Florida State senior linebacker Dekoda Watson remembers feeling like an "outsider" when he first arrived in Tallahassee.
It wasn't easy for the outgoing youngster from Aiken, S.C., to find someone, anyone, who he trusted could and would help him ease the transition into a new life.
"I was able to find a couple guys I could relate to," he said, "but (for a while) I didn't want to ask anyone anything."
That kind of experience, not all that uncommon for any freshman at any college, could be a thing of the past at FSU. Football newcomers this year may acclimate to college — athletically, academically, socially — more seamlessly than ever thanks to a mentoring program.
A group of upperclassmen, including Watson and fourth-year junior quarterback Christian Ponder, will be assigned freshmen for whom they will be examples, in words and deeds.
"Ever since I've been here, the freshmen have just gotten thrown into the fire and had to learn things on their own, and I think a lot of guys struggle with that their first year," Ponder said.
That can have serious repercussions.
For the players, the program and the school.
Since late November, receivers Bert Reed, Cameron Wade, Preston Parker, Rod Owens and Richard Goodman and linebacker Maurice Harris have all been arrested, mostly on misdemeanor charges. (In Parker's case, a DUI, it was his third arrest and led to his dismissal from the team.) Reed and Wade were redshirt freshmen at the time of their arrests; Harris had just finished his redshirt freshman year.
"A lot of freshmen come in and they feel they have a sense of freedom," Watson said. "They can abuse that freedom."
Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, the designated heir to coach Bobby Bowden, said when you're dealing with 85 scholarship players and another couple of dozen walk-ons, you're going to have five "knuckleheads."
Although no team is going to be perfect, he added that "we're not going to get to where we want to go until we eliminate those things."
"You've got to identify those guys and you've got to build a support system around them and you've got to show them how to do things right," he said. "You've got to change the thought process. … You can't just say, 'Do it.' You have to find a way to change the way they see the world."
Can a mentor help with that change?
"I think it'll help the new guys to see how the older guys act," Ponder said. "There's a lot of choices you have to make. There's going to be a lot of temptations, and you have to make the right choice. … It's kind of stung because we started getting guys who are really good guys and they just made some bad mistakes."
Had one of those players been influenced earlier on (and more often with weekly meetings) by an older player to think before acting, perhaps the mistakes wouldn't have been made and they wouldn't be on the ESPN ticker.
"If you have seniors doing the right thing, if they display it, they can carry that over to the younger guys," Bowden said. "Leadership means you're going to be positive in what you're going to do and you're going to make good decisions and not poor decisions.
"We (the coaches) can't be with them all the time. … That really requires you to get some leadership from your upperclassmen and if you've got that … you've got a chance."
But the program isn't all about trying to keep players off the police blotters.
Another desired goal is to forge a more cohesive group off and on the field, and there's no better way of doing that than narrowing the divide that naturally exists between the veterans and the newbies.
"You have to be able to talk and communicate," Watson said. "It's all about trust. If you have trust off the field, you'll have it on the field, too. I wish we had this when I came in."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.