December 28, 2013

Insider Report: FSU's ground game no slouch; Benjamin matures

Florida State may be facing the most prolific rushing attack in the country, but the Seminoles feel plenty confident about their own backfield as well.

Jameis Winston's highlight reel often times overshadows FSU's ground game, but it hasn't stopped Devonta Freeman and company from putting up impressive numbers.

So far this season, Florida State has rushed for 2,696 yards despite rotating carries between three backs and never running more than 44 times in any single game. In fact, FSU averages just 35 runs per game. But scarcity of carries hasn't caused an issue: Freeman is just 57 yards shy of being the first FSU back to top 1000 yards since 1996 while Karlos Williams and James Wilder both average more than 6 yards per carry - despite both getting just 6.6 and 6.5 touches per game on average, respectively. And Williams said the running backs as a group have remained close all season.

"We have three unselfish guys," Williams said. "Three backs that are going to produce every time they touch the field. You're guaranteed positive yardage every time we touch the ball. We have three backs that are going to cheer for the other every time they're in the game."

Lack of touches is not a problem for Auburn's backfield. Four different players average at least five carries per game for Auburn, and Tre Mason (21.8 carries) and Nick Marshal (13 carries) lead the way in touches.

Two-thirds of Auburn's offense comes on the ground. The Tigers run the ball 52 times per game on average and nobody in the country averages more rushing yards per game. But, if FSU ran the ball as many times as Auburn did, the Seminoles would average 295.9 yards per game - not quite as high as Auburn's but plenty respectable. And Freeman said he doesn't mind that not many folks are paying attention to FSU's backfield.

"I really don't pay attention to the media when they start talking about those type of things," Freeman said. "I feel like we're not getting overlooked as a whole unit, and that's what matters the most."

And it's likely that FSU's running game will take more of a central role in the title game. Auburn's defense has been porous at times this season and the Tigers give up 4.6 yards per carry on the season. A sure-fire way to slow down Auburn's up-tempo offense is to keep it off the field with prolonged drives. It's a prospect that excites Williams.

"Yeah, I guarantee that: Run game is going to be very key," Williams said. "We want to milk the clock, get the clock going down because they score fast. We watched the Missouri game and they had the ball maybe two or three plays. The first touchdown they had, they scored very, very quick. The key on our side of the ball, from watching them, is making sure we control the clock, make sure we control the line of scrimmage, and the run game is going to open up the passing game for us."

Benjamin's Big Jump

It's not easy to miss sophomore receiver Kelvin Benjamin's 6-5, 234-pound frame. But he's never been a bigger target for Jameis Winston than in the Seminoles' last two games.

Benjamin leads the team with 14 touchdown catches, is second on the team with 957 yards, and third on the team with 50 catches this season. He and fellow receivers Rashad Green and Kenny Shaw have the chance to be the first set of three receivers in FSU history to each surpass 1,000 yards in a season. All three have more than 900 yards entering the National Championship Game.

But Benjamin didn't catch up to Green and Shaw until late in the year. He went seven straight games this season without registering more than 66 receiving yards before exploding for 331 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games. That included a nine-catch, 212-yard performance against Florida where he also scored three touchdowns - and provided the highlight-reel plays that FSU hoped for when he arrived on campus.

"He's maturing, and that's what we needed coming into this year because we were low on depth," Shaw said of Benjamin. "We needed everybody to take a new role on and I think he did a great job of it."

Shaw and Benjamin are also roommates. He's seen a change in the redshirt sophomore from last season and earlier this fall. As the other receivers have improved their game, Benjamin has responded, Shaw said.

It's been a big jump in production down the stretch for Benjamin. He had just 23 receiving yards in FSU's last four games combined in 2012, but 2013 is a different story - and he's racked up receiving yards and attention from NFL scouts as well.

"He wasn't ready," Shaw said. "It's all a head thing with college football. He wasn't ready, but now he's ready and way more mature than he ever was."

  • Devonta Freeman was back at practice on Friday after being limited in participation for a few days. Jimbo Fisher said Freeman was fine, just resting with a few bumps and bruises.

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