Florida State reloading again after exodus of talent; Punt, Pass & Pork
TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—The dozens of NFL scouts, coaches and personnel executives who descended on Florida State’s campus for pro day last Tuesday didn’t all come to see Jameis Winston. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t take Winston with the first overall pick, the Tennessee Titans will grab him one pick later. We in the media might have made it seem as if everyone crowded into the Seminoles’ indoor practice facility to watch Winston, but most came to see Eddie Goldman. And Cam Erving. And Ronald Darby. And Tre’ Jackson. And Mario Edwards Jr. And Josue Matias.
We could keep going, but you get the point. The 2014 Seminoles were loaded with NFL-caliber talent, which helps explain how that group went 39-3 over the past three seasons. What’s amazing is the Seminoles did this while replacing a bunch of draftees from ’12 to ’13 and from ’13 to ’14. Before going 14-0 and winning the national title in ’13, Florida State replaced 11 draft picks. Before going 13-1 in ’14, it replaced eight draftees. This year the number of Florida State selections will likely fall between 10 and 12. If we estimate 11 get picked in the ’15 draft, then the ‘Noles will have produced 29 picks in a three-year stretch.
That would be more than the best three-year stretch for Alabama under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide had 25 players selected from 2012-14. Florida State’s total would be more than Texas’s from 1984-86 (27), when the Longhorns set the record for the most players drafted in one year (17 in ’84) and the NFL draft featured 12 rounds instead of seven. It would be one more than Miami’s draft output from ’02-04, when the core of the Hurricanes’ ’01 superteam left to conquer the NFL.
That Florida State remained so successful despite losing so much is a testament to coaching and recruiting ability of Jimbo Fisher and his staff. But to expect that same kind of success season after season while sending that much talent to the NFL is unrealistic. Most programs would have already dipped, but the Seminoles stayed strong thanks to a combination of excellent recruiting and some positional good fortune. For those three years, the offensive line remained relatively intact. Some horrendous injury luck in 2011 left a group of experienced players ready to take over in ’12. Bobby Hart, who played in ’11 and ’12, took over at right tackle for Menelik Watson following the ’12 season. The search to replace center Bryan Stork after the ’13 campaign was thoroughly chronicled, but for the most part those were the only major losses the line sustained during a three-season span. That sort of stability in the position group that needs stability the most is rare.
Now the Seminoles must replace four offensive line starters while simultaneously replacing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback (Winston), the player who holds most of the program’s receiving records (Rashad Greene), the two best defensive linemen (Goldman and Edwards) and both starting cornerbacks (Darby and P.J. Williams, whose DUI arrest Friday morning could send him tumbling down draft boards). That’s a recipe for a dip, but when a team has recruited as well as the Seminoles, it doesn’t guarantee one. Given the raw athletic ability it has amassed, Florida State always looks like a national title contender getting off the bus. But even the most talented groups have to regroup and accumulate experience.
Imagine being Florida State left tackle Rod Johnson. In mid-November, Johnson was a true freshman making his first college start alongside four veterans, allowing Erving to move to center. Four months later he opened spring practice as the lone returning starter. “They eased me into it [last season],” he said. “But now they’re saying they expect more from me and they expect me to be the leader.” That’s a lot to ask of a player with five career starts, but it’s where the team is at the moment.
Whether Florida State can keep its streak of ACC titles—currently at three—alive will depend on how those inexperienced players develop. Junior college transfers Kareem Are and Chad Mavety didn’t have to play last year and have two seasons of eligibility remaining. Are looks like he may lock down a guard spot, but Mavety suffered a foot injury last week that changes the complexion of the competition at right tackle. The Seminoles have a group of young players vying for playing time at center, but they’re also trying to land Notre Dame graduate transfer Matt Hegarty, who started at center last year for the Fighting Irish. Florida State will compete for Hegarty’s services against Michigan, however, which is also in need of a center after 2014 starter Jack Miller retired from the sport in March.
