That time of year is finally coming again--College Football is just around the corner. As the Florida State Seminoles gear up for 2012 with hype surrounding them as usual. How can we be sure that this is actually Florida State's year? Well, we can't--but what I will do is list some of the things that I hope to see out of the team that could potentially help them get over the hump in 2012.
1. EJ Manuel rising to the occasion: This seems obvious enough, no? RS Sr. EJ Manuel is an interesting case in that to date, he hasn't been quite as good or bad as many have deemed him. Manuel was one of the best QB prospects in the nation coming out of high school in 2008 and his time at Florida State has all been spent either backing up first round pick Christian Ponder, or recovering from and playing through various freak injuries.
Overall, Manuel's numbers are not much to sneeze at, considering he has one of the highest completion percentages in FSU history and holds a 13-4 record as a starter, 14-4 if you so choose to give him credit for the 2010 Chick-Fil-A Bowl. His four career losses as a starter include falling to a then ranked #1 Oklahoma, an ACC Champion VT squad, and a #1 SEC Champion, Tebow led UF in the swamp. Last season he was one of the ACC's most efficient quarterbacks on a yards per attempt basis and scored a total of 22 touchdowns.
So what's the beef with EJ Manuel's play? For one, a lack of consistent protection led to a visible discomfort in the pocket as the season wore on for Manuel. He took a brutal beating, as the Seminoles ranked 110th in the nation in sacks allowed for the year. While a great deal of those sacks can be attributed to poor offensive line play, there were times in which Manuel was not decisive enough or struggled to check the offense into better plays prior to the snap. In order for the Seminoles to bounce back in 2012, Manuel's confidence will have to be restored and his mastery of the offense more evident. Part of that responsibility belongs to the players around him, but ultimately it will be Manuel that people look to in his final year at Florida State.
2. A running game: The Seminoles struggled to establish a consistent running game last season. Injury and ineptitude at the tailback position severely stifled what FSU was able to do on the ground as leading rusher Chris Thompson went down early in the year and seniors Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas struggled mightily to produce. The bulk of the load was left at the feet of true freshman Devonta Freeman, who would lead the team with 579 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns, out-rushing the next two leading rushers by 140 yards.
In addition to a potentially healthy Chris Thompson, the Seminoles are looking to see their younger backs, whose talent is undeniable, build on the progress of their first seasons. Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., both rising sophomores, bring different skill sets to the table. Freeman is elusive and extremely quick, and does a great job of sticking his foot in the ground and getting upfield. He's a tough runner, that does not waste much time or energy dancing around. Wilder is a notoriously strong and bruising back, standing at 6'2 and weighing in at a chiseled 230 lbs. Last season, he struggled with hitting the correct gaps and that may have strongly impacted his playing time. The hope is that he has managed to progress in his understanding of the position, despite having missed a good bit of the Spring due to legal issues.
If the answer does not come from the three aforementioned backs, there is still some hope in true freshman Mario Pender, who is a more talented natural running back than any on the roster. The biggest hurdle Pender will face will come in the way of understanding the offense and his assignments well enough to warrant seeing the field regularly. If he works hard and continues to catch on, he could see quite a bit of time. Ultimately, the success of the running game is going to weigh heavily on how much the FSU offensive line has improved since last season.
3. Improved Offensive Line Play: Who saw this coming? The Florida State offensive line was an undeniable mess last season and it severely stifled what could have been a prolific offense for the Noles. The Seminoles went from the Top 20 offense they were in 2010 to one that would average out in the mid to low 40's in 2011. Much of this had to do with incredibly awful injury luck. 10 of Florida State's top 14 offensive linemen according to last Fall's initial depth chart would miss time due to some sort of injury. The unit would struggle to establish consistency and continuity in all aspects throughout the year.
The hope here is that the still young, but now slightly more physically matured and experienced offensive linemen will be ready to step up to the plate and deliver a satisfactory product. Converted DT, RS Sophomore Cameron Erving, has been a source of interest since making the switch to LT in the spring. He has held the starting role since and repeatedly drawn the high praises of HC Jimbo Fisher and All-American DE Brandon Jenkins. If he truly is the revelation that FSU needs to anchor EJ Manuel's blindside, it will be huge for the offense's ability to produce.
Along with Erving, the Seminoles need the talented interior linemen to take their next steps in progression. Josue Matias, Tre Jackson and Austin Barron are all true sophomores who showed flashes of great play last season, particularly in the second half of the Champs Sports Bowl against Notre Dame. At this point, they are all projected starters, so the camp that they have will be critical to the line's continuity. For most, this unit is easily the biggest question heading into the season.
4. Another top 5 Defense: Last season, Florida State's defense was outstanding. In 2012, it has the potential to be better, after returning 9 of 11 starters to a defense where the term "starter" can apply to several reserves as well. The Noles return every defensive lineman on the roster after posting a top three rushing defense in 2011. The starting secondary is filled with dynamic upperclassmen and the linebackers, who may be the lone question mark on the unit, are all athletic and versatile upperclassmen as well. It is not too far fetched to expect the FSU defense to reach and even exceed the bar that was set in 2011.