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Florida State football has taken small steps forward. Can ’Noles finally make bigger leap?

It’s been a while since Florida State felt like Florida State. Mike Norvell knows this. Of course the head coach knows this. Of all the blue blood programs to fall from their peak, FSU has experienced one of the sharpest declines.

The program that had a 36-year bowl streak and a record 14-year run of top-five finishes and won a national title as recently as 2013 is coming off four consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1973 to 1976. The Seminoles aren’t where they need to be. But are they heading in the right direction? That’s the question entering the 2022 season.

Two years into Norvell’s tenure, there has been progress.

“You look at the amount of change through this program over the last five years — you have three different head coaches, eight coordinators,” Norvell said. “There’s been a lot of different standards and expectations. The players need that consistency, need a standard to build a foundation of a program. Having the first year with COVID, we had to work through challenges. This year, they understand what to expect. We have a lot of production coming back. We have much better depth and some real emerging playmakers.”

Norvell is entering his third season at the helm, something his predecessor Willie Taggart did not get. More change for the sake of change doesn’t help. But when FSU started 0-4 last season, including a loss to Jacksonville State on the final play, the situation looked dire. Norvell didn’t change. He stuck to his guns with the day-to-day running of the program.

The Seminoles won five of their next seven, beating North Carolina and Miami, and played Clemson to within one possession until the final play. The team was better. But with a bowl bid on the line, FSU lost 24-21 to rival Florida, which was playing with an interim coach. The momentum crashed and the season ended.

Will that momentum return in 2022? The Seminoles have been one of the youngest teams in the nation over the past two years, and that’ll be the case once again, with just eight seniors on the team. But that’s now experienced youth. In February, ESPN calculated that FSU has the 11th most returning production in the country, including the second most on defense.

“We’re excited about the future,” Norvell said. “We’ve been one of the youngest teams and will have just eight seniors next year. We’re going to be in the same spot again. But you see the production, you see the opportunity and the growth, and that’s why I’m excited.”

Eight players earned All-ACC honors last season for Florida State, its most since 2016. But of those eight, only two were on the first team, and only four earned more than honorable mention — and of those four, only one is back in 2022.

The talent floor has been raised. There’s no doubt. The depth is starting to form. But does FSU have the game-changers who can go out and take a victory? A bowl game is the minimum expectation. A game against LSU in New Orleans on Sunday of Labor Day weekend could set the tone for the season.

If Florida State is going to be more than just a bowl team, star players have to emerge.

Offense

The Seminoles have been led by an offensive-minded head coach who has called the plays since Bobby Bowden retired. But the past two, Taggart and Norvell, haven’t found success on that side of the ball. At Memphis, Norvell directed one of the most creative and explosive offenses in the country, sending players to the NFL year after year. But FSU hasn’t finished in the top 70 in scoring offense since 2016.

The 2021 offense improved in the passing game compared to the year before, but it slipped in the running game. The Seminoles’ scoring and yards per play were relatively unchanged as a result. Still, the finish to the 2021 season brings reasons for optimism, starting at quarterback.

That’s because over the final seven games, junior Jordan Travis completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,302 yards with 17 touchdowns, two interceptions and 498 rushing yards. The Louisville transfer has started 14 games over the past two years and pulled away with the job last season. He led a game-winning drive in the final minute to beat Miami and became the first player in school history to pass for three touchdowns and run for two more in the win at UNC. Everything in 2022 will start with Travis, especially with backups McKenzie Milton and Chubba Purdy no longer around.

“I’ve got great confidence in him because of who he is and the work he’s put in, but also the experiences he’s had,” Norvell said. “It’s not been a fairy tale for him. There’s been high moments, low moments, adversity to overcome. If you look at his career, the games he plays in, he’s able to be successful. He’s maturing as a leader, and guys are going to respond to him because they’ve seen him in those challenging moments.”

The running back position is wide open and will likely go by committee with the departure of leading rusher Jashaun Corbin. The options are plentiful, including sophomore Treshaun Ward (515 yards as a freshman last year) and Oregon transfer Trey Benson (77 yards on seven carries in the spring game). Coaches also love the potential of sophomore Lawrance Toafili and junior D.J. Williams.

“Trey (Benson) is an absolute home run hitter,” Norvell said. “D.J. Williams is coming into his own, the physical development of his body. We have another newcomer in (freshman) Rodney Hill who not many are expecting a lot from early, but he’s got real potential. All of those running backs did a nice job this spring.”

