FSU's new starting OTs green but big

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Menelik Watson used to be a boxer, and it shows.

He's 6-foot-6 and tops 320 pounds, but he moves with the ease of someone half his size -- his feet quick, his body graceful.

At the point of contact, however, Watson is fierce. His hands are powerful, punishing.

"I feel it, and it hurts man," said defensive end Cornelius Carradine, who has wrestled repeatedly in the trenches with Watson during fall practice. "I have to give him an arm or bull him so he won't grab me. Because if he grabs you, pushes you, punches you -- it's impossible."

On the other side of the line, Cameron Erving is an equally formidable adversary.

He has been behind enemy lines, sat in the meeting rooms and learned the playbook from a defensive end's perspective. It was his career up until a few months ago, but after switching to offensive line this spring all that study has proved to be some valuable espionage.

"When the switch first happened," Erving said, "I knew I could do it. It's natural to me."

When Florida State opens the 2012 season Saturday against Murray State, it's safe to say that no other team in the country will have starting offensive tackles quite like Erving and Watson. The two have started just eight games on the offensive line in their careers -- not just in college, but anywhere.

Erving was a defensive lineman in high school, a diamond in the rough who landed at Florida State, earned limited playing time and finally agreed to swap positions. Now he's being discussed as a future star.

Watson was born in England and didn't play football until just a few years ago. He began his college career at Marist on a basketball scholarship, and it wasn't until he transferred to Saddleback Junior College last year that he played his first game on the offensive line.

So when Erving and Watson take the field Saturday, the experience will be unlike anything they've done in their careers.

"They'll both be nervous as crap," Jimbo Fisher said.

While their resumes might not be extensive, their skill sets are enough to make any coach drool.

Erving was such a quick study during spring practice that he'd essentially locked down the starting left tackle job after only a few weeks. His acumen at anticipating what pass rushers would do was sharp, and it showed when he stuffed All-ACC defensive end Brandon Jenkins repeatedly.

"I had to go hard the whole spring," Jenkins said. "There's so much to say about him. He's going to be great."

Watson opened fall practice with the No. 2 unit, but he quickly showed why coaches from dozens of top schools had him atop their recruiting wish lists after just a handful of junior college games.

By the second week of camp, Watson was splitting reps with the first-team offense. A week later, the job was his.

"Menelik was definitely the most efficient and had very big upside," Fisher said. "It's amazing how quick he picked things up."

Given Florida State's troubles on the offensive line a year ago -- the Seminoles allowed more sacks than any team in the ACC and finished 10th in the conference in rushing -- it might be easy to guess Fisher was simply prioritizing potential over progress with Erving and Watson. But the truth is, Fisher said, he had options.

Bobby Hart started the final nine games of the 2011 season, but he's been moved inside to guard and knocked back to the second team to make room for Watson. Daniel Glauser impressed in fall camp, too, but he never took a rep as the starting left tackle. The job belonged to Erving.

On paper, neither player has much of a history. On film, however, they look like veterans.

"They look like guys who can handle their own," running back Devonta Freeman said.

The scouting reports are similar.

"Cam is strong, big, physical, can push guys off the ball," Freeman said. "Menelik, he's really fast, quick on his feet, and he gets to the next level. Menelik is a little quicker."

Oh, and both are huge -- a combined 630 pounds.

Add the improved Josue Matias and Tre Jackson on the inside and veteran center Bryan Stork and the Seminoles will have five starting linemen checking in at an average of nearly 320 pounds.

"They're a lot bigger," quarterback EJ Manuel said. "That's the biggest thing the fans will notice when we break the huddle Saturday. We have some great size."

The numbers on the scale, however, don't necessarily guarantee better numbers offensively. And when it comes to numbers, it's hard to overlook this one: The five starters on Florida State's offensive line have combined to start just 16 career games, 14 of which belong to Stork.

There will be mistakes. Growing pains are to be expected. Fisher doesn't deny this.

But what he's like so far, particularly from his two inexperienced tackles, is a willingness to learn.

Erving said his transformation from defensive lineman to left tackle has been as much about developing a leadership role in his unit as it has been about learning the offense.

Watson responds to mistakes by rushing back to his position, apologizing to his coaches and asking for a chance to try again.

"He's unbelievably intent on learning," Fisher said. "He's one of the most focused kids I've ever been around."

On Saturday, that focus will be tested for the first time in a real game, under the lights and in front of the crowd.

There is only one way to gain experience, and Erving and Watson are ready for the trial by fire.

"I've watched them every day, every drill, every team drill and blitz drill, and I know the guys they're blocking, too," Fisher said. "I watch who they block, and I watch the size and athleticism, and it's a different group of guys. They're different cats."