Deondre Francois is just 10 passing yards shy of 3,000 in his first season as Florida State’s starter. Unfortunately, the redshirt freshman’s view of success has often been while looking up from the grass.
Francois has been sacked 32 times and pressured 31.7 percent of the time he has dropped back, according to Pro Football Focus. But he leads all FBS freshman quarterbacks nationally by throwing for 271.8 yards per game.
Despite all of the pressure, both to succeed on the football field and from the incoming pass rush, Francois has performed beyond coach Jimbo Fisher’s expectations.
“He plays with great toughness, he has great physical skills,” Fisher said. “I’m extremely pleased. I can’t ask for any more out of him than what he’s doing. But I will.”
Francois has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,990 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions for FSU (8-3) heading in to Saturday night’s game with Florida (8-2). And he will soon be one of just three redshirt freshmen at FSU in the last 30 years to surpass 3,000 passing yards, including Jameis Winston (4,057 in 2013) and Drew Weatherford (3,208 in 2005).
He also has as many 300-yard passing games as interceptions – five. And Francois has made sure that when the Seminoles drive into the red zone, they come through with points. FSU leads the nation in red-zone efficiency (96 percent), scoring a touchdown on 39 of 51 drives that have gone inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Francois has made his share of mistakes, including an interception on a pass he was trying to throw away to the sideline on Saturday at Syracuse, but he sees gradual improvement.
“I feel like every game I’m learning,” Francois said. “Learning from my mistakes. Every game I’m getting better.”
Francois has shown the ability to throw intermediate and deep passes with accuracy. But he’s also struggled with short passes and screens, and often holds on to the ball too long in the pocket.
Fisher has noted that the pass protection concerns aren’t solely on the offensive line or blocking from tight ends and running backs. ESPN analyst Brock Huard, who has been in the broadcast booth for two of FSU’s games in 2016, said Francois needs better awareness.
“Learn how to protect yourself,” Huard said. “And that’s getting rid of the ball and just knowing those protections, some of the limitations in it and when to live for another play and throw it away. And when to sit in there and take some of the beating he has.”
Francois has taken a beating and left a few games due to injury, but he has been fortunate to avoid any that are significant. He has developed a reputation for his toughness and durability, which has earned him the respect of teammates.
Francois has worked well with sophomore receivers Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray over the past month. Tate and Murray have gotten more playing time after a season-ending injury to senior receiver Jesus Wilson. Murray has 19 receptions in the last four games, and Tate has caught 14 passes in the last three games.
“Off the field, that’s my brother,” Tate said. “We’re roommates and we’re always together. I’m pretty much with him 24/7.”
That relationship has been evident in recent weeks. FSU had struggled early in games, failing to score in the first quarter of its first seven games against FBS opponents in 2016. But Francois has been poised in FSU’s last two wins, against Boston College and at Syracuse, tossing two touchdown passes in the first quarter of each game. Of those four TD passes, two went to Murray and one to Tate.
Francois is now preparing for his first game against Florida. The Orlando native is also looking to continue a recent trend of FSU starting quarterbacks who won their first starts vs. Florida — Jameis Winston (in 2013) and Sean Maguire (in 2015).
“Should be fun,” Francois said. “That’s why you come to Florida State, to play in a big rivalry like this. I can’t wait.”