Norvell’s offense uses players all over the field and gets running backs involved in the passing game. Corbin had 25 catches last year, and Ward had 21. Six of the top seven pass catchers are back, but nobody on the team had more than 25 catches or 382 yards. The leading returning receivers include senior Ontaria Wilson (23 catches, 382 yards, five TDs), sophomore receiver/running back Ja’Khi Douglas (255 yards), senior Keyshawn Helton (248 yards) and senior tight end Camren McDonald (243 yards).


Ontaria Wilson led FSU with 382 receiving yards in 2021. (Reinhold Matay / USA Today)

Florida State finished 84th in yards per pass attempt (7.1), which was a notable improvement from 2020, when the Seminoles were 107th (6.1). That comes from a lack of explosive plays. FSU was 85th nationally in plays of 30-plus yards and 97th nationally in such passing plays.

The additions of transfer receivers Mycah Pittman (Oregon), Johnny Wilson (Arizona State) and Deuce Spann (Illinois) have been welcome. FSU also added West Virginia transfer Winston Wright Jr., but he injured his leg in a car accident and his availability is uncertain. Pittman was a highlight of the spring game with four catches and a rushing touchdown.

“When you have that type of competition, you see the steps in growth,” Norvell said. “That’s what made us so good at Memphis. Not only did you have great players, but you had competition, so there were no off days, no off reps. If guys always want to produce, you have to bring your A-game every rep. I think that’s what we’re getting to.”

But any potential improvement at the skill positions won’t matter if the offensive line doesn’t improve. This group has been maligned for years, dating to late in Jimbo Fisher’s tenure. Last season, FSU finished 114th in sacks allowed per game and 97th in tackles for loss.

Norvell said the offensive line has 16 scholarship players, and 14 of them are sophomores or younger. That might bode well for the future, but what about this season? Four starters are back, including sophomore left tackle Robert Scott Jr., senior left guard Dillan Gibbons (honorable mention All-ACC), sophomore center Maurice Smith and sophomore right tackle Darius Washington. The hope is the experience of so many freshmen playing last season will pay off. The line also added transfer Kayden Lyles from Wisconsin and Bless Harris from Lamar.

“It’s a young group that is going to have to continue to grow, but I’m excited about the potential they have,” Norvell said.

It’s been years since Florida State had an offense to be feared. It won’t be confused with the top offenses in the country, or perhaps even the ACC, but if Travis can find some explosive plays and the offensive line can just get to average, the Seminoles could make significant improvement.

Key stat to know: Florida State hasn’t finished better than 95th nationally in sacks allowed per game since 2015.

Seminoles’ returning production

CategoryPercent returningTop returner

Passing yards

64

Travis, 1,539

Rushing yards

59

Travis, 535

Receiving yards

75

Wilson, 382

OL starts

70

Washington, 12

Tackles

76

Robinson, 84

Tackles for loss

57

Robinson, 7

Sacks

36

McClendon, 3.5

Interceptions

86

Robinson, 4

Defense

The defense made massive strides last year. The 2020 season was rock bottom for the unit, which finished outside the top 100 in almost every key stat. That came amid a coaching change and COVID-19 limiting the ability to install and practice a new defense. With a more normal offseason last year, the defense improved dramatically. It finished 30th in yards per play and yards per carry allowed, an improvement of more than 70 spots. The Seminoles also finished 19th in tackles for loss per game. There are some key contributors to replace, but defensive coordinator Adam Fuller feels real momentum.

“I’ve never been more excited going into an offseason than I am here,” Fuller said. “I’m not saying it’s because it’s the best team I’ve been on, per se, but I’ve seen the most gains from where we were to where we are now. Listen, we weren’t a good enough team last year, but we made a lot of strides on defense. Other than Keir (Thomas) and Jermaine (Johnson), almost everybody who was a positive influence on this team is back, and they’re so much better.”

The biggest losses and biggest excitement come on the defensive line. Johnson was a revelation last season. He arrived from Georgia as a transfer and became the ACC defensive player of the year and a first-round pick in his lone season after racking up 11 1/2 sacks. FSU also lost Thomas (a South Carolina transfer) and his 6 1/2 sacks. Replacing those two is hard, but Fuller likes what the group can bring.

“We’re deeper than we were last year,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question.”

At end, sophomore Derrick McLendon II could take the lead at one spot after recording 3 1/2 sacks. Fuller described him as “lightyears ahead” of where he was last season. Junior Dennis Briggs Jr., who missed most of last season after getting injured on a chop block, should be back in the rotation at the weakside “fox” position. Sixth-year senior Leonard Warner III and redshirt freshman Patrick Payton will be in the mix as well.

