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FSU Season Preview: How much improvement is realistic in Mike Norvell’s second season?

Mike Norvell enters his second season as Florida State's head coach
Mike Norvell enters his second season as Florida State's head coach(247Noles)
Published: Aug. 30, 2021 at 8:17 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - After Florida State broke its pre-practice huddle on the artificial turf field inside the Albert J. Dunlap Athletic Training Facility, Mike Norvell tugged on Robert Cooper’s jersey and raced the defensive tackle about 60 yards to the opposite goal line. The two shared a laugh after Norvell won by a step. Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who had surgery on his left knee back in July, could be seen on the other end of the field joyfully hopping around on his crutches while talking to the receivers before individual drills. Several other players dapped up strength and conditioning coach Josh Storms and defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins along the sideline before heading outside.

There is plenty of unrest among the Florida State fanbase nowadays as the Seminoles are coming off three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1976. But inside the football facility, there is an exuberance and, more importantly, a clear buy-in that hasn’t been seen for the last several years.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided unprecedented challenges for first-year head coaches around college football such as Norvell. There were minimal opportunities for players to build relationships with each other and their new coaching staff. Storms didn’t have sufficient time to devise an optimal strength program for his new players. Dillingham didn’t have enough time to install an offense that requires a thorough understanding in order to play at the fast pace he and Norvell prefer. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller didn’t have the chance to experiment with players in his scheme, so he had to adapt on the fly during the season.

All of that culminated in a 3-6 season that further underscored the harsh truth about Florida State. A program that was one of the nation’s elite for decades has become mostly an afterthought since Jimbo Fisher departed for Texas A&M in 2017. After an unceremonious end to Fisher’s tenure and two disastrous seasons under Willie Taggart, Norvell had inherited a more arduous rebuild than anticipated.

The Seminoles got better though. When games against Clemson and Virginia were canceled last November, Florida State did not play for almost a month between games against N.C. State and Duke. The long hiatus allowed for weeks of valuable practice time that the team was not afforded in the spring. The Seminoles then beat Duke 56-35, looking as explosive as they had all season and finishing a bizarre year with more confidence heading into the offseason.

This spring, Norvell and his staff got to do everything they had hoped to do last year. In early April, Norvell finally had the team over at his house for the first time since being hired in December 2019. Many young players, who were thrust into key roles last season quicker than expected due to a rash of injuries and opt-outs, had a chance to regroup and better grasp their roles. Meanwhile, to supplement what was the youngest roster in college football last season, Norvell was as aggressive as anybody in the transfer portal this offseason and added a plethora of players who should make an immediate impact.

The rebuild is nowhere near complete, but this year’s Florida State team has a chance to put the program on a path back towards national prominence. The early returns throughout preseason camp have been promising.

“You come into camp and you want to establish an identity. The identity that we need from this football team is one that’s willing to work,” Norvell said. “It’s impressive. Every day you come back, you check all the data you receive from the GPS, tracking top speeds, the workload, change of direction, explosive movements, and it’s night and day.

“These guys, they just continue to get up and go and push. We’re not exactly where we need to be…But we’re taking positive strides.”

Roster Breakdown

Quarterbacks: The Seminoles had four quarterbacks splitting reps throughout preseason camp. Jordan Travis, who started six games in 2020, had an outstanding spring and emerged as the favorite to win the job heading into camp. McKenzie Milton, entered the fold before spring practice after transferring from UCF. He’s worked his way back from a gruesome knee injury in 2018 and was a full participant in preseason camp. Tate Rodemaker started one game last season as a true freshman and looked overwhelmed, but he looks much more comfortable after a strong offseason. Fellow 2020 signee Chubba Purdy is fully healthy again after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason. Purdy broke his collarbone last preseason and played in three games before reinjuring his shoulder. He is probably not ready to play yet, but he might have the highest ceiling of anyone in the quarterback room with his impressive combination of mobility and arm talent.

