Will the pass rush be as good as advertised?
Florida State should have the premier triumvirate of defensive ends in the country this season, as Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner are both All-American candidates and Cornellius Carradine is a starter at 90-plus percent of FBS programs -- he'll be a draft pick come 2013.
The Seminoles had a seemingly perfect balance at the right and left D-end positions last season, as Werner got off to a sensational start on the left side because Jenkins was drawing so much attention on the right side. Their production seemed to flip-flop midway through the campaign, with Werner all of a sudden seeing the double teams and Jenkins, as a result, making more stops in the backfield.
Then you have Carradine as the No. 3, primarily backing up Werner at left end. While the JUCO transfer got off to a somewhat slow start upon his arrival in Tallahassee, he proved to be a capable run defender right out of the gate before finally making his presence felt as a pass rusher. During the Garnet and Gold Game this past spring, he consistently beat Bobby Hart and now seems to have made the adjustment to the highest level of college football.
Not only does FSU have a dynamic trio off the edge, but the interior of the defensive line can wreak its share of havoc, too. Everett Dawkins is one of the senior leaders of this team and has been an underrated player for some time, plus Timmy Jernigan was simply tremendous in 2011 and has the look of a future superstar.
Throw in the occasional corner or nickel blitz, and defensive coordinator Mark Stoops has all kinds of ways he can make enemy quarterbacks nervous this year.
Is Jones really a down-to-down playmaker?
At 6-4 and 237 pounds, junior Christian Jones, who was moved from strong-side linebacker to the weak side in order to make up for the graduation of leading tackler Nigel Bradham, is the proverbial physical freak. Nevertheless, he totally disappeared last season just as often as he totally dominated.
In most traditional 4-3 schemes, the weak-side linebacker is the playmaker because he shouldn't have to fight off as many blocks and can employ his speed to seek and destroy from sideline to sideline. As a strong-side defender in 2011, Jones spent the majority of his time either taking on double teams at the line of scrimmage against the run or covering tight ends down the field vs. the pass.
An argument can be made that the strong-side linebacker is more of a pass-defense position than a run-defense position, which is why that spot is replaced by the nickel back -- probably sophomore safety Tyler Hunter -- when the opposition brings a third wide receiver into the huddle. Jones certainly has the athleticism to be a terrific run defender, but does he have the instincts?
If he does, then the 'Noles might not see too much of a dropoff between Bradham and Jones, even though Bradham was amazing down the stretch last season. But if he doesn't, there could be trouble afoot since the most capable replacement, Jeff Luc, just transferred to Cincinnati.
How much of a difference does Brooks make?
Junior Terrence Brooks didn't waste much time in the spring game announcing to the fans in attendance that he can be an improvement over the departed Terrance Parks, as he intercepted an E.J. Manuel pass near midfield and found his way to the end zone like he had been shot out of a cannon.
Brooks is well aware that Florida State followers were hoping Karlos Williams would get the second safety job alongside the incomparable Lamarcus Joyner, and all that does is feed into the motivation he found after being slighted as a three-star recruit coming out of high school -- he admitted in the spring it still bothers him. If he plays as hard on defense as he did a year ago on special teams, coupled with his upgrade in speed and coverage ability over Parks, Brooks and Joyner could be a dangerous duo on the back end.
But remember that coach Jimbo Fisher vigorously defended Parks following the win at Florida last November because he excelled at the mental part of the game, so Brooks better know the system as well as his predecessor did.
When do Reid and Rhodes put it all together?
The Seminoles were supposed to have one of the truly elite cornerback combinations in the nation a year ago, as both Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes made the preseason watch list for the Thorpe Award.
However, Reid had a rocky performance -- both on and off the field -- that saw him give up his fair share of big plays and kept him INT-less until the regular-season finale against the Gators. Rhodes battled minor injuries from start to finish and then tweaked his knee in the bowl win over Notre Dame, which sidelined him for spring drills.
Plain and simple, FSU needs Reid and Rhodes to be as good as they can be. Stoops doesn't have the luxury of relying on a third corner as capable as Mike Harris, as evidenced by the fact that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Nick Waisome played little as a freshman and Keelin Smith redshirted his first season, and while each of them has upside, neither has proven a thing. As stated before, Hunter is the front-runner to play nickel. Does that say more about his skills or the lack of a dependable No. 3 corner?
Since everyone is in agreement that Reid and Rhodes are both future pros, it's time for them to start playing like it from week to week.
Which freshmen make an immediate impact?
The 'Noles have yet another impressive recruiting class to put on display in 2012, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
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At tackle, Eddie Goldman and Justin Shanks have weighed in at 324 and 340 pounds, respectively, so they are already big enough to be nasty in the trenches. At end, Mario Edwards is imposing at 295 pounds, and Chris Casher is a chiseled 251. At linebacker, Markuss Eligwe and Reggie Northrup see a depth chart that presently has a few holes in it. At cornerback, Ronald Darby is track-star fast and was arguably the No. 1 recruit in the land at his position. And then there is a pair of hybrid DBs in P.J. Williams and Colin Blake -- each could end up at corner or safety depending on team needs.
The smart money is on Goldman, Edwards and Darby seeing the field sooner rather than later, as Goldman could be another Jernigan, Edwards is simply a man among boys at that size and Darby needs to be in the starting lineup as early as 2013.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.