TALLAHASSEE — As Florida State linebacker Mister Alexander sprinted down the field to cover the kickoff, he studied the ever-changing positions and the body movements of the players careening his way.
Especially those of Wake Forest returner Devon Brown.
"I'm right on the hash and he came all the way inside the hash, so I knew the ball wasn't going to come all the way back to my right," he said of his on-the-fly, spot-on analysis of a second-quarter play during last month's game. "I knew I could run full speed and bear in."
When the powerfully-built 6-foot-3, 227-pounder does that, you can hear the impact (in this case, at the 16-yard line) from afar and you can't help but wince, even while ooohing, at the sight of a ball carrier getting flattened.
"He's very dynamic and explosive," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "He'll lay the lead, now."
The fifth-year senior isn't just doing that on special teams. For the first time, Alexander's a key starter on a defense that is showing smarts and leaving most opponents, well, smarting.
"I needed someone to believe in me and just give me the chance to show what I could do," he said as the No. 16 Seminoles (5-1, 3-0 ACC) prepared to meet Boston College (2-3, 0-2) on Saturday. "It's really meant a lot."
In so many ways, Alexander's approach to football emanates from his first name: The MR abbreviation for Mister, which his father chose, stands for "Mentally Ready."
"When I was little, I didn't like it because I got too much attention for it," said Alexander, referring to comments, both good (from adults) and bad (from kids who teased him). "After a while, it grew on me and I started to like it. The 'Mentally Ready' part has helped me keep a straight mind."
He needed that when he arrived at FSU after a stellar prep career in Texas as a safety.
He impressed defensive coaches as a freshman in 2006, but tore the meniscus in his right knee the second week of practice. A year later, he was making the transition to linebacker when he tore the ACL in his left knee in the opener against Clemson and missed the rest of the season. That injury continued to limit him in 2008; he played only once, against North Carolina State.
Three years. Two games. Zero tackles. But he didn't question his ability.
Finally last season, he showed why. Virtually injury free, he not only played special teams but filled a role as a third-down rush specialist. He had five sacks, second on the team, and 17 tackles.
By the end of spring, it was clear his role would expand further. The coaches named him most improved linebacker and voted him to get the "big hitter" award. When Nigel Carr left the team after multiple felony charges, Alexander was assured of starting.
"I've told a lot of people, 'Don't be surprised when Mister comes out there and kicks some heads off,' " said former FSU star and Bucs rookie linebacker Dekoda Watson, who was Alexander's roommate. "He's fast, he's athletic and he's a smart, smart guy."
So far, Alexander has 21 tackles, three for a loss, and has forced one fumble with a crushing hit on Virginia running back Perry Jones that FSU recovered and quickly converted into a touchdown for a 10-0 lead.
"I felt bad for that guy at Virginia. That was ridiculous," fifth-year senior quarterback Christian Ponder said.
Another Alexander hit knocked Wake Forest starting quarterback Tanner Price out of the game with a concussion. Though he suffered a slight concussion himself in the Virginia game, Alexander returned last week against Miami and had four tackles in the 45-17 rout.
Though quiet and unassuming, Alexander has tried to mentor some of the younger linebackers.
"It's the first time I've ever seen Mister talking to freshmen or underclassmen," senior middle linebacker Kendall Smith said. "I'm proud of him."
Ponder also stressed how much he has seen his classmate mature off the field, taking more accountability for his actions (such as his arrest early last month for failing to appear in a case stemming from driving without a license; he didn't know he had to go to court and when he learned of a warrant, he turned himself in promptly).
"He's just really grown," Ponder said. "We see him making plays left and right on the field. I'm excited where he's going."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347. Follow his coverage at seminoles.tampabay.com.