- Wayne Drehs
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Florida State linebacker Ernie Sims said he was sleeping in his hotel room early Thursday morning when a knock on the door startled him out of bed.
It was one of his teammates. Something about fellow linebacker and close friend A.J. Nicholson. Police officers were in the building. Something about a woman. Sexual assault accusations.
"I was just in shock," Sims said. "Absolute shock. I couldn't believe it."
Thirty-six hours later, Sims and the rest of the Florida State defense vowed that they have to move on. That they will move on. While their teammate sits at home awaiting word on possible criminal charges, the rest of the unit insists its only focus is on the explosive Penn State offense the team will face Tuesday in the FedEx Orange Bowl.
"As disappointed as you may be for one of your teammates, as much as you might want to sit around and think about it, you can't dwell on it," nose guard Brodrick Bunkley said. "We have a job to do. We have a game to play. And that's all we can worry about."
Nicholson was suspended from the team and sent home after a woman called police early Thursday morning and said she had been assaulted by a Florida State player at the team hotel. The player later was identified as Nicholson, who voluntarily went to the Hollywood police station and was questioned for two hours. The investigation is likely to extend into next week before charges are filed.
Earlier this year, Nicholson pleaded no contest to misdemeanor DUI charges. On Friday, Florida State players defended their teammate, calling him a "great person" and "great friend." Bunkley said the allegations are something he could never see Nicholson doing.
"It's just crazy that something can happen like that," Bunkley said.
Sims said has talked to Nicholson since he left South Florida and described his teammate as "scared."
"I told him that I was praying for him and that I'm behind him 100 percent," Sims said. "He's down; he's in disbelief. But I'm sure he'll make it through."
On the field, Nicholson would have been replaced at weakside linebacker by senior Marcello Church, but Church broke his leg in the ACC championship game. That leaves a group of youngsters, led by freshmen Geno Hayes and Derrick Nicholson, A.J.'s younger brother, to fill the void.
"We're disappointed," Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "What it presents now is a challenge for someone to take over. We have to ask our freshmen not to play like freshmen."
Replacing a starter is nothing new for the Seminoles, who have seen six starters go down with injuries this season, including All-American cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who injured a knee before the season started. Thirty-two of the Seminoles' scholarship players have missed a quarter or more because of injury. But replacing Nicholson, the Butkus Award semifinalist who started 24 games the past two years and led the team with 100 tackles, won't be an easy. Hence the reason Andrews was so pleased by Thursday afternoon's practice, the team's first without Nicholson. Andrews described the session as the as the best bowl practice he's seen in 22 years as a Florida State assistant.
"Did [Nicholson's situation] affect our players and coaches? Sure it did," Andrews said. "Will it keep us from moving forward? No."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florida State players vow to move on after linebacker A.J. Nicholson's suspension.