Those linemen will likely block for Sean Maguire, who seems to have separated from the pack in the quarterback race to replace Winston. Maguire filled in for the suspended Winston last September against Clemson, and for a game against one of the nation’s best defenses after taking minimal first-team snaps in practice—Winston wasn’t suspended until that Friday night—he played as well as anyone could have hoped. This spring the junior from Sparta, N.J., has drawn plenty of praise from Fisher.
The Seminoles are fairly inexperienced at tailback, but that appears to be a position of strength anyway. As a freshman in 2014, Dalvin Cook carried the offense at times. The ‘Noles know what they have in the sophomore from Miami. He is a violent runner who can gash a defense up the middle or stretch it by catching balls in the flat. Early enrollee Jacques Patrick will join Cook, and Patrick had current and former players buzzing after his effort in a scrimmage last week.
On defense, the problem area is linebacker. A group that didn’t distinguish itself last fall—partly because it was so banged up—is banged up again this spring. Florida State’s top three returning linebackers (Terrance Smith, Reggie Northrup, Matthew Thomas) are all hurt, so coaches won’t know much about how that group will look until preseason camp. The Seminoles will, however, know a bit about the secondary. This could be especially promising if the unit takes on the personality of its best player.
Junior Jalen Ramsey is moving from the Star hybrid position to boundary corner, where he will be asked to eliminate the opponent’s best receiver and essentially shut down any semblance of a passing game on the short side of the field. “He can take that whole side away,” Fisher said. While the coach is prone to exaggeration, he may be correct here. Ramsey has the size (6’1”, 201 pounds) and the skill set. He also has a swagger reminiscent of another Florida State cornerback who wore a single-digit number. “You know when Jalen’s out there on that corner spot on one person, you don’t have to worry,” Ramsey said last week, employing the third person only a few questions into the interview session. “I’m going to do my job.”
But he wasn’t done. “When [receivers] line up against me, they better give it their all. If not, I’m going to embarrass them,” Ramsey said. “I’m not going to take a play off. If you come up to the line and don’t give your best, I’m going to embarrass you—straight up—in front of everybody.”
Unlike during their 2013 national title run, the ’14 Seminoles didn't embarrass foes. They slid by, which is understandable given the talent they'd lost the previous two seasons, but still won every game until the Rose Bowl defeat to Oregon. Whether this group can accomplish something similar will depend on a lot of unknowns breaking Florida State’s way. For the moment, Fisher and his staff will toss their healthy players on the field, let them compete and try to figure out what kind of team they have after a potentially unprecedented exodus of talent. “You’ve got to let them play,” Fisher said. “Sometimes you can over-coach them. They have to get out there on that field by themselves. If you don’t let them have success and failures, then you never know what you’re going to get when the fall comes.”
A random ranking
Everyone on the Internet spent last week ranking the Fast & Furious movies. I’ve only seen installments one and six, so I would prefer to rank the Smokey and the Bandit movies. As you read this, remember that Little Enos wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainbow Connection.”
1. Smokey and the Bandit
2. Smokey and the Bandit II
3. The Cannonball Run (It’s more of a Smokey and the Bandit movie than Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 because of the frequent presence of former Florida State halfback Burton Leon Reynolds.)
4. Stroker Ace (See above.)
5. Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (Cameos don’t count.)
1. Michigan finished spring practice with a clear leader at quarterback. After the Wolverines’ spring game on Saturday, Jim Harbaugh said junior Shane Morris is ahead of the pack. “If I looked at it overall, the spring ball, Shane would be ahead,” Harbaugh told reporters. “The competition will rage on, starting tomorrow, into April, into May and certainly into June, July and August.”
The competition will continue because not all the competitors have yet to arrive in Ann Arbor. Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock will get to campus this summer with two years of Big Ten starting experience. Freshman Zach Gentry will also come over the summer. On Saturday, Morris showed at various times why he was so hyped coming out of high school, but also why he couldn’t previously beat out Devin Gardner for the starting job. On a third-and-28 play in the first half, Morris delivered a beautiful touch pass into the hands of Amara Darboh for a 37-yard gain. Before that, though, Morris rifled a slant so hard that it bounced off his intended receiver and into the hands of safety Delano Hill.
