Florida State had trouble protecting quarterback EJ Manuel and opening up the running game last season, but coach Jimbo Fisher and Manuel are confident that an inexperienced group of offensive lineman will get the job done in 2012.
Opening the season with an unprecedented four consecutive home games, the seventh-ranked Seminoles will try to improve to 18-0 against FCS opponents when they face Murray State for the first time Saturday.
Despite being tied for 110th in the FBS with 41 sacks allowed and ranking 104th with 112.2 rushing yards per game, the Seminoles went 9-4 in 2011 and earned their fourth consecutive bowl win - 18-14 over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl.
With Manuel back for a final season, Fisher will start junior college transfer Menelik Watson at right tackle, former defensive tackle Cameron Erving at left tackle, sophomores Josue Matias and Tre' Jackson at guard and junior Bryan Stork at center.
Stork has 10 of the 12 combined starts among that group, with Matias and Jackson each having one after the bowl victory.
"The size and athleticism, a different group of guys, different cats,'' Fisher said Monday. "We have made some really good strides in that area. They've got to go do it Saturday.''
Manuel, who threw for 2,666 yards with 18 TDs and eight INTs last season, has already seen growth from the most inexperienced members of that group.
"It's been good and I think the most important thing is that they were coming to me," Manuel told the school's official website of Erving and Watson. "'EJ Am I doing this right?' or 'Are you feeling pressure off the right side or off the left side?' Cam and Menelik have probably been doing it equally. That gives me a lot of extra confidence in that pocket."
Manuel should feel the same way about having sophomore wide receiver Rashad Greene, the MVP of the Champs Sports Bowl, on his side. Greene, the team leader with 596 yards and seven receiving TDs in 2011, takes over punt return duties after senior Greg Reid was dismissed from the team this month for a violation of team rules.
Sophomore Nick Waisome will replace Reid as a starting cornerback, but freshman Ronald Darby has impressed in the preseason and will get plenty of opportunities.
The Seminoles return eight starters from a group that was fourth in the nation in total defense at 275.0 yards per game and 15.1 points a contest.
Florida State, which tied for eighth in the country with 40 sacks last season, will likely be without senior defensive tackle Anthony McCloud on Saturday after he suffered a pectoral injury during camp.
Sophomore Timmy Jernigan will start if McCloud can't go.
The Seminoles will try to get as much pressure as possible on senior quarterback Casey Brockman, the Ohio Valley Conference preseason offensive player of the year. Brockman threw for 3,276 yards and 25 touchdowns while rushing for 211 yards and four scores to help the Racers go 7-4 last season.
Brockman's favorite targets will likely be Walter Powell, Ja-Vonta Trotter and Utah State transfer Dontel Watkins.
Murray State's rushing game could be in for a rough night in Tallahassee with junior Duane Brady, who ran for 283 yards last year, taking over as the No. 1 running back following the graduation of 2011 team leader Mike Harris.
"Brady played a bunch for us last year, but we have nobody behind him," said coach Chris Hatcher, an admitted Florida State fan when he was growing up in Macon, Ga. "We are going to rely on some junior college players and some true freshman. So far they look good, but we're going to be very young in depth at that position."
The Racers have some experience on the defensive side - junior linebacker Qua Huzzie led the conference with 14 tackles for loss last season, while senior defensive end Kevin Robinson was the OVC sack leader with seven - but Murray State surrendered 28.5 points and 395.0 yards per game in 2011.
"We are going to go down there and play our best and see what happens," Hatcher said. "We are not going to let that one game define our season one way or another."
- Jimbo Fisher
- Murray State