 45-yard deduction for each interception. Why 45? Advanced NFL Stats and Pro Football Focus calculated that 45 yards is about the amount of field position value lost when an interception is thrown. Adjusted yards/attempt is the answer to the question of "on average, what happened with the quarterback dropped back?"

It's not perfect, of course. It's not adjusted for opponent, other than the removal of games against FCS teams.

Anything over 7 can be considered very good. For context, E.J. Manuel had a 7.5 in 2012.

Looking closely at the list, you see a lot of future star quarterbacks. Luck, Bradford, Murray, Manziel, Mariotta, Wilson, RGIII, Andy Dalton, T.J. Yates and more, just to name a few. And you also see a lot of flameouts. But 9 of the 10 best seasons by freshmen quarterbacks in the last six years have come from red-shirt freshmen. That's a positive sign for Jameis Winston.

There is also a decent distribution of offense types. Seven of the top 13 offenses could be considered spread, while another four are more pro-style, and yet another two could be considered a blend. Florida State runs a pro-style blend. I admit, when I first looked at the chart, it seemed to be very spread-heavy, which makes sense since the spread is often the offense of choice in high school.

The takeaway here is that there is a wide range of possible outcomes when playing a freshman quarterback. Maybe Winston throws 300 times for 2750 yards with 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Or maybe he chucks it just 200 times for 1500 yards with 15 touchdowns and 15 picks. Both scenarios seem unlikely, but are well within the realm of possibility when dealing with a freshman.

A good goal for Winston would be 6 of more adjusted yards/attempt against FBS teams. At right are a couple of stat lines that would meet or beat that line. I included a high number interceptions in most all of these, because the intel we got from practice that indicates Winston really likes to take chances, throw downfield and force the issue, even when it is sometimes not there.

Each quarterback on the list is different, but there is one important theme among most: run the football. Freshmen make mistakes. All freshmen. The important thing is to limit the chances they have to make mistakes. Of the top-15 quarterbacks on the list, only three threw the ball more than 28 times/game against FBS competition. When a freshman quarterback throws the ball 30+ times per game, bad things seem to happen. Granted, how much a team throws is not fully within control of the coaching staff, and is somewhat related to the game situation, but still. Run the football.

Not only that, but the straight dropbacks need to be limited. A high percentage of throws need to be rollouts, run-pass options, play-action, screens, etc.

It is up to Jimbo Fisher and the new offensive coaching staff to make things as easy as possible for Winston, and to make sure that he can handle the foundation before building on.

And run it with the quarterback.

The quarterback run game has changed college football in ways that could only be imagined when when Charlie Ward was running around 20 seasons ago. A quarterback who is part of the run game -- not just a scrambler, but one who is a real threat to run on designed runs, helps his offense and himself out in a lot of ways. First, it limits the number of coverages the defense can play, which makes coverage easier to read. Second, it actually helps out the running backs, because cutback lanes are more readily available for them.

FSU has good quarterback depth this year with the news that Coker has not transferred. It should not be afraid for Jameis Winston to take hits running the football. He is a big, strong, athletic player who is a threat to run and pass.

And Jimbo Fisher has indeed shown a willingness to run his quarterbacks in the past -- particularly his young quarterbacks. Last year, EJ Manuel did not run much. The reasons behind that are hotly debated (whether Fisher didn't want him to run, whether Dameyune Craig told him not to run to prove he was a pro passer, or whether Manuel was self-interested and chose not to run himself, being focused on his pro career), and don't need to be rehashed.

In 2013, there is no reason not to run Jameis Winston. To not use his legs, and the threat of his legs, is bad coaching. This offense cannot be all on Jameis Winston's arm and the legs of the running backs.

Running Backs

Speaking of running backs, let's get to them.

Florida State has two excellent backs in James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman, both juniors. It has speedster Ryan Green, a true freshman. And it had Mario Pender, until Pender didn't make grades. It also has fullback Chad Abram.

Having already done excellent, in-depth previews, let's not discuss individual players, but rather scheme and strategy.

