Technically, Mike Norvell is entering his second season as Florida State's head coach. In a lot of ways, though, it feels an awful lot like Year One.
In 2021, for the first time, Norvell was able to lead the Seminoles through a full month of spring practice in March and April. The strength coaches were able to guide FSU's players through their first full offseason conditioning program. And the coordinators got to implement their offensive and defensive systems in person, instead of in virtual meetings.
While every college football program was adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the toll was greater on first-year coaches such as Norvell, who barely had a chance to see what their players could do before being forced to send them home for several months. And the challenge was magnified in Norvell's case because FSU's program has experienced varying degrees of dysfunction going back to the latter part of Jimbo Fisher's tenure, which ended in 2017.
Now that Norvell has had a "normal" year to prepare — while also replenishing the depth chart with a number of high-profile transfers — the Seminoles are hopeful for a substantial improvement over last year's 3–6 record, which marked a once-unthinkable third consecutive losing season for a proud program.
Previewing Florida State's Offense for 2021
The arrival of former UCF star quarterback McKenzie Milton was the story of the offseason for FSU, but it's far from a foregone conclusion that he'll be the starter. Returning starter Jordan Travis, who impressed mostly with his running ability in 2020 (559 yards, 5.8 ypc, seven rushing TDs), showed growth as a passer in the spring and likely has the inside track. Milton was a Heisman contender at UCF, but he hasn't played in a game since sustaining a career-threatening leg injury in 2018. After shaking off some rust, Milton shined in the spring game. It should be a legitimate battle in preseason camp.
The run game was the strength of FSU's offense in Norvell's first season — the Noles ranked fourth in the ACC in yards per carry with 5.1 — and that likely will continue in 2021, with steady Jashaun Corbin and dynamic youngster Lawrance Toafili leading the way. Toafili (9.6 ypc) has home-run ability. The backs will be helped by an improving offensive line, which returns everyone but may still be looking to add another veteran transfer.
The biggest concern is at wide receiver, where the Noles appear neither dynamic nor consistent. Top returning targets Ontaria Wilson, Keyshawn Helton and tight end Camren McDonald all averaged less than 13.0 yards per catch last fall. There is hope for help from Kansas transfer Andrew Parchment and freshmen Malik McClain, Destyn Hill and Joshua Burrell.
Previewing Florida State's Defense for 2021
After seeing five players from an already subpar defense leave for the NFL, the Seminoles wasted no time making a splash in the transfer portal. They landed a pair of SEC defensive linemen in Jermaine Johnson (Georgia) and Keir Thomas (South Carolina), and they grabbed three FBS defensive backs.
Former South Carolina safety Jammie Robinson, who had 74 tackles last fall, is penciled in as the starting nickelback, while Jarques McClellion (Arkansas) and Brandon Moore (UCF) will factor into the DB rotation as well.
Based on spring practice, Johnson will be the most impactful of the transfers. The fifth-year senior, who recorded five sacks last season at Georgia, was dominant in practices and scrimmages and will attempt to breathe life into a pass rush that was anemic in 2020. But coordinator Adam Fuller is going to need more than impact transfers to salvage a defense that ranked 105th in both yards per play allowed (6.5) and scoring defense (36.0 points per game).
Previewing Florida State's Specialists for 2021
Norvell places a major emphasis on the kicking game, and the Seminoles have room for improvement in that department. Dueling placekickers Ryan Fitzgerald and Parker Grothaus each were given an opportunity last fall, and they each connected on just four field goals. They battled to a draw again in the spring.
The Seminoles also will look for a spark in the return game after putting up pedestrian numbers on both kickoffs (20.8-yard average) and punts (eight returns with none longer than 10 yards).
It wasn't all bad for the special teams, however. Australian punter Alex Mastromanno was solid as a freshman (43.5-yard average), and the Seminoles did a nice job of covering kickoffs and punts. They also blocked five kicks on the year.
After a tumultuous first year under Norvell, FSU's roster has been purged of many of the disgruntled or disillusioned older players who originally signed to play for Fisher or Willie Taggart. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's going to take some time to raise the talent level to compete with the better teams in the ACC, let alone the country.
The offense should be solid in 2021, but likely not spectacular. The defense will need to make major improvements to approach respectability. A win-loss record of somewhere around .500 wouldn't satisfy FSU fans in most years, but it would be a clear step in the right direction. And the Noles haven't made many of those of late.
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(Lawrance Toafili photo courtesy of FSU Athletics)