FSU football preview: Success in 2006 rests on the offensive line

Pair of Newcomers Could Bring Offense Back to Life

Dynamic duos were the catalysts for Florida State University’s first two football national championships. In 1993, it was Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn. In 1999, Chris Weinke and Peter Warrick led the way.

But for FSU to make a serious run at the third national championship in school history, the Seminoles’ two most important offensive players might not be quarterbacks, receivers or running backs.

They might just be a pair of hulking offensive linemen that you’ve never even seen before. After watching his team’s 2005 season unravel because of injuries to an already-thin offensive line, FSU head coach Bobby Bowden went searching for a quick fix. And the early indications are that he might have found two.

Shannon Boatman, a 6-foot, 7-inch, 310-pound offensive tackle, transferred in from junior college this past January and earned rave reviews during spring practice. He is projected to start at right tackle. Matt Hardrick, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 340-pounder who arrived this summer from prep school, could either start or provide quality depth at two different positions on the offensive line.

If these two newcomers are as good as advertised, they will join forces with a solid group of veterans – five of whom have college starting experience – to provide the Seminoles with a front line capable of championship contention.

“It’s the most important thing every year,” Bowden said of the offensive line. “You can have all the skill in the world, but if you can’t do it up front, you ain’t going to do it. The key of all offenses is the guys up front. If we stay healthy, we should be OK there. We just can’t afford the type of injuries we’ve had the last couple years.”

That’s for certain.

Midway through last season, the Seminoles were 5-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country. Then came a disastrous stretch, during which they lost three starting linemen to season-ending injuries, and everything ground to a halt. FSU’s running backs suddenly found themselves dodging defensive players in the backfield, and freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford had almost no time to operate.

The Seminoles played three games in the month of November, and each was more disappointing than the one before.

After averaging more than 36 points in their first eight games of the season, the Seminoles scored just 36 in the next three games combined – 15 in a home loss to N.C. State, 14 in a loss at Clemson, and seven in a humiliating defeat at rival Florida.

The Seminoles’ once-prolific offense was officially grounded.

But while fans tried to place the blame on Bowden’s son, embattled offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, the coaching legend insisted that no staff could have done much with such a depleted front line.

“We (didn’t) have the offensive line that Southern Cal did,” Bowden said. “If we did, we’d probably get very much the same results.”

Even with newcomers Boatman and Hardrick, the Seminoles aren’t expected to boast one of the nation’s elite offensive lines. But Bowden believes it will be strong enough to get his offense back on track.

Senior Cory Niblock is expected to be in the starting lineup for the third consecutive year, and he Is returning to his natural guard position after a year at left tackle. Junior guard Jacky Claude started every game last season. Junior John Frady and sophomore Dumaka Atkins will battle for the center position; both are experienced, and either would be an upgrade physically from graduated starter David Castillo. And senior left tackle Mario Henderson is the most talented of the bunch.

The Seminoles also return junior David Overmyer, who started every game last season at right tackle. He is expected to compete for playing time at guard and tackle this fall.

“If we stay healthy, we will be OK,” Bowden said.

With a revamped offensive line leading the way, FSU hopes to establish the type of balanced offensive attack that was the Seminoles’ trademark in the 1990s. And that will begin with a renewed emphasis on the running game.

Bowden freely admits his team was too “pass-happy” in 2005. FSU’s quarterbacks attempted 526 passes last season, while the Seminoles’ top three tailbacks – Lorenzo Booker, Leon Washington and Antone Smith – combined for just 252 carries.

That ratio looks terribly uneven on paper, but at the time, FSU’S coaches felt they had no other option. Given the status of their depleted front line, the Seminoles’ running backs appeared to be surrounded nearly every time they touched the ball.

“A lot of times last year, we were having to make our moves at the line as opposed to downfield,” said Booker, who averaged a career-low 4.6 yards per carry in 2005. He averaged 5.1 yards as a sophomore and 5.4 yards as a freshman. “It makes it tough when you don’t know if the hole’s going to be where it’s supposed to be.”

FSU worked overtime on its running game this past spring, and while the results were mixed, Bowden believes that commitment will pay dividends. As long as the Seminoles can at least present a threat of a ground attack, they will remove much of the pressure from the shoulders of second-year quarterback Weatherford.

“It gives you two dimensions on offense instead of one,” Bowden said. “If (defenses) know you’re going to throw every down, they can give you some problems. When they don’t know whether you’re going to run or throw, that’s when the defense has problems. That’s why you try to develop a better running game. But you know, you can’tdo it without an offensive line.”