As far as who starts Week 1, it’s a coin flip between Travis and Milton. They are listed as co-starters on FSU’s first depth chart. Travis is a sensational athlete and has shown great touch on his deep ball. He’ll need to improve his 55 percent completion rate from last season, but he has taken a step forward this preseason in terms of his ability to read the field and throw with precision from the pocket. Of the four quarterbacks, he was the most consistent in preseason camp.

Milton is by far the most accomplished quarterback on FSU’s roster. He threw for 8,683 yards and 72 touchdowns over three seasons at UCF and led the Golden Knights to an undefeated season in 2017. Milton has not played in a real game in over two years though, and while he’s had some great moments in practice, it’s too soon to tell if he’ll rediscover his pre-injury form. At the very least, his veteran leadership will be valuable to a team that is still very young. FSU is probably going to need both Milton and Travis at some point, regardless of who starts in Week 1.

Jordan Travis
Jordan Travis(WCTV)

Running backs: Florida State has four backs who could play meaningful snaps in 2021. In his first season with the Seminoles after transferring from Texas A&M, Jashaun Corbin led all FSU running backs with 401 rushing yards in 2020. He is the starter, and he continues to get more explosive the farther away he gets from his leg injury in 2019.

Lawrance Toafili will start at tailback. He averaged 9.62 yards per carry, which ranked second nationally, while also adding 10.0 yards per reception as a freshman last season. He’ll be used in the backfield and the slot and has productive three-down back potential with more reps this year.

Florida State also added Auburn transfer D.J. Williams to the mix. He rushed for 599 yards on 122 carries in two seasons for the Tigers. Williams is a tough between the tackles runner who will be valuable in short-yardage situations. Ja’Khi Douglas could also get time at tailback and be used in a similar role as Toafili.

The most intriguing member of this group is Treshaun Ward, the former walk-on who was put on scholarship this spring. Ward was FSU’s Offense Scout Team Award recipient last year and scored a 28-yard touchdown in the Seminoles’ final game against Duke. He’s been touted as an ultimate competitor, and the coaching staff believes he has a chance to be special. At times, Ward looked like the best player on the offense this preseason.

Wide Receivers: The receivers were arguably the most disappointing unit on the team last season, but it will be a new-look group in 2021 that should be better. The Seminoles’ best receiver last season, Tamorrion Terry, left for the NFL, while D.J. Matthews, Isaiah Bolden and Warren Thompson all transferred.

Ontaria Wilson was Florida State’s most productive receiver last season among returning players with 31 catches for 392 yards and two touchdowns. Drops were an issue, but he was fairly consistent during preseason ball. Keyshawn Helton is a diminutive speedster who has breakout potential. He’s further removed from a 2019 injury and looks as dynamic as ever.

Florida State also added Kansas transfer Andrew Parchment, who will be an x-factor. He was tremendous in 2019 (65 catches, 831 yards, 7 TDs) but poor last season (24 catches, 197 yards, 2 TDs). Parchment made more explosive plays later in the preseason as he continued to build chemistry with the quarterbacks. He might have the highest upside of any receiver on the roster.

Malik McClain and Joshua Burrell are two true freshmen who could see the field early. At 6-4, 201 pounds, McClain might already have the best catch radius and ball skills on the roster. He has No. 1 receiver potential. Burrell is another big receiver at 6-2, 217 pounds with strong hands. He is also a solid blocker on the perimeter.

Several other younger receivers will push for time as well. Redshirt freshman Darion Williamson flashed during the preseason and will see the field at some point. Kentron Poitier is another second-year receiver who has shown great ball skills and red zone potential as a 6-3 target.

Tight ends: Cam McDonald showcased plenty of athleticism and downfield receiving ability in his first year as a starter (23 catches, 263 yards, 2 TDs). He will be a major factor in the passing game this year. FSU also added blocking tight end Jordan Wilson, a grad transfer from UCLA, who played 34 games for the Bruins. He is a monster at 6-4, 270 pounds and should be an integral part of the run game.

