Florida State kicks off the 2011 season this Saturday at home against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. While the 3:30 p.m. ET matchup against the Sun Belt Conference preseason favorites won't draw much national attention, there are plenty of interesting storylines facing the preseason top five Seminoles.
Coming off a 10-4 season and a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina, FSU returns 16 starters as well as both kickers. While not technically a returning starter, quarterback EJ Manuel has plenty of live game experience. Through his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound signal-caller appeared in 17 games, including six starts, and led FSU to bowl victories in each of the past two seasons.
With three of the top four producing wide receivers back and a stacked backfield that has 3,914 career rushing yards and 34 touchdowns to its credit, Manuel should have plenty of weapons at his disposal.
If there's a question on offense, it's an offensive line that must replace consensus All-American guard Rodney Hudson and four-year starting center Ryan McMahon. Nevertheless, Rick Trickett's unit still has a lot of experience with the starting five boasting a combined 105 career starts, ranking them among the 10 most experienced in the nation.
But it's the defense that is really expected to shine in 2011.
In his first season as defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops took a struggling unit that ranked 108th in total defense in 2009, all the way to 42nd in 2010. With an incredibly deep and talented defensive line that includes pass rushing specialist Brandon Jenkins, many consider FSU's front four to be the best in the nation.
The largest defensive gains in 2010 came from a young secondary that dramatically improved throughout the season. Cornerback threesome Xavier Rhodes, Greg Reid and Mike Harris all return, have impressive skills and are all considered starters by the coaching staff. Former five-star defensive back Lamarcus Joyner brings speed and athleticism to the safety position that has been lacking in FSU's secondary in recent years.
Leading tackler Nigel Bradham returns to a linebacker segment that must replace two starters. While the rest of the unit lacks game experience, the combination of Christian Jones and co-starters Vince Williams and Telvin Smith, bring exceptional athleticism and skills to the position.
Not to be forgotten, FSU's special teams are considered to be among the nation's best. Strong-legged junior kicker Dustin Hopkins has improved his accuracy each season on field goals, and booted 50 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks. If not for just missing the cut-off for attempts, Shawn Powell would have ranked among the top 20 in punting in 2010. Finally, explosive returner Greg Reid has the ability to bring it to the house each time he touches the ball.
Here's a rundown of the top five things to look for this Saturday:
5. Fisher to run vanilla offense
On Monday during his weekly press conference, Jimbo Fisher continually deflected questions about holding back some of the offense in the season opener. Despite those comments, don't look for Fisher to go too deep into his playbook against the Warhawks.
With the showdown versus preseason No. 1 Oklahoma looming on Sept. 17, it's a given that Fisher will hold back a good portion of his offense. As a result, look for the play-calling to include a good number of generic running plays and standard pass routes with very few extra wrinkles thrown in.
However, it might be a little more difficult to blow out Louisiana-Monroe than most standard cupcake non-conference opponents. The Warhawks have a history of giving major Division I-A teams problems including upsetting Alabama in 2007 and nearly taking down Arkansas in 2008. With 18 returning starters and an unorthodox 3-3-5 defense, the Warhawks may present a decent challenge for any team that takes them lightly.
4. Early substitutions expected
For the same reason that Jimbo Fisher will not show his hand against Louisiana-Monroe, most of the starters probably won't play much more than a half. In addition to keeping the key players fresh for the Oklahoma game, the backups should have the opportunity to earn valuable playing time in the first two games. That extra experience will go a long way to helping FSU's depth later in the season as some of the starters get banged up or injured.
Perhaps an even more important reason for early substitutions is keeping key players healthy for the OU game and beyond. Every time an experienced player takes a snap against either ULM or Charleston Southern there's a chance of injury.
Fisher went out of his way during two-a-day practices to limit the amount of contact for most of his experienced players. In fact, senior wide receiver Bert Reed wore a blue non-contact jersey for much of practice even though he was not injured, and senior left tackle Andrew Datko was held out of several practices as a basic precaution. That same philosophy will likely carry over to the two early season warm-up games.
3. Meshing of offensive line
The biggest key to the 2011 season could come down to the offensive line.