With the departure of fullback Lonnie Pryor, 2013 was looking like a year in which FSU would use less two-back sets and more two-tight looks, with tight ends Kevin Haplea and Christo Kourtzidis complimenting Nick O'Leary. After Haplea tore his ACL and Kourtzidis transferred that changed.

At that point, it looked like FSU would use more multi-receiver sets. But then Greg Dent was charged with rape, Willie Haulstead didn't make grades, and Jarred Haggins was sidelined for the year with a knee injury.

So, how about those two-back sets? Specifically, sets with two tailbacks.

FSU has used two tailback sets before. The first I remember of it was in 2008, and my notes show that Fisher calls it the "pony" set.

Given this personnel, and the need to run the football, this makes sense. Defenses cannot overplay to one side, because both runners are quite capable. And both are pretty capable of blocking for each other, as well.

When done from the gun or the pistol, it opens up opportunities for designed QB runs.

When done from under center, with freeman working as the off-set back, it sets up opportunities for counters and play-action boot, with a quick flip to a back in space.

Whether FSU will prefer to run it out of 20 personnel (2 backs, 3 receivers), or 21 (2 backs,  tight end), is going to be determined as the season goes on.

Wilder and Freeman need to carry the load for the Florida State offense in 2013. If they stay healthy, the pair needs at least 370 carries and 1900 yards. Having one back gain 1,000 yards is not a big deal. Consistently staying out of passing down and distance by running the ball effectively is something FSU has done quite well under Jimbo Fisher, and something it must really emphasize in 2013. Running the ball more than throwing it really needs to happen, given the freshman quarterback.

Ryan Green also figures to play a part in the offense. Whether he can fully take on the role that was to go to Mario Pender is as of yet unknown. As you read in his player preview, Green has the home-run speed that the other backs do not. Can Green pick up blitzes and block? If so, that opens up more chances for him to hit home runs.

It should be noted that with only three scholarship tailbacks, depth could be an issue here. FSU will cross-train other athlete, including defenders who played running back in high school, just in care the nightmare scenario were to happen.

Offensive Line

Assuming the running backs can stay healthy, they should again have nice holes through which to run.

Florida State was surprisingly one of the best running teams in the country last year, given it had four new starters on the offensive line. This year, four of five starers return, and are joined at right tackle by Bobby Hart, who was a starter in 2011 and lost his job in 2012 because he wasn't very good.

From left to right, Florida State has LT Cameron Erving (rs-jr), LG Josue Matias (jr), C Bryan Stork (rs-sr), RG Tre' Jackson (jr) and RT Bobby Hart (jr). Between them, they average 317 pounds. Even if you think that is somewhat inflated, this is still one of Florida State's most physically impressive lines in years.

And that physicality needs to be put to use this year, as the offensive style changes a bit. In 2012, with Chris Thompson, Florida State ran a great stretch play. The Seminoles ran it for long touchdowns, they ran it on second down to reach a manageable third down, they ran it a ton.

With Thompson, gone after game eight, FSU had to change its offense on the fly. The results were not as good after losing its best player.

Now, with an offseason to prepare for the bigger backs, FSU needs to be better at running inside zone and power. There needs to be better combo blocking between Stork and the guards, and between the guards and tackles.

This should also help with short yardage -- an area in which FSU was not very good last year.

Pass protection must also improve. While EJ Manuel had bad pocket presence and escapability (he was an excellent runner in the open field, but his legs were very long and his steps were not short and quick while maneuvering within the pocket), the blitz pickup and general pass protection from the line can and should improve.

The importance of the offensive line getting even better at its strengths and shoring up its weaknesses is magnified when playing a freshman quarterback, even if he is incredibly talented.

Many have espoused concerns about the depth on the offensive line. The concerns are indeed real, but also overblown. This team has depth concerns at multiple spots, including running back, tight end, receiver, defensive and linebacker. Be they a concern of numbers or of experience, they're there.

Florida State has several key reserves, including C/G Austin Barron, now entering his third year, T Jonathan Wallace, who earned a scholarship after getting better each year on campus, OL Jacob Fahrenkrug who is still around and can provide experience, and Wilson Bell, a freshman tackle who looks to be the next big thing.

Wide Receiver & tight end

I don't have a good way to transition to receivers and tight end (not ends, but end, because there is basically only one).