Offensive line: The offensive line has been the biggest question mark in the program since Fisher left in 2017. Injuries and frequent coaching turnover have had a detrimental impact on this group. Offensive line coach Alex Atkins is the fourth person to hold that role since 2017, but having him back for a second season should be beneficial. The Seminoles started four freshmen up front for much of last season and started to gel at the end of the year. There is still not much depth here, but with a full offseason, that improvement should continue.

Devontay Love-Taylor joined Florida State last season as a grad transfer from FIU and took advantage of the NCAA allowing everyone an extra year of eligibility by returning for this season. He was FSU’s best offensive lineman last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Pittsburgh. Love-Taylor made two starts at right tackle, one at right guard and four at left tackle. FSU will start him at right guard to begin the season. He projects better as a guard at the next level, but Atkins can use him at multiple spots.

Robert Scott will start at left tackle after playing his true freshman season on the opposite side. He was a Freshman All-American last season and might have the brightest future of anybody on the offensive line.

The Seminoles got a nice boost this summer when Dillan Gibbons joined the team as a grad transfer from Notre Dame. He worked mainly as the sixth man for the Fighting Irish over the last several years and will start at left guard.

One question mark is at center where redshirt freshman Maurice Smith will be the starter, but he is listed at only 277 pounds and has struggled to regain the weight he lost at the end of last season. Can he be an effective run blocker at that weight? If not, Baveon Johnson can move from guard to center. Smith and Johnson received the bulk of the reps here in camp, but both struggled at times snapping the ball.

Dontae Lucas will provide depth at guard. He has great physical tools (6-3, 335 pounds) but struggled mightily last season. Florida State needs him to take a step forward.

Darius Washington made five starts at left tackle last season as a true freshman and is stronger and quicker after his first full offseason with the program. The Seminoles are banking on his offseason improvements to translate to the field. He’ll begin the year at right tackle.

Veteran Brady Scott will fill the swing tackle role.

Defensive line: Florida State finished 87th in tackles for loss per game and 119th in sacks per game last season, but this group was arguably more impressive than any on the team in the preseason and could take a huge step forward in 2021.

Georgia transfer Jermaine Johnson was probably Norvell’s best addition of the offseason. In seven games for the Bulldogs last season, he had five sacks, half as many as Florida State’s entire team last year. Pro Football Focus rated him even better as a run defender. He could be Florida State’s best defensive player this season.

Another transfer, Keir Thomas, should start at the other defensive end spot after starting 32 games in five seasons for the Gamecocks. Thomas looked formidable off the edge during camp and should help stabilize a position group that vastly underachieved a year ago.

Marcus Cushnie was another late transfer from Alabama A&M. He has a quick first step off the edge and should be another solid situational pass rusher for FSU. The depth at defensive end is much better than it was last year with second-year players Qashon Fuller and Derrick McLendon pushing for snaps too.

Florida State has emphasized getting more athletic along the interior defensive line. Dennis Briggs is a quicker interior defender who had a great offseason and should start at three-technique (lined up on the outside eye of a guard). Fabien Lovett was dominant in the spring and made terrific strides in offseason conditioning. He’s a breakout candidate and can play either nose tackle or three-technique. Senior Robert Cooper is an excellent run defender who will play a lot, regardless of whether or not he starts. All three players will be a significant part of the defense. The staff has also mentioned redshirt freshmen Jarrett Jackson and Malcolm Ray multiple times as players who could make an impact. If one of them can step up, FSU will have a strong rotation on the interior.

Linebacker: Amari Gainer was Florida State’s leading tackler (65) while playing the stud (hybrid linebacker/safety) position for much of last season The plan was for him to transition to weakside linebacker, but the development of several young linebackers will keep him at stud for now. Gainer will give the Seminoles a versatile playmaker at the second level.

Courtesy: Greg Oyster | 247Sports
Courtesy: Greg Oyster | 247Sports(WCTV)

At mike linebacker, Emmett Rice was the favorite to start but he suffered a leg injury midway through spring ball. He did not practice at all during the preseason and it’s unclear when he will return. At the end of spring ball Stephen Dix, Jr. was the favorite to fill in for Rice. However, he did not stand out as much as expected during camp. As a result, the coaching staff gave the nod to redshirt freshman DJ Lundy, who took a huge step forward in the preseason.

