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'Noles' goals: persistence, resurgence

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida State Seminoles have said this before.

We're hungry. We're angry. We're ready.

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We're talented. We're motivated. We're united.

We're explosive. We're aggressive. We're elusive.

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Well, the time has come to prove it.

Florida State, the dominant college football team of the 1990s, no longer seems so invincible. The Seminoles have lost nine of their past 24 games and finished out of the Top 10 for two straight years. While the Seminoles appear to have slipped or drifted back to the pack, other Atlantic Coast Conference schools, such as Maryland, North Carolina State and Virginia, are rising.

Do not think guys such as Michael Boulware, Darnell Dockett, Kevin Emanuel, Kendyll Pope and Stanford Samuels have not noticed. They are seniors, and the decline, if you want to call it that, happened on their watch. The losses weigh heavily on them. This is the year to turn it around. It's their last chance.

"We want to leave here with a good legacy," said Samuels, a cornerback who has done more than his fair share of talking through the years. "Right now it's shaky. It's up in the air. We've been here through good times and we've started the bad times, so it's on us to sort of lead us back to the promised land."

Glance at the Florida State roster and depth chart, and one strength jumps out: experience on defense. The unit returns 10 starters from the team that won the conference title last season, and that thought should make coach Bobby Bowden happy.

Like most coaches across the country, Bowden believes defense wins championships.

"I'm one that feels like when you talk about Florida State and you're talking about how great the offense is, if you don't talk about the defense, that's bad news," Bowden said. "But if you talk about how great your defense is, then you've got a chance. We haven't said how great we are, but what I'm saying is at least we've got veteran, or fair, defensive people coming back."

They should be more than fair.

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Just look at Dockett, the defense's key player. After almost two years of playing injured, the former All-ACC defensive tackle entered August drills feeling so strong that he said he felt like The Hulk.

If Dockett, a Paint Branch alumnus, can draw double-teams at the line of scrimmage, he can open up space for nose guards Travis Johnson and Jeff Womble. If they can provide an effective interior pass rush, which the Seminoles have lacked in recent years, the entire defense would benefit.

Pope and Boulware, the undersized but speedy outside linebackers, feel energized with the offseason addition of a new position coach, Kevin Steele. Pope just beams when he talks about his new "tutor."

"Instead of just one year of him being my coach," Pope said, "I wish I had like a few more years here."

Last year, Pope and Boulware often played between 70 and 75 plays a game, a large number that left them tired late in games. Now, with youngsters A.J. Nicholson, Sam McGrew and Buster Davis progressing nicely, Pope and Boulware should stay fresher as the season progresses.

At cornerback, defensive coordinator and secondary coach Mickey Andrews can choose among seniors in Samuels and Rufus Brown and juniors Bryant McFadden and Leroy Smith.

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But the secondary still is the defense's biggest question mark, despite its experience. Too many times during the past two seasons, the group has allowed long passes and easy touchdowns.

In a way, the defensive backfield has become emblematic of the defense as a whole: long on talent, but short on results.

North Carolina tight end Bobby Blizzard, who once played for Kentucky and has had exposure to Southeastern Conference teams, considers the Seminoles to have the fastest defense he has ever seen.

"I've never played against a team that had that much team speed at one time," Blizzard said.

So, why hasn't the Florida State defense dominated more opponents recently? Why did it rank fifth out of the ACC's nine teams in total defense and next to last in passing defense? And, why should things be different this time around?

"I'll tell you one thing," said senior Allen Augustin, the team's starting middle linebacker. "We're hungry. We're starving."

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Boulware and others have pointed to team chemistry. Players appear more united this season, more eager to help each other and more enthusiastic at practice.

"I think the unity factor - that is the difference," said Boulware, whose brother Peter plays for the Ravens. "Once we get there, there will be nobody who can stay on the field with us."

The defense may have to be at its best early on. The Seminoles will field an inexperienced, but talented, offensive line that will need game experience to jell. Quarterback Chris Rix also will be throwing to a relatively inexperienced group of receivers.

That just means more responsibility for the team's most experienced group, the defense.

"It's good to have goals, and obviously, we want to reach those goals," said Emanuel, a starting defensive end. "But talking about it is not going to get it done."

It's what happens this year on the field that counts.

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Now, the veterans finally are talking.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Around the conference

Clemson (7-6, 4-4 ACC)

Strengths: The offensive line has four starters back, and the defensive line returns three. CB Justin Miller and LB John Leake are among the best in the league at their positions. QB Charlie Whitehurst struggled at times in his first season as a starter last year, but he has the best group of wide receivers in the league.

Concerns: The back seven on defense has just two starters back. The toughest ACC games come in the first half of the league season. The rushing game was mediocre last season, and there's not an elite tailback on the roster. Clemson has a solid group of wide-outs, but the Tigers don't get as much out of those guys as they should. Coach Tommy Bowden will hear all season about the pressure he faces.

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Key game: Sept. 20, at Georgia Tech. A loss for either doesn't bode well if an upper-division finish in the ACC is the goal.

Extra point: The Tigers play just one game in a state not contiguous to South Carolina - Oct. 4 at Maryland.

Duke (2-10, 0-8)

Strengths: The offense has all 11 starters back and the defense returns nine starters, so there's experience on both sides of the ball. TB Chris Douglas and FB Alex Wade are a solid 1-2 punch. Duke led the ACC in rushing defense last season, when the Devils lost five games by five points or fewer. Three of the four nonconference games are eminently winnable. If QB Adam Smith finds a go-to wide receiver, this team - don't laugh - could go to a bowl.

