March 15, 2009

Seminoles aim to climb back among elite

Florida State still is trying to regain its status as one of the nation's elite programs, and the Seminoles seem to be working in that direction. There is a lot of young talent expected to emerge this season, which makes this spring practice especially important. One position to watch is wide receiver; the two leading receivers, Greg Carr and Preston Parker, are gone, and Taiwan Easterling, the third-leading receiver, suffered a ruptured Achilles' tendon in February conditioning drills and his status for the fall is uncertain. The remaining wide receivers on the roster started a combined four games last season.

Here's a look at Florida State as it prepares for spring ball.

florida state AT-A-GLANCE
Christian Ponder returns as the starting quarterback at Florida State.
THE BASICS
Coach: Bobby Bowden
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 ACC. Beat Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Spring dates: March 16-April 4
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (7): T Andrew Datko, G Rodney Hudson, C Ryan McMahon, TE Caz Piurowski, QB Christian Ponder, T Zebrie Sanders, G David Spurlock.
Defense (4): CB Patrick Robinson, T Kendrick Stewart, T Budd Thacker, LB Dekoda Watson.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

For the first time in a while, there aren't questions about the offensive line. All five starters return, and guard Rodney Hudson has a chance to be one of the best linemen in the ACC. There is just one starting linebacker returning, but talent is on hand at that position. Christian Ponder had his moments as a sophomore last season, his first as the starter, and if he makes the normal progression, he should be a solid quarterback this fall. Touted redshirt freshman E.J. Manuel is expected to be his backup.

Help is needed

The Seminoles are searching for a new starting tailback with the graduation of Antone Smith; they also need No. 2 and No. 3 tailbacks to emerge. There's a huge void at wide receiver, and coaches need some talented yet unproven players to step up. The early departure of Everette Brown to the NFL leaves FSU yearning for a pass rusher; the defensive line as a whole is a concern. There will be three new starters in the secondary. And the Seminoles also need to find a new kicker and punter, as Graham Gano handled both duties last season.

Keep an eye on

LB Nigel Bradham: Bradham may have been the crown jewel in FSU's 2008 recruiting class, and after playing extensively in a backup role as a true freshman, a starting job is his for the taking this spring. A big-play defender in high school, FSU's defensive coaches would like to see signs of that this spring.

WR Jarmon Fortson: The Seminoles are looking for four or five wide receivers to step to the fore during spring, and Fortson should be one of them. He has great size (6 feet 3/223 pounds) and good speed, and he made eight catches as a true freshman last season. His size and physical nature would seem to mean he'll be a big-time weapon in the red zone.

RB Jermaine Thomas: He's the heir apparent to Smith at tailback. Thomas did a nice job as a backup as a true freshman last season and looks to have the needed skills to be an every-down back. Actually, assuming Thomas secures the starting job, the most interesting race will be for the No. 2 tailback spot. Carlton Jones, who played sparingly as a true freshman last season but had a big game in the Champs Sports Bowl, looks as if he will win that job, but he has diabetes and that could hinder his development.

His time is now

Defensive end Markus White was one of the most highly touted junior college transfers in the nation in the 2008 signing class, but he had a rather quiet first season for the Seminoles. He finished with 5.5 tackles for loss and one sack. Brown left early for the NFL after racking up 13.5 sacks last season, and the 'Noles also lost their No. 2 and 3 sack men. Coaches expect White to step in for Brown; how productive White is as a senior this season will be a key to FSU's defense.

The buzz

FSU has a lot of holes to fill, but expectations still are high in Tallahassee. What should be a solid line offers hope for a productive offense, as long as some wide receivers step to the fore and the passing game as a whole improves. Defensively, a good crop of young players is expected to step in and provide more playmaking ability than the guys they are replacing. Young guys especially need to make their mark on the defensive line. Spring football will be held with the backdrop of recently imposed NCAA sanctions. The good news is that the Seminoles can stop wondering about the investigation; now that it's behind them, the hope is that the controversy fades away.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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