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September 15, 2011

FSU corners looking for redemption vs. Sooners

Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes finished last season as the ACC's defensive rookie of the year.

Yet when the Seminoles kicked off their season against Louisiana-Monroe, Rhodes wasn't in the starting lineup. Florida State coaches had opted for senior Mike Harris and junior Greg Reid instead.

Was this some sort of punishment? Not even close. It instead was a testament to the depth that sets Florida State's three top cornerbacks apart from just about any other trio in the country. Rhodes, Harris and Reid know they must be at the top of their game - or else they might not be in the game at all.

"It makes us better," Rhodes says. "We have to compete. When you have three good corners, somebody has to start. You don't want your spot to get taken by somebody else, so you have to compete and work hard."

Rhodes was back atop the Seminoles' depth chart this week alongside Harris, though there's no guarantee it will remain that way Saturday when the Seminoles face top-ranked Oklahoma. Reid, reinstated this week after serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules, was listed on the second team.

Not that it really makes that much of a difference to them. They're too busy wondering how to slow down the nation's No. 1 team.

FSU can officially reclaim its status as a national power Saturday in a game that offers the Seminoles a chance to avenge a 47-17 loss from last season.

"That's why you come here," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "One of the big things you like about playing at Florida State is being able to play in games like this."

That's certainly why these cornerbacks chose FSU. Each believed the program would turn itself around in a hurry.

Reid realized it as a recruit when he spoke with Fisher, the Seminoles' offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting at the time.

"I wasn't really trying to go to a team that already was winning national championships," Reid says. "With the attitude and heart I have for the game, I was trying to rebuild something. When I started talking to [Fisher], I thought he was going to put us in a good situation to do that. I believed in him. I saw it in his eyes, how serious he was about the game. I just had that feeling of trust in this person. My mom and dad felt the same thing."

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Bobby Bowden with Tim Brando]

Reid, the No. 4 cornerback and No. 27 overall player in the 2009 recruiting class, was the ony member of the trio regarded as a blue-chip prospect in high school. He originally committed to Florida before signing with Florida State instead.

The other two cornerbacks - both Miami products - weren't as highly regarded. Rhodes, a three-star prospect from Miami Norland, was recruited primarily as a wide receiver. FSU was one of the few schools that seemed more interested in his abilities on defense. Harris, a spread option quarterback for South Miami High, garnered attention from major-college programs only after switching his focus to defense at El Camino (Calif.) Community College. After two seasons at El Camino, he developed into the No. 16 junior college prospect in the 2010 recruiting class.

Three of a kind
Here's a closer look at each of Florida State's top three cornerbacks:
PARTICULARS: 5-11/195, Sr.; El Camino (Calif.) CC, preceded by South Miami High
BUZZ: This former spread option quarterback in high school emerged as a highly sought college prospect only after starring at cornerback for two years at El Camino. Last season, he had 41 tackles, forced two fumbles and tied for the team lead with four interceptions despite not starting a game for the Seminoles. Harris has started each of FSU's first two games this season and has five tackles.
PARTICULARS: 5-8/186, Jr.; Valdosta (Ga.) Lowndes County
BUZZ: This former five-star prospect has lived up to the hype by developing into a standout on defense and special teams. After serving as the Seminoles' nickelback in 2009, Reid started all 14 games last season and had 65 tackles and three interceptions to go along with a team-high 14 pass breakups. He led the nation in punt-return average (18.4) in 2009 and set a single-season school record with 724 yards in kickoff returns last season. Reid was reinstated this week after serving a one-game suspension against Charleston Southern for a violation of team rules.
PARTICULARS: 6-2/215, Soph.; Miami Norland
BUZZ: As a redshirt freshman last season, Rhodes had four interceptions and 12 pass breakups while earning second-team All-ACC honors. He also was named the ACC defensive rookie of the year and made the Rivals.com freshman All-America team. Rhodes' 12 pass breakups led all freshmen nationwide.
Their experiences on offense helped all three cornerbacks.

"I think it does help, knowing what the offensive players are trying to do or wanting to do," says Reid, a former two-way star who rushed for 1,242 yards as a senior at Valdosta (Ga.) Lowndes County. "It helps us a lot."

Their competitive fire has rejuvenated a secondary that was torched on a weekly basis as not too long ago. Florida State's woeful pass defense in 2009 led to a 7-6 finish that caused former coach Bobby Bowden to end his legendary career a year ahead of schedule.

Reid was a true freshman who didn't start a game that season. Rhodes played two games on special teams and missed the rest of the year with a hand injury. Harris was at El Camino.

