James Blackman, revamped coaching staff look to change culture
A largely celebrated hire, Florida State head coach Willie Taggart did not have things go his way in his first year. The Seminoles finished with a losing record for the first time since 1976, missed a bowl game for the first time since '81, and allowed more points per game than any Florida State team ever.
With a revamped coaching staff, Taggart hopes that the second year of his tenure can be much more prosperous than the first. With trips to Florida and defending national champion Clemson on the schedule and a neutral-site contest with Boise State, the Seminoles do have a fair share of challenges in front of them.
FSU plans to start working out the kinks this spring as new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles looks to improve a unit that struggled mightily a season ago. The Florida State defense will look for some rejuvenation despite star defensive end Brian Burns leaving early for the NFL. Despite a 5-7 finish in 2018, and the dismissal of last season's starting quarterback, the spring seems to come with a lot of optimism for FSU.
5 Storylines to Watch During Florida State’s Spring Practice
1. James Blackman takes the reigns
After entering last spring in a quarterback controversy, Florida State will turn to Blackman to try to right the offense. Forced into action in 2017, Blackman became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Seminoles in 32 years. In 2018, he made just one start in place of an injured Deondre Francois and proceeded to throw for 421 yards and four touchdowns in a 47-28 loss at North Carolina State.
Blackman has been the model teammate while waiting his turn and teammates have raved about the redshirt sophomore's leadership. With Francois dismissed from the program, Blackman will have a heavy burden on his shoulders as he tries to bring the Seminoles back to respectability. Blackman, sometimes referred to as "Slim" has added some muscle this offseason and looks to show off his big arm in 2019 while surrounded by a talented corps of skill players.
2. New-look offense
When he arrived at Florida State in December 2017, head coach Willie Taggart was lauded for his offensive ingenuity with terms such as "Lethal Simplicity" and the "Gulf Coast Offense" becoming commonplace among the fan base. To Florida State's chagrin, Taggart's offense failed to produce much last season with the offensive line being the biggest weak spot.
After splitting play-calling duties last season with offensive coordinator and now Massachusetts head coach Walt Bell, Taggart went out and made a big-time hire with the addition of Kendal Briles. Since 2015, Briles’ offenses have finished in the top 10 three times at three different schools — Baylor, Florida Atlantic and most recently, Houston.
3. "Blocking" out last season
Coming with Briles from Houston will be offensive line coach Randy Clements, who will look to fix one of the worst Power 5 position groups in the country. The Seminoles replaced FSU alum and 1993 national champion Greg Frey with Clements late in the offseason and are hoping he can fix a unit that had a hard time playing the same starting five week to week.
Veterans like Alec Eberle, Derrick Kelly, and converted defensive tackle Arthur Williams are all gone and FSU is bringing in five new players at the position, headlined by guard Dontae Lucas. Clements will have to find a way to put together a competent starting five with a mix of newcomers, oft-injured veterans like Landon Dickerson and Cole Minshew, as well as heralded prospects like Baveon Johnson and Jauan Williams, who have yet to accomplish much since arriving in Tallahassee.
4. Applying heat without Burns
Outside of Francois, the most notable piece of attrition this offseason for Florida State will be the loss of defensive end Brian Burns. After recording 10 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss, and three forced fumbles in 2018, Burns decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft, where he is projected to go in the first round. Burns accounted for more than a third of FSU’s 28 sacks a season ago and no other player had more than 3.5.
There’s no shortage of talent, but when it comes to rushing the passer, very little is proven. Janarius Robinson and Joshua Kaindoh, both juniors, will be expected to make significant strides in 2019. Redshirt freshman Xavier Peters also is a candidate to take a step forward after appearing in just two games in 2018. The good news for the Seminoles is that the interior of the defensive line is in good hands with Marvin Wilson poised to emerge as a star up front this fall.
5. Early and maybe often
Florida State will have six early enrollees for the spring and some at key positions. The aforementioned Lucas and junior college transfer Jay Williams are two players hoping to provide immediate help along the offensive line while cornerback Akeem Dent is too talented to keep off the field and will have the spring to learn defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett’s scheme. Jaleel McRae, a highly-rated linebacker, and safety Raymond Woodie III — the son of FSU linebacker coach Raymond Woodie — are both versatile defenders who coaches can experiment with this spring to try to figure out the best ways to utilize their skill sets.