Florida State football fans will get their first glimpse at the revamped Seminoles this Saturday in the 2015 edition of the Garnet & Gold Game. Every spring game is important, but this year's spring game is particularly crucial to the 'Noles, who have to replace a Heisman winning quarterback as well as a sizable chunk of the star contributors that led FSU to a national title in 2013 and a College Football Playoff appearance in 2014. The depth chart is strewn with position battles on both sides of the ball, and further questions abound concerning the unknown and untested replacements at many positions.
The Injury Bug Has Bitten FSU Hard This Spring
Unfortunately for FSU, many of those questions and position battles will have to be put on hold until fall practice begins. The Seminoles have suffered from a significant injury bug this spring. Florida State's luck has been so bad, Coach Jimbo Fisher had to cancel two full practices in March after numerous players came down with a stomach virus. In more than one practice this spring, the 'Noles practiced without as many as 25 players. Many of those players sidelined with injuries throughout the spring will miss Saturday's spring game.
On the offensive side of the ball, starting fullback Freddie Stevenson has been out with a hyperextended leg injury. Screws will be needed to repair the injury, and Stevenson will miss the spring game. Early 2015 enrollee WR Da'Vante Phillips has missed all of spring while recovering from surgery to repair a tear in his groin muscle. Backup quarterback John Franklin III may miss Saturday's spring game after injuring his shoulder on Tuesday. At tight end, Jeremy Kerr may be a game-time decision, and (RS) freshman Mavin Saunders has recently dressed out for practice but has been limited. He may also be a game-time decision for Saturday. Due to the nagging injuries at the position, tight ends have been almost non-existent at practices throughout the spring.
Along the offensive line, center Ryan Hoefeld will be out for Saturday's spring game. Game-time decisions include Chad Mavety, Derrick Kelly and Ethan Frith. With FSU having to replace 4 of its 5 starters from a season ago along the offensive line, the unit could definitely benefit from the game-like experience of the spring scrimmage. Fortunately, offensive line coach Rick Trickett has emphasized cross-training the offensive linemen at numerous positions throughout the spring. As the 'Noles continue to figure out who they can plug into the starting lineup come fall, look for Trickett and Fisher to experiment with many different combinations of guys up front on Saturday.
Along the defensive line, defensive end Chris Casher has missed all spring with a shoulder injury. Casher had surgery to repair his shoulder just days after the Rose Bowl, so he should be ready for the fall. Starting defensive tackle Derrick Mitchell, who has suffered through more than his fair share of injuries during his time in Tallahassee, will also be out for Saturday's scrimmage. Early enrollee defensive end Josh Sweat has been out all spring with his knee injury. Nile Lawrence-Stample and Lorenzo Featherston may also be game-time decisions for Saturday. Tackle Justin Shanks may be out as well.
Limited depth at linebacker was further exacerbated when (RS) sophomore Matthew Thomas went down earlier in the spring with a separated shoulder. He will likely need surgery to repair it, and will miss the spring game. Another starting linebacker, senior Reggie Northrup, tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl and has missed all of spring. Northrup led the 'Noles last year with 122 tackles, and FSU will need him to be healthy for the fall in order to replicate that production. Other linebackers who may miss the spring game include fellow starter Terrance Smith and sophomore Jacob Pugh. Like tight ends on the offensive side of the ball, linebackers have been virtually non-existent in practices leading up to the spring game, with only reserves Tyrell Lyons and Ro'Derrick Hoskins left to man the position throughout much of the spring. 'Noles fans won't get a great look at this unit until the fall, and it's a spit that was a major weakness in 2015, so the lack of progress is unfortunate.
Another key defensive player who will miss Saturday's spring game is senior Tyler Hunter, who recently tore the meniscus in his right knee in practice. Hunter's injury is particularly disappointing, as he was getting time at both cornerback and safety. Regardless, he should be fully healthy in time for the fall. Early enrollee freshman defensive back Calvin Brewton and reserve Colin Blake will also likely be out Saturday. Safety Nate Andrews is also questionable with an ankle injury.
With so many players lost to injury, there won't be as many team takeaway points to scrutinize from this year's Garnet & Gold Game. The bright spot in all of these injuries is that it is still the spring, which leaves plenty of time for injuries to heal before the beginning of the college football season. It also means key reserves will get some additional playing time and chances to prove themselves in a simulated game experience, develop FSU's depth and promote competition in the fall. Still, Seminole fans may be disappointed or frustrated with just how many key contributors will be missing from the field Saturday.
The Quarterback Battle: Has Sean Maguire Solidified His Position as the Heir Apparent to Jameis Winston?
Perhaps the most glaring question facing the 2015 Seminoles is quarterback play. Replacing a Heisman-winning, national title-producing quarterback would be difficult for any program, so Seminole fans may be best served to adjust their expectations for quarterback play accordingly this season. For now, it looks as though Sean Maguire has a solid hold on the starting quarterback job. A lot can change between now and the first regular season game, but the cards seem to be falling, rather clearly, in favor of Maguire being under center for the Seminoles in 2015. And the gap between Maguire and the field does not appear to be close at this time.
