Brandon Jenkins scanned the media room in the bowels of Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, looking for old teammates preparing for the NFL Draft and having no problems finding them.
“We have 13 guys at the NFL Combine,” said the former FSU defensive tackle, one of those 13 working out for NFL teams in late February. “That says a whole lot about the coaching. Knowing Jimbo, it’s not slowing down. It’s just getting better.”
Jenkins is right about one thing — the train of talent cruising into Tallahassee isn’t slowing. FSU is losing players to the NFL, but the school will have another batch ready next year. If one ACC team is competing with the top SEC schools in recruiting, it’s FSU, and it’s probably not close (although Clemson might say otherwise).
This formula helped the Seminoles win their first ACC title since 2005, handily defeat Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl and shift national focus to Doak Campbell again.
But while FSU fans hope that Fisher is the man to package that talent into the school’s first true national title contender in more than a decade, there’s always been one thing — or one game — holding his teams back the last three years. There’s only one step left to take, and the Seminoles haven’t taken it.
When he took over for retired legend Bobby Bowden, Fisher was asked to rebuild a once-proud national power. With 31 wins in three seasons, it seems he’s on his way.
Yet, why did it feel like a 12–2 team that won a BCS bowl underachieved a bit last year?
Replay the NC State game, and you’ll understand why that question persists. The Seminoles led 16–0 at the half and 16–3 heading into the fourth quarter. They lost 17–16 — a game that basically eliminated them from the national title chase.
When discussing FSU’s season, an ACC assistant coach pointed to the “up and down” Seminoles — dominance tainted by curious lapses.
Since Fisher’s promotion in 2010, the Seminoles have defeated Miami, Florida, Notre Dame, Clemson and South Carolina — while also losing to five unranked teams, with three of those losses coming on the road.
Maybe demanding perfection is unfair. But those are the rules at Florida State, a program that enjoyed 14 consecutive 10-win seasons from 1987-2000.
“We won the ACC championship. We went to a BCS bowl. You can’t ask for too much more,” Jenkins says. “We didn’t get to a title game, but you can’t really sit there and say we had a bad season — 12–2 is pretty good.”
Most programs would relish a 12–2 season, but the Seminoles in 2012, and other seasons, were predicted to do much more. Florida State started at No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press poll and rose to No. 3 before the loss to NC State. The Seminoles were ranked as high as No. 5 in 2011 but finished 23rd after the Champs Sports Bowl.
That’s the backdrop for Fisher’s fourth season, one that will be challenging with key veterans gone along with several members of his coaching staff.
Fisher must maximize FSU’s enormous potential while replacing 11 starters (including quarterback EJ Manuel) and breaking in six new assistant coaches this offseason.
The coordinator of last year’s stout defense, Mark Stoops, is Kentucky’s new head coach. Offensive coordinator James Coley joined Miami’s staff and should have more influence on the offense there, since Fisher calls the plays at FSU.
Fisher also lost quarterbacks coach Dameyune Craig (now Auburn’s co-offensive coordinator), defensive ends coach D.J. Eliot (Kentucky defensive coordinator), linebackers coach Greg Hudson (Purdue’s defensive coordinator) and running backs coach Eddie Gran (Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator).
Fisher is a disciple of the Nick Saban School of Intensity, and that’s not always easy to handle for assistants day-to-day. But the departures seem more about opportunity —one head coach and five coordinator jobs — than discontent.
And despite the staff turnover, there was no drop-off in recruiting, where the Seminoles ranked in the national top 15 as usual.
That recruiting won’t matter much if Fisher doesn’t follow his belief that fundamentals win championships.
“You can be talented, but how can you be productive and how do you fit into the master scheme of things?” Fisher says.
Fisher sounds like he’s willing to allow his new defensive coordinator, former Alabama secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt, to be creative. Defensive ends will move inside on passing downs. Six or even seven defensive backs will be on the field at once. And linebackers will rush the passer more.
FSU has enough depth to be multiple. New starters will be moving into their full-time positions with experience. Replacing first-round pick Bjoern Werner, for example, is Giorgio Newberry, who recorded tackles in eight games last season and has created high expectations among his coaches.
“This is still a tremendous group of players,” Fisher says. “We’re establishing ourselves as a program again, with guys who played as much ball as anybody else stepping in.”
Fisher is asking a bevy of new coaches — Pruitt, defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri, wide receivers coach Tim Brewster, running backs coach Jay Graham, linebackers/special teams coach Charles Kelly and quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders — to ease the transition.
Fourth-year junior Clint Trickett entered spring practice as the starting quarterback, but he decided to transfer when it became clear redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2012 class, was on the verge of winning the job.
Between Christian Ponder and Manuel, FSU has had a steady presence at quarterback under Fisher. The hope is that Winston, also an elite baseball player, is the next star at the most important position on the field. Fisher is willing to be patient to find out.
“You can’t try to force something to happen,” Fisher says. “You have to let it play out.”
Fisher knows this all too well regarding his own job. He had chances to parlay his three successful seasons into another job. A faction of FSU boosters wondered if Fisher would look into the Auburn job that went to Gus Malzahn. There were rumors about his candidacy at Tennessee.
But FSU is arguably a top-five national job. The recruiting base is too good. The program has proven itself to be national title-worthy.
Now, Fisher needs to prove it again.
Written by Jeremy Fowler for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 ACC Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 ACC season.
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