By the time senior quarterback Danny Kanell takes the snap in Florida State's "fast break" offense, the play's success or failure may already have been sealed, thanks to final adjustments made by a Seminole field general who's far less conspicuous than Kanell. The man in charge during the crucial seconds before the snap—the man who surveys defensive alignments and calls cadence—weighs 280 pounds and wears number 53. Senior center Clay Shiver is the de facto quarterback of the deepest, slickest-operating and best-synchronized offensive line in college football.
On national TV this group is referred to indirectly as "Big hole for Warrick Dunn" and directly as "Excellent protection for Kanell." Coach Bobby Bowden, in his 20th year in Tallahassee, has always had teams loaded with skill players who can make big plays. "Yet when it comes down to it," says Bowden, "the offensive line is still the most valuable area of your darn football team."
Florida State runs its fast-break offense from the shotgun formation, and when Kanell makes that slight kick with his right leg before the snap, he is not setting the fast break in motion but simply signaling Shiver to take charge. "Danny kicks his leg to let me know he's ready," says Shiver. "Then I look up. A lot of defensive teams will try to disguise or change what they're doing."
"You can see linebackers ready to tee off on somebody, getting a running start toward the line of scrimmage," says split-side guard Lewis Tyre. "They come up at 90 miles an hour, and Clay will just hold the ball—so they have to stop. That makes it easier on all the linemen."
Up and down the depth chart, FSU's offensive line is experienced and savvy. Shiver says that when he spots last-second changes in defenses, "These guys pick it up like that." He snaps his fingers. "The play clock is ticking," says Shiver, "and it's up to me to snap the ball. If a younger guy were beside me, I'd have to stop and say, 'Listen, they've walked that safety up; he's really not the linebacker, he's the safety.' But these guys know. They see it happening."
"Our linemen have been supremely tested," says Bowden. "They've gone up against the Notre Dames, the Floridas, the Miamis. We've played the big boys."
It is difficult to designate the Seminoles' interior-line starters, because seven players rotate at the five positions. Five of them are fifth-year seniors: Shiver, Tyre (6'5", 272 pounds), split-side tackle Juan Laureano (6'5", 283), tight-side tackle Forrest Conoly (6'6", 325) and swingman Jesus Hernandez (6'2", 288). Two juniors, tight guard Chad Bates (6'3", 269) and tight tackle Todd Fordham (6'5", 292), complete the rotation.
Conoly is trying to come back after sitting out all but two games last year. He was hit with a four-game suspension for taking merchandise from agents, and then he missed six games with a knee injury. Hernandez, meanwhile, "has the bad luck or good luck of being the best athlete on the line," Bowden says. He can play any of the four positions other than center.
Most of the linemen were around for Bowden's crash course in sophisticated pass protection in 1992, when he designed the fast break around quarterback Charlie Ward, the Seminole quarterback at the time who would win the Heisman Trophy the next year. "It was," says Bowden, 'like saying to the linemen, 'Son, when you come here, we're not going to get into algebra; we're going to jump into trigonometry right away.' They had to learn more, quicker."
No problem there.