Good morning, Canes fans. We’re back with another opponent Q&A, to learn more about this week’s opponent: the rival Florida State Seminoles.
For the FSU side of this discussion, I got Dylan Kidd, an editor at Tomahawk Nation, our SBNation sister-site, to give us some insight into the Seminoles.
I joined Dylan and TN for the other side of this Q&A, which you can see here:
Here we go:
Q1. FSU has scuffled, to say the least, in their 1-2 start. How has September changed your outlook on the season, which was widely thought to be championship-caliber for the Noles?
Dylan Kidd: Up until the final minutes of the fourth quarter in Atlanta, I was feeling pretty good about FSU’s chances to compete for a conference title and a playoff berth, even after a loss to Alabama. Then Francois went down, and obviously things changed. It isn’t and wasn’t realistic to believe a three-star true freshman who didn’t enroll early was going to play to a level that would allow the team to reach its goals, no matter how good we thought the pieces around him were. Fast forward a couple of inclement weather weeks, and said freshman played really well against NC State. The problem is, the guys around him we thought so highly of after Week One didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there was a confluence of factors that led to the outcome that afternoon, but the defensive effort in particular was unacceptable. While the defense played better against Wake Forest, there were still more mistakes than we’d like to have seen. And on offense, Blackman looked like the freshman he is while the offensive line played a legitimately awful game.
It was a strange, tumultuous, and disappointing September. We did expect this to be a top-5 quality team even if the record didn’t reflect it because of FSU’s schedule. I can comfortably say we were wrong, as was Jimbo Fisher about several things. Most notably, though, about his evaluation of his coaching staff, which needs to be shaken up after this season (and probably did to an extent after last year). While it’s still theoretically possible for FSU to win the division with an incredible run and some help, I’d take 7-4 if you offered it to me right now. I want to see the young guys develop and the wheels keep from completely coming off in order to minimize the recruiting damage, along with hopefully taking a game or two against rivals. The team is still incredibly talented, but the program needs a shot of life that I don’t think is coming during the 2017 season.
Q2. After losing Deondre Francois to a knee injury in the opener, FSU has handed the reigns to freshman James Blackman. What did you think of him as a recruit, and what has he done well and struggled with in his first couple games of college action?
Kidd: James was the second quarterback FSU took in last year’s class along with Bailey Hockman, who did enroll early. I didn’t know much about him as a recruit other than that he had great size, threw a pretty deep ball, and was a high-ceiling project paired with Hockman, the high floor guy. We heard great things about James during camp and he ended up passing Hockman, who may have been hurt during camp, on the depth chart, along with JJ Cosentino who is merely an afterthought. I think some of that hype led to inflated expectations for Blackman when he stepped in for Francois, especially when paired with how good everyone but the special teams looked against Alabama.
As I mentioned, Blackman played very well on the day against the Wolfpack after a slow first couple of drives. He took advantage of NC State defensive backs playing soft coverage and drove the ball downfield on deep comebacks. Wake did what I imagine the Hurricanes will do by bringing their safeties down to load up against the run and using zone pressure against Blackman. It was a rough day for James against the Deacs, saved only by his favorite target running out there to catch a game winning bomb with one functional arm.
So far I’d say the positives have been displaying that gorgeous deep ball and avoiding doing anything ridiculously dumb, which is tough to ask of most freshmen. The negatives have been what you’d expect: making checks, getting through progressions, feeling pressure, and getting the ball where it needs to go. He needs his offensive linemen to play better, too, or his 169-pound frame will not make it through this season.
Q3. Speaking of Blackman, do you think it's better for him and FSU that this game has been moved later in the season because of Hurricane Irma? Or do you wish that the earlier date had been kept (Hurricane notwithstanding)?
Kidd: Well if the choice is having kept it at Week Three AND keeping the ULM game in Week Two, I’d choose that one. I think the team and James could have really benefitted from coming home to play a bad Warhawks team and building up some positive momentum with a big win. Plus, even if Miami kept the Arkansas State game, the trip to Doak would be Malik Rosier’s first true road game. As it stands, he’s now gone to Durham in a prime time spot and looked quite good against a solid Duke team. Now, if the choice is Week Two still being cancelled, I’m not as sure. I wonder whether Blackman’s better performance against NC State stemmed from the ‘Pack not having any film on him, playing at home, or maybe NC State just isn’t as good as Wake on defense, particularly in the defensive backfield. It’s not like Wake’s gameplan was particularly innovative in how they defended a freshman, though; it seemed like common sense. In the end, I still think I’d take the original schedule, even if FSU fans would have been rudely awakened to how their vaunted defense wasn’t as good as they thought after Alabama.