After the spring game, Morris acknowledged the competitors he still has to best to become the starter. “You can bring in 100 quarterbacks,” Morris told reporters. “It’s not going to matter to me.”
2. SI.com’s Pete Thamel caught up with Cardale Jones to discuss how the Ohio State quarterback’s life has changed since the former third-stringer was pressed into action prior to last year’s Big Ten championship game. Jones explained how it’s tough to have a sign language class when most of the students keep looking at one particular pupil instead of the teacher.
3. Meanwhile, SI.com’s Lindsay Schnell caught up with boot-scoot-boogying USC quarterback Cody Kessler.
4. The lawsuit filed by Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis against former employer LSU has been moved from Brazos County—where College Station is—to federal court in Houston. This makes sense, considering Chavis is suing an out-of-state entity over a contract written and executed in another state. Chavis claims he doesn’t owe the $400,000 buyout outlined in his LSU contract. LSU has sued Chavis in Louisiana, claiming Chavis does owe the buyout.
At odds is the date that Chavis left LSU and began working for Texas A&M. If Chavis gave LSU 30 days notice, he doesn’t owe the buyout. But since Chavis was pictured in A&M gear visiting recruit Kris Boyd on Jan. 15, he’ll likely have a hard time explaining how 30 days elapsed between Dec. 30 and Jan. 15. He could claim he was working as an unpaid consultant for Texas A&M, but that'd probably require the Aggies to turn themselves in for an NCAA violation, because if Chavis was a mere consultant, then he wasn’t one of the 10 A&M coaches (Kevin Sumlin and nine assistants) eligible to go on the road recruiting.
The lesson? As we’ve learned with the Joe Wickline-Oklahoma State-Texas lawsuit, the school hiring the well-paid, in-demand assistant just needs to pay the freaking buyout. It’s part of the cost of doing business.
5. Alabama coach Saban told ESPN.com’s Chris Low that he wished he had handled differently a press conference last week in which he had to explain the decision to sign defensive tackle Jonathan Taylor in light of Taylor’s arrest in Tuscaloosa on a domestic violence charge two days earlier. (Taylor already had a pending domestic violence charge in Georgia from an incident in July 2014.) In that press conference, Saban emphasized his desire to offer second chances, but his defensiveness came off as insensitive to the seriousness of the issue at hand. Saban clarified those remarks to Low. “Look, I didn't handle it the best way and I take responsibility for that, but I certainly didn't mean for it to come across that I was insensitive to the seriousness of domestic violence,” Saban told ESPN.com. “I’m not insensitive to this issue. I’m very sensitive to it and will continue to be, but I also believe in giving kids chances. That's the point I was trying to make. I’m sorry for the incident, sorry for the people involved in the incident, sorry this ever happened, sorry for our team, sorry for the university. I’m sorry in every way. But I’m not sorry for giving the guy an opportunity because that sets you up to never be able to give the next guy an opportunity.”
Further complicating matters, Gina Nawab, the woman involved in the Tuscaloosa case, recanted her claims last week and was arrested for filing a false report. Police are still reviewing the charge against Taylor in Alabama. He is scheduled for arraignment in the Georgia case on Tuesday in Athens, but he will not return to Alabama’s team. School spokeswoman Deborah Lane released a statement last week saying he is no longer a student and is ineligible for readmission.
When he was fired, former Gators coach Will Muschamp said this: “They’ve got a deep and talented roster, so don't let that new guy tell you he ain't got any players,” Muschamp said, according to 247Sports. “I can tell you that right now. There are some good football players in that locker room.”
Last week, that new guy (Jim McElwain) said this: “You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt. And right now, quite honestly, the hand we were dealt is really insufficient at some of the areas.”
Those areas, specifically, are offensive line and linebacker, where a lack of depth is making it tough for Florida to run 11-on-11 drills. The Gators have seven scholarship offensive linemen and four scholarship linebackers on campus.
But remember when McElwain said this during his introductory press conference? “I believe I can win with my dog Claire-a-bell,” McElwain said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “That’s the attitude.”
