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March 18, 2011

Florida State goes from hunter to hunted

Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel already has plenty of experience guiding his team in the regular season and the postseason, but he's a newcomer to spring practice.

Manuel broke an index finger on the first day of Florida State's 2009 spring practice, and he sat out spring workouts last year after having minor shoulder surgery.

E.J. Mamuel takes over as the starter at quarterback, but he already has some valuable experience.
Coach: Jimbo Fisher
Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-2 in the ACC Atlantic. Beat South Carolina 26-17 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Spring dates: March 21-April 16
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (8): T Andrew Datko, WR Taiwan Easterling, WR Bert Reed, TE Beau Reliford, WR Rodney Smith, T Zebrie Sanders, G David Spurlock, RB Jermaine Thomas.
Defense (9): LB Nigel Bradham, T Everett Dawkins, E Brandon Jenkins, T Jacobbi McDaniel, T Anthony McCloud, FS Nick Moody, SS Terrance Parks, CB Greg Reid, CB Xavier Rhodes.
Special teams (2): K Dustin Hopkins, P Shawn Powell.
So this year marks the first time Manuel has participated fully in spring practice since arriving on campus. Manuel is entering his first full season as the Seminoles' starting quarterback; he has made six starts in place of an injured Christian Ponder over the past two seasons.

There won't be too many other first-year starters at Florida State this season. The Seminoles loads of experienced talent on both sides of the ball from a team that went 10-4 and won the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season. The Seminoles also return their punter and kicker.

Florida State heads into spring practice as the likely ACC favorite and a potential top-10 team. Here's a closer look at the Seminoles.

Positions of strength

CB Xavier Rhodes, who earned second-team All-ACC honors as a redshirt freshman last season, leads a young and talented secondary. The other starting cornerback is Greg Reid, who delivered a dominant performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina. A solid defensive line features Brandon Jenkins, who had 12.5 sacks last season and helped FSU rank third nationally with 3.43 sacks per game. Chris Thompson (134 carries, 845 yards, six TDs) and Ty Jones (87-527-5) headline a deep tailback corps.

Help is needed

FSU must replace two four-year starters on the offensive line in G Rodney Hudson and C Ryan McMahon. Hudson was a consensus All-American last season and a two-time winner of the Jacobs Trophy given annually to the ACC's top blocker. Depth at quarterback could be a question. Sophomore Will Secord and redshirt freshman Clint Trickett will compete for the right to back up E.J. Manuel, but neither Secord nor Trickett has attempted a pass in a college game. There will be two new starting linebackers.

3 guys to watch

G Jacob Fahrenkrug: He is a junior college transfer from North Dakota State College of Science and will compete to take over Hudson's old spot. Fahrenkrug, a four-star recruit, was the nation's No. 4 junior college prospect in the 2011 class.

LB Christian Jones: After recording 16 tackles in a backup role last season, this former five-star prospect has a chance to win a starting job this fall. Even though Jones didn't play much last season, he won raves from the coaching staff for his performance in practice. The Seminoles have two open starting spots in the linebacker corps now that Mister Alexander and Kendall Smith have completed their eligibility. Jones, the son of former Florida State star defensive end Willie Jones, recorded 286 tackles over his final two seasons at Casselberry (Fla.) Lake Howell.

QB E.J. Manuel: Although this marks Manuel's first full season as a starter, Christian Ponder's injury problems the last two seasons allowed him to gain experience. Manuel played the majority of the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory last season and started the Gator Bowl triumph over West Virginia two years ago. He also started the Seminoles' ACC championship game loss to Virginia Tech last season. This will mark the first time Manuel has been able to participate in spring practice in his FSU career.

The pressure is on

DT Moses McCray: This former four-star prospect has dealt with injuries for much of his career. He started nine games in 2009 despite struggling with an elbow problem; he also battled a shoulder injury earlier in his career and missed the 2010 season with a torn ACL in his left knee. McCray is back now, but FSU returns juniors Everett Dawkins, Jacobbi McDaniel and Anthony McCloud at tackle and has plenty of promising underclassmen ready to step in. McCray must stay healthy and have a big preseason as he attempts to work his way back into the rotation.

The buzz

Florida State's biggest task is finding a replacement for Hudson. No blocker ever has left Florida State with more honors or awards. The Seminoles actually must fill two guard spots because David Spurlock is expected to move to center as McMahon's replacement. Fahrenkrug is one candidate. Other contenders include sophomores Henry Orelus, Blake Snider and Bryan Stork. FSU also must determine who will back up Manuel at quarterback and need to learn how to deal with raised expectations. The Seminoles entered last season with something to prove. They needed to erase the memories of a 7-6 season from a year earlier, and they had to show FSU football could thrive in a new era as Jimbo Fisher took over for Bobby Bowden. Can they still play with a chip on their collective shoulders now that they're a conference front-runner?

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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