|Defensive end Brandon Jenkins :: US PRESSWIRE|
After a few false starts in the bid to return to elite status, expectations are high at Florida State, where the Seminoles boast a loaded roster intent on contending for the national championship.
"The players have dealt with some adversity," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "They have dealt with some tough times. That is all part of growing up and I think they will handle it better this year."
Florida State returns 17 starters, the most of any ACC team, from the group that rebounded from a 2-3 start to win seven of its last eight games last year. That includes a devastating defensive front headlined by ends Brandon Jenkins (eight sacks) and Bjoern Werner (seven sacks) and an offense headlined by quarterback EJ Manuel. The fifth-year senior QB enters the season with the third-highest career pass efficiency rating in league history (146.1), trailing only Seminoles' Heisman winner Chris Weinke (151.1) and ex-Georgia Tech star Joe Hamilton (148.1).
Still, questions remain, like whether the Seminoles can keep Manuel upright. The offensive line yielded 41 sacks last season (110th in the FBS) and was hit so hard by injuries that four freshman started in the bowl game. Cameron Erving was moved from defensive tackle this offseason to serve as Manuel's bodyguard at left tackle.
"They have a whole spring under their belts to gain the knowledge of what we are doing and how we are doing those things," Fisher said. "I think their confidence will go up and that will allow their ability to come out."
Then there's the matter of replacing Greg Reid. The preseason All-America cornerback and return specialist was dismissed from the team for a rules violation stemming from a July 10 arrest on a drug charge. Junior Terrance Brooks or sophomore Nick Waisome could fill Reid's role in the defensive backfield, but it may be difficult to replicate Reid's impact in the return game, where he was closing in on Deion Sanders' FSU yardage record.
Lamarcus Joyner, Karlos Williams and Rashad Greene all returned kicks last year and could step up, though remember the name Marvin Bracy. The freshman burner last year ran the nation's fastest wind-legal and wind-aided 100-meters at 10.25 and 10.06, respectively.
But it remains a roster stacked with next-level talent, one that could bring Florida State its first ACC title since 2005.
"We're focused," Jenkins said. "The seniors, we want to leave here with a bang."
Florida State's ability to crack the BCS depends on having a healthy quarterback -- which depends on a healthy offensive line protecting the pocket.
67.3 -- Penalty yards per game conceded by the undisciplined Seminoles in 2011, the most in the ACC and the fifth-highest average in the FBS.
EJ Manuel, QB, Sr. -- Entering his second full year as a starter, Manuel has the highest completion percentage in Florida State history at 66.1 percent. He has been training with noted QB coach George Whitfield Jr., who also tutored Cam Newton and Andrew Luck.
Chris Thompson, RB, Sr. -- The Seminoles' leading rusher in 2010 with 846 yards, Thompson broke his back on the first carry of the game Oct. 8 vs. Wake Forest. He could form part of a dangerous combo as the 'Noles also return last year's top rusher, Devonta Freeman.
Brandon Jenkins, DE, Sr. -- One of the nation's premier pass rushers, Jenkins put off the NFL to return to Tallahassee for his senior season. He's racked up 21.5 sacks in his career, the most of any active player, and 36.5 tackles for loss.
Bjoern Werner, DE, Jr. -- The other half of arguably the nation's top DE combo, this 6-foot-4, 255-pound native of Germany had 37 tackles, including 11 for loss and seven sacks last season and led the team with eight QB hurries.
Cameron Erving, LT, So. -- He used to chase down quarterbacks, but now, he's protecting one. Erving had 20 tackles as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, but due to concerns on an offensive line that allowed 41 sacks last season (the most in the ACC), the 6-foot-6, 309-pounder was shifted over to left tackle. He's never played on the O-line before, but has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff in his transition.
Marvin Bracy, WR, Fr. -- A six-time Florida state sprint champion, Bracy saw his chances of making the London Olympics fade due to a nagging hamstring injury. The same injury has slowed him down at Seminoles camp, but if the 5-foot-9, 175-pound burner can get healthy, he could add a dangerous weapon to the passing game and aid a return game that's missing a key cog after the dismissal of Greg Reid.
