When the Florida State football team opened its 2015 campaign with an impressive victory over Texas State last week, most FSU fans were pretty pleased with the early returns. New 'Nole quarterback Everett Golson looked sharp with the offense, the rejuvenated defense played with discipline and passion, and the Seminoles won handily by a score of 59-16.
Still, there was one area that needed immediate addressing: special teams. Florida State returners muffed two punts, the Seminoles' own punting was quite subpar, and a pair of kickoffs sailed out of bounds.
FSU appeared to have taken some nice steps on special teams this week against USF-- but there's certainly plenty of work to be done. Bobo Wilson, who got the job returning punts last week after Marquez White and Travis Rudolph put the ball on the ground, looked comfortable with his new role, catching all six of his opportunities and averaging 7 yards per return.
Wilson, whom head coach Jimbo Fisher named as one of the fastest players on the team this week, has a nice mix of shiftiness and flat-out speed that suits the position well. Perhaps most importantly, Wilson seems fearless as a punt returner, a quality that is more difficult to find than most realize. His longest return against the Bulls was for 18 yards, and there's definite promise here for FSU.
After hitting three punts for an average of 36.33 yards last week, Cason Beatty bettered that, averaging 40.6 YPP on Saturday afternoon. But USF got a huge 46-yard return in the first half on a punt kicked in the wrong place that the Bulls returned to within the Florida State 15. Fisher obviously wants more out of Beatty, saying after the game that "we didn't punt the ball, again, like we needed to."
While angst among FSU fans surrounding the punting game is essentially ubiquitous, few Seminole supporters were really too concerned about Aguayo's pair of kickoffs that sailed out of bounds last week-- and for good reason. The All-American kicker righted the ship nicely vs. South Florida, putting all seven of his kicks in fair territory; even if the Bulls' 25 yard-per-return average is a bit higher than the 'Noles would like to concede, it's certainly far preferable to an opponent starting drives at its 40 yard line.
FSU's own kick return team didn't have many opportunities but nevertheless made some big plays against USF-- one of which Fisher thought changed the game. After a lackluster first half that ended in a 7-7 tie in front of a restless crowd enduring dreary conditions, the 'Noles needed a spark. In a flashback to 2013, Florida State looked to Kermit Whitfield, who fielded the opening kickoff of the second half.
All he did was return it up the middle for 56 yards, initiating a touchdown drive that would see the Seminoles go ahead for good. Fisher didn't hesitate to put the return -- and the play of the entire kick return unit -- into perspective: "Very proud of the kickoff return team. I thought the key to the second half was the opening kickoff in the second half to set the tone, give us great field position. Kermit had a big-time run there. We've worked hard on that."
Not to be overshadowed, Freddie Stevenson made a nice play on the return team as well-- even if it did register zero yards. After South Florida began the fourth quarter by scoring to bring the tally to 24-14, the Bulls attempted a short kickoff in hopes of catching the 'Noles sleeping and firmly grasping momentum. It's another scenario on which FSU works regularly in practice, and it calls for the up backs to charge forward and secure the catch. Stevenson sprinted to a well-placed ball that looked to be landing in a precarious spot for the Seminoles and made a fine diving grab to secure possession on what turned out to be a Florida State scoring drive.
And then there are extra points. Yes, extra points. Sure, they're pretty much a given for most teams. But they've been entirely automatic for Aguayo, who today set a record for the most consecutive extra points in ACC history; Aguayo has never missed a point after. Granted, PATs are chip shots, but considering the amount of inclement weather the 'Noles have seen in the last couple of seasons, the record is really a testament to his focus, along with that of long-snapper Stephen Gabbard and Beatty, Aguayo's holder.
Special teams often go largely ignored, due to the fact that they spend so much less time on the field than the offense and defense-- FSU has certainly enjoyed this luxury over the last couple of years. Simply fielding punts cleanly was good enough when Jameis Winston was marshaling the offense. Talent now playing on Sundays helped the defense overcome its own punting issues. And while the latter unit teems with promise once again, an inconsistent offense really underscores Florida State's need for rock solid special teams in 2015.