<
>

A year in the making

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A few weeks ago, Florida State guard Josue Matias broke out the film of last year's bowl game against Notre Dame -- "just for giggles," he said.

Thinking back, that first start of his career seems like yesterday. This season has flown by, and the whirlwind of on-the-job training has offered little time for reflection. But watching that tape, it was easy to see just how far he had come.

"It's a big improvement from there," Matias said.

Indeed, Florida State's offensive line has improved dramatically since last season's Champs Sports Bowl when, driven by a combination of desperation and necessity, Jimbo Fisher sent four freshmen into a trial by fire against the Irish. FSU has allowed 14 fewer sacks this season and revitalized a running game that nearly doubled its rushing total from last year.

The lineup has changed, and the results still aren't perfect, but for Matias and fellow sophomore guard Tre' Jackson, the progress all dates back to that first start together a year ago.

"After the bowl game, that set the standard for what this was going to be for the offensive line," Jackson said. "We looked to raise ourselves."

Matias and Jackson have done exactly that. In the year since their start in the Champs Sports Bowl (an 18-14 win for the Seminoles), both guards have blossomed into far more consistent performers. For Bobby Hart and Austin Barron, the two other freshmen to start that game, it's been a slight step back. Neither has been a regular in the starting lineup this season.

But even the demotion to the second team for Hart and Barron underscores a sense of marked progress. Barron has been replaced at center by junior Bryan Stork, who provided necessary veteran leadership for a young group. Hart took a backseat to junior college transfer Menelik Watson, who has been perhaps the line's most consistent performer. Add in sophomore Cameron Erving at left tackle, a convert from the defensive line, and it's a unit that oozes potential -- something FSU simply couldn't say before Fisher handed over the reins to his youngsters a year ago.

"Coming into the bowl [last year], not playing as much, we looked forward to being able to get your feet wet and see what you could come out and do the next year," Jackson said. "That played a big part in what we did this year."

Looking back on the win over Notre Dame, Matias said the group wasn't intimidated by the challenge. The four freshmen went into the game expecting to perform well.

There's a difference, though, between believing and knowing, and that bowl game bridged the gap.

"It felt like a big accomplishment that we won that game," Matias said. "We believed it, but when it actually happens, it's something else, man."

Watching the film now, Matias sees chaos. It was a group that lacked cohesion, and Notre Dame took advantage early, sacking quarterback EJ Manuel five times. But as the game progressed, the line improved -- a trend that continued throughout the spring and summer that followed.

The linemen spent nearly all their time together. They worked out together, hung out at one another's houses. They ate together, watched film together, critiqued their performances together.

"We needed to get to know each other and create that bond," Matias said. "We had early workouts, and that builds some scars we could all talk about. We've built off of that."

Far from the confusion of that first start, the line now is a symbiotic unit. There's little need for words, Jackson said. He can simply exchange a look with his teammates, and the message is clear.

"We got pretty close real fast," Erving said. "This season has just brought us closer together. It's knowing what's going to happen before it happens. We know each other, we know the calls to make to put each other in the right positions."

Watching that film, there's another thing that struck Matias, too.

Sure, the new-look line struggled at times, but the unit held its own against Notre Dame. In fact, when it was over, Matias didn't think the Irish had provided any immense challenges.

But now, a year later, the progress made by FSU's offensive line has been exceeded by the progress made by Notre Dame's defense. The unit is among the best in the nation, and the Irish are playing for a national title.

It is, of course, a sign of how much can change in a year. But it's also an indication of just how much talent FSU's revamped line has: In its first test together, it bested a team that's now contending for the national title.

A lot can happen in a year, though.

When the 2012 season began, there were huge questions about the offensive line, and the only answers came from 60 minutes of football in the previous year's bowl game. When 2013 begins, the line will be considered a strength -- the backbone for an offense in transition in other areas.

That's progress, Matias said. It's also a reminder that there's still a need to get better.

"As a unit, we've done pretty good, but you're never pleased or happy," Matias said. "There's always room to build up and fix things."