Ask the Experts: Team Questions

QB E.J. Manuel (US Presswire)

One of the advantages of being a NoleDigest.com subscriber is having direct access to our experts. JC answers several questions from his readers, a few of them involving quarterback E.J. Manuel.

What will be the greatest impediment to FSU's offense being championship caliber, championship caliber being defined as good enough that we make the title game with a top 5 defense. -- Steve51

You asked the question likely already knowing what I would answer, as it's the same impediment that prevented the Seminoles from being an offensive juggernaut this past season: the offensive line.

I think the 2012 campaign for Florida State could very well come down to how well Cameron Erving makes the transition from defensive tackle to offensive tackle, as he never blocked in high school yet is now ultimately responsible for senior quarterback E.J. Manuel's blind side. We know what Jimbo Fisher thinks, with the third-year coach believing Erving has twice the upside of departed four-year starter Zebrie Sanders, but natural ability doesn't necessarily equal production on the field. While the 'Noles are inexperienced but talented along the interior, as the sophomore trio of left guard Josue Matias, center Austin Barron and right guard Tre' Jackson has a chance to be special one of these days, Manuel's sometimes-questionable pocket presence -- hopefully he'll stop spinning 6-yard-loss sacks into 12-yard-loss disasters -- can be relatively negated by airtight protection at left tackle.

He played better than this sports writer expected during the Garnet and Gold Game this past April, and he did it having to face All-American candidate Brandon Jenkins, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Erving is terrific right out of the gate.

What do you expect from our running backs this year? Who leads in yards? TDs? Do you think Chris Thompson can stay healthy? Will Mario Pender be the primary guy by the end of the year? Does anyone crack 1,000 yards, or will it be more like three guys gaining 500-700? -- jrehm23

I find it interesting that you mentioned two tailbacks in your question, and neither one of them is Devonta Freeman, who led this team in rushing last season. As you know, he missed spring practice with a back issue vaguely resembling the one that afflicted Thompson in the past, so I understand your hesitation in believing Freeman can be a 1,000-yard guy himself.

Because Fisher prefers to rotate his ball carriers and only went Freeman-heavy in 2011 when he sort of had to, evidence suggests the load will be shared by Freeman, Thompson, Pender, James Wilder and perhaps even Lonnie Pryor. If I had to lay odds on which one of the aforementioned names ends up being the top ground gainer, I suppose I'd go with Freeman simply because he deserves to be the starter after last year and should be healthy come summer workouts.

If history is any barometer, I don't expect any of them to get near quadruple digits, and I guess I'll also put my money on Freeman scoring the most touchdowns. The Wilder experiment as a short-yardage and goal-line back didn't go so well this past season, and all he's done is get himself into trouble since then.

Injury luck will play a big part this coming year, as in all years. While last year everyone focused on the injuries along the offensive line, I have a different question: Will we be able to keep our starting QB healthy for a full year? We haven't done it for four years. -- spear72

This is an astute question because very few people are asking it, although I've asked it myself a few times this offseason.

If you remember back to ACC Media Days this past summer, when Manuel was asked why he would stay healthy after Christian Ponder dealt with injury after injury under center, without taking a shot at Ponder, Manuel talked about his predecessor exposing himself to too much punishment. Manuel basically said he had a better feel in the pocket and knew how to contort his body prior to contact in order to take as little of a pounding as possible.

Nevertheless, nothing we saw on the field backed up that claim, as Manuel had the shoulder injury in the Oklahoma game -- it forced him to miss the next two starts and continued to bother him the rest of the schedule -- and then limped through the final stages of the Notre Dame game with a broken leg. The Virginia Beach native has seemingly never been given a clean bill of health since putting on the Garnet and Gold, and he was still wearing a protective sleeve on his shoulder during spring ball. He should be ready to go again, but can he actually be counted on to play an entire season without being banged up time after time?

Needless to say, the offensive line will be a huge factor in determining whether or not the 6-5, 238-pounder ever lives up to his limitless potential. As will the rushing attack, which needs to get back to its 2009-10 form in order to take some of the pressure off Manuel and the passing game.

But Manuel himself is partially to blame, so stop the Tasmanian-devil-in-the-pocket routine and no more diving into defenders looking for an extra yard or two.

Will Karlos Williams work his way into meaningful playing time in the secondary this year, or are there other possibilities with him on defense? -- luvdemnoles22

You've heard from Day 1 that Williams is one of the most gifted athletes to ever arrive in Tallahassee, but at this moment there is little reason to believe his role will be greatly expanded -- at least on defense -- any time soon. On special teams, he will continue to return kickoffs with a vengeance and be a critical component of both the kick- and punt-coverage units.

But getting back to defense, even with vocal leader Terrance Parks running out of eligibility, the coaching staff seemingly inserted junior Terrence Brooks into the lineup as quickly as possible, which says to me that Williams wasn't much of a consideration at safety. The Seminoles already have one speed merchant with a good head on his shoulders at the position in junior Lamarcus Joyner, and now they might have two of them with Brooks entering the mix.

If it were solely up to Fisher, Williams would be on the offensive side of the ball right now, lining up in the backfield considering how violently he runs with the ball in his hands. As far as playing another position is concerned, assistant coach Greg Hudson reportedly laughed recently at the suggestion of the Davenport product becoming a linebacker instead.

Of the incoming freshmen, who is most likely to get significant playing time? And who are the surefire redshirts? -- kapsignole

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If you're talking about significant contributions on either offense or defense, the relative lack of depth at defensive end leads me to believe Mario Edwards could be a part of the rotation sooner rather than later.

There are a handful of other true freshmen that can compete for playing time immediately, like Eddie Goldman at tackle because there have been defections there and Ronald Darby at cornerback since you don't know what you have yet in either Keelin Smith or Nick Waisome. Pender, of course, will make his presence felt offensively before long. And on special teams, Marvin Bracy's breathtaking speed practically requires him to get a long look as a return man.

The most important redshirt in my opinion is quarterback Jameis Winston, because if he sees the field for any reason his first year in town, that probably means something went horribly wrong at the game's most important position.


John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.

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