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September 22, 2013

Column: Nitpicking FSU's slow starts

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Florida State fans couldn't ask for a better start to the 2013 football season.

Through the first three games FSU has blown out all of its opponents by an average of 44 points, have the hottest young quarterback in college football, get to watch extremely talented players on both sides of the ball and the 'Noles are getting serious mentions as a national championship contender. If that wasn't enough, even the much-maligned ACC appears to be on the rise with Clemson, Miami and Maryland all notching impressive victories during the early part of the season.

Now it's time to nitpick.

If you are looking for a chink in the armor there appears to be only one - but it sticks out like a sore thumb. Whether it's on offense or defense, the Seminoles can't seem to get off to a quick start. The first 15 minutes of play of all three games have been too competitive for comfort both on the scoreboard and in the box score.

Offensively, FSU is averaging just 4.3 points in the first quarter compared to 15.2 points per quarter the rest of the time. The slow start by the offense shows up in pretty much every offensive statistic including first downs, third down conversions and total yards.

The offense continued its ice-cold ways early against Bethune-Cookman. FSU's first two drives saw two dropped passes, one that should have gone for a touchdown, several poor throws by quarterback Jameis Winston, some missed blocks and a rare fumble by James Wilder Jr..

"On offense we blew our protection on the first drive, we drop a ball, a touchdown," said Fisher after the game. "We had two dropped touchdowns tonight a fumble inside the five and those things have to get cleaned up."

The 'Noles' all-world freshman quarterback was as off as anybody early completing just three of his first nine attempts. But Saturday followed a similar pattern from the the first two games. FSU's electric QB led the offense to six straight touchdowns after managing just a field goal on the first two drives.

"I had to calm down and play the game," noted Winston. "You have to play the game the right way but I was playing the game the wrong way at the beginning and then we settled down and started playing the right away. Coach Fisher talked to me and said 'lock in, get back to your mechanics and start balling'."

Florida State's sluggish starts have been even more apparent on defense. While not producing many points, opposing offenses have controlled the football early on in games. In fact, the opposition has held the football an average of nearly five minutes more than FSU's offense during the first quarter of play. Most disconcerting has been the defense's inability to stop teams on third downs. The Seminoles have surrendered 8-of-13 third down attempts (61.5%) in quarter one compared to 7-of-27 (25.9%) over the final three periods.

"We've been starting off kind of slow the last couple of games so we wanted to pick up the intensity from the start," noted linebacker Terrance Smith. "It just happened they converted a couple big gains on us. But once we settled down and made our corrections we were pretty much good."

Smith's fellow linebacker Telvin Smith made one of the few big plays registered by the defense during a first quarter on Saturday. After BCU racked up four straight first downs on its opening drive and neared scoring range, FSU's senior linebacker stepped in front of a pass and took it the distance for a defensive score.

"It's big, just because they got that momentum," said Telvin Smith. "They had started driving and they had started pushing us so when you see somebody like myself, a captain that speaks on it and then goes out there and makes those big plays, doesn't just say it but does it, it just changes the whole game."

Insider report: Smith steps up, Williams progresses, FSU's diverse offense

It's probably fair to attribute much of the defense's slow starts to players' adjusting to a new system. Jeremy Pruitt was hired by Jimbo Fisher in the off-season to take over for Mark Stoops as defensive coordinator. The 38-year old coach brought over a new system from Alabama that dramatically changed the existing scheme and how personnel are used. So it's not surprising that there are some early growing pains as the players adapt to playing in a new system.

The Seminole defense also suffered significant losses in the off-season as reflected by the NFL draft. Of FSU's 11 drafted players in 2013, seven came from the defensive side of the football. That inexperience is showing up early in the form of blown assignments and missed tackles. On Saturday, other than senior defensive backs Terrence Brooks and Lamarcus Joyner, the remaining nine defensive starters had a combined five career starts entering the 2013 season. It's not the least bit surprising that a unit with such limited experience might have a tough time coming out of the gates sharp.

With a rookie quarterback under center and inexperience players on defense learning a new system these sluggish starts aren't the least bit surprising. More importantly, with talented players and good coaching in place these shortcomings should be easily correctable given time.

But time isn't as plentiful as it was at the start of the season. Each of the next three games will get progressively more difficult, culminating in what could be one of the biggest games for Florida State in the past decade - the Oct. 19 tilt at No. 3 Clemson. That's a game where a getting into an early hole could prove disastrous. Fortunately, the players and coaches have another four weeks to work out the kinks.



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