SHREVEPORT, La. – After a team meeting during Florida State’s fall camp, weeks before the Seminoles’ opener against Alabama and months before all the twists and turns of a season that concluded Wednesday in the Independence Bowl, FSU’s coaching staff asked for individual players to stand up and address their teammates.
It was a moment tailor-made for battle-tested veterans who had been through the rigors of previous seasons and were expected to play key roles on a team with high expectations.
And it was a moment meant for freshmen to listen and be inspired by their older teammates.
But, then again, as he would prove often over the course of the 2017 season, James Blackman is no ordinary freshman.
Given a break in the discussion, Blackman, having been on campus for only a few weeks, seized an opportunity to stand up, address the room and deliver a message of inspiration and accountability.
Talk about a fine first impression.
“You don’t usually expect a true freshman to come up to the front and speak to the team,” tight end Ryan Izzo said earlier this season. “Seeing him go up in front of the team, the leadership abilities that he has, I think he’s going to be really special.”
“A lot of people were saying stuff,” junior receiver Auden Tate added. “But when James got up there, you felt what he was saying. Whenever he talked, everyone got quiet.”
At the time, no one associated with Florida State football expected to hear much more from Blackman for a while. Francois was entrenched as the starter and Blackman was the least experienced of four quarterbacks on the roster.
But not much about the 2017 season went according to plan. Francois injured his knee in the opener and, after a surprisingly strong fall camp, Blackman was under center when the Seminoles returned to the field a few weeks later.
He was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Florida State since 1985.
“He had to grow up very fast,” FSU interim coach Odell Haggins said. “He had to take the diapers off and go to work.”
That turned out to be a season-long process, as Blackman and the Seminoles navigated some freshman growing pains and a treacherous schedule on the way to a 6-6 regular season.
But all the while, Blackman kept improving and kept developing. His work was on full display during the Seminoles’ season finale in the Independence Bowl.
On the other side of 15 bowl practices, Blackman was sharp and efficient in completing 18 of 26 passes for 233 yards and an Independence Bowl-record four touchdowns in the Seminoles’ 42-13 victory over Southern Miss.
Blackman’s four scores are more than the likes of Brett Favre (1988), Eli Manning (2002) and Ryan Tannehill (2012) threw in their Independence Bowl appearances, and are the most for any Seminole quarterback in a bowl game since Chris Weinke threw four in the 2000 Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech.
“James, he did a tremendous job,” said Tate, who tied an Independence Bowl record by catching three of those touchdown passes. “He didn’t have time to grow as a player or really as a person (earlier in the season). He just had to come straight in, especially replacing one of the best quarterbacks in college football (Francois).
“He has those leadership qualities that you don’t see from a lot of young guys, him being 18.”
After letting his play on the field – and his teammates – speak on his behalf for much of the season, Blackman was able to speak for himself following his star turn in Shreveport. (FSU freshmen are typically off-limits to media until after their first bowl game.)
He thanked his teammates and coaches for rallying around him in the wake of Francois’ injury and sticking with him as he learned the ropes.
He thanked Tate for providing a big, reliable downfield target in the passing game and said that Tate reminds him of “my big brother, Kelvin Benjamin.” (Blackman and Benjamin each attended Glades Central High in Belle Glade, Fla.)
And Blackman praised the way the team rallied together over the last month, as the program moved toward a new era with coach Willie Taggart.
“It’s been a great month, to be honest,” Blackman said. “We’ve still been able to come together and play as a team and be together. We all stuck together and did what we had to do.”
Finally, Blackman addressed what is sure to be one of the biggest questions surrounding the Seminoles when spring practice arrives in a few months.
Or, rather, he chose not to address it.
Both Blackman and a healthy Francois have strong claims to FSU’s starting quarterback job, and choosing a signal-caller will be among the first significant stamps that Taggart puts on the team.
But as far as Blackman is concerned, that’s a discussion best saved for another day.
“This is a great season to learn from” Blackman said. “And what happens in the future just happens. I don’t want to speak on the starting job.”
The freshman who stood up and spoke in fall camp has said enough for now.