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April 20, 2010

Fisher wastes no time putting his stamp on FSU

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Say this for Jimbo Fisher: Florida State's players won't have to wonder where they stand with him.

During one spring practice in March, the offensive players were the ones getting instant and vivid feedback from their new coach, who was standing only a few yards away.

"That's why you don't play -- you don't think!" Fisher yelled at a wide receiver.

"Run the route right," Fisher barked at a tight end. He then explained, in colorful terms, that the tight end owed a good deal of his success to quarterback Christian Ponder.

"You pay no attention to detail," he said to a running back. "That's why you never see the field."

That last part about attention to detail is a dagger coming from Fisher since he appears to spend quite a bit of his time thinking about the details. Offense, defense or special teams, Florida State players will know when they've missed or outright ignored an instruction or a key bit of information. Fisher will be right there to point out exactly what has irritated him.

Spring practice ended earlier this month, but during any one of the 15 practices, Fisher could start on one side of the practice field, coaching the defensive backs, before running to the other corner of the field to work with the kickers. Along the way, Fisher kept tabs on the other position groups.

"He's everywhere," Florida State cornerback Ochuko Jenije said in mid-March.

That's a long way from the Bobby Bowden-led practices in the legend's final years on campus.

Anyone at practice knew where to find the coach. Bowden watched practice from a three-story tower situated in the middle of the practice facility. The tower isn't getting much use now. On the first day of spring drills, Fisher joked he would practice bow shooting from the tower and maybe "make it a deer stand."

There were a handful of deer-in-headlights looks from players this spring, thanks to Fisher. But those looks didn't come from the offensive players, who grew accustomed to Fisher's "hands-on" approach over the past three seasons, when he served as offensive coordinator.

"I screwed up a run check [in the first spring practice under Fisher, in 2007] and he went off on me," Ponder said. "That caught me off-guard. I didn't know how intense he was going to be.

"From day one, he's been that way. That's the way he is. That's the way he needs to be for us to win football games."

His demeanor has created results. Florida State's offense had grown stagnant under previous coordinator Jeff Bowden. In each season under Fisher, the offense has improved, from 369.2 yards per game in 2007 to 371.9 in '08 to 421.4 last season.

Now it's time for the defense, which ranked last in the ACC last season, to catch up. If the defensive players don't know by now what to expect on a Fisher-coached team, they can simply ask the player at the next locker.

In previous seasons, the locker room was divided -- the offensive players on one side and the defense on the other; team buses were organized in a similar way. This season, the lockers will alternate between offensive player and defensive players, and buses also will be more integrated.

"It's the mentality," Fisher said. "I want them to belong to each other. I want them to count on each other, see each other as 'FSU.' Each guy is important to each guy."

Now that the reins have been passed, Fisher has made sweeping changes, not just in style or scheme but in the day-to-day operations of the football team. After he had spent a season as coordinator, Fisher was named FSU's coach-in-waiting. The two-year head start allowed Fisher to size up the changes he wanted to implement.

"It helped me transition in seeing who is in control of what and who I needed to go to in order to get the things done I wanted to get done," Fisher said.

He started with a wake-up call.

After the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia, Bowden introduced Fisher as the coach to the team in the locker room, and Fisher effectively took charge in his first team meeting on the first day of the spring semester.

"I guess you could say the meeting wasn't for the weak of heart," Jenije said. "He was laying down the laws and laying down the rules."

Fisher outlined the consequences of cutting class, breaking the law and loafing at practice. Cutting corners academically may have cost Bowden the all-time wins record. Florida State is three years removed from an academic scandal that forced the football team and other sports to vacate wins and lose scholarships.

Missing class isn't the only transgression to come with consequences. One day early in spring practice, Fisher declined all interview requests for a prominent defensive player. The player's egregious offense? He had his car towed on campus.

During the first team meeting, Fisher also signaled a break with the old order.

"He made the statement that this was a new team," linebacker Nigel Bradham said. "This was a new tradition at Florida State; it's not anyone living in the old days. We're starting a new tradition."

On a day-to-day basis, the Seminoles -- who have finished 7-6 in three of the past four seasons -- can't ignore the new approach.

Under new strength and speed coach Vic Viloria, Florida State revamped its weight program. Strength coaches and graduate assistants have become more available to players in the weight room, with one trainer for every two or three players at a time.

Their strength and conditioning plans are monitored and adjusted closely, with each Seminole placed in one of four groups -- weight gain, moderate weight gain, weight loss and maintenance. The new plan in the weight room also is paired with a more stringent nutrition plan at the training table. A nutritionist accompanies players in line in the cafeteria to steer them to the proper meals.

"You need every edge you can get," Fisher said.

After just four months as coach, Fisher's fingerprints already are on nearly every aspect of the program. The coaching philosophy is similar to that of one of Fisher's former bosses, Alabama coach Nick Saban. Fisher was Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU before leaving for Florida State.

Fisher spent four seasons working for Saban, and has spent 16 seasons working for a Bowden. Before working for Bobby at Florida State, Fisher was an assistant under Terry Bowden at Samford and Auburn.

"He's cooled down a lot since he's been here," Ponder said. "I think Coach [Bobby] Bowden helped him with that. Everyone can't be coached the same, and not everyone can handle getting yelled at and being pushed so hard. Coach Fisher has learned from that and kind of took some things from Coach Bowden."

Bowden left Tallahassee during spring practice and intends to give Fisher time to establish himself as coach. When he does return, Bowden might not recognize the program he left behind.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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