TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State would love to have defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back. Or running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder.
But it could have been much, much worse. Florida State had about a dozen players weighing the option of returning for their senior season or going to the NFL.
While the Seminoles will miss the four players who opted to turn pro early after the team won the national title, Florida State will return six starters on both sides of the ball and appears poised to make a strong run at defending its title.
The biggest hole at the moment? Wide receiver. Florida State loses a 1,000-yard receiver in Benjamin, and senior Kenny Shaw (933 yards) has graduated.
Now that we know who is coming back to Tallahassee, let’s take a position-by-position look at how the 2014 Seminoles shape up:
Returning leader: Sophomore Jameis Winston (4,057 yards, 40 TDs, 10 INTs, completed 66.9 percent of his passes).
Analysis: It’s scary to think that Winston could get better, that he could improve at reading defenses and use his experience as a freshman to improve on his Heisman season. Winston already has one of the best seasons ever by a Florida State QB, throwing for a school-record 40 TDs.
Coach Jimbo Fisher would surely take those numbers again. But an argument could be made for Winston to do even more: Johnny Manziel threw for 408 more yards, 11 more TDs and had a higher completion percentage in his sophomore season (following up on his Heisman year).
Returning leader: Junior Karlos Williams (730 rushing yards, 8.0 yards per carry, 11 TDs).
Analysis: This is why Fisher moved Williams from safety to running back just a game into the 2013 season. Fisher not only needed Williams to play with Wilder slowed by a shoulder injury, but he also knew that both Freeman and Wilder could leave early. And now Williams is the only tailback with significant college experience, running for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior.
Williams will be joined by sophomores Ryan Green (163 yards, 1 TD) and Mario Pender, who was academically ineligible in 2013. And expect Dalvin Cook, the state’s Mr. Football at Miami Central, to have an impact as a true freshman. Fullback Chad Abram has graduated, and the Seminoles could look to converted linebacker Freddie Stevenson.
Analysis: Greene has been Florida State’s most consistent receiver and he returns as the unquestioned No. 1 option for Winston in 2014. Only two Florida State receivers — Ron Sellers and E.G. Green — have ever had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
Winston loses two of his top receivers in Benjamin and Shaw, but the Seminoles have a deep group of sophomores and incoming freshmen. While Florida State has a few senior reserves in Scooter Haggins (coming off ACL injury) and Christian Green, Fisher will look to the future with sophomores like Isaiah Jones, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield.
Jones, at 6-4, has the size to potentially step into Benjamin’s shoes. Whitfield is a speedy, slot-type receiver. Wilson has little experience, with just three catches. Fisher’s playbook will be hard for a receiver to learn quickly, but a freshman could see playing time if he absorbs the system quickly.
Analysis: O’Leary opted to return for his senior season, and he looks to build on one of the finest years ever by a Florida State tight end. O’Leary already has 11 career TDs, the most by any Seminoles tight end in his career.
The unit will also have plenty of depth with the return of Kevin Haplea and Jeremy Kerr, who both suffered season-ending injuries over the summer. Converted defensive end Giorgio Newberry could stay at tight end or shift to the offensive line.
Returning leader: Senior LT Cameron Erving.
Analysis: Erving’s decision to return ensures stability on the line, which will bring back four starters who will be seniors in 2014. Erving won the Jacobs Award, which is given annually to the ACC’s top offensive lineman.
He will block Winston’s blind side and will be joined by guards Tre Jackson and Josue Matias and right tackle Bobby Hart. Florida State loses center Bryan Stork, but senior Austin Barron has starting experience and is the likely candidate to fill his spot.
Returning leader: Junior DE Mario Edwards (28 tackles, 3.5 sacks).
Analysis: Jernigan was a presence on the interior and he will be missed, but coaches knew he likely wouldn’t be back in 2014. Eddie Goldman will be one of the starters at tackle, while Derrick Mitchell, Nile Lawrence-Stample, Keith Bryant and Justin Shanks will fight for the other spot.
Edwards established himself as a run-stopping defensive end, and he will try to show his progress as a pass rusher in his junior season. Chris Casher, Demarcus Walker and Desmond Hollin will compete for the other defensive end spot.
Returning leader: Junior Terrance Smith (59 tackles, 2 sacks).
Analysis: This is one group that will see major change in 2014. Leading tackler Telvin Smith and Christian Jones have both graduated. Terrance Smith emerged as a consistent player early in the year, and should progress as a junior. He will be expected to lead the group.
Matthew Thomas, a five-star prospect from the 2013 class, will have a chance to start after hurting his shoulder in the middle of the year. Reggie Northrup, Ukeme Eligwe and Nigel Terrell will also be fighting for a starting job but all will see playing time.
Returning leader: Junior CB Ronald Darby (14 tackles, 2 INTs).
Analysis: The Seminoles lose unanimous All-American corner Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks, a safety. But this is the deepest position (again) on the roster. Two rising juniors, Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams, form what should be the ACC’s top corner tandem. Darby’s numbers are low, but few quarterbacks are testing him.
And safeties Nate Andrews and Jalen Ramsey played like veterans in 2013 despite being true freshmen. Andrews had four interceptions last season, and Ramsey has shown the ability to play corner and safety.