Q4. With a new QB, and a load of talent in the backfield, FSU has turned to the run game. How have the trio of Jacques Patrick, Amir Rasul, and Cam Akers performed to this point of the season?
Kidd: The first two weeks saw tough match-ups for the FSU running game. ‘Bama is ‘Bama, and NC State has a front full of future NFL guys. Still, I hoped for a little more agains the Wolfpack. The backs got it going a bit last week with Wake having to commit so many numbers to stop the run game. Patrick broke a big one early and had his best game of the year. Akers continued to flash, but he hasn’t found his footing just yet. And Amir Rasul played, so that’s good, I guess. Patrick has improved over his FSU career by running behind his pads and using his size. He’s not fast, but he is a tough momentum runner to bring down when he hits the hole with conviction, and he’s a surprisingly good receiver. You can see what Akers can be with his burst, but he seems too eager so far. He’s not seeing what he needs to and being patient enough just yet, but the game will continue to slow down for him. Rasul is the track speed guy and it’d be nice to get him in space. I like that Jimbo gave the backs 42 touches against Wake. More of that, please.
Q5. Jimbo Fisher was openly critical of FSU's passing game this week, going so far as to single guys out for their lack of performance. What have been the issues, and what scheme elements and/or players can help rectify them?
Kidd: The receivers under Lawrence Dawsey have been a disappointment for quite a while now. You may have heard Bud cite the “2 players drafted in 10 years” stat, which is mind-blowing at FSU. This group is one of the most gifted he’s ever had, but they’re maddeningly inconsistent yet again. Keith Gavin has NFL ability but struggles to line up and run the right routes consistently. Noonie Murray is the guy Jimbo was referring too, and he’s always been a wild card. He was lights out in the Orange Bowl against Michigan but barely showed up the rest of the year. It’s about effort and maturity for him, but when he’s playing hard he’s an incredibly gifted slot receiver. Auden Tate has been FSU’s best wide receiver and Blackman’s favorite target, but he’s dealing with a shoulder injury. I think he’ll play against Miami, but I”m not sure he’ll be able to lift his left arm above his head, which presents a challenge. I’m not sure what can realistically be done to rectify the issues. Most of them are teaching, focus, and effort problems. They have all the ability in the world and the offense will continue to grow as it figures out what Blackman is best at, but it’s just consistent execution that’s lacking at the moment.
Q6. FSU's offensive line has had struggles as well, giving up 18 TFLs and 5 sacks at Wake Forest last week. Are their issues based on scheme, talent, injuries, or a combination of all 3?
Kidd: So, FSU fans have hated the offensive line for quite a while, a feeling that is shared among most college football fan bases about their own offensive lines. It’s a position where fans only see the failures and not the successes. That said, last week was a disaster for the FSU OL. There were two significant injuries to Derrick Kelly and Landon Dickerson, but it’s not like their backups were inexperienced players. I think there are consistent issues along the offensive line with communication and executing their scheme, which ultimately is a teaching or learning issue since these guys have been in the program for a while now. Talent is not the problem, particularly at guard, as Dickerson and Minshew are very gifted players. I didn’t think the unit played poorly against Alabama and I thought they played a nice first half against NC State. I’m confident they’ll have a better showing against Miami, but this is another position where new blood wouldn’t hurt after the season.
Q7. In contrast to the offense, FSU's defense has been strong. Who have been the leaders on this side of the ball through 3 games?
Kidd: So far, the consistently solid play has been seen up front. It’s a group of beasts with Sweat, Christmas, Nnadi, and Burns, and those starters are spelled by plenty of talented backups. They have the ability to be a wrecking crew and they’ll need to be against the ‘Canes, particularly against their top-rated rushing efficiency. Matthew Thomas has played well at linebacker and while Ro’Derrick Hoskins was hurt last week, Dontavious Jackson played well in his stead. Derwin has been good, even if he’s not making the highlight plays you want to see on SportsCenter. Levonta Taylor played really well at field corner last week and he and McFadden make a formidable corner duo. The safety play has been uninspiring. A.J. Westbrook and Ermon Lane are limited physically and Trey Marshall is physical, but not the greatest in coverage, and always a threat to get tossed for targeting. Kyle Meyers played more in the slot last week and he’s a good player in passing downs. As far as leaders go, Derwin is the vocal guy, but Nnadi is quite a presence on the interior as well.
