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March 19, 2014

Five things to watch in FSU's spring practice

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Florida State kicks off its push for two straight national titles on Tuesday with the beginning of Spring Practice. As FSU gets back on the gridiron a few months after beating Auburn in Pasadena, here are a few things to keep an eye on over the course of the spring:

Who's in the middle?

Florida State is trying to replace a dominant defensive lineman for the second straight year. There's a lengthy list of options to replace Timmy Jernigan, with the most obvious being Nile Lawrence-Stample, who fits the mold of a 3-4 nose tackle with his size and build. But between Derrick Mitchell, Desmond Hollin, Justin Shanks and company, it's still very much up in the air as to who will be in the middle for FSU for 2014. Jimbo Fisher lavished praise on Hollin after the Seminoles' fourth-quarter drills earlier this month, but Hollin has by no means locked up the position.

Jernigan was essential to FSU's stout run defense (124.8 ypg, 18th in the country) and it's unreasonable to expect FSU to find another first-round draft pick right away. But finding some kind of solution to help clog the middle and let FSU's defensive backs and linebackers make plays is key to FSU's attacking, aggressive defense.

Jameis' handcuff

In 2013, FSU fans felt pretty confident about backup quarterback Jacob Coker as the stopgap for Jameis Winston. That all changed when Coker's leg injury sidelined him for the season and FSU was left without a proven option at quarterback. Coker has trasferred, and only third-string Sean Maguire and a lot of question marks remain.

Having the Heisman winner under center is huge, but if FSU's recent history with E.J. Manuel and Christian Ponder is any indication, an injury-free season for a signal caller is no guarantee.

That means finding a reliable backup to keep the FSU offense on the move is a priority in spring camp. Maguire has a cannon for an arm and the coaching staff likes what he can do, but his stats from 2013 are perfunctory. John Franklin made some noise as a scout team quarterback much like Winston did during his redshirt year, but it's unclear if he'll stay at quarterback in the long term.

Finding some kind of solution to back up Winston is essential, so look for Maguire and Franklin to stage a battle for the No. 2 spot. If one of them can perform in spring practice, it will make the FSU coaching staff feel much more comfortable.

It's-a-me, Mario!

In terms of electric, highly touted recruits, it's hard to get any better than Mario Pender. The four-star running back has top-end speed and owns a ridiculous high school highlight tape. But so far, his college film is a bit lacking.

A redshirt year in 2012 and academic ineligibility in 2013 kept Pender from the field, though he's drawn consistent high praise for his practice play. He's in line for the possible No. 2 spot at running back, and if Fisher has shown anything it's that he loves to rotate his backs. FSU had three rushers with 80 or more carries in 2013, so Pender could see significant work if he can stay on the field. The fact that he finished with a 3.0 GPA last semester to become eligible again is a positive indicator that he's ready to finally make some highlights on the field.

Back again

There was an extended period of time during 2013 where some wondered if Tyler Hunter would ever play football again. Fortunately for Hunter, he was able to make a recovery from a frightening neck injury and appears to be fully healthy.

FSU will look to him for leadership in a still relatively young secondary - Hunter could be the only starting senior. If Hunter can return to his 2013 pre-injury form, FSU's secondary could be very impressive.

That's a ditto for Jarred Haggins, a redshirt senior wide receiver who sat out 2013 with a knee injury. Haggins returns at an opportune time to see the field: FSU is in need of playmakers on the edge to replace Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw. If Haggins can provide a veteran presence at wideout, it'll go a long way towards keeping FSU's offense operating at Jimbo-Fisher-esque efficiency.

On the edge

FSU's dynamic defense got its highlights from the edge rushers like Christian Jones and Lamarcus Joyner - explosive, versatile athletes who could play multiple positions in the same series and keep offenses off-balance.

Charles Kelly spent all spring telling recruits the FSU defensive scheme would stay the same, which means the Seminoles will have to find someone to fill in those dynamic holes. And those are big shoes to fill. Joyner and Jones combined for 125 tackles (15 for loss), 9 hurries, 7 sacks, 4 interceptions and 3 fumbles forced.

Ukeme Eligwe appears to have the inside track to fill Jones' role as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, but it's possible Matthew Thomas or even Chris Casher could fill that role depending on how the depth chart fills out and who has a good spring.

Filling Jonyer's joker role is another question altogether. Will Jalen Ramsey slide down from safety? Will Nate Andrews prove a viable option there? Or will another unknown option emerge? FSU has plenty of depth in the secondary, and players like Nick Waisome and Keelin Smith must be hungry for playing time. Who gets reps in spring could help paint a picture as to how FSU's secondary will shake out.

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