Many began the spring high on strong-armed J.J. Cosentino, but questions about his ability to grasp Fisher's complex offense linger. It is telling that John Franklin III, not Cosentino, has run with the second team offense all spring. Franklin himself has been a valuable weapon for FSU in the past running scout team offenses to simulate mobile opponents like Nick Marshall and Marcus Mariota, but questions about his future at the quarterback position for FSU also linger because he isn't a prototypical quarterback for Jimbo's system. Many still believe he will ultimately end up at wide receiver, where his athletic abilities could be better utilized. In any event, Franklin might not even play Saturday due to a shoulder injury.
Two quarterbacks were members of the 2015 recruiting class, and early enrollee De'Andre Johnson by all accounts appears to be on track for where an early enrollee quarterback should be. The other promising freshman quarterback in that class, Deondre Francois, won't be on campus until the fall.
A second concern surrounding Sean Maguire is what exactly he brings to the table from an ability standpoint. An under-the-radar recruit out of a New Jersey high school that ran a wing-T offense, many unknowns remain about Sean Maguire's quarterbacking capabilities. The best available example thus far is clearly his heroic performance in the win over Clemson last season, in which Maguire went 21/39 for 305 yards, tossing 1 TD and 2 interceptions in place of the suspended Jameis Winston. Yet even in that game, it is difficult to glean much about Maguire's ball placement; the biggest play of the night was a deep touchdown pass to Rashad Greene, but Clemson's cornerback had fallen down, leaving Greene all alone. Maguire showed a willingness to fire downfield in that game, but he also made plenty of typical backup quarterback mistakes, including waiting in the pocket too long, locking onto receivers, missing open throws, and throwing a bad interception. Some slack could be given to him considering it was the first start of career, in a primetime game, and against the nation's best defense no less. After all, Florida State did win the ball game, and ultimately that is the most you can ask of a green backup quarterback--to not lose the game. However, many important questions remain about Maguire's abilities, and from this point on, he will no longer be able to fall back to the "serviceable" standard of a backup quarterback if he is indeed going to be given the keys to Jimbo Fisher's offense in the fall.
Are the Wide Receivers Really As "Soft" As Jimbo Has Indicated?
An important caveat to the quarterback question involves who that quarterback will target in the air attack this upcoming season. Coach Fisher has not minced words about his frustration with the wide receiver unit at various times throughout the spring. Of course, replacing your school's all-time leading receiver is a tall task, perhaps as tall as replacing the Heisman-winner who threw him into the record book. While FSU's receiving corps is young and talented, it needs to continue to develop consistency and mature.
Returning receivers Bobo Wilson and Kermit Whitfield were mostly unreliable and underwhelming last season, but they bring the most experience to the 2015 unit. Rising sophomore Travis Rudolph showed flashes of greatness last season, and seems best poised to replace Rashad Greene as the primary go-to guy in the unit. Another rising sophomore, Ermon Lane, has shown he has the ability and physical tools to be a fantastic player for FSU, but his consistency and his work ethic have come under fire since his arrival in Tallahassee. Whether those questions were unfair for a true freshman, or whether they were birthed out of inflated expectations, may be answered this upcoming season. One area in which Lane has showed extreme promise is in his run-blocking, and 'Noles fans would be well served to be on the lookout for Lane's performance and hustle on Saturday, even during run plays.
Other youngsters have also shown promise, including fellow rising sophomore Ja'Vonn "Pig" Harrison, Da'Vante Phillips (out for the spring as mentioned before), and early enrollee, 5-star freshman George Campbell. FSU fans should watch for Campbell's performance in the spring game to see if he is able to push some of the more veteran receivers for immediate playing time come fall.
There is no doubt that the 'Noles' receiving corps is young, talented and full of potential. However, whether they continue to develop and mature is another question. Fisher went so far to call the unit "soft" during the spring, so the spring game should provide some excellent insight into what the future holds for this unit. It will be vital that at least some of these receivers develop some reliability as the fall approaches, particularly with the questions surrounding the quarterback position.
Tight Ends: Will Anyone Rise Up to Replace O'Leary?
Florida State historically has not been a program to greatly utilize tight ends. Nick O'Leary changed that trend when he arrived in Tallahassee in 2012. Now, the Seminoles must replace the most productive tight end in FSU history, which will not be easy. After losing both O'Leary and his reliable backup, Kevin Haplea, to graduation, Florida State will turn to (RS) sophomore Jeremy Kerr and (RS) freshmen Ryan Izzo and Mavin Saunders to fill those shoes. All three tight ends have dealt with nagging injuries throughout the spring. At times, all three were unavailable simultaneously, leaving the tight end position virtually non-existent on the field. With this slew of injuries, it is difficult to judge whether any of the three have separated themselves from the pack. However, it appears likely that all three will be available in some capacity for the spring game. This should be an interesting position battle for 'Noles fans to keep their eyes on Saturday. If Saunders can stay healthy and continue to improve his run blocking abilities, it seems as though he would have the edge for the starting role in the fall, due to his physical capabilities and size.
