TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With an affectionate gaze toward the past, the Florida State football program turned its eyes to the future on Saturday night.
In front of more than 60,000 fans, hundreds of former players and one legendary former head coach, the Seminoles celebrated the arrival of the Willie Taggart era in style during an energized and enthused Garnet and Gold Game at Doak Campbell Stadium.
The final scoreboard read Garnet 31, Gold 13, but that seemed like a secondary detail by the time the final whistle sounded.
There was Bobby Bowden, the iconic coach, walking onto the field that bears his name for the first time since 2013. And there was Deion Sanders making what once was a rare public appearance at his alma mater, catching up with old teammates and posing for pictures on the sideline.
There was the impromptu dance party that broke out between the third and fourth quarters, when rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic ode to the posterior played loudly on the stadium speakers.
And, finally, there was Taggart taking a lap around the stadium, shaking every hand along the way, as the clock ran down in the fourth quarter.
Yes, things are a little different these days. But Taggart has made sure that all Seminoles past, present and future (see the dozens of top-notch recruits in attendance this weekend) are invited to the party.
“Yeah, they’re different. They should be different,” Taggart said. “You can sense the energy around the whole community. Our players, I see that every single day. … Everywhere you walk around in Tallahassee, you can see the excitement. You hear people talk about it.
“And you walk out in that stadium and see the way that it was (Saturday), it’s like bug juice, energy, excitement. It says a lot. I think the whole Seminole family is excited about what’s going on. And we’ve got to continue to build on that excitement.”
Saturday’s scrimmage was a good place to start.
While the final score wasn’t particularly close, each side had its share of highlight-reel plays.
Like the double-pass that went from James Blackman to Keith Gavin, and from Gavin to a wide-open Jacques Patrick for a 27-yard Gold touchdown.
Or the 91-yard touchdown run that Khalan Laborn ripped off just a few moments later.
Or seemingly any of Tamorrion Terry’s five catches – the redshirt freshman had 129 yards (including a 35-yarder from D.J. Matthews) and one touchdown, and nearly had another.
All told, two receivers threw passes, a running back – Cam Akers – lined up for a snap at quarterback, and the two teams combined for 674 yards of offense despite playing with a running clock in the second half.
Not bad for a night when the head coach said he kept things “vanilla.”
“The offense is going to be pretty good,” Terry said.
“It’s all about finding plays that the defense can’t stop,” Blackman added. “We want to keep people off-balance, keep them on their toes and play ball as fast as we can.”
In perhaps the biggest sign that things are moving forward, seemingly everyone at the top of the box score was a first- or second-year player.
That includes Blackman, the sophomore who finished 16 of 32 but with 259 yards, a touchdown and no turnovers. (Redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman had a similar line – 11 of 22 for 203 yards and a score.)
But it also includes redshirt freshmen Laborn (140 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries) and Terry and sophomore D.J. Matthews (six catches, 105 yards).
The youth movement made its way to the defenses, too, where the top two tacklers on both teams were either freshmen or sophomores. Early-enrollee Jaiden Woodbey made a game-high nine stops, while Leonard Warner III, DeCalon Brooks and Hamsah Nasirildeen all had seven.
“We have some kids that didn’t play last year and worked really hard in the spring and that are pretty good football players,” Taggart said. “I’m glad that they redshirted, a lot of them. It’s only the beginning for those guys.”
It’s only the beginning for Taggart’s Seminoles, too.
Taggart has often referred to Florida State as his “dream job,” but, even in the coach’s wildest dreams, he likely didn’t imagine a scene like the one that played out on Saturday:
A picturesque evening, a Florida State logo on Taggart’s visor and a school spring-game record crowd on-hand to watch him patrol the sidelines for the first time.
There will no doubt be other, bigger moments in the Taggart era at Florida State. But this one was worth capturing.
“That was impressive,” he said. “I had to pull out my phone and take a picture of it myself. It was pretty cool.”
Boy the stadium was packed wasn’t it? 👀
— Dontavious Jackson (@DJACKV_) April 15, 2018
Taggart shook the hand of every fan that he could reach, then began his post-game press conference by thanking everyone who attended.
Next up, he said, is to reward their faith and enthusiasm with results this fall.
“I told our team in the locker room, our fans showed them how much they appreciate us and how they’re behind us,” Taggart said. “So now, we have to take care of our business this offseason, get better, so we can go out and show them how much we appreciate them in the way that we play.”