Who are the most important players for the Florida State Seminoles this coming year on offense, defense and special teams?
At no time in 2011 was coach Jimbo Fisher's offense as explosive with E.J. Manuel at the controls as it had been previously under the direction of Christian Ponder -- at least when the eventual first-round draft pick was relatively healthy.
Nevertheless, that does not mean Florida State will morph back into a 40-plus-points-per-game juggernaut this season simply if Manuel performs better, although it would help. The Seminoles need to improve all aspects of their game on the offensive side of the ball for that to happen, especially from a blocking perspective.
Fortunately for Manuel's sake, he'll be surrounded by an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, from running backs to tight ends to receivers. FSU could certainly use a reliable bell cow in the backfield, as the program hasn't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996, although conventional wisdom suggests that some rotation of Devonta Freeman, Chris Thompson, Lonnie Pryor, James Wilder and incoming freshman Mario Pender will get the job done. And then on any given snap, Manuel has an arsenal of targets in the passing game as deep and dangerous as any in the country.
But it all comes down to the offensive line, as the 'Noles were woefully inept this past year both opening up holes on the ground and providing adequate protection in the pocket. If this team ranks 104th in rushing offense and 112th in sacks allowed like it did a season ago, Manuel and Co. will once again disappoint to the tune of three or four losses and a pre-New Year's Day bowl.
Most Important Player: Cameron Erving. The former defensive lineman is lining up at left tackle now and charged with protecting Manuel's blind side. Fisher raved about him throughout the spring and believes the 6-5, 315-pounder to be a future millionaire. If he is, then the rest of the big uglies should fall into place.
If Florida State has any issues defensively, they shouldn't be up front. The Seminoles return every lineman from last year's menacing group and add a few blue-chip recruits to the mix, plus the pass-rushing triumvirate of Brandon Jenkins, Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine has a chance to be special.
There are still some questions to be answered in the linebacking corps, as three-time leading tackler Nigel Bradham is with the Buffalo Bills and needs to be replaced. But weak-side linebacker Christian Jones is a physical freak, both Vince Williams and Telvin Smith return at MIKE and the strong side is now manned by Nick Moody -- the one-time safety always played more like a linebacker anyway.
Expect an uptick in productivity at safety, where a heady Terrance Parks has been replaced by a speedy Terrence Brooks, who has a much higher capacity for making game-changing plays in the secondary. Across from Brooks, most FSU fans wouldn't trade Lamarcus Joyner for any other player in the nation at his position.
Cornerback, however, is a different story, as the starters underachieved last season and the second and third stringers are yet to emerge for 2012. Sure, Xavier Rhodes is the prototype and might be a star in the NFL one day, but he needs to avoid all the ticky-tack injuries that limited him for much of this past year.
Most Important Player: Greg Reid. He's not that big, not that fast and not much of a prospect at the next level, but he can single-handedly turn a game around as quickly as anyone on the roster. When he gets his hands on the ball, be it on an interception or a punt return, he's capable of denting the scoreboard every time. If he can finally stay out of trouble and focus on being the best football player he can be, the 'Noles stand a shot at getting three or four takeaways every week.
At this time last year, Fisher was telling reporters at ACC Media Days that two of his best 10 best players were kicker Dustin Hopkins and punter Shawn Powell.
Hopkins proved his coach correct, as he converted on 22 of 27 field-goal attempts, boomed 29 kickoffs out of the end zone for touchbacks and is currently working on a school-record streak of 130 consecutive extra points made. Expect the Houston native to be the program's -- and the ACC's -- career scoring leader by the time he hangs up his Garnet and Gold spikes, as he is only 68 points shy of each mark.
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Aside from the two specialists, Florida State was also blessed with excellent coverage in 2011, especially a kickoff unit that yielded only 19 yards per return. Returning kicks, the 'Noles featured a pair of game breakers in Joyner (30.5-yard average) and Karlos Williams (23.2). And while Reid's average of 11.2 yards per punt return wasn't eye-popping, his reputation alone made enemy coaches nervous and he slammed the door on rival Miami with an 83-yard touchdown just prior to halftime.
Hopkins remains. So do Joyner, Williams, Reid and one or two other quality choices in the return game, like Rashad Greene. Track-star signee Marvin Bracy is now on board, too. The coverage teams also bring back the majority of their key contributors.
But what about the punting?
Most Important Player: Cason Beatty. He's a true freshman, so nobody is expecting him to duplicate Powell's All-American artistry of this past season. Still, the Charlotte product must be a little more consistent than he was during spring practice and speed it up a bit to ensure that he doesn't get a punt blocked at a critical moment. Don't even worry all that much about touchbacks, as not many opposing offenses are going to drive 80 yards on this defense.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.