FSU Tackles Living on the Edge
By BJ Bennett
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As FSU's championship race begins, the pressure will be on a pair of unconventional tackle talents to hold their own at two pivotal positions along the offensive line.
As Florida State readies to make perhaps their most legitimate run at a national championship since the tail-end of their dynasty years, the Seminoles will root their hopes in the return of a senior quarterback, arguably the nation's premier defense and -- two woefully inexperienced tackles anchoring the edges of their offensive line. Sophomore Cameron Erving, who played defensive tackle last season, and 23-year Great Britain-native Menelik Watson were recently named starters by head coach Jimbo Fisher. On paper, the tandem lacks polish. In the trenches, however, they pack a punch.
Erving is 6'6'', 310 pounds and comes to the edge with the nastiness of an interior linemen. He compiled 20 tackles on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage last season, playing as a second-teamer behind veteran Everett Dawkins. Florida State coaches have been amazed at how easily Erving has picked up the nuances of his new position. He is charged with protecting quarterback E.J. Manuel's blindside as the starting left offensive tackle.
"I know I can be good but I am just trying to take it day-by-day," Erving recently explained. "I am taking the same approach now that I did the first day I became a left tackle. I'm taking it day-by-day and trying to be coachable and listening to what Coach Trickett says and if I listen to him and do what he tells me to do, all the good stuff will come in time."
At times, the former down lineman has been the story of the off-season for the Seminoles.
"Cam looks like he's a three-year All-American out there," added FSU backup quarterback Clint Trickett.
Watson, 6'6'', 320, steps in at right tackle after a stint at Saddleback College in California. Despite his international background, Watson actually has Division I athletic experience -- just not on the football field. He played college basketball at Marist, serving as a team captain and starting 13 games as a forward/center for the Red Foxes in 2009-2010. Growing up in Manchester, England, Watson trained to play basketball and also dabbled in the ring. He considered a boxing career before ultimately choosing his current path. Watson was not introduced to football until coming to America and has only played the game for one year.
Down the line from Erving, Watson was recently named the Seminoles' starter at left tackle.
"He played the best, he played really well," Fisher acknowledged. "I thought Menelik was definitely the most efficient and has very big upside. It's amazing how quick he picked things up."
A bit older than than the average college player, Watson's savvy approach has been evident in practice. His perspective has helped him improve on the fly. The former basketball star and boxer has benefited from the quick feet gained participating in those sports. In the eyes of the FSU coaches, his learning curve has been quite minimal all things considered.
"As he's making a mistake he's running back to his spot saying, 'sorry coach, sorry coach' as he's getting down to do it again," Fisher went on. "Very focused, very mature and has tremendous, tremendous athletic ability."
Fortunately for these two greenhorns, Florida State opens the season with a pair of FCS schools: Murray State and Savannah State. After those warm-ups, though, the Seminoles will host nemesis Wake Forest. From that point on, defending ACC champion Clemson comes to town followed by road tests at South Florida and NC State. While the first half of September will be a relative walk-through, Erving and Watson will still be feeling their way through.
"They'll both be nervous as crap," Fisher joked.
As they settle in to their new roles, time will become one of their most prized possessions. Physically, both starting tackles fit the bill. The duo has held their own with All-American candidate defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner during fall camp. Fisher believes that once the experience starts to build, both Erving and Watson have the acumen to improve drastically as the season progresses.
"Extremely athletic for big guys, I mean very athletic," he continued. "Extremely big. Extremely long. There's a difference in being big and long. They bring both of that. They're both very intelligent. And the thing I love most about them is they both are very instinctive. Football makes sense to them."
Their proverbial pop quiz this off-season has been aided by a veteran tutor: the team's starting quarterback. Manuel, who saw the FSU offensive line allow an ACC-high 40 sacks last season, is well-versed in the subtleties of the Seminoles' offensive scheme. After spending much of last season on the run, he's been eager to help their transitions in any way he can.
"It's been good and I think the most important thing is that they were coming to me," Manuel detailed. "'EJ Am I doing this right?' or 'Are you feeling pressure off the right side or off the left side?'. Cam and Menelik have probably been doing it equally. That gives me a lot of extra confidence in that pocket."
Erving and Watson are tasked with helping to improve an offensive line that gave up the most sacks in the league in 2011, rushed for the third-fewest yards and lost two veteran tackles in Zebrie Sanders and Andrew Datko to the NFL Draft. Erving's last start on the offensive line came in high school. Waton's only starts on the offensive line have come in junior college. This Saturday, they will protect the perimeter for the 7th ranked team in the nation.
Florida State has very real national championship aspirations. Among others, ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit recently picked the Seminoles to claim college football's crown. As that chase begins, the pressure will be on a pair of unconventional tackle talents to hold their own at two pivotal positions along the FSU offensive line. Erving and Watson will step onto unstable ground this weekend. Fisher believes they have what it takes to stand firm.