Jameis Winston gets the bulk of the publicity (both good and bad) on Florida State’s offense for good reason, but as the Seminoles look ahead to 2014, it’s perhaps the offensive line that offers the biggest cause for optimism on that side of the ball.
While center Bryan Stork has moved on to the NFL, Florida State still projects to have five senior starters on the offensive line, all with prior starting experience. In fact, the depth chart on the line includes 114 career starts, led by Josue Matias' 29. Matias, Tre' Jackson and Cameron Erving have been fixtures for the past two seasons (during which FSU is 26-2 and has averaged 7.3 yards per play), while Bobby Hart started in both 2011 and 2013 and Austin Barron has seen consistent work behind Stork.
In fact, from 2010 through last season, only 13 teams (and just seven in a Power 5 conference) have returned more career starts on the offensive line than Florida State will this year.
So that’s reason to be optimistic, right?
Thanks to Phil Steele’s helpful accounting of returning starts on the offensive line over the years, we dug a little deeper into what exactly that experience has meant.
Since 2010, there have been 42 teams that returned at least 100 career starts on their offensive lines. The conventional wisdom would suggest all that experience would pay dividends, particularly in the running game, but in the aggregate, the numbers don’t tend to agree.
Of those 42 teams, 22 increased their yards per carry from the previous season, 19 saw decreased yards per carry and one (BYU in 2011) broke even. Overall, the teams with 100 career starts worth of experience on the line saw an average increase of just 0.07 yards per carry. In other words, it was roughly a 50/50 proposition on whether all that experience corresponded with an improved rushing offense.
Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s possible that Florida State’s circumstances are more nuanced. In fact, if we look only at teams that play in Power 5 conferences, the numbers change quite a bit.
Of the 42 teams we just looked at, 22 play in power conferences. Of those 22, a far more noteworthy 16 saw improved yards per carry, with that subset increasing its YPC by an average of 0.30 (a roughly 7 percent increase) and upping its national ranking by nearly seven spots.
What’s more, the six teams in that subset that failed to see an improvement in YPC also share some common concerns. In five cases, there was a change at quarterback. The lone exception was last year’s Georgia squad, which suffered a remarkable rash of injuries, including to its two star running backs, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley.
There’s also the case of Florida State’s 2011 squad. That team returned 115 career starts on its line (one more than this year’s unit) but turned out to be absolutely abysmal in the trenches. The 2011 Seminoles rushed for just 3.34 yards per carry -- a decline of 1.45 YPC from the previous year. A combination of injuries and inconsistency on the line, at quarterback and at tailback all played a role. It’s a reminder that experience is great, but it also has to be quality experience for healthy players if it’s to matter at all.
Of course, Florida State’s line has been remarkably healthy the past two years, and there’s a good chance that at least four of the current starters will be selected by NFL teams in next spring’s draft, so there’s every reason to believe the Seminoles will be among the best rushing teams in the country yet again in 2014.
The running game is only part of the equation, however. While the ground attack has been consistently excellent during the past two years behind Erving, Jackson and Matias, the pass protection has been a bit more of a concern.
During the past two seasons (2013 with Winston at QB, 2012 with EJ Manuel), Florida State allowed a sack every 15.75 drop-backs (i.e., attempts plus sacks) -- good for 79th nationally. Manuel was widely criticized by FSU fans for his methodical approach that often led to some drive-killing sacks at crucial times (see Virginia in 2011, NC State in 2012), but that 2012 team actually averaged nearly three more drop-backs per sack than last year’s squad.
Part of that blame certainly falls to Winston, who often looked a bit too long for the big plays to open up downfield and took a sack as a result. (Note: While Manuel and Winston’s sack numbers look similar, it’s to Winston’s credit that he also averaged nearly two more yards per attempt than Manuel.) But some of the onus falls on the offensive line, too, and the Seminoles should hope that with so much experience returning in front of Winston in 2014, that pass protection can improve to meet the lofty standard the ground game has already set.