Loaded Seminoles hope to live up to preseason hype

Florida State is heavily favored to win its first Atlantic Coast

Conference title in seven years and perhaps challenge for a

national championship.

Still, Jimbo Fisher said though there is a sense of urgency,

there is no more pressure than usual on the Seminoles.

”I don’t think it’s this year or bust at all,” said Fisher,

now in his third year as head coach. ”We have much more depth than

we’ve ever had since I’ve been here.”

Still, the Seminoles have plenty to prove to a fan base that

expected more than a 9-4 showing a year ago and no longer fills

Florida State’s 83,000-seat stadium on a regular basis.

The Seminoles were expected to get back among the nation’s elite

in 2011, but an early three-game losing streak took care of their

preseason hopes of winning the ACC and a BCS bowl berth.

This season begins with the same optimism.

Florida State should have little trouble posting its 36th

straight winning season and receiving a 31st consecutive bowl bid,

but Fisher expects much more. He believes another year of

experience will help his team avoid last year’s pitfalls and get

back to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2005.

Fisher points to his team’s wealth of talent that includes one

of the best returning defenses in the country (the Seminoles gave

up only about 15 points per game last season), an experienced

fifth-year senior quarterback EJ Manuel and one of the nation’s top

placekickers in Dustin Hopkins.

”We’ll be a very good football team,” Fisher said.

”Everybody’s got to be ready when their number is called.”

A favorable schedule – the Seminoles only leave the state three

times – doesn’t hurt. A seven-game home schedule includes a pair of

lower-division schools to begin the campaign followed by two more

home games before a trip to Tampa where Florida State hopes to

avenge a 2009 loss to South Florida.

The only trips outside Florida boundaries are at North Carolina

State, Virginia Tech and Maryland.

The 46-year-old Fisher has banned his players from using social

media accounts during the season in hopes of keeping them more

focused on that task at hand.

Florida State finished 9-4 in 2011 after posting a 10-4 mark in

Fisher’s first year as head coach following three seasons as

predecessor Bobby Bowden’s offensive coordinator.

The much heralded defense salvaged the 2011 season by smothering

Florida and Notre Dame in the final two games That unit returns

virtually intact led by defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Brandon

Jenkins, and safety Lamarcus Joyner.

The Seminoles have recorded 88 quarterback sacks the past two

seasons, including 21.5 by Jenkins. Florida State gave up an

average of only 15 points a game last year despite surrendering 35

to Clemson and Wake Forest on successive weekends.

The Seminoles will have to replace punter Shawn Powell, who

graduated, and return specialist Greg Reid, who was kicked off the

team after several violations of team rules. Reid, who was also a

two-year starter at cornerback, was only 180 yards shy of the ACC

punt return mark of 1,296 yards held by former Virginia Tech star

Eddie Royal. Powell’s 44.2 career averaged stands as the best in

Florida State history.

But Florida State does have Hopkins, the placekicker known for

his gold-colored shoes, returning for this final season. He is

within reach of both the school and ACC scoring records of 393

points. He has four field goals of more than 50 yards, including a

55-yard kick that beat Clemson 16-13 in 2010.

It’s been a dozen years since Florida State’s last run at a

national title – an exasperating period for fans spoiled accustomed

to the Seminoles being contenders.

Those successful teams were always strong at quarterback,

especially in the national title years of 1993 and 1999 when

Heisman Trophy winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke were at the

helm. Fisher said EJ Manuel, his first marquee recruit, has similar

abilities.

”He can lead you to a championship,” Fisher said about his

6-foot-5, 238-pound quarterback.

He’s much bigger than the elusive Ward and far more mobile than

Weinke.

”They understood what to do in order to win games whether they

were having a great game or having a bad game,” Manuel said of

Ward and Weinke. ”They still understood what it took, how to put

their teams in situations to win the game.”

Manuel, sporting a new beard, said he dropped about 10 pounds in

the offseason and believes he’s in the best shape of his life

headed into the Sept. 1 opener against Murray (Ky.) State. He’s

13-4 as a starter in a career and has thrown for 4,344 yards and 24

touchdowns.

Manuel and the offense could get a boost from the return of wide

receivers Willie Haulstead and Rashad Greene, both attempting to

rebound from serious injuries.

Haulstead, who sat out all of last season with concussion

symptoms, caught 38 passes for 587 yards and six touchdowns as a

sophomore in 2010. He’s 6-3 and provides another big target for

Manuel, who already has 6-6 senior Rodney Smith and 6-6 redshirt

freshman Kelvin Benjamin available along with a handful of smaller

veteran receivers. They’re led by 6-foot, 175-pound sophomore

Rashad Greene, who caught 38 passes for 596 yards and seven TD’s

last season as a freshman despite missing several games with

injuries.

Chris Thompson, who ran for 845 yards and six touchdowns as a

sophomore in 2010 when he had three touchdown runs of more than 70

yards, suffered a season-ending back injury in the fifth game last

year, but is back in the mix at tailback with sophomore Devonta

Freeman and James Wilder, Jr., for carries.

But the offensive line hasn’t been able to provide enough

protection or open holes; its been the Seminoles’ Achilles heel the

past two years.

Fisher said that problem is solved now with a

sophomore-dominated front that didn’t see much action until the win

over Notre Dame in a season-ending bowl game.

”Guys have played and even guys who haven’t played who are

young are very talented,” Fischer said. ”Our weakness last year

may now be our strength because we had to play so many guys.”

Manuel, who missed one full game and a half of another after

being knocked out of the Oklahoma game in the third quarter, took a

pounding last year behind a line that gave up 41 sacks.

But Fisher is counting on the group to do a better job

protecting Manuel and helping ignite a dormant running game.

”I think we’ll have a very good offensive line,” Fisher

insisted. ”When you’re good on the offensive line, you can have a

very good football team.”