TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After nearly a month of position drills, offensive and defensive installations and post-practice sprints, it’s time for the Florida State Seminoles to step into the spotlight for the first time under coach Willie Taggart.
Garnet will meet Gold under the lights at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday night (6 p.m., WatchESPN), and with more than 30,000 tickets already sold, it’s safe to say FSU fans are champing at the bit to get their first look at the Taggart era.
Taggart, it turns out, is just as curious about it as the rest of us.
“It’s a game,” Taggart said. “And the spotlight does strange things to some people.
“Some people show up and show out, and some people hide. They have an opportunity to go out there to show up and show out … get ahead and solidify some spots.”
While individual position races will likely run through the fall, Taggart made sure to put some not-so-small stakes on Saturday’s spring game.
Or, rather, steaks.
“The winners get steak, the losers get hot dogs,” Taggart said with a smile. “And the losers have to serve. Put an apron on and serve.”
And then, his grin stretching even wider:
“I’m going to win.”
With Taggart’s culinary decree on the table, here are five things to keep an eye on during the Garnet and Gold Spring Game:
Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it: How fast is Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense? Take it from baseball coach Mike Martin, who recently sneaked a peek at a recent spring practice session from his perch atop Dick Howser Stadium:
“I got tired, one day, from watching,” Martin said.
Such is the new norm at Florida State, where balls are snapped, plays are executed and players are hurried to the line and ready to snap it again at a blistering pace.
In truth, the hurry-up, no-huddle style of offense has become more and more popular across college football in recent years, with heavyweight programs like Clemson, Oklahoma and others using it to great success.
So it’s not as if Taggart is introducing an entirely foreign concept. But compared to what Florida State fans are used to, it should make for a drastic change
Consider that the Seminoles last season ranked 127thnationally in adjusted pace, according to the stat gurus at FootballOutsiders.com. Taggart’s Oregon Ducks, meanwhile, ranked eighth. (Adjusted pace tries to account for the number of running and passing plays and their effect on the game clock, which in turn affects the number of plays a team runs per game.)
And anyway, it doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the Seminoles are moving faster. During some recent practices, they’ve sometimes snapped the ball as quickly as 12 seconds after the previous play ended.
“I don’t think they’ll see a huddle again,” Taggart said during a TV interview a few months ago. “I think you’ll see the tempo pick up a little more than what you’ve seen here lately.”
The offense, of course, is still a work in progress, and Taggart expects things to run a step slower on Saturday than they will in the fall – after all, he won’t be calling plays during the spring game. But no matter how much room there is to grow between now and September, it’s guaranteed to move in a hurry on Saturday.
‘War Daddy’ debut: While it’s easy to focus on the offense, Saturday also serves a sneak preview of what Florida State’s defense will look like under coordinator Harlon Barnett. Taggart himself gave a hint when he was hired, saying that he wants a defense reminiscent of the great FSU defenses of the past – when Mickey Andrews directed the Seminoles to play fast, physical and with a hint of a mean streak.
“We want to be in attack mode at all times and making plays,” Taggart said.
If the last few weeks of practice have been any indication, the Seminoles have gotten the message. While the team typically “thudded” in place of full tackling, there were plenty of big hits and turnovers to go around as the defense tended to stay a step ahead of its offensive counterparts during the early portion of spring.
Players to watch include the obvious (Brian Burns and Levonta Taylor have taken turns looking like the best players on the field) and under-the-radar. DeCalon Brooks seems a good bet to get significant action on Saturday, as do early-enrollee freshmen Amari Gainer and Jaiden Woodbey.
A new age at receiver: When Nyqwan Murray suffered a knee injury on the first day of spring practice, it guaranteed that a number of inexperienced FSU receivers would receive a baptism by fire over the next few weeks. And it seems that each has emerged unscathed – sophomore J. Matthews became one of the stars of spring (see his selection as pre-draft free agent for the Garnet team) while redshirt freshman Tamorrion Terry and junior Keith Gavin each used their physical advantages to test the defense deep.
And then there’s Ontaria Wilson, who just a few weeks ago was a defensive back but has since switched sides and is thriving in his new role as a receiver.
Wilson said he plays receiver with a defensive back’s mentality, which might be able to give him a slight edge when lining up across from his former comrades.
“Playing receiver’s been fun,” said Wilson, who has some experience with the position from high school. “The first couple reps were like, ‘Dang, receiver is hard.’ But as I started doing it, I got the rust off.”
And that’s to say nothing of the new-look tight ends group, which appears to be much more involved in the passing game. Tre’ McKitty wowed with a number of highlight-reel catches early in spring, while Naseir Upshur has since flashed with both his pass-catching and blocking abilities. Each should have a chance to introduce himself to FSU fans on Saturday.
O-line on a curve: Taggart has made subtle references to it during the last week, and on Saturday it will be clear: Florida State’s offensive line is playing shorthanded. The Seminoles have seen a number of linemen deal with injuries over the last few weeks, including three-year starting center Alec Eberle, tackles Jauan Williams and Abdul Bello, guard Cole center Baveon Johnson.
Those injuries, along with some attrition at the position after last season, have left position coach Greg Frey at times with only seven scholarship linemen to deploy. As a result, Freyhas had to turn to a handful of walk-ons while also cross-training his available linemen at different positions in order to fill a full unit.
“We don’t have as much depth on the OL right now because of injuries,” Taggart said earlier this week. “You would like more consistent play and (to) put guys at a position and just let them go. But we’re not in a situation where we can do that right now.”
Splitting linemen into two teams for a spring game is always a challenge but even more so in Florida State’s current situation, and it’s no surprise that during the team’s recent spring draft, nine of the first 15 picks were offensive linemen.
All that to say that the offensive line that takes the field for the Garnet and Gold teams on Saturday will likely look a lot different than the one that lines up against Virginia Tech this fall.
Another step forward for Blackman: Like virtually every coach in America, Taggart doesn’t see much reason to name a starting quarterback during the spring. But with his first spring nearing its end, it’s hard not to like James Blackman’s position.
Blackman’s 12 games of starting experience are nearly equal to previous starter Deondre Francois’ 14, and, even better, they were FSU’s most recent 12 games. Not only that, but with Francois still limited by an injury and redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman stepping into an expanded, second-team role for the first time, Blackman enjoyed an overwhelming majority in reps over the last few weeks.
None of that means that Blackman has things sewn up, but if anyone is in position to really use the spring game as a launching pad, it’s him.
And while Blackman, the Gold team’s quarterback, faces a formidable challenge from a garnet secondary that includes Stanford Samuels III, Taylor and Hamsah Nasirildeen, he also has a capable group of targets in Gavin, Deonte’ Sheffield and McKitty.