Muschamp, now the defensive coordinator at Auburn, certainly remembers that statement. “Said he could coach a dog and win,” Muschamp cracked to reporters at Auburn on Thursday. “Heck, [does] he like the dog better than his players?”
7. This week in (people who way too excited about the hiring of) Harbaugh …
Yes, that particular image of Harbaugh is an homage to his appearance on Saved By The Bell.
8. Cooking with the Boss Hog. C’mon, SEC Network. You’re missing a golden programming opportunity here.
9. Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette filed a records request for Iowa athletic director Gary Barta’s email from the week following the Hawkeyes’ collapse against Nebraska in November. Here’s a taste from Morehouse’s story:
“After 17 years, I'm calling it quits. I am finally giving up on your ability to run the athletic department as well as Kirk Ferentz's ability to run the football program. I would rather get a vasectomy with someone's false teeth than watch that bullsh** product you put on the field.”
That actually was one of the more tame missives.
Morehouse published 50 of these suckers. You’ll probably want to read them all.
10. Kids these days.
What’s eating Andy?
SI.com’s Richard Deitsch suggests in this week’s media column that mainstream outlets such as this one should cover more professional wrestling. I’m fine with that, but how am I supposed to fit a 9,000-word feature on the late Moondog Spot into all the college football and pre-NFL draft stories I’ve already been assigned?
What’s Andy eating?
I cringed when I saw the propane tanks stationed outside Eli’s Barbecue. This was a reflex. Then I had to stop and remind myself that I would be grading on a curve this day. Were I in Texas or the Carolinas, I might’ve turned around and gotten back in the car. In those places, it is understood that wood is the only acceptable fuel for a barbecue joint. Sure, home cooks can use propane or lump charcoal and get their smoke flavor from wood chunks. Few amateurs have the time or expertise to tend a wood fire. But the pros use wood and wood alone. The back of the Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C., looks like a lumberyard. Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, proudly posts a photo of its woodpile on its website.
But I wasn’t in eastern North Carolina. I wasn’t in central Texas. I was in Cincinnati, so I needed to adjust my expectations. This is a town where people worship the ribs at Montgomery Inn, which aren’t even smoked and look in photos like props from a low-budget horror film. It’s quite possible that the flavor from ribs smoked properly using a wood fire would cause these diners’ heads to explode. Their systems simply couldn’t handle the flavor to which those raised in the Barbecue Belt have grown accustomed. This would be the culinary equivalent of taking a guy who has driven a Yugo for 20 years and handing him the keys to a Ferrari. Maybe let him transition by trying a Mercedes first.
That Mercedes would be Eli’s, a charming little spot near the banks of the Ohio River. No, there is no woodpile. Yes, it is still worth eating.
I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, ribs (six bones) and jalapeno cheese grits. The grits were creamy and had just enough kick from the jalapeno. The ribs had a proper smoke ring—yes, it’s still possible to get one using a Masterbuilt propane smoker—that probably befuddles all those who think Montgomery Inn’s ribs are actually barbecue. Eli’s ribs came off the bone with a slight tug, and had been coated with a salty/sweet rub before cooking that packed a world of flavor into every bite. But the item that proved the proprietors of Eli’s are true barbecue missionaries determined to bring smoked meat to an underserved area was the pulled pork sandwich.
First, it was served with sauce on the side. If you’ve read this space before, you know that the only reason to dump sauce on barbecue is if you’ve cooked it poorly and need to cover your mistakes. The meat is the show. Eli’s pork needed no accompaniment. It dripped juice, and the occasional bark flake only enhanced the experience. I tasted the sauce but quickly discarded it. It tasted like something you would use to top an ice cream sundae. There are sauces that enhance the flavor of well-cooked pork, but this wasn’t one of them. Maybe that sickly sweet sauce is what diners in Cincinnati expect, but bless the kind folks at Eli’s for trying to steer their customers into the light by serving that wonderful sandwich unsauced.
That probably took a lot of guts, and it probably draws regular complaints. But some people have to do the Lord’s work in the land of barbecue heathens, and if it takes a little propane or glorified ketchup on the side to gain a few converts, then by all means keep up the blasphemy.