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Positional battles aplenty as Florida State opens spring practice

When Florida State opens spring practice on Monday, coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff will be evaluating a large group of talented young players to see who can develop into starters at critical positions — running back, left tackle, defensive end and cornerback.

FSU has lost two big pieces on offense as a pair of juniors, tailback Dalvin Cook and left tackle Roderick Johnson, entered the NFL Draft a year early. On defense, the Seminoles lost a pair of seniors, defensive end DeMarcus Walker and Marquez White, who were consistent performers and leaders.

Spring is a time to measure progress and improvement and to see who is ready to make the jump from a backup who stood out in a limited role last fall to one who is ready to be a consistent starter in 2017. There’s also a need to fill in the depth chart with quality backups, most notably at quarterback.

FSU will begin the first of 15 practices on Monday and wraps up the spring with the Garnet and Gold game on April 8 at 3 p.m. at Doak Campbell Stadium. Here are five position battles to watch this spring:

Running back: There’s no replacing a tailback like Cook, who owns FSU’s single-season and career rushing records. But there is also no shortage of running back talent on campus, either.

Fisher has hinted that he wants to split carries more evenly after using Cook as a workhorse the past two years (517 total rushes). Junior Jacques Patrick is a big, bruising back at 6-2 and 230 pounds, and he earned carries in 2015 when Cook was out due to injury. Patrick has 664 career rushing yards and has averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his career. Early enrollee Cam Akers was considered the nation’s top tailback in the class of 2017 and will get a chance to earn playing time immediately. There are also speedy options like senior Ryan Green and sophomore Amir Rasul.

Left tackle: Johnson left for the NFL with his 31 games of starting experience. FSU doesn’t have another left tackle with any game experience, which leaves the door open for a wide range of options.

One possibility is moving right tackle Rick Leonard over to the left side. On the other hand, Leonard is a converted defensive end and has just a year of experience on offense under his belt. FSU has some rising young tackles, including athletic redshirt freshmen Josh Ball (6-foot-8, 287 pounds) and Jajuan Williams (6-6, 300 pounds).

Backup quarterback: Deondre Francois is the unquestioned starter but one big question remains: Who will be his backup? With all of the hits Francois took as a redshirt freshman last year, developing a capable backup is a critical storyline this spring.

Only redshirt junior J.J. Cosentino has college game experience, and his results (7 of 19 for 46 yards, one TD and three sacks) have been underwhelming. True freshman left-hander Bailey Hockman enrolled early and should see significant playing time with the No. 2 offense this spring. Glades Central quarterback James Blackman will also be in the mix when he arrives in Tallahassee this summer.

Strongside defensive end: FSU loses Walker, one of the best pass rushers in school history, but there is plenty of returning talent on the defensive line with tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas and buck ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns. Still, FSU must find a run-stopping strongside end to replace Walker.

Former Atlantic High (Delray Beach) star Keith Bryant, who missed all of 2016 with a foot injury, is one of the candidates. But the senior has played in just three college games and must stay healthy. Wally Aime, a former Olympic Heights standout, impressed in a reserve role in 2016, and the 300-pounder could fit in at end or tackle. Two young prospects to watch are five-star early enrollee Joshua Kaindoh and redshirt freshman Janarius Robinson, who was limited last year by a shoulder injury.

Cornerback: The Noles have a wealth of talent at corner, and coaches can sift through a large group of four- and five-star prospects to replace White. The coaches are evaluating options at corner and nickel corner (FSU’s base defense features five defensive backs).

Sophomores Levonta Taylor (5-10, 169) and Kyle Meyers (6-0, 168) saw significant playing time in the second half of 2016 and are the front-runners to earn the starting jobs. They will be challenged by early enrollee Stanford Samuels III. Along with corner Tarvarus McFadden (eight INTs last year) and safety Derwin James (missed most of 2016 due to meniscus surgery), FSU should have one of the nation’s best defensive backfields this fall.

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