WATCH: FSU RBs coach David Johnson breaks down National Signing Day
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s among the most important questions surrounding Mike Norvell’s early tenure at Florida State:
How to replace the 3,360 total career yardage and 34 touchdowns that left town when running back Cam Akers declared for the NFL draft?
Norvell might not have one clear answer – at least not yet. But upon the conclusion of Wednesday’s National Signing Day, he had at least made it a multiple-choice test.
Take a look at the list of new signees, and it’s clear that Norvell and his staff put a massive emphasis on the backfield. They signed four new running backs for the class of 2020 – two from the high school ranks (Lawrance Toafili and Corey Wren), one from a junior college (La’Damian Webb) and one more via transfer from the Southeastern Conference (Jashaun Corbin). And Norvell hinted that freshman Ja’Khi Douglas, officially listed as a receiver, could play some running back as well.
Throw them in with veteran Khalan Laborn, returning speedster Anthony Grant and promising walk-on Deonté Sheffield, and, just a few months removed from playing a bowl game without an available scholarship running back, the Seminoles’ new running back room has a chance to be crowded in all the right ways this fall.
“We thought, with the departure of Cam Akers going early to the National Football League, (running back) was a position that we really wanted to address,” Norvell said. “…I think that’s probably the highlight of the group of young men that we were able to attract.”
Indeed, every one of FSU’s running back signees has something that stands out about them.
Webb is a JUCO All-American and was “Mr. Football” in his home state of Alabama.
Corbin was just two years ago one of the most coveted running back prospects in the state of Florida, before opting to head west for Texas A&M.
Wren, a Louisiana native, might literally be the fastest prospect in the country. The 5-10, 185-pounder has a personal-best 10.41 mark in the 100-meter dash – speed which helped him to amass more than 3,000 career yards on the football field.
And Toafili, among the highest-regarded overall prospects in the 2020 class, averaged 9.7 yards per carry throughout his high school career.
“We got a variety of guys that have different skillsets and will bring different values to us,” FSU offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said. “I think they’re all guys that can come in and compete and have the mindset to compete sooner rather than later.”
That competition will drive FSU’s running backs this spring and fall, as will the promise that multiple backs could play significant roles.
After several years with the likes of Akers (2017-19) and Dalvin Cook (2014-16), Florida State fans have gotten used to seeing a “featured” back that plays a heavy majority of snaps.
But Norvell’s track record at Memphis suggests that might no longer be the case.
In 2016, Norvell’s first year with the Tigers, he had four players log at least 70 carries and three finish with at least 480 yards.
A year later, running backs Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor split 287 carries nearly right down the middle and combined for more than 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Then, in 2018, the Tigers’ rushing attack exploded: Henderson and Taylor each carried more than 200 times, each ran for more than 1,000 yards and a third back, Tony Pollard, added another 552. That year, Memphis finished with the No. 4 rushing offense in the country – behind only Georgia Tech, Army and Air Force.
Even in 2019, during which Memphis had the closest thing to a “featured back” of Norvell’s tenure (Kenneth Gainwell ran for 1,459 yards, more than 1,000 ahead of his closest teammate), the Tigers still had another three players account for at least 350 rushing yards each.
Florida State has never had multiple 1,000-yard rushers in the same season, and hasn’t had four 350-yard rushers in a season since 2012.
“I think every team would like to have a deep rotation if you have enough playmakers to get the ball to,” Dillingham said. “In years past (at Memphis), we’d go through three different NFL guys on the field at the same time, that were all running backs.”
Which means that, competitive as spring and fall practice will be, virtually every one of Florida State’s running backs will know that they’ve got a path to playing time.
Particularly if, as running backs coach David Johnson noted, they can carve out a niche for themselves.
One might be a speedster who can quickly get around the edge, and another a bigger body that excels between the tackles. Another may be a receiving specialist, while a counterpart contributes as a reliable pass-blocker.
Given Norvell’s emphasis on special teams, a talented back could find his way onto any of those units, as well.
“Just play your role,” Johnson said. “Whatever your role is, whatever we ask you to do, be a superstar in your role.”
Those roles might not yet be clearly defined. But thanks to a deep haul on signing day, Norvell has plenty of options.