When all three cornerbacks got a chance to play together last season for new defensive coordinator Mark Stoops (the younger brother of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops), FSU's ranking in pass efficiency defense soared from 110th to 37th.

FSU owes much of that improvement to a front seven that helped the Seminoles deliver 48 sacks - matching Boise State for the highest total of any FBS team - but this cornerback trio also played a major role. The Seminoles gave up 17 touchdown passes last season after allowing 26 in 2009.

The three cornerbacks didn't know one another very well before arriving on campus, though Harris and Rhodes grew up in the same city. But they've developed a sound working relationship ever since.

"They're very close," Fisher says. "They're friends. They share information. They talk a lot. The thing about it that's very unique is that today's ball - with so much three wideouts and four wideouts - they're on the field together a bunch in nickel situations. All of them can play nickel, all of them can play dime, all those different situations. It's great to have them.

"They've used it as a positive. They haven't split or been divided in any shape or form. We've started all different combinations of guys. ... To me, it's been a very positive thing on the young corners on our team to see how those guys work and how they act."

Reid remains the best-known player in the group, thanks to his versatility and big-play ability. Reid, who is 5 feet 8, led the nation in punt-return average as a freshman and has enough toughness and athleticism on defense to compensate for his lack of height.

[More Florida State coverage: Warchant.com]

Rhodes may have been the best of the bunch last season, as he led all freshmen nationally with 12 pass breakups despite battling a groin injury. He also had four interceptions and 58 tackles to earn second-team All-ACC honors.

Harris is the most underappreciated member of the trio. Although he didn't start a game last season, he picked off four passes to tie Rhodes for the team lead.

Although this trio already has accomplished quite a bit, they still must prove they can deliver against quality quarterbacks.

FSU allowed North Carolina's T.J. Yates and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor to throw for a combined 702 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions last season. N.C. State's Russell Wilson threw one touchdown pass and one interception and also ran for three scores against the Seminoles. All three quarterbacks beat Florida State.

Dramatic turnaround
Florida State's defense improved as much as just about any unit in the nation last season. The Seminoles haven't played a major-conference opponent this season, but here's a look at where Florida State has fared in various defensive statistical categories the past three seasons. FBS rankings are in parentheses.
Total yards/game434.6 (108th)353.7 (42nd)137.5 (3rd)
Scoring/game30.0 (94th)19.6 (20th)5.0 (4th)
Rushing/game204.6 (108th)128.7 (29th)60.0 (16th)
Pass efficiency defense149.9 (110th)119.2 (37th)90.5 (19th)
Sacks/game1.92 (58th)3.43 (3rd)3.5 (20th)
Tackles for loss/game5.62 (61st)6.79 (21st)9.5 (7th)
But nobody picked apart this secondary more than Oklahoma's Landry Jones.

Jones completed 14 consecutive passes at one point and ended up 30-of-40 for 380 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Oklahoma reached the end zone on each of its first four possessions as its no-huddle attack flustered the Seminoles, who rarely face that type of offense in the ACC.

That Oklahoma game represented the first starts against an FBS opponent for Reid and Rhodes, and it marked the first time Harris had faced an FBS offense at all.

"We really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into," Reid says.

They do now.

The Seminoles enter the weekend ranked third nationally in total defense and fourth in scoring defense, though a pair of cakewalks against Louisiana-Monroe and FCS program Charleston Southern helped boost those rankings.

They haven't forgotten what happened last season. Now that they've experienced Oklahoma's no-huddle attack, they believe they're better prepared to deal with it.

"The tempo of their offense is very fast,'' Rhodes says. "We have to be more focused and locked into the game. We can't let anything distract us or get in our way."

If they're distracted, they'll get blown off the field again. After all, the Seminoles must try to stop the same guys they couldn't slow last season.

[More Oklahoma coverage: SoonerScoop.com]

Jones is a year older and a year better. So is Ryan Broyles, a 2010 Biletnikoff Award finalist who caught 12 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown against the Seminoles last season. Oklahoma has had two weeks to prepare for this game since racking up 663 yards of total offense in a season-opening 47-14 rout of Tulsa.

"They make plays when they're covered," Fisher said. "They make the great plays. A guy's got him covered, and they throw it up and make the great catch. Or he makes a back-shoulder throw or throws a laser in there. They make the plays when you think you've got them stopped, which great players do."

Harris, Reid and Rhodes believe the Seminoles are on the verge of similar greatness.

Now they have the chance to prove it.

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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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