Growing up fast

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the beginning, Mario Edwards Jr. was all hype and promise and pedigree. In the beginning, he practically disappeared.

That's not a figurative explanation of Edwards' humbling debut at Florida State, though it certainly fit his status in the defensive end pecking order when 2012 began. It's how Edwards' season opened, with the year's most highly touted recruit noticeably absent from the sideline for his first collegiate game.

It was Edwards' choice, Jimbo Fisher said afterward, a decision given to all players expected to redshirt the season. Of course, that was the problem. Edwards spurned offers from dozens of top programs to play at his father's alma mater, and as the nation's No. 1 recruit, spending a year watching and waiting wasn't in his plans.

But a lot can change in three months, and for Edwards and the Florida State defensive line, the end hardly resembles the beginning.

"When Mario first heard he was redshirting, he was down because he wanted to come play. He wasn't that ready," defensive end Giorgio Newberry said. "But as he found out he was not redshirting anymore, it motivated him."

Brandon Jenkins went down with a foot injury in the season opener, and Edwards' redshirt disappeared. Cornellius Carradine succumbed to a knee injury against Florida, and Edwards could now be the starter.

It's been a whirlwind for the freshman, but after a rocky start, Edwards has earned his way onto the field.

"His focus level, he's really starting to grow up. That's the big thing you want to see from freshmen," linebacker Vince Williams said. "I think he's done a tremendous job of taking on that responsibility. He's cleared up his plate a little bit and I think he's ready for some more."

The task at hand is a daunting one. Carradine was Florida State's leading tackler this season and established himself as one of the ACC's elite pass rushers. More importantly, he became a solid defender against the run.

That would've been a valuable commodity for Florida State this week as it preps for Georgia Tech's triple-option offense -- a unique blend of power and deception that tests the maturity and patience of the opposition's defense. It's those two qualities Edwards needed to develop when he arrived at FSU.

"Even in the middle of the season, you'd see a good practice and a bad practice," defensive end Bjoern Werner said.

Slowly things began to click. Edwards had arrived on campus around 300 pounds, but he worked to shed some weight and add some speed. He expected to be a natural at defensive end, but when things got tough, he listened to coaching and showed a knack for picking up details quickly. As the season progressed, Edwards found his niche, playing an increasingly significant role in the defensive end rotation with Werner, Carradine and Newberry.

"All of a sudden it picked up, where I was like, 'Wow that was a good practice,'" Werner said. "I was saying, 'Hey this is the No. 1 recruit. This is what we wanted to see.' We don't want to see you pout because you don't get enough playing time, and he realized it."

It's easy for Edwards to impress. His mix of size and athleticism is unparalleled even on a defensive line that includes three likely NFL players.

He's made his share of mistakes in limited playing time, but he's made a few big plays, too. He's been in on seven tackles and added 1.5 sacks in reserve duty.

Edwards has been even better on the practice field, providing a unique challenge to the offensive linemen while steadily improving.

"He's a beast, man," running back James Wilder Jr. said. "Pulling guards -- I've seen him smash a couple pulling guards in practice."

Wilder raved about Edwards' work ethic and willingness to learn -- compliments that might not have been so easy to distribute three months ago.

Of course, a conference championship game against a quirky offense isn't the ideal place to unleash Edwards for the first time in a significant role, and Fisher has his concerns.

"It's like your little kids -- they have a tendency to focus, focus, focus, drift," Fisher said. "That's things we've got to pound in them and be very disciplined in the game."

Fisher hasn't officially named a starter yet, though Newberry said the bulk of his reps this week have come on the left side behind Werner, while Edwards has gotten a majority of the work in Carradine's vacated position.

Both players should see action, and their veteran teammates have made a point to impress upon them just how much is at stake Saturday.

"I just let them know that the defense is really going to go as you all go," Timmy Jernigan said. "It's hard when you're so young, but you've just got to man up and do what you've got to do."

That's a lesson Edwards has spent the past three months learning. It hasn't always come easy, but the rewards have been vast.

"This is what happens in a season," Werner said. "It's time to step up."