TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — If Florida State is going to return to the upper echelon of college football in 2012, which it has been trying to do for more than a decade, the Seminoles are going to have to be more explosive on offense.
Last season, FSU ranked No. 4 nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 15 points per game, and ranked among the top 10 in net punting and kickoff returns.
The Seminoles were explosive on defense and special teams during a 9-4 season in 2011, but their offense, because of inexperience and injuries, was far from potent. FSU ranked 39th in scoring (30.6 points per game), 77th in total offense (369.1 yards), 33rd in passing (257 yards) and 104th in rushing (112.1 yards).
“When you’re a great football team, you’ve got to be great in all three phases,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “There are days on offense when you’re not going to score 35 points. You’ve got to be good in all three phases in case that happens.”
Fisher believes the pieces are in place for FSU to be better on offense this coming season. Quarterback EJ Manuel, who was plagued by shoulder and leg injuries in 2011, is back for his senior season. FSU’s offensive line will be stronger and more experienced after four freshmen started in its 18-14 victory over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl. Tailback Chris Thompson is back after missing most of last season with a back injury, and the Seminoles will bring back one of the country’s deepest and most talented receiver corps.
As long as the Seminoles stay healthy, Fisher expects his offense to be better in 2012.
“Everything that could have gone wrong on offense last year went wrong,” Fisher said.
FSU’s problems started in spring practice, when it lost starting offensive tackle Andrew Datko to shoulder injuries. Manuel injured his left shoulder in FSU’s 23-13 loss to Oklahoma on Sept. 17 and missed the next game, a 35-30 loss at Clemson. Thompson broke two vertebrae in his back in a 35-30 loss at Wake Forest the next week and missed the rest of the season. Without Thompson, FSU’s running game was never able to get going.
Fisher believes Manuel is the kind of quarterback that can lead FSU to an ACC championship and BCS bowl game. Manuel completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 2,666 yards with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions and ranked No. 18 nationally in pass efficiency (151.2 rating) last season.
“I don’t know if he played great, but he played pretty well,” Fisher said. “He was banged up. Staying healthy is going to be critical for him this year.”
Manuel, from Virginia Beach, Va., played most of the Champs Sports Bowl after breaking the fibula in his left leg. The injury hasn’t completely healed, but Manuel is expected to participate in most of spring practice.
“It will be fine,” Manuel said. “It really doesn’t hurt much because it’s not a weight-bearing bone. It was really painful when I was hurt, but I didn’t know it was broken. I thought it was like a deep thigh bruise.”
Fisher said Manuel earned the respect of his teammates by playing with a broken leg in the bowl game.
“He’s very tough and very competitive,” Fisher said. “He plays with pain really well. The team always comes before ‘me’ with him, which is a great quality.”
Manuel will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. The Seminoles’ top four receivers – Rashad Greene, Rodney Smith, Christian Green and Kenny Shaw each caught more than 25 passes last season – are coming back. Fisher said junior Willie Haulstead, who missed last season with a concussion, and redshirt freshman Kelvin Benjamin might be as good as any of FSU’s returning receivers. Benjamin, from Belle Glade, Fla., is 6 feet 6 and 242 pounds.
“I’m extremely excited about these freshmen we have coming in,” Manuel said. “Guys that were young last year like Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw are going to be better. Our offensive line is going to be more experienced and it needs to get stronger, which they’re doing.”
Finding depth at tailback and solidifying the offensive line are FSU’s priorities this spring. Thompson is expected to participate in spring practice, and sophomore Devonta Freeman is working his way back from a lower back injury. Freshman tailback Mario Pender, of Cape Coral, Fla., enrolled at FSU in January and will also compete in spring practice.
Keeping Manuel healthy will be FSU’s priority when the season begins.
“Last year was frustrating, but I think it’s something you build character from,” Manuel said. “Injuries are a part of the game. You’re never going to be healthy. You’ve got to play whether you’re 80 or 90 percent or 20 percent. If you’re going to play, you have to go out there with the mindset to win.”