A critical part of any run to a national title is functional depth-- particularly in the current College Football Playoff format in which most teams will be ending the season with a minimum of three consecutive games against high-quality opponents.
The reality is, even the most talented teams have at least a position or two at which the second and third stringers lack experience, next-level talent, or both. This is why you'll often hear people refer to "injury luck" when analyzing a team’s successes or failures. While you never like to see any young man get hurt, some injuries simply generate more impact than others due to positional depth.
As we look at FSU’s ability to overcome potential injuries (or off-the-field mis-steps) some positions appear much more capable of maintaining production than others. Defensive back, defensive tackle, offensive line, and wide receiver all have quality players apparently ready to step up to a starting role, should they be needed.
However, some positions appear to have a much more dramatic drop off between the expected production of the starter(s) and the reasonable potential of the backups for this season. Perhaps the two positions in the most precarious shape are quarterback and defensive end.
Admittedly, there are quite a few question marks here. How quickly can Sean Maguire heal from foot surgery? How will the lost reps in practice impact his timing? How well is this walk-on really capable of playing in a game situation? Has JJ Cosentino improved at all since we last saw him in the Peach Bowl? Will true freshman Malik Henry be back for the season opener? Will he be available and ready to play at any point this year?
All those questions are, as of now, unanswered. Which reinforces the point that, as of today, there is likely a significant drop off between the expected production of starter Deondre Francois and whomever the next man up would be if Francois went down.
The Noles might just have the best pair of defensive end starters in the country. DeMarcus Walker is looking for a second straight season of double-digit sacks and he's also quite adept at setting the edge in run defense. Sophomore Josh Sweat, now two years removed from knee surgery, is long, athletic, and looks poised for a breakout campaign.
But behind those two...well we really don't know. Rick Leonard was potentially quality depth, but he now is fighting for a starting spot on the other side of the ball. Adam Torres also seemed ready to give some much-needed depth to this group in spring practice but he has not yet practiced in fall camp, dealing with a foot injury which has caused extended use of a walking boot. Freshman Janarius Robinson projects as more of a long-term contributor than an instant impact guy, particularly after he missed spring practice with a shoulder injury. Jalen Wilkerson, a new defensive end who switched positions from tight end over the summer, is in a similar situation to Robinson in that he does not seem ready to give a significant number of reps in 2016.
The saving grace of the unit may be redshirt junior Keith Bryant, a four-star recruit when he entered Florida State in 2013, who has only seen minimal work in his first three years as a Seminole. Bryant is finally over a nagging foot injury and has been making a positive impact when active in fall camp.
Perhaps the biggest wildcard is freshman Brian Burns. Jimbo Fisher has heaped high praise on the young man from Fort Lauderdale in fall practice. But while Burns does come into college as a fairly refined pass rusher, relying on a true freshman to provide anything more than 200-300 plays is a risky proposition.
Realistically, the drop off in consistent production between either of the starting DEs and any of the backups would be significant.
What About Running Back?
At this point, some of you (okay, many of you) might be wondering why running back hasn't been mentioned. And it's a fair question. The answer lies probably in just how good you believe Dalvin Cook is.
Obviously there is a drop off between Cook and anyone else (perhaps even anyone else who has ever played RB for the garnet and gold), but the question is how much? We saw last year against Syracuse that Jacques Patrick is capable of carrying the load, at least against average P5 teams. Would he be ready to tote the rock 25 times against Clemson? Hard to say, but at this point I feel more comfortable in that than I do if someone other than Francois or a healthy Maguire is playing QB.
What do you think? Which position has the biggest gap in potential production between the starters and the depth?