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Foundation is in place

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jeremy Pruitt's introductory news conference came nearly three months after he was hired as Florida State's new defensive coordinator, and even amid the chaos of bowl preparations and signing day, that left ample opportunity to dissect the pieces of his new roster.

So when Pruitt was asked about the talent he inherited from Mark Stoops, his answer perfectly underscored the scope of his task.

"We have some good players," Pruitt said, pausing midsentence for dramatic effect, "entering the NFL draft."

The comment wasn't an indictment of Florida State's current status, but rather a rational accounting of where things stand for the reigning ACC champion. Indeed, Pruitt's own presence on the FSU sideline provides evidence of the mountain of turnover that has occurred since December.

Six new assistant coaches have arrived. More than a dozen former players figure to land NFL deals, with as many as five discussed as potential first-round draft picks.

In December, with new schemes on defense and a new quarterback on offense, Florida State reached the ACC's mountaintop, and immediately began climbing again.

Yet for all the turnover and turmoil, for all the talent departing, this spring has offered few indications that anyone involved, from coaches to players to fans, is all that concerned. And that is exactly what coach Jimbo Fisher has been building toward for the past four years.

"We're getting closer, much closer, to what we want to be, creating the culture from within of how things are done," Fisher said.

That culture refers to a vast network, a way of doing things that pervades every crevice of a football program. It is not easily built, but Fisher and Pruitt have learned from the master.

What Fisher wants to build at Florida State -- and, to be fair, what coaches around the country want to do at their own schools -- is follow in the mold of Fisher's mentor, Nick Saban. At Alabama, everything is done Saban's way, and that's why the Crimson Tide have managed to win three of the past four national championships despite playing in college football's toughest conference, losing an array of successful assistants, and waving goodbye to 10 first-round picks in the past three years.

Of course, there's a big difference between knowing where Fisher wants his program to be and getting it there. It's not an easy path, but Fisher truly believes the Seminoles are reaching the finish line.

Two months ago, Fisher was interviewed by a Minnesota radio station and addressed the question directly.

"I went against [Saban] every day in practice for five years," Fisher said. "He's done a great job of organizing. He's got the structure. People don't realize he's got the infrastructure really set up.

"That's why we've been able to make our jump at Florida State. We've got our infrastructure set up where we can keep replacing guys, and I think we'll be in that national title hunt every year, just like they are."

It's bold talk for a coach who is still seeking that first national championship, let alone having his team in the mix every year. But Fisher isn't interested in tempering his enthusiasm. He added as much fuel to last year's hype machine as anyone, and even as he's cautioned that this year's squad has a long way to go, he's beamed with excitement at its potential after nearly every practice this spring.

He has lost seven coaches this offseason, nearly all to better jobs, but Fisher raves about the knowledge and drive of the new assistants hired. Indeed, it's a group more experienced at the highest levels than those who left, and their impact on the recruiting trail is already being felt. It's a staff that coalesced around the culture Fisher is building.

"We came here because of what he's accomplished, what he's doing, and where this program is going," said Sal Sunseri, who takes over as FSU's defensive ends coach after serving as a coordinator at Tennessee and spending three years working under Saban at Alabama. "When people look at [FSU], see what he's done, the players that are here -- it's fun to coach here."

Fisher lost his starting quarterback, who seems destined to be among the first drafted later this month, but the biggest concern about replacing EJ Manuel isn't whether Florida State has someone to fill the vacancy, but whether there is too much talent to narrow it down to just one candidate.

Similarly, the defense appears eager to reload rather than rebuild. Bjoern Werner and Xavier Rhodes are gone, yet players talk of a logjam of talent vying to replace them.

"That just shows that, just as much as we counted on the older guys, we're counting on the younger guys to be right there to fill their shoes," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "I feel like every guy is working every day like he's a starter. That's how it is. That's the culture [Fisher] is building around here."

The key word might be "building." It is not a finished product, but rather a work in progress. Even Saban suffered through a miserable start in Tuscaloosa as players defected under the weight of his demands and the team endured a handful of embarrassing losses on the field.

Fisher's path hasn't been quite so rocky, though the task might have been bigger. He's won 31 games in his first three seasons, but the bulk of the work he's done has been away from the field.

"It's not just about football players and practice, but it's every facet of everything you do, and it's from the whole university," Fisher said. "You've got to buy into developing the kids, all the different backgrounds they come from, the different issues you deal with -- that's a commitment, and it puts itself out there on the field.

"Everybody thinks it's just football, X's and O's, but we only get to spend four hours a day on a practice day. There are so many other facets to the program that you have to put lots of time in, and a lot of other people have to put their time and money in to go with it."

That includes the new indoor practice facility nearing completion. It includes a massive increase in the football recruiting budget, which has helped Fisher bring in a top-10 class in each of the past three seasons. It's meant expanding the budget for assistants, which allowed him to bring in Pruitt and Sunseri and a cast of other veteran coaches. Perhaps most importantly, it's been about changing the culture within the locker room and giving players both the desire and the support system to succeed off the field.

"You see the guys actually going to class, you see the guys being on time for meetings, coming in and making sure they get their lifts in," Smith said. "When you do something bad, it's not laughed at or pushed to the side. It's brought up in front of the team, like, 'Hey man, you need to get right.' That's the new system that he's implemented. It's accountability. He always talks about accountability, that if you can't be accountable off the field then we can't depend on you on the field."

Smith has seen the culture take hold over the past four years, but 2013 has brought even more changes.

When Pruitt arrived in January, he told his new defenders to switch on film of Alabama's defense -- not just so they'd see the schemes he wanted to teach, but so they'd gauge the detail with which it must be executed.

There's no substitute for the real thing, and for all the coaches who have tried to follow in Saban's footsteps, none has found anything close to the same success. Whether Fisher and Pruitt can be the first is still an open discussion, but both admit this season will provide some strong evidence.

Fisher has built a foundation through fundraising, facilities, recruiting and philosophy, but this season represents the first time that foundation will be tested following such a massive overhaul of personnel.

What makes Saban's track record so impressive is that the names have never mattered as much as the processes in place. In 2013, Fisher will find out if the same is true at Florida State.

"We've got a ways to go, but that's what you've got to have," Fisher said. "You're going to continue to always have players leave, but if we keep recruiting good players and winning games, that's going happen."