FSU practice observations: Chubba Purdy gaining confidence, Malcolm Ray disruptive and more
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Treshaun Ward continues to be a revelation for the Florida State offense in 2021. The former preferred walk-on running back has shouldered a significant role in the Seminoles’ first three games after being FSU’s Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year last season and performing at a high level throughout the offseason.
The Seminoles’ offense has struggled to move the ball at times over the past two games, but Ward has been a bright spot. He has gained 169 yards so far this season on just 25 carries (6.8 avg.) and is currently rated at the 10th-best running back in college football, according to Pro Football Focus.
His combination of patience, vision and shiftiness in the open field has been an excellent combination to the home run threat that Jashaun Corbin has provided in the backfield.
On Saturday against Wake Forest, Florida State got him more involved in the passing game as well. He caught 3 passes for 34 yards and scored his first career receiving touchdown in the game.
“It just makes me more versatile,” Ward said. “Coach can put me out there on the perimeter to run routes and get one-on-one with a linebacker. It’s just going to get me more versatile on the field.”
Florida State has split carries among three running backs through each of its first three games with Corbin being the starter with Ward coming off the bench first and Lawrance Toafili seeing time as well. The rotation has come under some scrutiny as of late, as Ward was used very little at the end of the game against Jacksonville State and not at all in the second and fourth quarters of the Wake Forest game.
Toafili has been a surprising non-factor early on this season after averaging 9.6 yards per carry and 10.0 yards per reception as a freshman in 2020. He showed productive three-down back potential last season, but Corbin and Ward have surpassed him in the running back hierarchy and it seems like the coaching staff has tried to force him the ball at awkward moments during the last two games just for the sake of keeping him involved.
FSU head coach Mike Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham have said numerous times that the idea of using all three backs throughout the course of the game is to keep all of them fresh for as long as possible. However, at what point does the rotation shorten a bit in order to get the team’s two best backs more touches?
Ward is averaging just over nine touches per contest this season, but that seems far too few for a guy who is averaging 7.25 yards per touch.
“I mean, just a little bit,” Ward said when asked if rotating three backs makes it more difficult to find a rhythm, “but I mean, just the opportunity we get, we just have to deal with it, whether we’re the hot hand or cold hand. Other than that we just have to take advantage of our opportunities.”
Ward definitely needs to be more involved in the offense after what he has shown not just through three games in 2021, but the entire offseason leading up to this point. The coaching staff and players within the program have said that Ward’s emergence is not surprising. Norvell has called him an “ultimate competitor” and believes he has a skill set that can make him a special back.
Toafili’s ineffectiveness has been one of the biggest surprises from FSU’s offense so far this season. That could be just a case of seeing limited opportunities because of the three-running-back rotation. However, at a certain point, if he does not begin to produce like he did last year, one would have to think that Corbin and Ward need to stay on the field for longer stretches.
Regardless, Ward’s rise from walk-on to arguably Florida State’s best offensive player so far this season has been a great story.
Now on to some observations from Tuesday’s practice.
-Travis exited in the third quarter of the Wake Forest game and did not return due to a right shoulder injury. Norvell confirmed after practice that if Travis is unavailable for the Louisville game on Saturday, then Chubba Purdy will be the backup quarterback.
“Chubba’s worked really hard,” Norvell said. “He still has his freshman moments in practice, but I love the progression I’ve seen. To get him to be able to go through a fall camp, to have these practices - we still are keeping him very involved in those. I’m excited for what his future is. He understands that he’s got to be ready.”
The former four-star appeared in three games and made one start as a freshman last year, but a shoulder injury sidelined him late in the year. He has surgery to repair a broken collarbone in the offseason and missed all of spring practice. He has always shown an impressive combination of mobility and arm talent, but the practice reps that he has accrued are paying dividends for his confidence level.
Purdy was mostly sharp throughout practice. His best throw of the day came early during 11-on-11s when he was flushed to his right and fired a first-down strike to Jordan Wilson about 15 yards downfield.
