As a senior at Denton Ryan High School, Mario Edwards Jr.’s choice of colleges extended from coast to coast across the land of the free and home of the brave.
The top-rated defensive tackle in the country and No. 3 player overall in the Class of 2012 was on every coach’s wish list.
He ultimately chose Florida State in part because of the wisdom of dear old dad.
“During the recruiting process my dad said, ‘If you go to Florida State, your second or third year you’ll be playing for a national championship,’ ” said Edwards, a junior. “I guess his prediction was right.”
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There were also NFL expectations and football’s premier professional league indeed might come calling after his junior season.
That will all have to wait, Edwards said, because his only focus is being a Seminole and a homecoming game.
Saturday, Edwards returns home poised not only to become one of the nation’s top defensive ends, but also a game-changer as a returning starter for the defending national champions, who begin this season as the top-ranked team in the country.
The Seminoles open the season against Oklahoma State in the Cowboys Classic at 7 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Florida State captured the national championship last season with a 34-31 victory over Auburn in the Rose Bowl in January. Edwards had six tackles, including three for loss and a sack as a sophomore.
Edwards and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston are two of 15 starters returning for a team that will again also rely on a number of true freshmen as role players.
“We have the potential to be better than last year,” Edwards said. “We have a lot of great first-year guys who can contribute.
“Being our second year in the defensive system … the first year we didn’t really know what to do. Now, every day is like clock work.”
Edwards was a third-team All-ACC performer in 2013 with 28 tackles — 9 1/2 for loss — and 3 1/2 sacks for a defense that ranked third in the nation and stingiest in points allowed (12 per game).
Critics who point out Edwards’ low sack totals irk coach Jimbo Fisher, who argues that in the Seminoles’ style of defense, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound end has met every standard of what he’s asked to do.
Edwards, son of the former Dallas Cowboys cornerback with the same name, is an ordeal for the opposition, an antidote for today’s prolific spread offenses, Fisher said, by combining a blend of speed and size that enable him to go nose to nose inside with an offensive guard or sprint around an offensive tackle on the end.
He can play anywhere, said Fisher, who has emphasized Edwards’ athleticism with convincing anecdotal evidence of Edwards’ tendency to do standing backflips in his pads, a feat he first began showing off at Denton Ryan.
“That guy’s as athletic and as dominant as any of the ends we’ve had,” Fisher said earlier in the preseason.
Edwards said he believes he’s stronger and and faster than a year ago and a better student of the game after having worked on better understanding the playbook and his assignments in the second season of a new defense.
Florida State enters Saturday’s game as a heavy favorite over an Oklahoma State team hit hard by the graduation of key pieces off a 10-3 team that ended the season a 10-point loser to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl.
The task at hand for the Cowboys is further heightened by the possibility that this Florida State team is better than the one that won the national title.
“We put the national championship behind us — that was last year,” Edwards said. “They can’t take that from us.
“We’re paying attention to this year. It’s a new team, new players … we just listen to Jimbo and trust the process.”