Florida State basks in championship glow during 2014 spring game
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As he sat down for a press conference following Florida State's Garnet and Gold game on Saturday, Jameis Winston took out his enormous, school-issued national title ring and placed it on the table. Then out came a gold necklace with an ACC championship ring as the medallion. After giving a kiss to both, he entertained questions.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher held court, too, and like any coach he has areas of concern coming out of spring camp. "We've got to get more consistent in punting," he said. "We have to get better in that area."
That was his only critique of the entire squad. It's good to be a 'Nole these days.
The Florida State community spent last weekend basking in the afterglow of its 2013 national championship season. It also got its first peek of what '14 may have to offer. During a downtown block party on Friday night, a trio of players modeled the program's new uniforms on stage as throngs of fans held up phones to take pictures. Approximately one in three adults on College Street was wearing national championship paraphernalia.
The defending champs wrapped up spring camp on Saturday with Winston and the first-team offense managing 24 points against the first-string defense in an ESPN-televised contest. Despite losing standouts such as defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, the Seminoles are still clearly dripping with talent.
Five seniors -- including four returning starters -- comprised the first-string offensive line, a rarity for any program, much less the reigning national champion. Florida State's loaded secondary shined as well. Fisher believes three of his defensive backs, Jalen Ramsey, P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, could go on to become first-round NFL draft picks. Two of the three projected starting defensive linemen, Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman, were the top prospects at their position coming out of high school. They'll take on prominent roles this fall.
And, of course, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner remains the quarterback.
All told, Florida State returns seven first- or second-team All-ACC selections: Winston, receiver Rashad Greene, tackle Cameron Erving, guards Tre' Jackson and Josue Matias, tight end Nick O'Leary and Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Roberto Aguayo. That's more than the rest of the conference brings back combined.
"I like our football team. I think we're a talented football team," said Fisher. "This team is three and a half months old. I like the talent level of it, definitely, but I also like the personality of it."
Winston's mixed performance on Saturday provided a telling window into the development of Florida State's 2014 squad. He started slowly, completing just 1-of-5 passes (including an interception by Ramsey) and then 3-of-10. It led the 36,500 spectators to wonder just how much he misses Benjamin and Shaw. O'Leary, who finished with 557 receiving yards and seven touchdowns last season, was sidelined for the game following a motorcycle accident. "We didn't have many guys open and that secondary was locking them down," said Fisher.
Winston looked much better over the last three quarters, though. With the Seminoles holding out all four of their scholarship tailbacks due to various injuries, the Heisman winner attempted more passes (56) than in any game last year and completed less than half (27), but he still finished with 396 yards and two touchdowns. Greene, who had 1,128 receiving yards last season, caught 11 balls for 127 yards, while sophomore Jesus "Bobo" Wilson looked like a capable No. 2 option. At one point, Wilson hauled in a 66-yard bomb before fumbling at the end.
Both Fisher and Winston were frustrated with the passing game at times during the spring, as the quarterback learned to jell with a young receiving corps. Yet in fairness, he faced a defense that may be better than any he sees this fall.
"We joked about it a little on the sideline," said Ramsey, "about how the country gets to see how [Winston] goes against our defense because we go against him in practice all the time. ... He throws on us and we make interceptions on him."
Fans also couldn't fault Winston if perhaps fatigue affected his outing. The two-sport star played a baseball game at Georgia Tech the night before the spring showcase. He flew to Tallahassee on Saturday morning, about four hours before the game, and headed back to Atlanta on a private jet that night. In the third game of the series against the Yellow Jackets on Sunday, he notched a bases-loaded walk as a pinch-hitter and earned the save in a 5-4 win. He has been shuttling between the teams all spring.
"Physically, there were some days I was drained. I'm a busy man," said Winston, who missed just two baseball games and two football practices. "... I'm always doing something. So I'm going to be tired sometimes. If Jimbo asks me, 'Jameis, are you tired?' I'm going to say 'No, coach,' but obviously he can see it in my eyes. Hey man, I'm tired."
Winston is not the only two-sport star on his team. Ramsey, a long jumper, plans to return to track practice this week and compete in the ACC Outdoor Championships on Friday and Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C. The former five-star recruit and the first Seminoles freshman to start at cornerback since Deion Sanders, Ramsey has already cemented his role as one of the defense's new leaders. His mission is to help Florida State avoid the type of complacency that often befalls defending champs.
"Like coach Fisher says, teams only have a one-year life expectancy," said Ramsey. "After that one year you have to move on. You have to go on with your other team and hunt another national championship. We're really trying to change our focus and aim our purpose to doing everything to get ourselves another one."
The 'Noles finally proved they're "back" by capturing the program's first national title in 14 years. But now they must show they're built to last. During coach Bobby Bowden's remarkable run of 14 consecutive top-four finishes from 1987-2000, Florida State lost a host of NFL-caliber talent every season and never had trouble reloading. Fisher's program saw 11 players get drafted last April, including first-round quarterback E.J. Manuel, only to turn around and dominate 13 straight foes. Nine players from the team that beat Auburn 34-31 on Jan. 6 are expected to hear their names called next month.
But Fisher hardly seems like he's sweating it. In fact, during an interview in his office on Friday, he could not have sounded more confident. And he beamed with excitement reciting the names of various upstart players that impressed him -- junior defensive tackle Giorgio Newberry, redshirt freshman linebacker Matthew Thomas, sophomore linebacker E.J. Levenberry and freshman safety Trey Marshall, among others -- after the spring game on Saturday.
"Being back is being able to consistently contend," Fisher said. "To me it's like a company like Microsoft or Google. Sometimes they're the best company in the world that year, but sometimes they're second or third or whatever. But you know one thing. When you deal with them you're dealing with quality. You're dealing with people who are committed to excellence. When you're back, that's what you do, and I think that's what we are doing right now."
The 'Noles' biggest challenge right now might be fending off boredom. Fisher called that "the downfall of most great players" just before one of his own great players admitted that he's afflicted. "I'm fighting boredom right now," said Winston. "It's good to be bored, because when you're bored you want to do more. By me being bored, that makes me [say], 'OK, I'm bored, think about the little things.'"
Winston spent this spring working on his hip placement, discipline and check-downs. Two of his team's biggest gains on Saturday came via check-down passes to fullback Nigel Terrell, who burst for 26 yards on one of four catches.
But lest the Seminoles get ahead of themselves, Fisher reminds them of their 2014 schedule. While it includes six of the same ACC opponents they dominated last fall, Florida State picks up three new foes, Oklahoma State (Aug. 30 in Arlington, Texas), Notre Dame (Oct. 18 at home) and Louisville (Oct. 30 on the road). All three were ranked in last year's final AP Poll.
"If you can look at that and feel complacent," said Fisher, "something ain't right."
One thing the players don't agree on is whether or not to wear their newly received rings. Winston wasn't shy about flashing his, and Ramsey proudly donned the official BCS one late last week. Conversely, Greene and Erving said they only wore theirs once. "It's a very big ring," said Greene, "and I don't have very big fingers."
Those are the kinds of vexing problems they're dealing with in Tallahassee these days. It's good to be a 'Nole.