Tallahassee, FL - You need not look beyond the lengthy medical report to understand why Florida State’s offense, though still efficient, has not been quite as prolific as some may have anticipated this season.
While the Seminoles have largely avoided the catastrophic injuries, they have had more than their share of nicks and bruises, sprains and breaks. FSU has used six different offensive lines, two different starting quarterbacks and three different starting tailbacks in 2010.
“We haven’t been healthy nowhere on offense this whole year – offensive line, running back and quarterback,” said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher. “We’ve been banged and bruised severely all year.”
That’s one reason why the return of junior tailback Jermaine Thomas was a pleasant sight Thursday as the Seminoles continued preparation for the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl against South Carolina. Thomas has been sidelined since suffered a right knee sprain of the lateral collateral ligament against Clemson, missing the Maryland, Florida and Virginia Tech games.
Wearing a blue, non-contact jersey, Thomas took his customary reps with the offense.
“It felt good,” Thomas said. “The knee really didn’t give me any problem; didn’t feel any pain or anything. I’m excited to be back out there and be part of the team again.”
“He was running good in drills,” Fisher said of Thomas. “He didn’t get hit, but he did some good things.”
The ‘Noles have struggled to mount any serious rushing attack, not only without Thomas, but with Ty Jones battling an ankle sprain that has hampered him since the Wake Forest game. Leading rusher Chris Thompson was also slowed by a sore hip for a while. Couple those ailments with a healthy dose of offensive line shuffling over the second half of the season and it’s no mystery while the Seminoles have seen their per game rushing average dip from 200 yards a game to slightly under 170 on the year.
“You didn’t have (Thomas) and you didn’t have 33 (Ty Jones),” Fisher said. “You’ve had one back for a couple weeks. Ty scored three touchdowns [against Virginia Tech], but he didn’t have but about 4 or 5 yards in short-yardage stuff. You need all those guys. … It’s been tough.”
With starting quarterback Christian Ponder reporting progress from Friday’s surgery to repair soft tissue damage in his right arm and the offensive line re-energized after a few days off, the Seminoles are hopeful that they will be operating closer to full strength against a South Carolina defense that led the SEC against the rush as well as in quarterback sacks.
Ponder is expected to return to the practice field when the Seminoles arrive in Atlanta for their first on-site bowl workout at Georgia Tech on Dec. 26.
Fisher said missing practice time – “reps and work, rhythm and timing” – can take a toll on productivity.
“Very few guys play well if they don’t practice,” Fisher said. “It affects you big time.”
From the moment Thomas suffered the injury, the 2009 team leader in rushing feared his season was over.
“I actually thought it was torn,” he said. “A lot of people told me I was pretty blessed for it not to be torn, the way I was positioned when it happened. I just heard a loud pop and it kind of scared me. I grabbed my knee. I thought I was going to be done until next year. When they told me it was just an LCL sprain it was a big relief. I just got right on it and rehabbed.”
The good news following an MRI and encouragement from his backfield stable mates prompted Thomas to immerse himself in rehab. Thursday’s practice return validated that effort.
“I actually thought I wasn’t going to be able to go against our defense, but I was actually able to make those hard cuts; I was able to plant,” said Thomas, who will be cleared for full contact when the ‘Noles return to the practice field Friday.
The collective hope of Fisher, his backs and all Seminole fans is that a healthy and rested Florida State team – like the one which rattled off four consecutive 200-yard rushing games earlier in the year – will be able to take the burden off either Ponder or EJ Manuel and the passing game against South Carolina in two weeks.
“We laugh and talk about that, because we knew what we were when everybody was healthy,” Thomas said. “Everybody was doing their individual role to their best.”