TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a sense, Willie Taggart’s list of things he’d like to see during Saturday’s Nissan Garnet and Gold Spring Game is pretty short:
“A football team that’s improved,” he said, after Thursday’s practice.
That would no doubt be a welcome sight for both Taggart and for Florida State fans ready to feel some good vibes after a difficult 2018 campaign.
Under the umbrella of improvement, though, is a checklist of things worth watching for on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium. Some of those things involve improvements on the roster, and some involve improvements on the field itself.
Regardless, there should be plenty to keep an eye on. And that’s without factoring in the postgame concert with MC Hammer, Tone Loc and Color Me Badd.
New coaches make their mark: Kendal Briles won’t throw any passes, Randy Clements won’t block any pass-rushers and Ron Dugans won’t haul in any deep throws down the sideline.
But all three coaches, hired in the weeks and months following the 2018 campaign, figure to have their fingerprints on Saturday’s proceedings.
Briles in calling the plays and otherwise overseeing every aspect of the offense. His longtime friend and colleague, Clements, in rebuilding an offensive line that lived under constant scrutiny a year ago. And Dugans in leading a receiving corps that has plenty of talent but still must replace its top pass-catcher from last season.
Speaking on Taggart’s talk show earlier this week, Briles said that FSU’s offense is on schedule.
“I think we’re right where we need to be,” he said. “The good Lord has blessed a lot of these players with talent, and one thing we try to do offensively is not make them think and slow them down. We let them play. The kids are having fun, and I’m excited about this group.”
Meet the new quarterbacks: Minus James Blackman, of course. Blackman, now a redshirt sophomore, will be front-and-center in quarterbacking the Gold team. And while his progress is key to the 2019 campaign, there’s likely not much he can or can’t do on Saturday that will affect his status.
But the spring game, for all intents and purposes, will mark the Doak Campbell Stadium debuts for new quarterbacks Nolan McDonald and Jordan Travis.
Until further notice, McDonald is Florida State’s top reserve at the position, and, given that he’s in his second year with Taggart, he figures to have something to say about it even if Travis is granted a waiver to be eligible this fall. And when Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook arrives in a few months.
“He can throw the ball, but he’s also shifty,” FSU receiver Keyshawn Helton said about McDonald. “He can escape the pocket and make plays downfield.”
Whether Travis can play this fall remains to be seen, but he’ll be a full participant on Saturday. The younger brother of former FSU baseball star Devon Travis, Jordan redshirted last year at Louisville after throwing for 71 yards, one touchdown and one interception. But he threw for 2,190 yards and 24 touchdowns in high school, and he’s got some impressive wheels, too – he added 905 yards and 16 scores on the ground.
First time in the spotlight for early-enrollees: Fans can get a sneak peek at FSU’s signing class of 2019 when six early-enrollees, with the team since January and full participants in spring camp, take the field.
All six – defensive backs Akeem Dent and Raymond Woodie III, offensive linemen Dontae Lucas and Jay Williams, linebacker Jaleel McRae and defensive tackle Tru Thompson – play positions of need, and all six have made at least some impact over the past few weeks.
Dent, with his five-star pedigree, seems the “readiest” of the freshmen, and the long hair that flows out of his helmet will make him easy to spot on the field.
Taggart has bestowed one of his favorite compliments on Dent, calling him “a dude” after a few practices. But Dent is far from the only new Seminole with a chance to make an impact.
McRae, a former standout at Bradenton’s IMG Academy, has emerged as one of the pleasant surprises of spring camp, and has earned steady praise for his instincts and understanding of the game.
Lucas and Williams, of course, play on the offensive line and are the newest building blocks in Clements’ renovation project (they’ll be joined by more this fall).
Thompson checks in at a massive, 6-foot, 338 pounds and will look to fill in at a position in which the Seminoles lost two key players from last year’s team.
And Woodie, the son of FSU linebackers coach Raymond Woodie, seems plenty comfortable after moving across town from Florida High.
“The spotlight does strange things to people,” Taggart said, speaking about his newcomers. “Some people show up and show out, some people hide. That’s just the way it is. Hopefully we’ve got a lot more guys that are showing up and showing out.”
Sharpening the details: With their offense still committed to moving at a blistering pace, the Seminoles have placed a renewed emphasis on eliminating the missteps and miscues that often halted their momentum last season.
Yes, that means putting an end to procedural penalties – think false starts, illegal shifts and bad alignments.
It’s subtle, but a sharp eye on the practice field shows that Florida State is taking steps to make those frustrations a thing of the past.
For instance, while running tempo drills, an outside receiver will get to the line of scrimmage and, without turning his head, flash a “thumbs up” sign toward the side judge.
If everything is properly aligned, the official will say, “You’re good,” and, a moment later, the ball is snapped.
If not, the official will let the player know, and he and his teammates will make the proper adjustment.
Best of all, during their most recent practice, the Seminoles got it right every time. But they still asked before every play, just to be safe.
Saturday’s game will feature a full officiating crew, which means the Seminoles will have to put everything they’ve practiced to the test.
New-look line: Twelve months ago, Florida State was so depleted on the offensive line that the few linemen the Seminoles did have available were forced into pulling double duty for both the Garnet and Gold teams.
That, thankfully, is no longer the case. And although Saturday’s game won’t offer a full look at a first-team offensive line – the linemen are spread across the two rosters – it will provide a glimpse at the progress the group has made during the spring.
“We want all the pressure,” said redshirt junior guard Mike Arnold. “Just put it all on us, and that’s going to make us better every day.”
For the first time in three years, the Seminoles have a new man in the middle, as center Baveon Johnson has taken over for the stalwart Alec Eberle. Johnson is the former No. 1 center prospect in the country and was considered a potential “anchor” of FSU’s line of the future when he signed in 2016.
Meanwhile, his cohorts who were thrust into action under difficult circumstances a year ago –Arnold, sophomore Brady Scott and redshirt junior Jauan Williams – could now be reaping the benefits of all that experience.
And that figures to only get better as Landon Dickerson, a limited participant for much of the spring, continues to improve in his recovery from ankle surgery.
“Our offensive line has gotten tremendously better over the spring,” defensive tackle Marvin Wilson said. “I couldn’t be happier, especially for those guys that came in and worked their butts off.
“I can’t wait for this weekend, when they can show everybody how much improvement they have made.”