But the most interesting new face is Albany transfer Jared Verse, an FCS All-American. Verse slipped through the cracks as an undersized high school linebacker, but he jumped out when FSU coaches saw him on film against Syracuse. He had two sacks and a blocked kick in FSU’s spring game. Again, no one can replace Johnson, but coaches are fired up about Verse’s potential.

“Everybody in the country will know who he is,” Fuller said. “There’s no question in my mind. He plays hard, he’s physical and he’s the fastest defensive lineman I’ve ever coached.”

Both starting defensive tackles are back in senior Robert Cooper and junior Fabien Lovett, who were honorable mention All-ACC choices last year. The Seminoles also return reserves in sophomore Malcolm Ray (5 1/2 TFLs) and junior Jarrett Jackson, both of whom started games as well.


DT Robert Cooper has made 28 career starts and is back for a fifth year. (Melina Myers / USA Today)

Fuller runs a 4-2-5 defense. Last season, FSU played 55 snaps with three linebackers and 700 with two linebackers. With the way offenses typically use at least three receivers, fewer linebackers are needed on the field. The Seminoles return both starters in junior Kalen DeLoach and sophomore DJ Lundy, who each had 69 tackles. Junior Amari Gainer is also back after a 59-tackle campaign. Those three will take the majority of snaps again, but UCF transfer Tatum Bethune will join the rotation.

“You’ve got four guys that can legitimately line up and play,” Fuller said.

Nearly every defensive back returns, including 10 of the top 11 tacklers. This group improved from 100th in yards per pass attempt allowed in 2020 to 40th last year while starting three newcomers, including two freshmen. The other newcomer was safety Jammie Robinson, who transferred from South Carolina and finished with a team-high 84 tackles and team-high four interceptions, earning first-team All-ACC honors. At the other safety spot, junior Akeem Dent finished strong last season and should have a starting job again.

Fuller also pointed to redshirt freshman Shyheim Brown as someone expected to take a big step forward. The defensive coordinator thinks all three safeties could be NFL players.

At cornerback and nickelback, Jarvis Brownlee Jr. transferred to Louisville after starting for most of his freshman season. That’s the only major loss in this group. Back are junior Jarrian Jones, sophomore Omarion Cooper and sophomore Kevin Knowles II, all of whom started games at some point last year.

The returning talent across the board helped the Seminoles move forward after the heartbreaking loss to Florida, Fuller said. Will it be enough to offset a few major personnel losses?

“When Fabien Lovett and Jammie Robinson and Robert Cooper and guys like that decide to come back to make this better, that builds the momentum forward for 2022,” Fuller said.

Key stat to know: Florida State’s 2.75 sacks per game were the team’s most since leading the nation in 2016 (and up big from 1.11 in 2020). But the returning players account for just 12 of the 33 total sacks the team had last season.

Special teams

The Seminoles leaned on two freshmen specialists last season. Kicker Ryan Fitzgerald returns after making 10 of 13 field goal attempts. He made a long of 53 yards and three of five attempts longer than 40 yards. He also missed three extra points. Punter Alex Mastromanno averaged 42.7 yards per punt, with eight of 61 going longer than 50 yards and 18 pinned inside the 20. Notably, he didn’t have a touchback. FSU will need a new kickoff man, as Parker Grothaus transferred to West Virginia. He took all but one kickoff for the Seminoles last season.

Receivers Keyshawn Helton and Ontaria Wilson were the primary punt returners and both are back, but they averaged just 4.0 yards per return. FSU finished 117th nationally in punt return average. Kick returns were split last season, with sophomore Ja’Khi Douglas (five returns) owning the most among players who are back.

Opposing scouting report

Opposing coaches saw a Florida State team that improved dramatically in Norvell’s second season.

“The first year to second year was a huge leap,” one ACC coach said. “Very good talent. They’ve settled into who they’re going to be defensively, and they’re good up front. They’re hard to run the ball on.”

But the offensive questions remain, especially Travis’ ability to change a game.

“Offensively, I don’t know what their identity is,” the coach said. “They don’t seem to throw the ball well at this point. The quarterback run is dangerous, but sometimes that hurts them. If they get behind, it’s hard for them to catch up.”

The coach was curious about what new offensive coordinator Alex Atkins will bring to the role, even if Norvell continues to call the plays. Norvell’s Memphis offense was explosive through the run game, and that could be a focus again.

