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Unleashing the Sunshine State: How the Seminole offense is dominating the ACC

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The state of Florida produces more blue-chipper college recruits than any other state in the Union, but it took Jimbo Fisher and a simplified approach to unleash that advantage.

Streeter Lecka

Many of college football's most famous teams and influential trends have come as a result of simply harnessing the talent and resources of a region's high school football ranks.

For many of those famous teams and trends, Florida was the harvested resource. In the 1980s that talent was unleashed by Jimmy Johnson and the U of Miami, particularly in the form of the Miami 4-3 defense which still influences the game today. In the '90s, Florida State began to consistently stake a claim as one of the nation's elite programs and advanced the modern passing game. The Spurrier Gators joined in the fun in the '90s with the run-and-gun, and Urban Meyer made an indelible mark with two championships in four seasons in the '00s.

In light of Meyer's abrupt departure, Will Muschamp's difficulties on offense, and Miami's problems with NCAA sanctions, the state of Florida's rich talent base has not been able to key any championship contending teams since Meyer departed.

Enter Jimbo Fisher and the Florida State Seminoles. With Mark Stoops and now Jeremy Pruitt from the Alabama staff, Fisher has found the defensive coaching capable of assuring that the program's access to elite athletes pays off with championship-caliber defenses.

But what about the offense? There have been countless teams with access to great players that were unable to properly teach the skills and concepts that translated that talent into on-field success. As a general rule, defenses usually struggle if they don't have athletes, but offensive success comes through execution, skill, and tactics.

Florida State currently has the nation's third-highest ranked defense in the S&P lists, paired with the number two offense. How did Jimbo Fisher manage to get his Floridans on offense playing at a level only surpassed nationally by Baylor?

It's the same way Mack Brown rode Texas talent to nine consecutive 10-win seasons, four BCS bowl games, and a national championship. It's a simple approach designed to work against multiple defensive responses and be executed at a high level.

A team like Boise State has a million different plays and packages designed to pick at the weaknesses of individual defenses they face while maximizing the talent of their roster. However, a team like Texas or Florida State can win most battles by running a system based simply on execution. The current Seminole starting offense is built around two five-star talents, seven four-star talents, and four three-star recruits. Of these 13 players, nine came from the state of Florida.

Many of these players have NFL measurables. Left to right, the offensive line goes 6'6 and 320 pounds, 6'6 and 322, 6'4 and 300, 6'4 and 330, and 6'4 and 315. And quarterback Jameis Winston will be projected to go in the top 10 of whichever NFL draft he enters. For that reason, the Seminoles don't feature offensive concepts that are particularly novel or diverse. Instead, they mix things up with bunch, spread, or traditional formations and run the same concepts repeatedly, relying on the execution of their players to be better than what the defense can handle.

Sometimes when you have five-star talent at quarterback, you just make things as easy as possible.

The run game

When you have a massive line that has started together for multiple seasons, the possibilities in the run game can become endless. When E.J. Manuel was manning the helm of Fisher's offense, the QB run game was an emphasized part of the system with the basic run concepts of Inside Zone, Power-O, and Outside Zone (Stretch) complemented with read elements or slightly altered to feature Manuel as the runner.

Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, whom you may have heard something about by now, is actually an Alabaman rather than a Floridian; and while his athletic abilities are tremendous (starts on the FSU baseball team), they don't include the skills of a featured runner. Winston's mobility mostly comes into play in short yardage or in scrambling and buying time to throw the ball.

Without the QB-read elements bringing the same threat, the Seminole run game has actually been less effective in 2013 and was held to 3.2 yards per carry against Clemson's talented defensive front. However, the Zone Stretch play remains a lethal part of the arsenal that takes advantage of their cohesion and experience as a unit.

The quick-moving wall of imposing Seminole linemen, supported by lead blocks from tight end Nick O'Leary and/or fullback Chad Abram has been reliable for the Seminoles in establishing the run even against better run D's on the schedule. The trick to running Zone Stretch for the OL is in executing the blocks in careful cohesion and understanding how to adapt to what happens after the snap to create an obvious path for the running back to dart through after making a single cut.

If the defensive tackle is trying to fly upfield on a certain trajectory, an experienced zone blocking line turns that momentum against him and seals him off with a good shove. The ability to work in concert after the snap to various stunts, fronts and techniques by the defensive line only comes through heavy repetition of the concept, which only comes by maintaining a limited number of concepts in the run game.

The fulcrum

Other than an injury to Jameis Winston, the worst thing that could happen to Florida State would be losing Nick O'Leary. He ties together the passing game and the run game with his ability to block and seal on the edge or execute the Jimbo Fisher passing game, which emphasizes the TE in particular.

The clip above demonstrates how FSU motions him and changes the entire dynamics of what might have to be defended by the defense. There's zone stretch of course, but there's also the passing game which typically attacks the seams with the TE, such as in one of Fisher's favorite concepts, "Dallas."

Tight ends running option routes are an exceptionally difficult tool for defenses to handle, yet it's also a difficult teaching point at the college level with a low reward. Part of the great success spread offenses have had is in making the ball-control passing game available to teams without access to 6-4, 250-pound players who can block or run routes with equal skill.

The 2008 Texas Longhorns went on their tear after their TE was lost for the year and they were forced to work slot receiver Jordan Shiley inside as a "flex" tight end. Their quick passing game became undefendable, but it came at the cost of a physical run game.