Though Weatherford struggled at times last season – his 18 touchdown passes were countered by 18 interceptions – the Seminoles expect big things this season. The third-year sophomore threw just one interception in a scrimmage situation during the spring, and he is considered a team leader by coaches and teammates.“

The thing about it is he had 18 interceptions last year, but in the spring he didn’t have a single one for 15 days and he finally got one in the last scrimmage,” Bowden said. “That just shows you how much he concentrated and how important it was to him to not throw interceptions. You should throw a lot of interceptions in the spring because your defense knows everything you are doing.”

Weatherford will have plenty of talented targets in the passing game, most notably senior Chris Davis, junior De’Cody Fagg and sophomore Greg Carr.

Davis led the Seminoles with 51 receptions last season, and he has been a key contributor to FSU’s offense throughout his FSU career. Only two players in the Atlantic Coast Conference have more career receiving yards than the St. Petersburg native.

Fagg, a 6-foot, 3-inch, 220-pounder, was off to a torrid start his sophomore season before missing three games with a shoulder injury. And the 6-foot, 4-inch Carr led FSU with nine touchdown receptions as a freshman.

With all of those weapons at his disposal, Weatherford acknowledges he was Frustrated at times during those ground-oriented spring practices.

“Of course I would have liked to have opened it up a little bit more,” Weatherford said. “But I realize what’s important for our team this season -– it’s to be able to throw the ball as well as run the ball. And I think we established that.”

Even if the Seminoles’ offense comes through, however, there are no guarantees that it will translate to a championship season. Bowden’s defensive coaches face the unenviable task of replacing seven starters from last season, including three first-round NFL draft picks – linebacker Ernie Sims, defensive end Kamerion Wimbley and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie missed the 2005 season with a torn knee ligament, but he also was taken in the first round.

When the Seminoles open the season on Labor Day night in Miami, they will be without six of their top seven tacklers from a year ago. What’s worse is that Sims and Cromartie could have suited up for FSU this fall had they not departed early for the NFL.

But while the Seminoles will be short on experience, they will not be lacking for talent. Junior defensive tackle Andre Fluellen is expected to pick up where Bunkley left off; several pass-rushers are itching to take Wimbley’s place; and junior linebacker Lawrence Timmons was so impressive this past spring that Sims’ departure was barely noticeable.

FSU assistant Kevin Steele, who said often that Sims was among the best players he ever coached, was thrilled with Timmons’ development.

“We knew he was a great player, so that wasn’t a question,” Steele said. “We knew the potential was there and (that) with his work ethic he was going to get there. But one thing he was susceptible to occasionally was making a mental error … I don’t know what he drank between the (Orange Bowl) game and now. Really, I think what he decided is he went to sleep, woke up and said, ‘I’m the man. I have to carry the load.’ And he’s a mature enough guy that he’s focused more.”

Seminole Success Can Help Save Babies

By Erica Bailey

When football season kicks off, of course you’re going to be cheering for the Florida State Seminoles to battle for every yard they can earn on the ground and in the air. But this season, the team’s offensive success will benefit the March of Dimes – and you can be part of the effort.

FSU President T.K. Wetherell, who also is the 2006 chairman of WalkAmerica Tallahassee, has issued a challenge to all FSU family, friends and fans. He’s pledging a dime for every yard that FSU’s football team gains this season, and he wants you to join him in pledging a dime, nickel, penny or any other amount per yard gained. Pledge cards are available at the March of Dimes office, 3375 F-201 Capital Circle Northeast, or via the FSU Credit Union’s Web site, fsucu.org.

To up the ante, at every home game the FSU Credit Union will be offering tickets for $10 for a drawing to benefit the March of Dimes. The drawing will be held during halftime of the FSU-University of Florida game on Nov. 25, and the winner will take home a 2006 20-foot Clearwater Center Console boat powered by a F150 Yamaha four-stroke motor with an all-aluminum tandem-axle trailer.

WalkAmerica, set for Saturday, April 14, 2007, here in Tallahassee, is the March of Dimes’ biggest fund-raising event.

In Florida, 27,645 babies were born prematurely in 2003. Some of those babies will die; others face lifelong disability. Money raised for WalkAmerica supports research and programs to help prevent and treat premature birth and to help families who experience it. The results benefit babies here in Tallahassee and across the nation.

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