TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Jimbo Fisher has landed several top recruiting classes the past four years and now he's about to learn if that talent is as good as advertised.
With more than a dozen Seminoles departing from last year's team that finished 12-2 and 10th in The Associated Press final poll of the season, Fisher and an overhauled coaching staff enter spring practice Wednesday looking to replace several of his top performers from one of the nation's top defenses a year ago along with veteran quarterback EJ Manuel, who led the high-scoring offense.
Fisher said Monday he can't wait to get started, calling spring practice "the fun time of the year."
"Extremely excited," Fisher said. "They can be a heckuva football team and make another championship run."
But there is work to be done first for the coaches who must replace Manuel along with a handful of NFL-bound defenders and record-setting placekicker Dustin Hopkins, who finished his career as the NCAA's all-time leader in career field goals and points scored by a kicker.
"We've got to find the guys who play the best together," Fisher said. "Fundamentals are what win championships."
Much of the focus this spring and this summer falls on the competition to replace Manuel.
Rising redshirt junior Clint Trickett, redshirt sophomore Jacob Coker and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Sean McGuire and Jameis Winston. While Winston was the most celebrated recruit from the group and is splitting time with baseball, Trickett, who is the lone candidate with meaningful experience, begins spring as the starter. He has thrown for 947 yards and seven touchdowns in relief of Manuel.
But all four will get equal repetitions in practice, Fisher said.
"You let them decide by how they play and the results of what goes on," Fisher said. "Time will tell. I think I know what their abilities are, but you never know what someone's capabilities are until they're put under pressure situations. You've just got to let it happen."
Fisher faced a similar controversy in his second year as offensive coordinator at Florida State when he replaced three-year starter Drew Weatherford with Christian Ponder with Manuel in the wings.
The fourth-year Seminole coach isn't sure when the quarterback decision will be finalized.
"They all have the natural instincts to be quarterbacks and be leaders," said Fisher, who stands 31-10 three seasons after replacing the iconic Bobby Bowden.
Fisher also expects a healthy Mario Pender to push James Wilder Jr., and Devonta Freeman for playing time at tailback.
The 195-pound Pender, who redshirted last season because of an injury, is the fastest of the backs.
"An extremely powerful guy," Fisher said. "A very talented young man. He can hit home runs."
While the quarterback competition will be the most closely followed by fans, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will be looking to replace much of the Seminoles' starting front from last season. The school lost three defensive ends, two tackles and a cornerback all likely to be drafted.
Three of the team's experienced defensive backs - Nick Waisome, Ron Darby and Tyler Hunter - will miss the spring with injuries along with defensive tackle Demonte McAllister.
One notable position change occurs in the secondary where Lamarcus Joyner will move from safety to cornerback.
Pruitt is one of six new assistants on Fisher's revamped staff.
Fisher doesn't foresee any issues with the new coaching group blending in quickly.
"We're going to do things the Florida State way, the way we've been doing," said Fisher, who is keeping the offensive coordinator responsibilities. "They hit the ground running easier than the old group did. It has not been an issue at all."
And he's confident the Seminoles have plenty of talent available to make a run for a second straight Atlantic Coast Conference title and BCS bowl game.
"I always thought we had co-starters," Fisher said. "They still have to take that next step, being that front guy."
Florida State's spring game is scheduled April 13 and the regular season opener at ACC newcomer Pittsburgh on Labor Day, suddenly less than six months away.
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