TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s the most important question Willie Taggart will answer during his first year as Florida State’s head coach:
Who will be the Seminoles’ starting quarterback when they open the season against Virginia Tech later this year?
Fortunately for Taggart, he has some pretty good answers from which to choose.
Taggart doesn’t yet know which of James Blackman, Deondre Francois or Bailey Hockman will be under center come Labor Day night, but he does know that whoever wins the job will have earned it.
“If you want to be the guy,” Taggart said, “that’s going to be on you to go out and make that happen. You’re going to have those opportunities, so you need to take advantage of them.”
The Seminoles are blessed with a most unique situation in their quarterbacks room. In Blackman and Francois, they have the country’s only quarterback tandem to have made at least 10 starts at their current school.
Francois, of course, was FSU’s full-time starter in 2016 and earned ACC rookie of the year honors after throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns. But his season-ending injury in last year’s opener against Alabama paved the way for Blackman, then a true freshman, to start the next 12 games and make some significant in-roads toward being FSU’s quarterback of the future.
And then there’s Hockman. While most might peg either Blackman or Francois as the frontrunners, Taggart cautioned against ruling out Hockman prematurely.
And Hockman himself, a left-handed redshirt freshman from Powder Springs, Ga., had a message for anyone who might discount his chances:
“Don’t do it,” he said.
Complicating matters is that Francois is still on the mend from the torn patellar tendon he suffered in September.
He still attends practice, still dresses out and still participates as much as he can, mostly by making throws and taking simulated reps behind the play during team drills.
But when it comes time to run – and Taggart’s offense requires quarterbacks to run and run often – Francois won’t be involved. At least not during the spring.
Which means that Francois will have to find other ways to make himself effective.
“He’s going to be able to encourage his teammates, be a great leader, keep rehabbing and get himself better so he can be out there and compete,” Taggart said. “He’s got a lot of work do to, even though he’s not out there on the football field.”
Added Francois: “Being off the field doesn’t mean I’m not working. There’s still things you can do – weight room, treatment, film. There’s still things you can do to get better.”
Still, Francois’ absence means that Blackman will be FSU’s only experienced quarterback to also take significant spring reps.
And there’s no doubt that Blackman seems to be trending upward, especially after throwing for four touchdowns and 233 yards against Southern Mississippi in the Independence Bowl.
Given that he’s coming off nearly a full season as a starter, and that he’s due to get plenty of time with both the first- and second-team offenses this spring, Blackman should make for a formidable contender in FSU’s quarterback race.
Not that Blackman thinks he has anything locked up.
“We’ve got two other great quarterbacks, Deondre and Bailey, and I can’t wait to compete with those guys,” Blackman said. “It’s going to be fun, just to go at it with each other.”
When Taggart says he wants his quarterbacks to compete, he’s not just talking about measuring arm strength, accuracy and mechanics.
In Taggart’s mind, a team’s quarterback needs to be its leader.
At the center of nearly every great team – whether it’s Charlie Ward’s Seminoles or Tom Brady’s Patriots – Taggart believes there’s typically a strong leader at quarterback.
And that trait, perhaps more than any else, will weigh heavily in Taggart’s mind as he evaluates Blackman, Francois and Hockman.
“You’ve got to be able to lead the football team,” he said. “And I’m not just saying (lead) the offense. I’m saying the football team. I think when you see great football teams or teams that win championships, one thing you see is the team rallies around their quarterback.
“I think that comes with time. I think that comes with relationships.”
Consider that message received. All three quarterbacks were asked last week about their leadership skills, and each said the topic has been on his mind.
Blackman said, “I just need to be a better leader by showing, by example,” while Hockman added that he plans to “(work) hard and (show) my teammates I’m going to be there for them and doing everything I can for them.”
Francois, meanwhile, acknowledged that leading a team while sidelined by injury is tough. But, in the same breath, he insisted that he’s up for the task.
“It’s a big role that I have to play,” he said. “Because, being hurt, it’s very difficult to try to lead from the outside looking in.
“You have to be assertive, and you have to lead in different ways. Everything that I can do possible to help the team from a leadership standpoint, that’s what I’m doing.”