Concerns: The roster is filled with players used to losing. The first three ACC games are against three of the league's four best teams. The secondary was horrendous last season (254.7 passing yards per game). The passing offense is mediocre.

Key game: Oct. 18, vs. Wake Forest. This appears to be the best chance for the Blue Devils to end their ACC-record 25-game conference losing streak.

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Extra point: For the first time since 1957, the Blue Devils led the ACC in defense against the run.

Florida State (9-5, 7-1)

Strengths: Greg Jones heads a deep group of tailbacks, which will take some pressure off quarterback Chris Rix. The front seven on defense, led by LB Michael Boulware and LB Kendyll Pope, should be a big-time strength. Team speed remains good. The secondary returns intact. The ACC schedule is favorable in that three contenders must visit Tallahassee.

Concerns: The Seminoles face perhaps the nation's toughest nonconference schedule. Rix hasn't shown he can do the job. The offensive line has four new starters. No wide receiver on the roster has done anything of note. The pass rush again could be a problem. There is no playmaking defensive back on the roster. Will the offseason turmoil carry over into the season?

Key game: Oct. 18, at Virginia. This is the only time Florida State goes on the road to play a conference contender.

Extra point: The Seminoles had won at least 10 games for 14 consecutive seasons until winning eight in 2001 and nine last season.

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Georgia Tech (7-6, 4-4)

Strengths: The offensive line returns four starters, so the new tailback should have room to run. The linebackers should be a strength. The quarterbacks have some skills; it's up to coach Chan Gailey to pick one and stick with him. There are some speedy wide receivers on the roster; they just haven't done much.

Concerns: Academic ineligibility cost the Yellow Jackets 10 players, including some key starters and important reserves. A consistent quarterback must emerge. The defensive line must be rebuilt. Who's the starting tailback? And who's the main wide receiver? There will be three new starters in the secondary. The nonconference schedule is challenging.

Key game: Sept. 20, vs. Clemson. A win here could be the difference between going bowling and staying home for the holidays.

Extra point: Tech has made a school-record six consecutive bowl appearances.

North Carolina (3-9, 1-7)

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Strengths: QB Darian Durant is shifty and has a strong arm; he would be even more effective if the Tar Heels could run at all. At least all five starters return on the offensive line. Injuries put a big hurt on the Heels last season (there was a different starting defense every game), and it can't be that bad again, can it?

Concerns: The running game has been brutal for the past couple of seasons, and there's no tailback on the roster who worries any opponent. Who's the go-to wide receiver? Eight starters are back on what was the worst defense in the ACC last season; the Heels were especially awful against the run. The nonconference schedule is tough.

Key game: Sept. 20, at Wisconsin. This is the Heels' only game outside the Carolinas until Nov. 1.

Extra point: The Tar Heels led the ACC in passing last season, the first time they had done so since 1963.

N.C. State (11-3, 5-3)

Strengths: QB Philip Rivers is a four-year starter and a legit Heisman Trophy contender. WR Jerricho Cotchery may be the best at his position in the league. Sophomore TB T.A. McLendon is a stud; he's tough, has good speed and is a receiving threat. The offensive line should be OK. The linebackers are solid and fast. Team speed is superb. Coach Chuck Amato has his guys thinking they can win every time out.

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Concerns: The front four on defense will be all new, and there are only three upperclassmen in the eight-man two-deep roster. In a league with teams that like to run the ball, that's a huge concern. As well as McLendon played last season, the Wolfpack was just sixth in the league in rushing. The secondary is in flux. The coaching staff went through an overhaul.

Key game: Nov. 1, vs. Virginia. This is the first in a three-game season-ending gantlet against the league's top contenders.

Extra point: The Wolfpack won 11 games last season, the first time it had won more than nine.

Virginia (9-5, 6-2)

Strengths: The Cavaliers return four starters on the offensive line, and have a deep stable of tailbacks headed by Wali Lundy. Sophomore TE Heath Miller is a future All-American. There is good speed on defense. If QB Matt Schaub plays well again (68.9 completion percentage, 28 TD passes and seven interceptions last season), the Cavs would average at least 35 points.

Concerns: Though Florida State must travel to Charlottesville, the other key league games are on the road. Can Schaub repeat as the ACC's Player of the Year? The Cavs were horrible against the run last season. There is just one senior among the projected starters on the defensive front seven.

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Key game: Oct. 18, vs. Florida State. If everything goes as planned, the Cavs will be 6-0 when the Seminoles come calling.

Extra point: Despite winning nine games last season, the Cavs were just 80th in the nation in total offense and 100th in total defense.

Wake Forest (7-6, 3-5)

Strengths: Three starting offensive linemen return, which means there should be some holes for the new backfield. The secondary returns intact in the Deacons' 3-3-5 scheme. Special teams should be OK. Three of the first four and four of the first six are at home.

Concerns: Only three starters return on offense. The starting defensive line will be all new, and there also will be two new starting linebackers. The passing offense has a long way to go. There's a new quarterback, a new tailback and a new fullback, which could cause problems for the option offense. The early-season schedule is tough.

Key game: Oct. 18, at Duke. The loser easily could finish last in the ACC.

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Extra point: There are six ACC graduates coaching in the league, and Wake coach Jim Grobe is the only one not at his alma mater (Grobe is a Virginia alumnus).

- Compiled by Mike Huguenin of the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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