FSU hopes changes will spark offense
After some subpar seasons, Jeff Bowden and Florida State's offense have a lot to prove.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In some ways, a summer of unwanted headlines at Florida State diverted attention from the larger story surrounding coach Bobby Bowden's 30th season with the Seminoles.
Wyatt Sexton's now infamous tick bite, the loss of key players to academics and injury, multiple arrests and the NCAA's condemnation of FSU's nickname combined to obscure an issue that agitated Bowden throughout a disappointing 2004 season.
But a season-opening game against chief tormentor Miami and its recharged defense won't allow the haunts in the chat rooms to stray off target for long. Once more, they'll wonder, is Bobby Bowden's legacy safe in his son's hands? And more specifically, was FSU's 23-year low in point production last season more aberration, or abomination?
The nationally televised contest against the Hurricanes, who have won six consecutive in the series, will direct attention to offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden and his ongoing attempts to replicate the high-powered FSU offenses of yore. Or, at least, to produce an offense that can win the big games that have escaped the Seminoles since he replaced Mark Richt four seasons ago.
When we left Bobby Bowden at the conclusion of FSU's Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia on Jan. 1, he was promising changes in his offense, and no changes in his offensive coordinator.
True to his word, he never considered stripping his son of either title or responsibilities, instead opting to replace long-time offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins with former Marshall offensive coordinator Mark McHale.
That was it for the rumored staff shakeup in Tallahassee. As for promised changes in the offense, Bowden now downplays the notion.
"Everybody adds some things," he said. "You keep 80 percent of what you've done, but everybody looks to see what people who are winning are doing."
To that end, McHale brings with him a change in blocking scheme -- from straight man-to-man to zone. It's not a revolution ("Zone blocking has been around since 1980," McHale said), but it's something the Seminoles had never tried. And FSU's line no longer will flip-flop according to where the ball is spotted as it has since Jeff was a ballboy.
"We've talked about it for probably the last eight or nine years. This conversation wasn't new, but I think the thing that finally allowed it to happen was finding somebody who has been doing it that way all his life," Jeff Bowden said of McHale's influence.
Still, FSU players are embracing any change that could boost an offense with the worst third-down conversion percentage (23.7) in the ACC last season. Point production (25.2) was only fifth-best in the league.
"Times are changing and you can't have the same offense that we used 20 years ago, because defenses are learning how to stop it,'' senior guard Matt Meinrod said. "Pro coaches are coming in around the ACC and they're bringing in all kinds of stuff to learn how to stop our offense, so it was a matter of time before this change was gonna happen."
But both Bowdens have indicated the offense's direction, and look, remains in their hands. In other words, Jeff won't become a puppet coordinator with McHale calling shots behind the scenes following three successful seasons as Marshall's coordinator.
"The way we've always done it, we're all in there putting this plan in together," Jeff Bowden said. "You'll see a lot of the same plays we've run, only you won't recognize when they're coming."
Just in case, Bobby already is doing his best to diffuse talk about his son and the role he has, or hasn't, played in FSU's recent downturn. He leaves no room for doubt that the Bowdens are a package. The only way Jeff goes is if Bobby follows him out the door.
"As long as he does what I tell him to, he's going to be all right. Really, I think he's taken a little bit more of a hit than he should be," Bobby said. "I know this: I trust my son as much as I trust anybody. As long as he does what I tell him to do, he's going to be there."
Terry Bowden, the former Auburn coach turned commentator, said on his sports radio talk show last fall that his brother deserves a chance to be judged in the post-Rix era.
Judgment begins with a returning cast, minus Sexton, that might have as much speed and talent as any of the units Richt coordinated when the Seminoles were appearing in four national championship games over a five-year stretch.
And even Richt was taking heat from demanding FSU fans prior to leaving for Georgia. The worst of it, though, appears to have been saved for Jeff.
"Does he get any more criticism than Mark Richt got when he was with me?" Bobby asked. "What about death threats? ... I gave Jeff one last year."
Kidding aside, Bobby knows there's a lot at stake with how well the offense plays this season. In three losses last year, FSU's offense produced a total of two touchdowns.
Considering the talent pool (nine players taken in the NFL draft in April, a dozen or more likely to go over the next two drafts), close-but-not-quite isn't acceptable in Tallahassee.
Another three-loss season would increase speculation about how long Bobby, not just Jeff, plans to remain on the sideline.
"I'm 75. Ain't many coaches my age still coaching. There's ol' Joe [Paterno]. And he's old," Bowden said. "Both of us are on our back nine, though I tell him I'm going to try to get in 36."
Before he retires to the golf course, Bowden would love to prove the naysayers wrong about his son. At least he has been successful in selling his players on the idea that the changes, no matter how subtle, will fix whatever ailed the 'Noles in recent years.
"You know, we've got a new breath of life and we're very excited about this season and what we possibly can accomplish,'' senior center David Castillo said. "I think things are gonna be different this year."
Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.