Playoff hype once again surrounds the Florida State Seminoles this spring as their impressive finish last season established them as a popular final four pick. Similar championship promise besieged Florida State in 2016, yet spring ball began with a thud. Coach Jimbo Fisher memorably ripped his team after the first practice.
A strong close to last season and the return of a number of key components, Fisher included, has renewed championship hopes at Florida State. And Florida State was a more focused team at the end of 2016, so there is a blooming optimism that the same sluggish start won’t affect this spring camp.
Here are three storylines worth keeping an eye on through the April 8 spring game:
1. The construction of the offensive line
Injuries and ineffectiveness set back the offensive line last season, which notoriously underachieved through the season’s first half. Quarterback Deondre Francois spent nearly as much time on his back as he did standing to open his career. Credit the line for the improvements the group made later in the season, but it will be a largely unrecognizable unit in spring.
Rick Leonard has starting experience at right tackle and could slide to the left side. The top-ranked 2016 class was heavy on linemen, and Mike Arnold, Josh Ball and Jauan Williams all had the benefit of redshirting as true freshmen. Brock Ruble and Derrick Kelly II have started a few games, too.
Will Fisher have a solid blueprint for a starting five at camp’s end?
2. Derwin James’ impact on the secondary
Blown coverages plagued the Seminoles last season, and part of that can be attributed to the loss of James at safety. The redshirt sophomore teased Florida State fans in December about a return for the Orange Bowl, but he sat out and now comes back healthier for spring. He’s potentially the most talented player on the team as he’s a difference-maker as a blitzer, too.
Two spots are secured in the secondary so far. James will play one of the safety positions, and Tarvarus McFadden, who tied for the 2016 national lead in interceptions, returns at cornerback. Expect Levonta Taylor, the No. 1 cornerback in last year’s recruiting class, to get a good look at the other corner spot. The other safety and star position will be a competition that includes Nate Andrews, Carlos Becker III, Ermon Lane, Marcus Lewis, Trey Marshall, Kyle Meyers and A.J. Westbrook.
3. Who will Francois rely on at receiver?
A total of 69 receptions will return from last season. That’s it. That number jumps all the way to 110 career catches when accounting for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, too. So there is not much proven talent working with Francois.
The good news is junior Nyqwan Murray ended last season as the team’s best receiver, plotting the course for the Seminoles’ upset of Michigan with an early 92-yard score and then securing the game-winning catch in the fourth quarter. Fellow junior Auden Tate had his moments as the big body the Seminoles have lacked since Kelvin Benjamin’s departure. Ryan Izzo is a complete tight end.
Short on experience but not skill is the best way to describe the rest of the receivers. Sophomore Keith Gavin, a local product, flashed in the Orange Bowl with his lengthy dash on special teams to set up Murray’s winning grab. George Campbell is a former five-star recruit and just needs to remain healthy, as does Da’Vante Phillips. The team is waiting for tight end Mavin Saunders to break out.