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FSU camp observations: Dominant day for the defense

Amari Gainer was Florida State’s leading tackler last season (65) and is moving inside this year
Amari Gainer was Florida State’s leading tackler last season (65) and is moving inside this year(247Noles)
Published: Aug. 11, 2021 at 3:18 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Florida State returned to the practice fields Wednesday morning for its fourth day of preseason practice. For the first time this preseason, the entire team practiced in one session, rather than breaking up into two separate groups at different times.

Offensive players spent the early parts of practice doing ball security drills, while defensive players worked on ripping the ball out and forcing turnovers. The Seminoles were minus-3 in turnover margin in 2020, which ranked 88th nationally, so this area has been a point of emphasis throughout the preseason.

Here are a couple of quick highlights from some of the early drills/scrimmages:

There were a couple of highlight-reel juke moves when the skill position players and defensive backs went through 1-on-1 drills.

Kansas transfer wide receiver Andrew Parchment made a nice one-cut and go on Brandon Moore, which fired up FSU offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham.

The top highlight of the day from this group came from Lawrance Toafili, who completely fooled Travis Jay on a stutter step and juke move to the right.

Both Moore and Jay bounced back from those two plays later in the drill. Moore had a nice tackle on freshman running back CJ Campbell on the next series. Jay then got his revenge on Toafili, who tried to replicate the juke move from earlier, but Jay didn’t take the bait this time and stayed in front of him to get the stop.

After getting burned by Toafili in his first rep, Jay bounced back to have another strong overall practice. More on him later.

During the early scrimmages, Treshaun Ward had a couple of impressive runs, including this one where he got to the edge and made a nice cut inside on Brendan Gant, before turning upfield for a big gain.

One player who stood out along the offensive line was Dillan Gibbons. He helped generate a few chunk gains on the ground, doing a nice job pulling to the edge and then sealing off defenders.

However, aside from a couple of nice runs from Ward and Toafili, the defense was dominant during most of practice. FSU’s offensive line struggled to get a good push up front throughout the morning. All of the quarterbacks that took snaps were under constant pressure and had a difficult time generating any explosive plays in the passing game.

Here was Derrick McLendon providing quick pressure off the edge to collect a sack on Jordan Travis.

Here was Amari Gainer charging up from the second level and pushing Cam McDonald back into McKenzie Milton to force another sack.

South Carolina transfer Keir Thomas was also active off the edge early in the day. Dennis Briggs, Marcus Cushnie, Qashon Fuller and Jermaine Johnson also won a few battles up front and wreaked havoc in the backfield a few times.

The offensive line has been arguably Florida State’s single biggest weakness since the end of the Jimbo Fisher era, and it will continue to be a question mark heading into the season. However, it is not uncommon for the defense to be a step ahead this early in the preseason. The defensive line depth looks like it will be a strength for FSU though.

Norvell praised the improved competition and depth along the defensive line when he spoke to the media after practice. He specifically mentioned that Fuller has had an outstanding first four days to start the preseason.

Now some notes from 7-on-7 and 11-on-11. Pictures and videos are not permitted during these sessions.

7-on-7 Observations

-Travis, Tate Rodemaker and Chubba Purdy took turns taking snaps during this part of practice. Rodemaker had an excellent first rotation, completing all three of his passes, including a beautiful corner route throw to Jordan Young for an explosive play.

-Travis then made probably the best throw of the day, dropping a gorgeous deep ball down the left sideline to Parchment, who beat Meiko Dotson deep. Travis subsequently went back to the same spot, this time intending for Malik McClain, who created a little separation behind Gant. Travis made another accurate throw deep down the field to hit McClain on the hands, but Gant did a nice job to knock the ball out at the last second.

-Gainer had probably his best practice of the preseason to this point. He made a couple of nice open-field tackles against the run and got into the backfield to force a negative play several times. He had a nice pass breakup on an out throw from Purdy that was intended for freshman tight end Jackson West.

-Travis misfired on his first two throws in the red zone but then found tight end Jordan Wilson short on the right side for a touchdown.

-Jay made a really nice play in coverage to prevent a touchdown. Rodemaker made a good throw on a goal-line fade to the left side for McClain, who went up high to make the catch, but Jay pushed him out of bounds before he could land to force the incompletion. McClain used his big, 6-foot-4 frame to make a leaping catch, but Jay was locked onto him the whole route and made a great heads-up play in the air. Norvell praised Jay after practice, saying that he’s really matured over the past year. “The best players, the best athletes have to be coached the hardest, and I think Travis is starting to really embrace that and he wants more. I thought he definitely had a really good day today,” Norvell said.

-Purdy probably won’t be in the mix for any significant playing time this season, but there are some enticing tools to develop. His ball has great zip to it and comes off his hand very smoothly. He closed 7-on-7s with two consecutive short touchdowns passes on slant routes.

11-on-11 Observations

-Toafili had a couple more good runs on the inside during the final portion of practice. He emerged over the final few games of last season and ranked second nationally with 9.62 yards per carry as a freshman. He should be a playmaker both on the ground and as a receiver this season.

- Travis was without a doubt the best quarterback on the field Wednesday morning, but there was a play late in practice where he took a sack after holding onto the ball too long. Norvell then pulled him aside to discuss the play with him. Travis is so athletically gifted that sometimes he can try to force the issue rather than live with a modest gain or just throw the ball out of bounds. His decision-making and accuracy are still developing, but it was a sharp day overall for Travis.

-Jashaun Corbin turned in a physical run up the middle with Purdy in at quarterback. He shows great patience and has the ability to run hard through contact. There have been multiple instances throughout the preseason where he will turn a modest gain into extra yardage by lowering his shoulder to finish runs with authority. Corbin also had a nice run after the catch on a swing pass to the left from Travis later in the morning. Florida State wants to get its backs more involved in the passing game this season, so becoming a more consistent receiver out of the backfield will be an important next step for Corbin.

-Milton was not as crisp as he was during Monday’s practice. However, he was pressured quite a bit and often did not have ample time to work through his progressions. He did not produce any chunk plays downfield, but still made a couple of nice plays when forced to improvise. On one play, he rolled right before coming back to his left to find Toafili over the middle of the field. He delivered it low to where only his receiver could make the catch.

-Third-year linebacker Kalen DeLoach made a very impressive tackle in space on the elusive Travis, which drew praise from a number of coaches and teammates.

-Freshman cornerback Kevin Knowles continues to flash in coverage after a terrific spring. He had a nice pass breakup against Cory Wren on a short pass delivered over the middle by Milton. Wren had the ball in his hands, but Knowles delivered a hard hit to knock it out.

-Another one of Travis’ best throws of the morning came in closing snaps of practice. He rolled out to his right and lofted a rainbow corner route throw along the sideline to Keyshawn Helton, who ran a nice route to create separation up top and make the catch for a splash play.

-Gainer had another sack on Milton after charging through the interior. Gainer was Florida State’s leading tackler last season (65) and is moving inside this season to be near the ball more often. He looks like he’s beginning to get more comfortable at that spot.

Other observations

-San Francisco 49ers had a scout present.

-Director of Athletics David Coburn was also spotted at practice.

-FSU will practice in Jacksonville at the University of North Florida Thursday and Friday. The first scrimmage of the preseason is scheduled for Saturday evening, following the Bobby Bowden funeral. The scrimmage is closed to media, but coaches will be available virtually afterward.

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