Kalen DeLoach is another second-year linebacker the staff has lauded throughout the offseason. DeLoach is a very athletic and rangy defender who will be valuable in space. He’s listed as the starter at the other linebacker spot. Maryland transfer Cortez Andrews also impressed in preseason and has a chance to play quite a bit.

South Carolina transfer Jammie Robinson will start at nickel corner. Robinson was a two-year starter for the Gamecocks, playing at safety and nickel corner. He’s better against the run than in coverage, but his versatility will allow Fuller to deploy him in a variety of ways. True freshman Kevin Knowles II, who has been an offseason standout, will be Robinson’s backup and will get plenty of snaps because of his playmaking ability.

Defensive backs: FSU has a plethora of options on the back end. Jarrian Jones is the team’s best-returning corner and has breakout potential. However, he had a cast on his right wrist for much of preseason camp and did not practice until the final day. It’s unclear when he’ll be ready to play. If Jones is ready, he’ll start at the boundary cornerback spot. Right now, Jones and Travis Jay are listed as co-starters here. Jay is moving to corner full time this season after being used in multiple roles last season. He might be the best overall athlete on the roster and the staff believes having him focus on one position will allow him to unlock all that potential. He was one of the more consistent defensive players on the team in preseason.

Opposite of Jones/Jay, FSU will start Jarvis Brownlee, who was better against than run than in coverage last season but held up well on the outside during camp. Meanwhile, Meiko Dotson, a transfer from FAU, had a terrific preseason and can play inside when FSU wants three corners on the field.

The cornerback depth took a hit with UCF transfer Brandon Moore leaving the program last week, but FSU is still well-stocked here.

Renardo Green was the favorite to start at field safety at the end of the spring. However, the staff moved Akeem Dent back to safety in camp after he struggled at field corner last season, and he won the job. If Dent, a former top-50 ranked player in 2019, can find his way in 2021, it will be a huge boost for the secondary. Arkansas transfer Jarques McClellion will provide depth at field safety. Brendan Gant will start at the buck spot, but he’ll have to improve against the run. If not redshirt freshman Sidney Williams or true freshman Shyheim Brown could see an increased role.

Specialists: Punters sometimes have a difficult time standing out, but Alex Mastromanno has a chance to be one of the best in the country as a sophomore. He averaged 43.5 yards per punt and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line eight times and inside the 10-yard line twice on 35 kicks last season.

Florida State made only 57 percent of their field goal attempts in 2020, so they’ll need better production there. Parker Grothaus and Ryan Fitzgerald split that role last year, but Fitzgerald will handle field goals this season after winning the job in camp. Grothaus will be the kickoff specialist.

FSU has had a number of players accumulate reps as kick/punt returners throughout the preseason. Jay is listed as the primary punt returner and the co-kickoff returner along with Cory Wren. However, Corbin and Douglas are listed on the depth chart as options on kickoffs too. Helton returned punts last year and could again at some point. Ontaria Wilson could get reps there too.

Four-year recruiting

If there is one piece of data that illustrates how much the public perception of Florida State has fallen off over the last several years, look no further than how less fortunate the Seminoles’ have fared on the recruiting trail.

From 2010 to 2017, Florida State finished with the fifth-highest rated recruiting class nationally on average and finished outside of the top 10 just once. In the last four years though, the Seminoles’ average national recruiting ranking is just 18th, topping out at 11th in 2018.

YearNational Rank
20108th
20112nd
20124th
201311th
20144th
20153rd
20163rd
20176th
201811th
201918th
202022nd
202122nd

Replacing Fisher, one of the best recruiters in modern college football history, is no easy feat, but Florida State must return to that level of recruiting excellence in order to reemerge as one of college football’s best programs.

