TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — During a scorching Tallahassee Monday morning on the Al Dunlap practice fields, Jacques Patrick receives a handoff from Deondre Francois, makes a cut to his left and then promptly accelerates forward as he cuts up field.
Rep after rep, he and Florida State’s other running backs work on their precision with the three starting quarterback candidates, making sure they’re all on the same page in Willie Taggart’s new fast-paced shotgun offense.
It’s quickly becomes apparent: Florida State will emphasize running the football in 2018.
“We’re gonna spread you out and run the ball right down your throat,” Patrick said with a smile. “A lot of people think, because it’s a spread offense, it’s a lot of east and west runs and it’s really not. You guys will see, you will see.”
Patrick returned for his senior season for the opportunity to succeed in Taggart’s high-octane attack. He, along with Cam Akers, Khalan Laborn and Amir Rasul, form a group of talented former blue-chip recruits and perhaps one of the best running back corps in the country.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have great backs everywhere I’ve coached, but not this many (at one time),” said FSU running backs coach Donte’ Pimpleton, who has served on Taggart’s staffs at Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon.
“The good challenge is you have to find a way to get them all on the field.”
Akers and Patrick combined for 1,772 yards and 14 touchdowns a season ago, while Laborn dazzled during the spring, capping it with a monster performance in the Garnet and Gold Game (140 yards, 91-yard TD) that gave coaches and fans alike a taste of his talent. Under Taggart, several running backs will be featured heavily as the Seminoles establish the ground game.
A look at Oregon’s statistics and film with Taggart at the helm suggests the sheer number of touches FSU’s new head coach gives his running backs.
Three different running backs received at least 88 carries in 2017, while the quarterbacks and wide receivers also made up a strong portion of the running game. In fact, of the 939 total plays the Ducks ran last year, 628 were run plays – good for nearly 67 percent of the offense.
“I’ve seen what he can do firsthand with his offense,” Patrick said laughing. “They gassed us a couple of times in the past (when Taggart coached against FSU at USF).”
Taggart praised Patrick in particular for his diligence in picking up the new scheme. While the Seminoles will now line up in various shotgun formations and attempt to take advantage of their speed with lateral runs, the style of running game will still very much be in the mold of a downhill power attack.
Taggart comes from the Harbaugh coaching tree, where physical running between the tackles is still emphasized. It’s a style Patrick has fully embraced this summer.
“He’s committed, he’s motived to have the best season he can have. He’s been that way since the spring,” Taggart said of Patrick. “He’s been busting his tail off all summer long (in the film room) and I asked him if he wanted to be on the coaching staff because he was always learning and wanting to be better.”
While most eyes are trained on Florida State’s quarterback race, how Taggart uses his running backs might be more important to the Seminoles’ overall offensive output this season.
The new coach uses a variety of methods to get his backs involved, especially in the passing game.
“Pass-catching is definitely (one of the important parts of the offense),” Akers said. “We work on it a lot. You have to be able to do it. If you can’t catch, you can’t play.”
“It was real evident learning Coach Taggart’s system how much running backs are used catching the football,” offensive coordinator Walt Bell added. “It helps us create more touches for that position, even if it isn’t just handing the ball off.”
As the Seminoles continue their fall camp over the next few weeks, they’ll attempt to create roles and a plan for how to best use their talented stable of backs.
However, it’s a near certainty that each one will be important to the success of the offense. Pounding the ball on the ground will be part of FSU’s identity.
That identity is already taking hold. Asked about his play-calling preferences in short-yardage scenarios, Bell flashed a grin and then paused to choose the right words:
“There’s a lot that goes in to that, but I know how I was brought up and what I believe in,” he said.
“If we need a yard to go win the football game, hopefully we run the football.”