With a dual-threat tight end on the field, an offense has the tremendously valuable ability to feature a strong running game and a ball control passing attack from the same formations. But, this requires a lot in terms of finding the kind of of talent that has the physical tools to block AND run routes, then developing the timing and consistency in the passing game to really punish teams with the position.

Again, Fisher's focus on simplicity and utilizing talent allows this to happen where other universities would struggle. Florida State has enough recruiting clout to find the Nick O'Leary's of the world and a playbook geared towards teaching them just a handful of universally-applicable techniques to hone.

In action, this plays out with O'Leary motioning from one side of the formation to the other, portending perhaps a well-executed Zone Stretch run or perhaps attacking the seam of the defense's pass coverage and opening up a variety of route combinations for the defense to account for. The defense may have to check into an entirely different coverage when O'Leary shifts that can handle the changed route combinations available to the 'Noles as well as the changed leverage in the run game.

The stress that O'Leary applies is easy to spot. The very next play after that Zone Stretch run featured above, O'Leary drew attention up the seam that cleared space for Rashad Greene on a quick in route:

And here's an example of 2013 Seminole execution of the Dallas concept, beating very good Clemson coverage up the seam for 20 yards:

These offensive concepts aren't necessarily home-run threats and require a high degree of precision and athleticism at the TE position, so many teams don't utilize them in this manner. However, a team that can attack a defense in this way becomes nearly impossible to stop due to its balance and the challenges for collegiate linebackers and safeties in covering TE option routes.

The passing game

Florida State has exceptional talent in the passing game, and it has been the primary reason for the Seminoles' massive victories over solid defenses at Pittsburgh and Clemson.

Again, they don't run a high volume of passing concepts or use any fantastic scheming to get their people open. Rather, they have to execute the basics well, and they have a NFL-level talent throwing them the ball.

To draw again from my deep well of Texas Longhorn examples, Texas protected Case McCoy's lack of arm strength against Oklahoma in the 2013 Red River Shootout by bunching their best receivers to the boundary and constantly scheming to get their playmakers open where Case McCoy's arm could reasonably be expected to reach them.

There is no place on the field that Jameis Winston's arm cannot reach.

On paper, most modern passing game concepts are "impossible to stop" as they involve reads or adjustments to work against most anything. However, it's rare that a QB can actually make every read or throw necessary to unlock the potential demonstrated on a chalkboard.

Running a passing concept similar to Urban Meyer's "Houston", the Seminoles get into a little bit of trouble after the snap when Clemson drops into a Tampa-2 defense, a scheme surviving in college game primarily as a third-and-long option.

Due to the safeties sitting on the hash marks and the deep linebacker drops, Houston doesn't have fantastic possibilities here. However, because of receiver Kelvin Benjamin's solid route running and Winston's arm strength, they hit the curl route for a first down on third-and-12.

On another curl/flat vertical stress concept that Florida State ran repeatedly against Clemson, Winston showed off his arm strength and accuracy in a manner that severely punished the Clemson pass defense:

The crowd of arms and defenders that Winston's ball navigates en route to the receiver's hands would have scared off or deflected that pass thrown from a less powerful and confident arm. This is another ball-control type of concept, designed to keep the chains moving and be executed at a high level against the coverages expected from Clemson in that situation.

However, Winston's accuracy and Rashad Greene's similarly pro-level athleticism turns it into a long touchdown.

Let's return to the "Dallas" TE option route concept one more time:

This time, instead of hitting the tight end, Winston hits the go route to the outside.

Most collegiate quarterbacks and receivers would not throw that ball. Clemson is in Cover-2 with potential safety help on the route, and the corner is in press coverage, draped over Benjamin.

The only problem for Clemson is that Benjamin is 6-5 and Winston is throwing the ball. The ball is thrown where the safety cannot reach it in time, and it's thrown high and outside on the back shoulder where the corner has no realistic chance of making a play on the ball either. The only one who can reach the ball is the giant Benjamin, which he does in a fashion that will also make NFL scouts turn their heads.

Even after Winston shredded them for 444 passing yards at 12.7 yards per pass attempt, Clemson is still ranked the 15th-best pass defense in all of college football. The 'Noles did this against a legitimately good defense playing in an extremely hostile environment.

So this is the brilliance of the Jimbo Fisher attack: It demonstrates masterful execution of concepts like Zone Stretch or Dallas, which can be executed against multiple defenses, along with opponent-specific plays run ad nauseam throughout a game.

Florida State receivers run every route well, and Winston can hit every route with accuracy and velocity well beyond that of the average collegiate quarterback. A disciplined and mistake-free approach from a team like Kansas State presents zero complications to an offense similarly predicated on execution, but with concepts that are nearly impossible to defend.

How many teams can defend Nick O'Leary on option routes all day? How many can consistently beat the zone blocking of the large and experienced Seminole offensive line? How many can keep Rashad Greene out of open spaces? Or beat Kelvin Benjamin for jump balls down the sideline?

Probably no team in the ACC. Florida will take its shot at the end of the year, but it could be up to a team like Alabama or Oregon to make an attempt in a national title game.

In the meantime, people are taking notice of these 'Noles. When a major football program in Florida finds a way to let Floridian athletes just go out and play, people have no choice.