The top 2016 tight end recruit in the country, Issac Nauta, is a solid FSU commit, and could probably win the starting job right now if he was on campus in Tallahassee and not finishing his junior year of high school. Until Nauta graduates high school and gets to Florida State, the 'Noles will need to find a serviceable option at tight end if they want to replicate any semblance of production Nick O'Leary provided the offense over the past three years.
The Entirely Revamped Secondary
On the defensive side of the ball, the Seminoles' secondary is definitely the unit to watch on Saturday. With the loss of starting cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby to the NFL Draft, FSU has cross-trained numerous players at different positions throughout the defensive backfield this spring. Jalen Ramsey, the outspoken leader of the secondary, moved from his starting role at the star position back over to corner. Before injury cut his spring short, Tyler Hunter was taking snaps both at safety and cornerback. Buried on the depth chart at running back, Ryan Green also moved over to cornerback. Junior Marquez White and sophomore Malique Jackson now get their chance for meaningful playing time at cornerback as well. Throw in Nate Andrews and Trey Marshall at safety, reliable backup Lamarcus Brutus, and early enrollee, 5-star freshman Derwin James, and you can begin to see just how many cluttered options FSU has in the secondary. The talented incoming freshmen trio of Tavarus McFadden, Marcus Lewis and A.J. Westbrook will also be thrown into the mix when they get to campus in the fall.
Questions about the reliability of some of these guys must be answered, particularly the newcomers at the crowded cornerback position. Jalen Ramsey was a beast at the star position, and he has said that he "followed his heart" back to cornerback. However, observers have to wonder if this was a desired change on Ramsey's part, or whether this was a change born out of necessity and depth chart concerns.
Tyler Hunter is another unknown at cornerback, if that is indeed the position he ultimately ends up playing. Hunter was injured for almost all of the 2013 season, and seemed to lack consistency from the safety position last season. Whether he is serviceable at cornerback, particularly after coming off this latest injury, is a huge question mark, and one that fans won't be able to watch for during the spring game.
Perhaps the biggest unknown at cornerback circles around whether the converted running back, Ryan Green, and the former FSU basketball player, Marquez White, can actually provide adequate coverage and give FSU meaningful reps from the position. How these unknowns will be answered will determine how defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Charles Kelly approaches the lineup in the fall. FSU fans should definitely keep an eye on the secondary's performance on Saturday.
The Defensive Ends and Rick Leonard's Progress
The one offseason change to the FSU coaching staff occurred when defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri left FSU to become the linebackers coach for the Oakland Raiders. Florida State quickly replaced him with Brad Lawing, formerly of South Carolina and UF. Lawing is both a solid recruiter and a great position coach, having previously developed talents like Jadeveon Clowney, Eric Norwood, Dominique Easley and Dante Fowler, Jr. With Mario Edwards, Jr. gone to the NFL Draft, Lawing has immediately emphasized improving FSU's pass rush from a season ago. In 2014, Florida State only recorded 17 sacks, ranking them 114th in the nation. 'Noles fans may have an opportunity on Saturday to see if the pass rush has improved under Lawing. An improved pass rush may also help alleviate potential growing pains in the secondary as well. As with any new coach, it will be interesting to note how Lawing meshes with the other coaches on staff and how his players respond to him on Saturday.
Lawing has an ample stockpile of talented youngsters to develop. One of the relative newcomers at defensive end is 6'7, 270 pound sophomore defensive end Rick Leonard. Leonard shed some weight during the offseason, and has received some rave reviews this spring for his physicality and work ethic. FSU fans should key in on him during the spring game to see if he flashes those attributes. It will also be interesting to see whether Lawing lines him up on the strong or weak side. If Leonard can continue his development, he should see his way into the rotation at defensive end in the fall, along with Chris Casher, DeMarcus Walker, Lorenzo Featherston, Josh Sweat, and possibly Jacob Pugh.
Impact Freshmen: Derwin James, Jacques Patrick and George Campbell
Finally, FSU fans should also keep an eye on the not-so-distant future while taking in the Garnet & Gold game. Florida State's three 5-star early enrollees are expected to make an immediate impact in 2015, and all three should see substantial playing time on Saturday. Coach Fisher has praised Derwin James as being one of the most naturally gifted freshmen he has ever encountered. 'Noles fans should definitely expect to see a lot of James in the secondary on Saturday, and likely in the fall as well.
As mentioned before, it will be noteworthy to see if George Campbell can push some of the more veteran receivers for playing time in 2015. The same can be said of Jacques Patrick, a hard and physical runner, who will compliment fellow running backs Dalvin Cook and Mario Pender well. Patrick has received praise from Coach Fisher for his quick grasp of the offense, and many 'Noles fans are already making the comparison of Patrick to great FSU bruiser Greg Jones. Be sure to watch for these young stars to make an impact on Saturday and well into the future for the Seminoles.
Garnet & Gold Spring Game
Saturday, April 11, 2015 at 2pm EST
Bobby Bowden Field at Doak S. Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, FL
ESPN3/ WatchESPN/ Seminole IMG Sports Radio Network