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August 27, 2013

Column: Labor Day debuts should make for good show

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The Pittsburgh Panthers will make their ACC debut next Monday night in a nationally televised matchup against the conference's defending champion. There will be plenty of debuts on Florida State's side on Monday as well.

The Seminoles will not only break in a new starting quarterback, one that has never taken a snap in a college game, but also new defensive coordinator that has never before served in that capacity in college. If that weren't enough, five other assistants will coach their first game at FSU and up to 10 players could be making their first start.

At last check the oddsmakers say FSU is a 10-point favorite on the road versus Pitt. That line would probably be more but for the fact that there is so much uncertainty for the Seminoles with all the changes in players and coaching personnel.

When it comes to the questions at quarterback, Jameis Winston probably has leg up on most first-year starters. The two-sport athlete has already suited up for the Seminole baseball team seeing action in 34 games this past season. While most 19-year olds might be anxious at the prospect of starting their college career in a nationally televised game, Winston's unique personality should give him an advantage over most rookie quarterbacks.

"There's not much you can tell Jameis. He's just got that personality that 'I'm going to get it done by any means'," said starting left tackle Cameron Erving. "He has such a strong personality that he is going to be fine."

How does Winston's personalty and leadership compare to the last two FSU quarterbacks that both ended up being selected in the first round of the NFL draft?

"I haven't seen anybody since I've been here in my four years," said senior defensive back Lamarcus Joyner when asked to compare his personality. "Jameis he's a rare kid. He has the natural ability to be a leader and I saw it last year on the scout team. He was just making throws that I've been here for four years and seeing guys like Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel making those (throws) it's like, 'this kid is going to be special'."

It's been hit and miss for rookie FSU quarterbacks making their first start as a freshman.

In 2009 EJ Manuel was forced to come off the bench late into his redshirt freshman season to fill in for an injured Christian Ponder. He did pretty well, going 3-1 including an MVP performance in the Gator Bowl. Then-redshirt freshman Drew Weatherford earned a win against Miami in his first game as a starter in 2005 but completed just 7 of 24 pass attempts for 67 yards. FSU would finish the season 8-5 but he did lead FSU to upset win over Virginia Tech in the inaugural ACC Championship game. Chris Rix was the other FSU QB in recent history to start during his redshirt freshman season. The California native began with a strong performance against a down-and-out Duke team but suffered several notable setbacks throughout his first season.

Analysis: Fisher names Jameis Winston starting QB

Unlike Manuel, Weatherford and Rix, Winston has a stronger supporting cast around him. The starting offensive line has plenty of experience (80 combined starts) and size (316 ave. weight). There are also several proven playmakers at both running back and receiver. That experience and proven talent on offense should take a lot of the pressure off of Winston.

The return of James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman, two backs that combined for nearly 1,300 yards and 19 TDs last season, should mean a strong running game. If FSU can effectively run the football this fall, things should be much easier on FSU's rookie quarterback.

"It's definitely important because a young quarterback is going to have those ups and downs, growing pains of course," said Erving of having a strong running game. "It's been an emphasis of ours since the end of last season, even into last season, we took pride in running the ball because we have great running backs and they are going to find the holes as long as we keep blocking. Having the running game that's is a necessity regardless whether we have a new quarterback or another senior."

The situation is a little different on the other side of the ball.

Florida State's new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has coached in several big college games including last January's national championship. However, in that game, and for the past three years, he served as Alabama's defensive backs coach. Next Monday will mark his first ever college game as a defensive coordinator.

Like Fisher, Pruitt learned his craft under Nick Saban. That's a big reason why FSU's head coach targeted the 38-year old assistant and turned over the keys to his defense. Both Fisher and Pruitt, the one time he spoke during Media Day, have played down the changes to the defense. Nevertheless, it's pretty clear that the switch-over from Mark Stoops' defense has been significant.

So how much more complicated is the defense under Pruitt compared to Stoops?

"It's about 80 percent," said senior linebacker Telvin Smith. "It's a lot just because when you learn one play there's a counter-play to go to that play and there's a different concept for every play. Some plays are the same but one guy is doing something different and it has a whole different name to it."

The coaching staff and players have had eight months to familiarize themselves with the new system but outside of a few intra-squad scrimmages, the defense has yet to be tested in an actual game. That test will come on Labor Day night in Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, the players seem confident that everybody will be on the page when the lights come on next Monday.

From Tuscaloosa to Tallahassee, the new FSU Defense

"The concepts on defense; it's really not that hard it's just putting it all together because there's so much stuff that goes into it," said senior LB Christian Jones. "Once we get it all down it's going to be deadly."

There are certainly going to be some growing pains early on but to a man, every defensive player seems to be ecstatic about the changes Pruitt has brought to the FSU defense.

"Everyone feels like they get to show their athletic ability now. You will never see one person in just one position. Everyone will be all over the field," noted Joyner. "It's also the attitude that coach Pruitt has. He matches the players he has, he's passionate, he loves the game and he's aggressive. Our defense consists of those types of players."

We have only a few more days to wait for the debut of Winston under center and Pruitt's new defense. No matter what happens it should make for a good show.

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