You can see the previews of the top thee, above. They are pretty in-depth.

We've long harped on the play of the receivers, be it not winning jump-balls, not running routes to the proper depth or with appropriate crispness, etc. And we've also complained that too many receivers run in and out of the game.

This year, both of those things should be improved. Greene and Shaw are very good college receivers. They're veterans who are dependable playmakers. And Benjamin may be on the verge of a real breakout.

This is an excellent group of receivers with which to break in a new quarterback.

And it is paired with some talented, athletic freshman. In particular, Jesus "BoBo" Wilson looks to be developing into a very good slot receiver, for a freshman. Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield also has blazing speed and may be used on reverses, pitches and bubble screens.

But there are certainly depth issues here. Since spring, FSU has lost thee of its top seven receivers. Only one would be considered a starter or partial starter (Dent), but the impact could definitely be felt if more receivers go down. It's safe to say that rotating too many receivers in and out of the lineup will not be a problem this year.

Tight end is arguably worse in terms of depth and bad injury luck. With the loss of Haplea and Kourtzidis, Nick O'Leary is the only remaining tight end. O'Leary is a good tight end, but he is not great. Some question how much he cares about football. He catches the ball well, and manages to get open well enough. But he does a horrible job holding on to it after catching it, and his blocking simply isn't very good.

O'Leary does look bigger than ever, and that may help with the blocking some this year, but the hope for O'Leary turning into a 60-catch player who produces first down after first down is gone, at least in my mind.

FSU's other tight end option is Giorgio Newberry, a recent move from defensive end. I have not heard good things about Newberry's switch, and expect him to be used only as an extra blocker.

Expectations

55th, 34th, 8th, 14th, 50th, 23rd. Those are the ranks of Florida State's offense from 2007 to 2012 under Jimbo Fisher.

With many calling for Fisher to drop the offensive coordinator title and bring on a playcaller, this is an important year. The talent level is close to what it was last year, and the experience at some positions (not quarterback, obviously). The offense needs to show promise. Assuming the crazy injury bug doesn't hit the starters in the season like it has hit the reserves in the preseason, it needs to avoid any major dropoff.

I'm very interested to see how Jimbo handles his freshman quarterback. His extremely intense demeanor, coupled with EJ Manuel's lack of mental toughness and self confidence worked early in Manuel's career to poison the relationship between the two later in the QB's career.

Winston is a very different person than Manuel. Manuel's outward self confidence seemed forced, and sometimes fake. Winston is relaxed and bordering on cocky, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a quarterback. I'm told the two are very different in how they handle the criticism from Fisher -- and that's a good thing.

But I also want to see how Fisher acts on gameday. His first staff is gone. All of them accepted raises and promotions, but at the same time, I am told that several no longer wanted to work for Fisher. Now, his staff is considerably more veteran, and he seems more relaxed. Is Fisher always going to be a control freak? Probably. But there is reason for optimism that he won't micro-manage his staff quite as much. Why? Trust in coaches with experience to do their jobs, because they're more proven. There's also reason to believe some have spoken with Fisher about his attitude and how he treats others.

Some think Fisher's offense plays tight -- afraid of making mistakes. And some definitely believe some of this is because Fisher has been so intense at jumping down their throats when they make mistakes in practice and games.

According to some who get to watch practice, FSU's offensive coordinator seems to have calmed down a bit. At least in practice. Will this remain on gameday? That's yet to be seen.

So, let's have some predictions.

The ACC has five offenses which should probably be in the top-25 nationally: Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina. After that, there is a big dropoff in terms of talent and experience. If any offense not listed finished above Florida State in the conference, something will have gone seriously wrong.

I expect this offense to be one of the best 25. If it is significantly lower, and hasn't been ravaged by injuries, that will be a disappointment. FSU is in some ways starting over on offense by turning the page at quarterback, but the new chapter cannot start out with a disaster season where 40 or 50 teams field a better offense than the Seminoles.

I expect this offense to have some awesome flashes, and also some inconsistencies. That is the nature of playing a freshman quarterback.

It should be fun.

Tomorrow: the defense.

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