Five years removed from the most successful two-year run in Florida State football history, the Seminoles find themselves adjusting to yet another coaching change, and they desperately hope they got this one right.
Former Memphis head coach Mike Norvell replaces Willie Taggart, who was fired after just 21 games. Taggart went 9–12 overall and 0–5 against rivals Miami, Clemson and Florida, and the Seminoles looked so bad in the process that the administration gave him the quick hook despite an $18 million buyout.
The 38-year-old Norvell has only four years of head-coaching experience, but his 38–15 record and high-scoring offenses have FSU hopeful for a return to something more closely resembling Jimbo Fisher’s tenure, when the Seminoles won 29 straight games and claimed the 2013 national championship.
In his first few months on campus, Norvell earned rave reviews for his organizational skills and attention to detail — two problem areas during the Taggart regime.
Previewing Florida State's Offense for 2020
When Norvell and his assistants began installing their fast-paced-but-still-pro-style offense this spring, it was the fourth different system taught to the Seminoles’ offensive players in four years. By the fourth different offensive coordinator. And for some players, their fourth different position coach.
Norvell’s vision is to marry an up-tempo approach with more sophisticated pro-style concepts. His system was extremely successful at Memphis, where his Tigers averaged 40.4 points last season en route to an American Athletic Conference championship, but his new squad faces major questions at quarterback and on the offensive line.
On paper, it would appear junior James Blackman is a shoo-in at quarterback. He has started 23 games and already ranks among the school’s all-time leaders in passing yards (5,079) and touchdowns (41). But his penchant for turnovers (23 career interceptions) and a woeful performance in last December’s Sun Bowl open the door for competition from freshmen Chubba Purdy and Tate Rodemaker, as well as athletic sophomore Jordan Travis. Purdy is the higher-rated of the newcomers, but Rodemaker enrolled in January and got a head start.
FSU’s biggest problem on offense the past three seasons has been awful line play — only four schools in the country surrendered more sacks than the Seminoles (48) last season — and there will be questions up front again with two new starting tackles. FIU grad transfer Devontay Love-Taylor should provide a boost at one tackle, and the interior of the line has a wealth of experience.
There is talent at the skill positions, led by big-play receiver Tamorrion Terry. Terry averaged 19.8 yards per catch in 2019 and 21.3 the year before; he already has 17 TDs. Three other WRs with starting experience return (Keyshawn Helton, D.J. Matthews and Ontaria Wilson), and the arrival of Texas A&M transfer Jashaun Corbin is a big help at running back.
Previewing Florida State's Defense for 2020
Sometimes FSU’s offensive woes under Taggart overshadowed the ineptitude of the Seminoles’ defense under Harlon Barnett. At Taggart’s request, Barnett switched from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 in 2019, and the results were as bad as the year before, and in some respects worse. The Seminoles ranked 90th in total defense and 119th in passing defense.
New coordinator Adam Fuller impressed Norvell during their one season together at Memphis, and he is bringing FSU back to its traditional four-man front. That unit will be anchored in the middle by preseason All-American Marvin Wilson, who returned for his senior year after most expected he would bolt for the NFL, and two other talented tackles — Cory Durden and Robert Cooper. The defensive ends have been wildly inconsistent; senior Janarius Robinson leads the group but had just three sacks last season.
Linebacker play has been a constant struggle for FSU, and the secondary has underperformed as well. Junior cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (14th in nation with 15 passes defended last fall) and senior safety Hamsah Nasirildeen (team-high 101 tackles) will lead that unit, and FSU hopes Fuller can deliver the same type of improvement that he did at Memphis. In one season, Fuller’s unit surrendered 5.5 fewer points and 44.6 fewer yards per game than the year before.
Previewing Florida State's Specialists for 2020
Redshirt freshman Ryan Fitzgerald likely has the inside track on replacing four-year starter Ricky Aguayo at placekicker, although walk-on Parker Grothaus will provide a challenge. Punter will see a similar battle. Walk-on Tommy Martin took over early in 2019, but he’ll be pressed by Australian import Alex Mastromanno. Helton and Matthews are back for kickoff and punt returns, respectively, but neither has been very successful as of yet. That could change under Norvell, whose teams have been among the best in the nation on special teams.
Norvell and his staff should provide FSU with a significant upgrade in coaching, but the deficiencies on the offensive line won’t be solved overnight. And unless they see major improvement at quarterback and on defense, it’s tough to project more than seven or eight wins against a difficult schedule.
National Ranking: 35
(Top photo courtesy of Florida State Athletics)