TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The dog days are almost over.
After more than three weeks of sweat, aches and bruises, the Florida State football team is nearing the end of fall camp.
The third-ranked Seminoles’ opener against No. 1 Alabama is just 10 days away, and coach Jimbo Fisher said he would start implementing his game plan for the Crimson Tide during Wednesday’s practice.
“We’ll start (Wednesday) with a lot of game preparation stuff,” he said. “Headed in that direction.”
“Oh, it feels very close,” receiver Auden Tate said of the opener. “It feels right around the corner. The anticipation is actually killing me. I just want to hurry up and play a game.”
While there’s still a few more camp sessions and a full week of practice before then, the Seminoles appear to be finding clarity at several positions.
Fisher on Tuesday gave updates on the offensive line, quarterbacks and specialists, among others, and he also offered a positive review of the team’s second scrimmage, which was held Sunday at Doak Campbell Stadium.
He said the second scrimmage was “much sharper” than the first, and that the team did a better job picking up on fine details.
“The tempo picked up, plays going in and out, substitutions were a lot cleaner,” Tate said. “But there’s still a lot we’ve got to work on.”
Fortunately, there’s still some time to iron things out. In the meantime, here’s a look at some updates across the roster:
Deondre Francois’ place on the depth chart has been secure all year, and Fisher has given every indication that he’s pleased with the redshirt sophomore’s progress during camp.
Fisher said Francois was both aggressive and smart with the ball during the second scrimmage, and that he’s done a fine job mastering game situations.
But Fisher’s strongest praise, however, may have been reserved for freshman James Blackman, who continues to impress despite being the least experienced quarterback on the roster.
With fellow freshman Bailey Hockman sidelined by a shoulder injury, Blackman made the most of some extra reps during the scrimmage.
“Oh, played real well, got a bunch of reps,” Fisher said. “James is doing outstanding.”
How outstanding? When Fisher was asked if Blackman could contend for the No. 2 quarterback job, Fisher didn’t hesitate and answered “Oh, no doubt. Without a doubt.”
“He’s real poised,” Tate added. “He knows his reads. He knows his keys. He knows his (hot routes) when the blitz is coming. He looks real comfortable out there. He doesn’t look like a lot phases him.”
Derrick Kelly continues to hold his own at left tackle, which means that Florida State may be inching closer to a full-time starting front five. The left tackle job vacated by All-American Roderick Johnson was one of the biggest holes on the depth chart coming into fall camp, but Kelly, a redshirt sophomore, has held a firm grasp on the spot since moving there a couple weeks ago.
With Kelly at left tackle and and several returning starters holding familiar posts – and staying healthy – FSU has enjoyed some continuity on the line during several recent practices.
And, according to Fisher, it’s starting to show.
“Our offensive line, I thought, played really well in the (scrimmage),” he said. “I’ve been pleased with their progress. They’re going against really good people. It ain’t like those (defensive) guys can’t rush and can’t play run defense.”
The news, however, wasn’t all good, as Fisher revealed that both Baveon Johnson (knee) and Jauan Williams (shoulder) would miss the season after having surgeries.
Johnson’s loss is a particular disappointment, as he was the top reserve at center and, without him, the Seminoles are a little thin at the position.
But Fisher downplayed those concerns and said that the team’s guards have worked on snapping the ball and could move over to center if needed.
Fisher has never been afraid to use his playmakers on special teams. Star cornerback Greg Reid did it during Fisher’s first few years in Tallahassee, Lamarcus Joyner did it a few years later and Jalen Ramsey followed suit in 2015.
So it should come as no surprise that he intends to do the same this year. A week after trying All-American cornerback Tarvarus McFadden as a punt returner, Fisher said Tuesday that, as of now, he’ll have the job against Alabama on Sept. 2.
There will be similar star power in the kick return unit, as safety Derwin James and receiver Keith Gavin – both of whom are expected to play key roles at their respective positions this fall – make up the first-choice combination there.
Fisher particularly likes what McFadden brings to punt returns. After all, who better to find a ball in traffic and make a clean catch than a player who grabbed eight interceptions a year ago?
“He does a great job,” Fisher said. “Tremendous ball skills, tracks the ball catches the ball, got good skills. Hits it good. I’ve been very pleased with him.”
As for James and Gavin, Fisher said that the benefit of having two players with their combination of speed and size returning kicks is just too much to ignore.
Either of the 6-3, 211-pound James or 6-3, 225-pound Gavin can break through would-be tacklers – see Gavin’s 66-yard return at last year’s Orange Bowl as an example – and either would make for an intimidating lead blocker when the other has the ball.
That makes for no easy decisions for opposing kickoff coverage units.
“Those two,” Fisher said, “will be the two right now.”
One of the quirkier and more controversial rules in college football will leave FSU without one of its starting safeties for the first half against Alabama.
Trey Marshall was issued a targeting penalty during the fourth quarter of FSU’s Orange Bowl win over Michigan, an infraction that comes with an ejection for the rest of the game.
And if that penalty occurs during the second half, the penalized player must then miss the first half of his team’s next game.
Even if that next game doesn’t occur until the next season.
So Marshall won’t take the field until the third quarter, and the Seminoles are left trying to balance giving practice reps to their starting safety while also preparing those who will be taking his place in the first half.
“(Marshall) will still get a lot of reps because he’s going to play the second half of the game, but those other guys, they’re getting plenty of reps,” Fisher said. “They all know what to do and how to do it. We’re getting them a bunch – everybody.”
As for the rule itself, Fisher passionately advocated for his player, saying that it’s not fair for penalties to carry over from year to year.
The targeting legislation was introduced in 2013, with revisions added in 2014 and 2016.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Fisher said. “What if it’s a senior that got that penalty? (His) team’s not punished the next year.
“It’s a different year, different game, different everything. Years should not carry over.”