It's been nearly 10 months since Rick Trickett had the five players slated to start all on the field together. During spring practice, the FSU offensive line was down to one starter. That starting five finally came together last week with the return of David Spurlock to the lineup.
It's not only essential that the offensive line remain healthy this season, the five first-stringers must get used to playing together. Both starting tackles - Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders - are back but there have been major changes in the middle of the line with the departures of Hudson and McMahon. Jacob Fahrenkrug will make his first start at center and Bryan Stork, who started four games at right guard last season, will line up for the first time at left guard on Saturday. This group will have two warm-up games to learn to play as a cohesive unit before a dominating Oklahoma defensive front comes to town in a couple weeks.
2. Newcomers to make debut
Even though FSU returns the bulk of its starters from the 2010 season, a handful of rookies will not only make their debut in garnet and gold this Saturday, but will have the chance to contribute right off the bat.
The most obvious impact newcomer is junior college transfer Jacob Fahrenkrug. From the moment the former JUCO All-American arrived on campus he was penciled in as a starter on Rick Trickett's offensive line. What was a bit of a surprise is that the 6-foot-4, 315-pounder will line up as the 'Noles' starting center.
Even though Fahrenkrug is the only rookie expected to start this Saturday, a few others are expected to see significant playing time. Leading the way is former top-ranked prep tight end Nick OLeary. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end has been receiving rave reviews from his teammates for his ability to get open and make difficult catches. That ability could be on display on Saturday against the Warhawk defense.
Another newcomer on offensive who should see early action this Saturday is freshman Devonta Freeman. The former four-star running back enrolled early and that extra time taking part in spring practice helped him move into the official three-deep depth chart released earlier this week. With Chris Thompson missing time recovering from a back injury, the chances are good that he won't see much action against the Warhawks which could open the door for Freeman to get a good helping of carries.
On the defensive side of the ball, two rookie defensive linemen should get on the field early. Lake City (Fla.) native Timmy Jernigan has been the talk of preseason camp with his ability to dominate from the defensive tackle spot. Despite FSU being loaded with depth at his position, there's little doubt that the former Rivals100 member will be a regular in the rotation both in the opener and throughout the season as long as he stays healthy.
Next to him at the defensive end spot, junior college transfer Cornellius "Tank" Carradine has been pushing spring practice MVP Bjoern Werner for his starting job from the moment he stepped foot on campus last January. If not for the fact that Werner has been one of the most dominating players on the defense during preseason practices, Carradine might be starting. Even though he probably won't start, the 6-foot-5, 267-pound defensive end will be a regular in the rotation and should see nearly as much time on the field as Werner.
1. Coming out party for three defenders
Three defensive players who didn't start last season are poised to become household names this fall.
At defensive end, fans got a taste of what German native Bjoern Werner could do during his true freshman campaign. But after earning defensive MVP honors this spring, and dominating offensive linemen during preseason practices, look for the 6-foot-4, 273-pound defensive end to become an elite player and potentially match the numbers of fellow end and preseason All-American Brandon Jenkins.
At linebacker, sophomore Christian Jones is on the verge of a monster season. With his impressive size and natural ability to go along with a dominating defensive line in front of him, the former five-star recruit has a chance to become a major force on defense and rack up some impressive tackle numbers.
The big news in the secondary in the off-season was Lamarcus Joyner's move to safety. The speedy defensive back not only changed positions in the spring, he instantly clicked and locked down a starting job. Considering how much Fisher has raved about the former blue chipper from St. Thomas Aquinas (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.), you have to expect that he will come up big this season.
Final Analysis & Prediction
Florida State fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about the start of 2011 season which kicks off this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. The fifth-ranked Seminoles should deliver to the nearly sold out crowd and will likely jump out to a quick start. With the starters tired of practice, they will be anxious to take out all of their pent up energy on the Warhawks. As a result, don't be surprised if the 'Noles build a three touchdown advantage by the second quarter.
However, look for things to slow down in the second half as Jimbo Fisher substitutes his starters en masse. While it will be exciting for fans to see several new faces on the field in the later part of the game, it will likely result in a sluggish play and less scoring.
Score Prediction: FSU 37, ULM 7