Since 2010, only three teams have won a national title without signing a top-five class in one of the previous four years: 2010 Auburn, 2016 Clemson and 2018 Clemson. The difference with those three teams is that they had generational talents at quarterback to push them over the top (Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence).

Newtown, Watson and Lawrence were all top-50 rated overall prospects coming out of high school.

Florida State has signed only two such quarterbacks, Jameis Winston (No. 16, 2012) and Malik Henry (No. 49, 2016), in the last decade. Unsurprisingly, it was Winston who led Florida State to its last national title in 2013.

One of Florida State’s biggest recruiting losses over the past four years was Sam Howell flipping to North Carolina in December 2018. Howell might have not been a top-50 overall player, but he could very well be the best quarterback in the country this year and is a potential first-round NFL Draft pick. Florida State might be much further along in its rebuild today if it had kept Howell.

The Seminoles’ 2019 class is full of players who are expected to be major contributors, but none of them project as stars that will help FSU compete for an ACC title this season.

The good news is that the future looks bright. Florida State currently has a top-10 recruiting class in 2022, headlined by five-star cornerback Travis Hunter of Suwannee (Ga.) Collins Hill. Hunter, the No. 2 overall player in the class, is the type of prospect Florida State used to sign in bulk, but now it’s become more of an exception. A strong finish in the 2022 class will be crucial for Norvell.

Coaching changes

For the first time in years, Florida State has no coaching turnover from the previous season. Norvell brought back all of his assistants, which he said is the first time that has happened in his career.

That continuity should be a relief for the Seminoles’ oldest players who have experienced massive turnover throughout their careers. It should also accelerate the development of some younger players who will be needed to contribute this season.

Schedule

DateOpponentSite
Sept. 5Notre DameHome
Sept. 11Jacksonville StateHome
Sept. 18Wake ForestAway
Sept. 25LouisvilleHome
Oct. 2SyracuseHome
Oct. 9North CarolinaAway
Oct. 23UMassHome
Oct. 30ClemsonAway
Nov. 6N.C. StateHome
Nov. 13MiamiHome
Nov. 20Boston CollegeAway
Nov. 27FloridaAway

Florida State will have one of the most difficult schedules in America this season, starting with a visit from No. 9 Notre Dame on Sept. 5. That’s a tough draw right out of the gate, but a much more disorganized Florida State team was very competitive in a 42-26 loss at Notre Dame last year. The Seminoles get the Irish at home this time, and Notre Dame is due for a little regression after making the College Football Playoff last year. The Irish also have a new starting quarterback in Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, who is a downgrade from Ian Book.

Florida State then gets a cupcake opponent in Jacksonville State before heading to Wake Forest and hosting Louisville, both of which should be difficult opponents.

The first half of the schedule closes with a visit to North Carolina. The Tar Heels will have that one circled after Florida State shockingly knocked them off at Doak Campbell Stadium last year.

Then it’s a five-game gauntlet at Clemson, N.C. State, Miami, at Boston College and at Florida, which will be one of the most difficult five-game stretches any team in the country has to face.

Final Analysis

Florida State is not ready to challenge for the ACC crown again this year, but the Seminoles should be much more competitive than they have been the last three seasons. It’s still quite perplexing how a program just eight years removed from a national title and five years removed from posting five consecutive double-digit win seasons is undergoing such a sweeping rebuild.

2021 is a vital season for the future of Florida State football. The culture that Norvell and his staff have established is much healthier than it was over the last four or five years. If a handful of younger players can take steps forward in their second season and if Norvell hits on a few of the transfers he added, Florida State will be back on the right track.

But that schedule is a minefield. Patience is required. FSU’s athletic department cannot afford to make another impulsive coaching change if Norvell doesn’t miraculously win nine or 10 games this season. He clearly has the ship steered in the right direction, but the rebuild is going to take time. Most Florida State fans will never be satisfied with anything less than double-digit wins and a New Year’s Six Bowl berth. However, after three consecutive seasons spent in the abyss, finishing at least .500 this year should be considered a very successful season. That would be tremendous progress in such a short time for Norvell.

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