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Seminoles football primer: ACC champs seek rare repeat

The 'Noles are aiming for a repeat as ACC champs, but will have to do so with many new faces.

Repeating as Atlantic Coast Conference champion used to be easy. If the program was Florida State. And the decade was the 1990s.

The Seminoles won all but one ACC title from 1992 — the year they joined the league — through 2003. Since then, just Virginia Tech in 2006-07 has been able to repeat.

Florida State is next up with a chance to win back-to-back titles. But in 2013, Clemson is the favorite to win the Atlantic.

The Seminoles return plenty of starters, especially at running back, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and defensive back.

So August becomes a time to blend in the returning talent with the freshmen and sophomores who will be starting for the first time. There will be new starters at quarterback, kicker and all along the defensive line (although experienced backups return there).

Florida State opens up preseason camp on Tuesday, and this time there is plenty of buzz for the opener. After three seasons of playing cupcakes like Samford, Louisiana Monroe and Murray State, Florida State will face Pittsburgh on the road in a primetime Labor Day game. The Seminoles know the spotlight will be on them, and they immediately open on the road against a program that is making its ACC debut.

Here's a look at how the Seminoles shape up going into camp:

Key losses

EJ Manuel — The most accurate quarterback in school history, Manuel was 25-6 as a starter and won four bowl games. He threw for 7,736 yards at Florida State and was a first-round pick by the Buffalo Bills.

Bjoern Werner — A versatile defensive end, Werner had 23.5 sacks in three seasons (including 13 in 2012) and was a first-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts. 

Tank Carradine — A knee injury cut short his senior year, but Carradine still had 11 sacks and was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers.

Xavier Rhodes — A wide receiver that converted to defensive back, Rhodes developed into a tough one-on-one cover corner and had 140 tackles in three seasons before he was drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings.

Menelik Watson — Once a power forward on the basketball court, the British-born Watson first gave football a try at a junior college in 2011. In his one year at Florida State, he started 12 games and gave up just one sack before leaving for the NFL and was a second-round draft pick by the Oakland Raiders.

Chris Thompson — A speedy back who suffered a pair of season-ending injuries the last two years, Thompson averaged 6.3 yards per carry in his career. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Washington Redskins.

Lonnie Pryor — A fullback who cleared the way for so many long runs, Pryor also had 18 career touchdowns. He was a free-agent signee with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and now could be clearing a path for Maurice-Jones Drew.

Newcomers to watch

Jameis Winston — The nation's top quarterback in the class of 2012, Winston completed 12 of 15 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

Roberto Aguayo — Considered one of the top place kickers in the 2012 class, Aguayo made 5 of 6 field-goal attempts in the spring game (including two from beyond 50).

Jeremy Kerr — With the shakeup at tight end (Christo Kourtzidis' transfer and Kevin Haplea's injury), Kerr should see significant playing time as a backup to Nick O'Leary. Kerr is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and known more as a blocker than a pass catcher at this point in his career.

Mario Pender — A speedy tailback who missed the 2012 season with a sports hernia injury, Pender ran for 1,543 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior in high school. He could see playing time along with juniors James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman.

Matthew Thomas — A consensus five-star linebacker, Thomas signed with Florida State in February, wavered on the commitment in May and then met with coaches and honored his signing by arriving in Tallahassee in June. He could see playing time as a reserve and will compete for a starting job in 2014.

DeMarcus Walker — An early enrollee who was never cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse until after the spring season was complete, Walker could still earn playing time as a backup defensive end.

Position battles

Quarterback — Jameis Winston, Jacob Coker, Sean Maguire

Florida State hasn't had a quarterback competition since Christian Ponder beat out Drew Weatherford and D'Vontrey Richardson in 2008. Ponder was a darkhorse, a rising sophomore that beat out a senior (Weatherford) and a highly touted recruit (Richardson).

Fisher made that call in 2008 as Florida State's offensive coordinator. This time, the darkhorse is Maguire, and he's clearly the No. 3 in this competition.

Winston and Coker have similar talents, but it appears so far that Winston does a little bit of everything better than Coker. The job is almost surely going to Winston, but it's also a chance for Coker to show that he deserves playing time – especially late in mop-up situations.

Right tackle — Bobby Hart vs. Bryan Stork

This is less of a position battle and more of a position test for Hart. He is a junior but still won't be 19 until Aug. 21 (he started kindergarten early).

Hart started nine games at tackle as a 17-year-old freshman and played as a reserve as a sophomore. With Menelik Watson leaving after his junior year, coaches would like to see Hart make the next step and take on the starting job at right tackle.

Stork can play right tackle, or any position on the line. But ideally, it would be best for the senior to start at center and have Hart show he's ready to start at right tackle.

Defensive end — Dan Hicks, Giorgio Newberry, Demarcus Walker

Hicks began his career at defensive end, shifted to tight end, was injured last August and moved back to end. He is an exceptional athlete and has some experience (34 tackle in 26 games) at defensive end. The main question will be the health of his knee.

Newberry has been slowed by injuries that have limited his playing time. But he is quick off the ball and had 13 tackles as a backup last season.

Walker was considered one of the top defensive ends in the 2013 class but is also a wild card. He could impress coaches right off the bat and push for playing time. He could be forced to play if Hicks or Newberry are injured. Or he could be gaining experience for 2014.

Linebacker — Terrance Smith vs. Ukeme Eligwe

With senior linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith returning, Florida State has a wide-open competition for a third spot. But it should also be noted that Jones and Smith will often be paired with the nickel defense (five-defensive back set) that Florida State is expected to often use.

Still, it's important to determine a third starter at linebacker. And Terrance Smith has the experience, playing in 15 games over the past two seasons as a reserve and recording nine tackles last season.

Eligwe was considered one of the nation's top linebackers in the class of 2012. He hurt his hand last fall and was forced to take a redshirt, but the redshirt freshman turned heads this spring. He is 6-foot-2, 240 pounds and has the skillset to either win the job or earn playing time.

Top Storylines

The quarterback competition — Jimbo Fisher says it until he's blue in the face and nobody believes him. Fisher insists that it's a wide-open competition this August between Jameis Winston, Jacob Coker and Sean Maguire.

In reality, Fisher and the assistants are smitten with Winston's talent. He is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, has a strong, accurate arm and is mobile.

Coker possessed many of the same qualities as Winston but he was slowed this spring by a foot injury. He will surely push Winston during the preseason and will see significant practice time, but he will likely be the Seminoles' backup.

Is there enough depth at tight end? — Florida State hasn't used the tight end as much as a pass-catcher. Nick O'Leary had 33 catches in his first two seasons.

But the tight end is a major factor as a blocker and a change-up as an over-the-middle target when defenses aren't keeping their eye on O'Leary.

However, Florida State is just an injury away from being in a tough spot at tight end. Jeremy Kerr is a true freshman and will undoubtedly struggle blocking defensive ends. So the Seminoles will need to develop a walk-on tight end or move a reserve offensive lineman over to help.

New defense — Florida State's defense was one of the top 5 in the nation in 2012 and was No. 1 against the pass. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops is now coaching Kentucky, and in his place is Jeremy Pruitt.

A two-time national champion at Alabama, Pruitt coached the Crimson Tide's defensive backs (a group that was No. 7 in the nation against the pass in 2012).

Players said this spring that they liked Pruitt's schemes, which feature more blitzing and attacking than Stoops' system. Odds are this will be a smooth transition, but it will be interesting to see if there are any speedbumps here and there.