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Pope's direction back on course

The FSU linebacker is better than ever after surgery on his shoulder.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Florida State linebacker Kendyll Pope didn't mean to, but last season he inadvertently committed the same mistake over and over.

With almost every crushing tackle, he felt it: a numbing pain, shooting down his right side to his elbow.

"I came into the season knowing I was going to have to have surgery on my (right) shoulder," he said. "And because of my shoulder, I started to lead more with my head and that's a bad way of tackling. You drive your spine down. It can cause stingers."

Especially for Pope, who has subsequently learned he has cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that can produce harrowing consequences.

"No doubt it's scary, being that any wrong hit could be the last hit of your career and you could be paralyzed," Pope said. "But I play like there's nothing wrong."

After surgery to stabilize his troublesome shoulder and a grueling offseason regimen devoted to strengthening the muscle groups around his neck, there's nothing wrong with the way he tackles.

That figures to be good news for the No. 3-ranked Seminoles and bad news for opponents, beginning with Iowa State and strong-armed, elusive quarterback Seneca Wallace in tonight's Eddie Robinson Classic at Arrowhead Stadium.

"He's one of those Michael Vick-, Woody Dantzler-type quarterbacks," said Pope, who is joined by several key defenders coming off an injury-plagued season. "It's going to be a great test. After the first four or five games of the year, everybody is going to know that FSU is back and we've got our swagger back."

While the struggles of freshman quarterback Chris Rix told part of the story for FSU's record (8-4), which ended the program's string of 10-win seasons and Top 5 finishes at 14, the historically staunch defense didn't hold up its end either. The defense allowed an average of 356.4 yards (32nd nationally) and 26.1 points (43rd), its worst showing since the 1980s.

The defense pointed to its inexperience and injuries.

"I don't think (Pope) had a single week that he didn't wear a blue jersey, which means no contact," defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "It's awfully hard to keep your skills sharp when you can't go out there and execute full speed. It's awfully hard fundamentally to be a good tackler, to attack at the right angles, when you can't take on blockers and you can't finish plays. He just never got to finish his plays during practice. And when he did, he went through a lot of pain. You have to give him all kinds of banners for showing courage."

Desire, sprinter's speed and uncanny instincts allowed Pope, an outside linebacker, to perform well. He had 113 tackles, second to middle linebacker Bradley Jennings and the second most by a sophomore in school history. He sat out the Gator Bowl after a severe stinger during practice.

Pope is determined to prove he can play despite criticism he's too small, at about 6 feet and 220 pounds, and whispers that the cervical stenosis might make him injury-prone.

In both regards, he hopes to emulate his idol, Bucs Pro Bowl player and former Seminole All-American Derrick Brooks.

"I'm not the biggest guy either," said Brooks, who met Pope two years ago at the urging of Andrews, who saw their similarities. "Being an undersized guy, people say what you can't do. You take a little bit of motivation from that."

Pope's offseason rehabilitation included trips to the Tallahassee Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy center each week to use a machine that isolates the neck.

"My neck's stronger than it's ever been," he said. "Every play I'm on the field, I'm going to go all out."

It's an example others will follow.

"Kendyll has the kind of toughness every player on our defense wants," senior end Alonzo Jackson said. "You want to play like Kendyll. You want to hit like Kendyll."

At least the way he hits now.

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