Brandon Jenkins has always been a Seminole. From the time he was in Miss Leonard's kindergarten class through the time he'll wrap up his degree in sociology, Brandon Jenkins has only ever known garnet and gold. "Nothing but a Seminole for sure," he said.
A product of the Florida State University School (aka Florida High), a K-12 charter school sponsored by Florida State, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end returns for his senior season with a certain level of responsibility. The NFL can wait. This Tallahassee native has unfinished business to tend to.
"For me there was just a lot on the line to just leave back," he said. "For me being a for-real Florida State fan ever since I was a kid, I couldn't be in a better situation than I am now."
That's because the Seminoles will boast a defense that could be their ticket back to the glory days. The unit, which ranked fourth in the nation in total defense last season (275 yards per game) and second versus the rush (82.6 ypg), returns all four starters up front, including arguably the country's top defensive end combo in Jenkins and Bjoern Werner, who combined for 15 of the team's 40 sacks.
"It's pretty hard for offenses to gameplan against us," Jenkins said. "We [also] have great defensive tackles, so hopefully we can all just play hard and put some pressure and some sacks on the quarterbacks."
Any conversation with coach Jimbo Fisher about Jenkins winds up on legacy. He discusses an ACC title, a national championship and a retired number for the local kid who could earn a place among the program's all-time greats.
"I think in his dreams, from when he was a little boy, that was one of the things that he probably liked to dream about," Fisher said. "I try not to put pressure on him, but that's the kind of player he can be and the kind of legacy hopefully he can leave."
A two-time All-ACC performer, Jenkins raked up 13.5 sacks in 2010. He saw that total dip to eight QB stops his junior year as he faced constant double teams, but the extra attention allowed the likes of Werner (seven sacks) and Cornellius Carradine (5.5 sacks) to make plays. Now, Fisher expects they will help free up Jenkins to wreck havoc this fall.
"When you put the beasts around him, that's the thing I'm excited about," Fisher said. "He's made other guys on our team better and now those guys have emerged and I think it's going to slack back and they can't always do that and I think putting all the good guys around him, you're going to see him have an extremely good year."
In January, Jenkins sat in his apartment with his family and Fisher debating whether he should leave early for the NFL. Jenkins was torn and as they talked for hours, Fisher stressed what his star pass rusher could still accomplish if he came back.
"As a leader, as guy that can win a national championship, a guy that can be a Lombardi [Award]-type guy, a [Bronko] Nagurski [Trophy]-type guy, leaving a legacy of what he wants to do," Fisher said. "But [also] growing as a player and having one more year of a mature body."
Jenkins got the message. After playing at close to 270 pounds as a junior, he slimmed down this spring to around 260 pounds, the weight at which he played during his dominant sophomore season. The explosiveness was back.
"I tell you when he came back for spring ball, he'd been dominant, but he was dominant-dominant in spring ball," Fisher said.
SI: What changes have you seen in EJ Manuel as he enters this season?
JF: I have seen a change in his level of calmness. He has always done all the things he has need to do to be a leader but I think now there is an urgency to have a great senior year, but I think the game has really slowed down for him.
SI: You recently banned players from using Twitter. What was behind that decision and how do you see it benefitting them?
JF: We have to educate on this subject. We had a glaring situation obviously this summer. Social media is a tool. ... They also have to understand that is a privilege. They represent an organization, not just themselves but their families too.
SI: College football went through a monumental summer with the acceptance of a playoff proposal. How do you think it will change the game?
JF: I don't know if it will have a huge significant change right now. It opens things up for two more schools, but I don't know if it will have a huge, significant effect because I think the regular season is still going to be very important. I think it will stay relatively similar.
SI: You played for Terry Bowden and coached with Bobby Bowden. What has that family meant to you?
JF: My relationship with the Bowden family has been tremendous. When I got my feet wet in coaching the Bowden's were the first group that I played for and was around. A lot of my philosophies and my beliefs are still from the original philosophies and beliefs Coach Bowden had many years ago that I feel very comfortable with and still carry with me today. I was always very appreciative.