Florida State wraps up an offseason full of questions on Saturday, with the program’s annual Garnet and Gold Game slated for a 3 p.m. kickoff on ESPN. After what can only be described as a disappointing 2016 season, fans will be itching to see what kind of improvements — or regressions — the Seminoles have made since season’s end.
The offseason was not kind to Jimbo Fisher. In addition to losing FSU great Dalvin Cook to the Draft, the ‘Noles lost senior’s DeMarcus Walker, Kermit Whitfield, and Bobo Wilson to graduation, while junior Travis Rudolph declared for the NFL Draft as well.
However, despite losing several top contributors, the return of junior S Derwin James, arguably the best safety in America, will do wonders for a defense torched by opposing offenses in 2016.
Here’s three things to watch for during Florida State’s spring game on Saturday:
The return of Derwin James
When James went down in week two, it completely destroyed any chemistry forming within Charles Kelly’s defense. James was the unquestioned leader of a young secondary that was bound to make mistakes, so losing him left a gaping hole in an already fragile position group.
Luckily for them, the junior is fully recovered and will return to action on Saturday.
James will likely start in the FS position, the same position he played in the two contests before his injury. He and Trey Marshall, who will sit out the first half of the Alabama game due to a questionable targeting call against Michigan, will share the duties at FS and SS, respectively.
While James will likely never return to complete, 100% strength — common with ligament injuries — his leadership will prove just as important. The good news is that James returns to a secondary with at least a year of experience against some of the best offenses in the country, and they will need all hands on deck when they meet Jalen Hurts and the Crimson Tide in Atlanta.
Young receivers ready to fill the void
FSU lost an absurd amount of experience when the trio of Rudolph, Whitfield, and Wilson departed Tallahassee, but the Seminoles possess some exciting young athletes itching to make an impact.
Nyqwan Murray, fresh off a 104 yard, two touchdown performance against Michigan, enters Saturday as the Seminoles’ #1 receiver. Murray had an outstanding sophomore season, averaging over 16 yards per catch and hauling in five touchdowns on the year.
Keith Gavin touched the ball just once in 2016 and nearly took back the kickoff when he did. The sophomore has shown promise, but missed a significant amount of spring practice due to an ankle injury. He’s back practicing and could feature in Saturday’s game, and it will be interesting to see just how Jimbo Fisher uses him should he play.
Da’Vante Phillips, rated the #16 WR in the country by 247Sports in 2015, saw little playing time last season due to the emergence of Murray and freshman Auden Tate. Given the significant loss at the WR position, Phillips has a good chance of seeing the field more often in 2017. Phillips contributed mainly on special teams, but recorded catches against Ole Miss, Charleston Southern, and Wake Forest.
Jacob Pugh continues to make strides
DL Jacob Pugh exploded onto the scene in 2016,finishing the season with 43 tackles and 4.3 sacks. Pugh improved dramatically throughout his junior season and transformed into a consistent force for opposing defenses as the season wore on.
According to Fisher, Pugh continues to impress.
Fisher was extremely high on Pugh following the Seminoles’ April 5 practice, saying that Pugh has had the “best spring of anybody” on the team. Pugh was an integral part of FSU’s pass rush last season; one that finished first in the country in sacks per game.