Q8. Everybody in America knows the name Derwin James. Evaluate his play through 3 games this season, and what impact he can have on Saturday afternoon?
Yeah as I mentioned, he was so hyped before the season that I think everyone was expecting to see him making the Jabrill Peppers plays and stuff. Instead, most people have only seen the highlight of him getting juked by the NC State receiver before half, which I’ll agree was one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen him make. But it’s the stuff you don’t see that makes him so good. Kind of like Jalen Ramsey, where he is dictates where you do and don’t go to on offense, particularly in the run game. He’s been playing in FSU’s star position, a hybrid SAM linebacker and nickel corner spot, because the ‘Noles have been playing against run-heavy attacks so far. I’d like to see FSU use Kyle Meyers in that spot on passing downs to allow Derwin to move around like he used to. I liked FSU’s ability to line him up at deep safety one play, linebacker another, and then have his hand on the ground as a pass rusher on third down. It’s harder to keep the ball and the play away from him when he’s wreaking havoc rather than playing a consistent assignment.
Q9. FSU's special teams have been pretty bad by all accounts. What's the deal?
They were atrocious against Alabama but have since mostly rebounded. Logan Tyler bombed some punts against NC State and kicked pretty well against Wake, save for one near shank. The ‘Noles haven’t had a punt blocked since /knocks on wood. Ricky Aguayo has looked much better this season, despite missing a chip shot against the ‘Pack, because the trajectory of his kicks is much higher. Derwin ran the opening kick back against Wake last week, only to have it negated by a block in the back, and Keith Gavin ran a couple of long returns back against the Deacs too. The punt return spot is nothing special, as Tarvarus McFadden hasn’t been particularly impressive and bobbled a late punt last week. Hopefully that Alabama performance was the exception rather than the rule for 2017.
Q10. I know this is something that's been brought up at TN before, but are you pleased with the composition of FSU's coaching staff? Who, if anyone, would you like to see changed/upgraded?
Kidd: Yeah I alluded to it pretty heavily above, but I do think FSU’s staff needs a bit of a reboot. They are very old and very Caucasian relative to their peers, and many have been at FSU for quite a while. From both a coaching and recruiting perspective, a new message can become necessary for 18-22 year old kids after a while. It’s not a coincidence that, as Bud as written, if a coach not named Saban is going to win a title in the modern era, it happens within the first five years he’s at the school. Change agents are everything in this sport, and y’all are currently seeing the benefits of one now.
Florida State is married to Jimbo Fisher for quite a while after his recent, fully guaranteed extension and has virtually no leverage over him at all. Most FSU fans will tell you Charles Kelly is terrible. I don’t think that’s the case, and I don’t think FSU should have fired him after last season. His group finished 10th in defensive S&P+ without its best player and crushed teams down the stretch after the Louisville debacle. But this year we’ve continued to see the same issues on defense, and this group is unbelievably talented. I’m not sure he’s the best teacher out there, and I don’t think his message is really getting through right now. Rick Trickett is getting quite old as the offensive line coach, and I’m not sure his particular brand of military coaching is working with the current group. Lawrence Dawsey is an FSU legend, but as mentioned, he’s had 2 kids drafted in 10 years and his guys continue to struggle with basic things. I’m not sure Jay Graham brings much to the table at running backs coach, and he’s never been a great special teams coach. I personally think Tim Brewster, Brad Lawing, and Odell Haggins should be safe, but anyone else deserves a hard look after this year.
Q11. Last question: prediction time. What will be the outcome of the game on Saturday afternoon?
Kidd: In thinking about this game, I find myself clinging to hope that the streak itself will exert some mystical power in Doak on Saturday. We call those “soft factors,” though, so I have to pull myself back to reality. Play for play, drive for drive, and game for game, Miami has been a better team than FSU this season. Florida State is still more talented and is playing at home, but they’re going to be asking a lot from their defense yet again. I think Rosier, Walton, and Richards can make enough plays to score some points, and I think it’ll be a tougher row to hoe for James Blackman and the FSU offense. FSU always has some concepts to break out for the first time against Miami and I do think the ‘Noles will show up motivated for this game. But without a significant step up in quality of play from the team I’ve watched over the last two weeks, I don’t think it’s enough to keep the streak alive.
I think the ‘Canes win 24-16, which feels sacrilegious to type.
Thanks to Dylan for doing this Q&A with us. You can follow his work, and get all the Florida State Seminoles coverage you need over at Tomahawk Nation.