There were practices last year when Florida State’s secondary would surrender so many big plays that then-defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt would slump into Jimbo Fisher’s office and wonder whether he had a group ready to compete at a championship level.
The concerns lasted only as long as it took to put the film together, however. Once coaches got a second look at the busted plays and blown coverages, it became clear: It wasn’t about the secondary’s struggles. It was about how good Jameis Winston, Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and the offense were.
“You go look at film and there’s nobody going to make that throw but Jameis,” Fisher said. “Nobody’s going to make that catch but KB, Rashad.”
As it turned out, Florida State had the nation’s best secondary last season. It also had arguably the country’s top passing attack, with a Heisman winner and two 1,000-yard receivers. The spring struggles on either side of the ball were a matter of that double-edged sword that comes from practicing against each other.
This spring, the situation was the same, but the struggles tended to appear more often on offense. Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are gone, taking 108 catches and 21 touchdowns with them, and it’s a relatively inexperienced group now taking the first-team reps. There’s a learning curve, but on the other side of the ball, FSU’s defensive backs haven’t pulled their punches.
Fisher raved about Jalen Ramsey and P.J. Williams, who have both developed into dominant DBs and core leaders of FSU’s 2014 defense. Tyler Hunter’s return from a neck injury has added a spark to summer drills, which began this week. Add in Nate Andrews, Ronald Darby, Marquez White -- Fisher said the depth of talent in the secondary is immense -- and it makes it that much tougher for the receivers to strut their stuff.
“Those guys came out and threw and caught the ball in the spring going against as good people as there is out there, consistently, daily,” Fisher said. “That’s the thing I’ve got to remember when I don’t think we’re doing as well.”
Still, it won’t be easy for Florida State to replace its departed offensive stars.
On the outside, the Seminoles are in search of a physical presence that can pick up the slack left by the 6-foot-5 Benjamin. The top options are likely the two newest faces. Ermon Lane (6-2) and Travis Rudolph (6-0) took their first reps in seven-on-seven drills this week, showcasing an already advanced skill set. It was in the weight room, however, that Fisher said they’ve really shined. Both arrived on campus bigger and stronger than Fisher had expected, and he’s optimistic both can play a role on offense for FSU immediately.
And before the Seminoles’ passing game is knocked for having too much youth complementing Greene, Fisher is quick to point out that seniors Jarred Haggins and Christian Green return, along with tight end Nick O'Leary, who is back to 100 percent after an offseason motorcycle accident.
It’s true, the passing game is more of a work in progress than it was a year ago, according to Fisher. But even as his receivers were crushing the spirits of an equally talented defense last spring, there was still more growth to come. Greg Dent was last spring’s MVP, and he never took a snap in the fall thanks to off-field issues. Benjamin was inconsistent and hadn’t approached his potential. By season’s end, he was a star and Winston’s favorite weapon.
Things change, Fisher said. Players learn and develop and get better, and he’s got a group he believes will do all those things. And just as importantly, he has a Heisman quarterback to push them along.
“Skill guys can get much better over a summer if they really apply themselves because they can throw and catch and do things,” Fisher said. “And [Winston] knows what he’s doing, and he sets the tone in what goes on without a doubt.”