“They’ve got a new (OC) who’s an O-line guy,” the coach said. “In my career, any time you hear an O-line guy as the offensive coordinator, they like to run the ball.”

How the Seminoles recruited from 2019 to 2022

Florida State’s recruiting has taken a step back from Fisher’s tenure over the past four years. From 2014 to 2017, coming off the national championship, the Seminoles signed four consecutive top-six classes. And yet, much of that highly rated talent didn’t pan out as the program began its slump. All seven quarterback recruits signed from 2013 to 2017 left before completing their eligibility. The past four classes have ranked between No. 18 and No. 23 in the 247Sports Composite. Half of the 20 high school players who signed in that 2019 class — players who would be seniors now — are no longer with the program. Ten players from the 2020 class are also gone.

Things looked like they could change in a big way with the most recent class. Florida State was set up to sign a top-10 class this cycle, including the No. 1 player in the country. But that player, Travis Hunter, flipped to Deion Sanders and Jackson State in the early signing period. FSU lost some other players late, and the class finished ranked No. 20.

It wasn’t an excuse, but coaches noted they hadn’t been able to recruit on the road in spring until this year because of the pandemic.

“The first two years into the job, I’d been on the road for 2 1/2 weeks,” Norvell said. “It was beyond unexpected. But on the flip side, being able to see where we’re located, the number of guys that can get here on campus, the excitement about opportunity, for us, it’s about finding the key pieces and guys who can develop. The key to recruiting is evaluation. Whatever you’re looking to bring, whatever your needs for your team are, it’s finding the right people, and I think we’ve done a great job with that.”

Norvell has a track record of running a successful developmental program. His 2016 recruiting class at Memphis ranked 61st at the time of signing but finished ranked 12th in The Athletic’s Max Olson’s re-rank in 2020. The 2017 class went from 56th to 17th.

But this is Florida State. This is a program that should be able to land immediate impact freshmen, and the Seminoles aren’t there yet.

In the transfer portal

This is where Florida State has found instant-impact players. Norvell and his staff have been active in the portal for two years, with quite a bit of success. The Seminoles added three defensive transfers last year, and all three earned All-ACC honors (Johnson, Thomas, Robinson).

“We had eight all-conference players, and seven were transfers,” Norvell said. “They’re making a big impact on the field but a bigger impact in that locker room. We’re finding the right fit for Florida State.”

The 2022 transfer class is another big one, with 10 incoming players and around 20 or so going out. Most of those incoming players have already been mentioned here and are expected to play big roles. That includes Benson, Wilson, Pittman, Lyles and Span on offense and Verse and Bethune on defense. If the Seminoles can get instant-impact performances from another transfer group, it could mean another leap forward.

“I’m not saying we’re better evaluators than everybody, but we know what we’re looking for,” Fuller said. “We’re asking the right questions and getting the right fits, so we’re having instant impact from these guys.”


Florida State is 8-13 in its first two seasons under Mike Norvell. (Melina Myers / USA Today)

Impact of coaching changes

There were three changes on the staff, and the spots were filled internally.

Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, Norvell’s longtime protege, left for Oregon to be an offensive coordinator who has more control and calls the plays. Norvell calls the plays at FSU and will continue to after the promotion of offensive line coach Alex Atkins to offensive coordinator. To fill the open spot, Norvell promoted senior analyst Tony Tokarz to quarterbacks coach. Tokarz has been with Norvell since 2017 at Memphis.

On defense, linebackers coach Chris Marve went to Virginia Tech to be the defensive coordinator. Norvell promoted senior analyst Randy Shannon to co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach. Shannon, the former Miami head coach, has coached at four of the seven FBS programs in Florida, and he’s been in the state for all but three of his more than 30 years of coaching.

Schedule

DateTeamSite

Aug. 27

Home

Sept. 4

Away

Sept. 16

Away

Sept. 24

Home

Oct. 1

Home

Oct. 8

Away

Oct. 15

Home

Oct. 29

Home

Nov. 5

Away

Nov. 12

Away

Nov. 19

Home

Nov. 25

Home

Final assessment

A bowl game has to be the minimum expectation for this season. The returning talent is there to make it happen. But who will step up to make the winning plays? It’s what Florida State was missing a year ago, and it’s not clear if those players have emerged yet.

The Seminoles should make incremental progress again. Will it be enough to please a fan base craving more?

(Top photo of Jordan Travis: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

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