The most obvious change for the ‘Noles on offense is EJ Manuel taking over for NFL-bound Christian Ponder. EJ is 4-2 as a starter and has played impressively in two bowl starts already. Reminding longtime ‘Nole fans of the glory days, EJ takes over the reigns as a redshirt junior with plenty of experience as he’s thrown for over 1,600 yards through his first two seasons. For what it’s worth, EJ’s play in the Spring game was poor, but his overall body of work should leave ‘Noles fans feeling very comfortable with him returning as the starter.
Backing up EJ, we’ve got Clint Trickett and Will Secord. Trickett is probably the headier ‘system’ QB of the two, but Secord literally stands head and shoulders above him in terms of size and stature and has the stronger, more natural throwing arm. Trickett appears to have earned the back-up role for now and played well in the spring game (easily outplayed EJ and Secord, in fact), but the position battle will surely carry over into the late summer. Ethan Gilbert, a transfer, played in the 4<sup>th</sup> quarter of the spring game and outplayed both EJ and Secord as well.
The less obvious, but far more important changes for the ‘Noles’ offense take place within the offensive line. The ‘Noles lose two outstanding four year starters in Rodney Hudson (arguably the best O-lineman ever at FSU) and Ryan McMahon. Tackles Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders are out for the spring but return for 2011 and their play will be a big part of the ‘Noles’ offensive output this season. Developing strong back-ups will be important in the summer and fall as the tackle play in the spring game was very poor. Between the tackles, who among Stork, Faircloth and Orelus, will emerge as a starter? Will David Spurlock be able to return from multiple head injuries? Will the Jakob Fahrenkrug experiment at center land the ‘Noles a new starter? Will freshman like Bobby Hart, Sterling Lovelady, Ruben Carter, Jordan Prestwood, or Josue Matais compete for playing time in 2011? There are lots of questions along the offensive line that need to be answered through the summer and fall.
At running back, the ‘Noles have plenty of ammunition. Chris Thompson, Ty Jones, Jermaine Thomas, and Lonnie Pryor all return (combined, these guys rushed for 2,000 yards in 2010), and they’re joined by stellar freshman newcomers Devonta Freeman (enrolled early and ran well in the spring game), James Wilder Jr., and Eric Beverly. There’s tremendous talent in the ‘Noles backfield and it will be interesting to see what emerges in the fall. Chris Thompson will likely see the most carries, but it’s doubtful anyone will emerge as a feature back in the group; more likely, and better for the team, expect a host of backs to carry the ball in the fall depending on game situations and weekly performance.
Finally, who will EJ go to in the air in 2011? The entire receiving corps from 2010 returns in 2011, including Bert Reed, Willie Haulstead, Taiwan Easterling, and Rodney Smith. Jared Haggins saw limited action in 2010 and should see a larger role in 2011 as should Christian Green. TEs Beau Reliford and Ja’Baris Little also return but will be pushed by Nick O’Leary and Will Tye. Among incoming freshman, expect O’Leary and Kelvin Benjamin to have the most dramatic impact in the passing attack. While the receiving corps was serviceable in 2010, it’s fair to question how much of that was driven by a talented senior QB and one of the nation’s best offensive lines that allowed receivers extra time to create space against man and find it against zone. With the QB and the o-line as relative question marks in 2011, it will be important for the ‘Noles’ receivers to step up. The TE position will be interesting to watch and it will be important for a reliable playmaker to emerge there to help the ‘Noles diversify their passing attack.
There are tons of reasons to be excited about what the ‘Noles return on defense. For me, it starts with a cupboard full of NFL-talent defensive backs. Xavier Rhodes looks to build on a break-out 2010 campaign as does Michael Harris while Greg Reid is a flat-out playmaker who continues to mature as a reliable corner in coverage (however, as an aside, I can’t help but wonder if Reid will ever wrap-up after the hit on Lattimore in 2010). In fact, the defensive backs are so good that Lamarcus Joyner (a definite NFL-type dback) has moved over to safety for 2011. Speaking of safety, freshman Karlos Williams is likely to challenge for a starting spot in the fall. His potential is unmatched, but can he learn the position within the framework of Mark Stoops’ defensive scheme? Will Nick Moody grow into the roll and be less of a liability against the pass than he was in 2010? Can Parks leverage his experience to finally cement himself in centerfield over more gifted but less consistent competitors? Will Fr Nick Waisome work his way into some playing time as a freshman? Can Avis Commack parlay his physical attributes into valuable depth as he transitions over from WR?
The ‘Noles will feature a stout defensive line with returning starters Brandon Jenkins, Bjoern Werner, Jacobbi McDaniel and Everett Dawkins backed up by Anthony McCloud, Demonte McAllister, Darius Cummings and Dan Hicks. Add Tank Carradine (who had a good spring and strong showing in the scrimmage) and r-FR Cameron Erving to the mix, and the ‘Noles have some nice size, speed, experience, and depth up front. Among the incoming freshman, ‘Noles fans have to be excited to see how Tim Jernigan will fit in to the mix in the fall. Can he add valuable depth at DT? Can Moses McCray elude the injuries that have plagued his career and work his way into an already deep and talented rotation? Personally, I’m beginning to suspect that Werner and Jenkins may be the best bookend combination the ‘Noles have fielded since two guys named Wilson and Boulware. Opposing QBs, start panicking now.
Finally, at LB, Nigel Bradham and Vince Williams are proven commodities, though I’m still waiting for Bradham to make the leap from very good to great. Can he do it in 2011? Perhaps more likely, Christian Jones will look to emerge as FSU’s premier LB in the year ahead. Where will Jeff Luc fit in the mix when the fall rolls around? Will Telvin Smith surprise and compete for the starting spot at MLB?
Dustin Hopkins returns for placekicking duties – and this is critical for the ‘Noles. Half of Hopkins’ 2010 kick-offs went for touchbacks, and many of those that didn’t still resulted in poor field position for ‘Noles’ opponents who chose to run the ball out of the end zone. In field goal duties, Hopkins’ accuracy improved to almost 80% from a 70% success rate his freshman year and one of the most impressive plays from the ‘Noles’ spring game was his 60 yard howitzer shot at the end of the first half. P Shawn Powell was held out of the spring game but returns for 2011 and will be a valuable weapon for FSU in the field position battle. Who will FSU feature in the return game for 2011? After a phenomenal freshman campaign, Greg Reid struggled in 2011 and FSU was among the worst teams in FBS last year in terms of yards per return on kick-offs.