TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Two weeks ago, with Florida State trailing Louisville and holding out hope for a fourth-quarter rally, FSU safety Cyrus Fagan stepped in front of an errant pass attempt and made the biggest play of his career – an interception that not only prevented the Cardinals from extending their lead, but also set up and led to the Seminoles’ go-ahead touchdown a few moments later.
The interception was the first of the junior’s career and, in some respects, one of the most important plays of the Seminoles’ season so far. They went on to beat Louisville, notched another win a week later against North Carolina State and, for the first time in a while, have some real, positive momentum behind them as they enjoy their open week.
Fagan at the time said he was “just doing my job,” but head coach Willie Taggart knew well the play’s true significance.
“It was huge,” he said. “We talk about guys stepping up and making a play. When things aren’t going our way, we need someone to step up and make a play. It was great to see Cyrus make that play for us.”
Seven days later, Fagan enjoyed another fine outing: A career-high 10 tackles – including eight solo stops – a fumble recovery and a pass breakup in the Seminoles’ 31-13 victory over NC State.
For that, the Daytona, Fla., native was honored as the ACC’s defensive back of the week.
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“It was a great feeling,” Fagan said after his interception. “A wonderful feeling. I’ve worked my whole life for that. Now I’m just trying to get some more of those.”
Fagan’s resurgence – he’s third on the team with 28 tackles, along with that interception, fumble recovery and a pass breakup – can serve as somewhat of an illustration for FSU’s defensive resurgence over the last few weeks.
Full of promise (Fagan is a former prep All-American) but short on production (he played special teams in 2017 and recorded only 24 tackles in all of 2018), and mostly just in need of the confidence to go out on the field and do what he’s always known he can do.
Which is impacting games and making plays.
“I’ve just been working on everything,” Fagan said. “My mentality has also changed. When things don’t go my way, I’ve learned to just keep my head strong and fight through.”
That, Taggart said, was evident by Fagan’s performances throughout fall camp.
Despite the frustration that comes with a relatively quiet first few years, and despite spending most of the summer running with the second- or third-team defenses, Fagan kept a low profile, went about his business in practice and trusted that, if he handled his end of the bargain, his efforts would pay off on Saturdays.
Fagan’s faith was rewarded in Week 2, when he made his first career start in FSU’s home game against ULM. He’s been in the starting lineup ever since.
“He’s been totally different this season,” Taggart said. “He’s been locked in to being a better player and it’s really paying off for us. Paying off for him as well.”
Perhaps the biggest sign that Fagan has turned a corner showed late Saturday night, after Seminoles had put the finishing touches on their win over NC State.
Holding court with reporters after another strong performance, one that led to conference honors, Fagan didn’t seem happy at all.
He was looking at the ground, at one point put his head in his hands and, without any trace of irony, said, “I let my team down, man.”
Because Fagan had three would-be interceptions thrown his way on Saturday night. And he couldn’t hang on to any of them.
That he was far from alone in that – NC State quarterback Bailey Hockman served up about half a dozen passes that should have been picked off and weren’t – wasn’t much consolation.
“That’s something I know I’ve got to work on,” he said. “Catching the ball.”
But the new Fagan, with his new mindset, wasn’t content to just lament what should have been. Instead, he had a solution.
When an offensive player commits a turnover in practice, their punishment is to run a lap around the practice fields. Fagan proposed the same fate for defenders who drop interceptions.
“Just take off and run,” he said. “Because we can’t afford that”
By Monday morning, that policy had been instituted.
And when one of Fagan’s cohorts in the secondary let an interception bounce of his hands, he didn’t even say a word. He just started jogging.
Like Fagan, the FSU defense is happy with its recent improvement. But Fagan and his teammates also have no misgivings about how much room they have left to improve.
Especially with a trip to No. 2 Clemson looming on the not-so-distant horizon.
“Great feeling, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Fagan said. “We can’t harp on it. We’ve got to put more work in. Because we know our opponents are seeing this film that we just put out today, they’re going to try to attack us where our weakness is.
“So we can’t have any weaknesses.”