-FSU rules prevent media from reporting who is practicing and who is not, as well as where different guys are playing, but Florida State used several different offensive line combinations throughout Tuesday’s practice. The Seminoles have been a bit banged up in that group with Maurice Smith and Robert Scott not playing last week. Combine that Dontae Lucas leaving the program last week, and Florida State currently has some depth issues up front.
After a long pause, FSU offensive line coach Alex Atkins said after practice that he can’t recall a time in his career when this many key guys have gone down so early in the season.
With several key players missing, younger guys like Zane Herring will likely see an increased role. The redshirt freshman made his season debut against Wake Forest last week and understandably struggled a bit in pass protection.
When Baveon Johnson left the game briefly last week, Darius Washington moved to center, marking the first time he has done that in his career. Atkins said after practice that they try to get four or five players reps at that spot during practices and that Washington has been the most consistent in terms of snapping the ball. That has been an issue so far this season when both Smith and Johnson have played center.
-McKenzie Milton is listed as the starting quarterback on FSU’s weekly depth chart for the third straight game. He has struggled to generate explosive plays downfield through FSU’s first three weeks, so it was encouraging to see him connect with Andrew Parchment for a long touchdown down the right sideline early in practice. Milton is more advanced as a progression pocket passer than Travis, but he lacks the big-play ability that Travis has. Florida State needs to find ways to create more explosive pass plays with him in the game. Parchment is a guy who can help with that, but he too needs to be more consistent.
-Malcolm Ray did not see the field in Florida State’s opener against Notre Dame, but he’s seen an increased role in the past two games. He was outstanding in Tuesday’s practice, consistently putting pressure on the quarterback and showing off a quick first step on the interior. If defensive linemen were allowed to hit quarterbacks in practice, he likely would have had multiple sacks.
On another play, he forced Purdy to roll out to his right and make a difficult throw on the run across his body. The throw was over the head of Keyshawn Helton and probably should have been intercepted by Shyheim Brown.
-Jermaine Johnson made his daily splash play on the last play of red zone drills when he blew by his man off the edge and sacked Milton. Jarrett Jackson was also in on the play.
-During special teams drills, Jammie Robinson made an excellent block on a kick return that drew praise from Norvell and a few teammates.
-Drops were a problem throughout the morning, and they came from a multitude of receivers. Parchment was guilty of one early in the day, as was Camren McDonald, Bryan Robinson. Darion Williamson also saw a pass over the middle deflect high off his hands, and he was lucky it was not intercepted. There were a couple of dropped interceptions by defensive backs too. In addition to Brown dropping one, Meiko Dotson couldn’t corral a high pass over the middle.
-Jarvis Brownlee has been a target of criticism from the fanbase over the past two weeks after allowing the walk-off touchdown to Jacksonville State and a couple of other big completions against Wake Forest. However, he had a couple of nice plays in practice Tuesday. Brownlee broke up a back-shoulder throw along the left sideline to Parchment and played the ball perfectly. He also had a sack on Purdy later in the day.
-Ryan Fitzgerald made both of his PATs against Wake Forest, but he did not attempt any field goals in the game. His lone attempt during scrimmages on Tuesday was a 46-yarder from the left hash that missed slightly wide right.
-The best catch of the day was by Ontaria Wilson when he ran a corner route downfield towards the left sideline. Omarion Cooper went step for step with him in coverage, but Wilson climbed the ladder and made a one-handed catch with his arm fully extended high in the air. Wilson caught a 65-yard touchdown pass from Travis against Wake Forest on Saturday, and that was really his first impact play of the season. He had only one catch that went for a loss against Notre Dame and then missed the Jacksonville State game due to injury. He had the most yards of any returning receiver on Florida State’s roster this year, so the Seminoles need him to make more plays like that. It looks like he’s beginning to find some confidence, which would be a major boost for the FSU offense.
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