When Florida State opens preseason practice on Monday, there will be a number of intriguing position battles (beyond quarterback) as well as evaluations of which players fit best in the new coaching staff’s schemes.
It’s a fresh start for all of the Seminoles. Whether they earned playing time or made an impression in the past is of little significance as coach Willie Taggart and his staff get a feel for how players are learning the new philosophies. So let’s take a look at five areas to watch in the preseason and offer up a prediction as to how August may unfold.
•Quarterbacks: It is what everyone is watching. A rare instance in FSU history where two starting quarterbacks with experience are competing for the job. And a third quarterback, Bailey Hockman, isn’t really a dark horse. Former Glades Central star James Blackman (2,230 yards, 19 TDs and 11 INTs in 2017) and Deondre Francois (3,350, 20 TDs and seven INTs in 2016) each have a year of starting experience. The bottom line is that Taggart is looking for the quarterback that he feels has the leadership and understanding of the offense.Taggart has downplayed the significance of mobility for the quarterback, but clearly it’s an advantage if a quarterback can also use his legs.
Prediction: Taggart plays two quarterbacks this year and not because of injury. The only way he can feel good about which is the best option is to give Francois and Blackman some game time. Week 2 against Samford and Sept. 22 vs. Northern Illinois are good opportunities regardless of who Taggart names as the starter.
•Wide receivers: FSU doesn’t have a lot of experience in this group, returning Nyqwan Murray and Keith Gavin. But there’s a lot to like in 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Tamorrion Terry and quick sophomore slot D.J. Matthews. George Campbell has battled injuries throughout his career, while Deonte Sheffield slid over from tailback and Ontaria Wilson moved from defensive back to add depth. It remains to be seen what contributions FSU will get from a group of incoming freshmen. Three to watch: Warren Thompson, Jordan Young and Tre’Shaun Harrison.
Prediction: The influx of true freshman receivers in the 2018 class, as well as the new redshirt rule that would allow a player to compete in four games without losing a season of eligibility, means this is an ideal opportunity for Taggart to use freshmen if he feels they have a strong enough grasp of the playbook. Now what remains to be seen is whether the receivers are ready in September or if it makes more sense to play them in October, November or just surpass the four-game mark and see what they can offer over the course of the season.
•Offensive line: The group is really difficult to evaluate, especially given the injury to it’s top player, guard Landon Dickerson, just four games into the 2017 season. Is Alec Eberle the right option at center even though he hasn’t held up well in one-on-one matchups? Is Eberle better with stability next to him at the guard spots, likely with Dickerson on one side and Cole Minshew on the other? Is versatile guard-tackle Derrick Kelly the best fit at left tackle since FSU doesn’t have an established blocker? Is Jajuan Williams able to stay healthy and play at right tackle?
Prediction: FSU is toying with the concept of moving Dickerson to tackle but he’s a natural at guard. Keeping him there could allow Kelly to play left tackle. Coaches need to see what Baveon Johnson can do at center and, similar to the above thoughts on quarterbacks, he should get some game time if he doesn’t beat out Eberle for the starting job. Minshew makes sense at the other guard spot – he’s a very good run blocker. Williams is a wild card simply because what he can do on the field is an unknown. But given his injury history, and the previous injuries to linemen like Dickerson and Minshew, FSU will need to develop backups or plans for how to adjust when injuries arise.
Defensive ends: Brian Burns is going to start but then there are questions for how FSU will rotate the ends. Former Olympic Heights star Wally Aime, Joshua Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson should all see playing time. The 6-foot-5 Aime has dropped 25 pounds to 270 as he makes the move from tackle to end for his senior season. FSU also has a redshirt freshman, Tre Lawson, as well as a large group of freshmen, including Malcolm Lamar and Xavier Peters. After Burns, Aime and Kaindoh have the most experience but this is a group with plenty of depth.
Prediction: Who starts at end isn’t as important as finding a four-man rotation. Burns, Kaindoh, Aime and Robinson make sense to start the season but Taggart will have a chance to evaluate the true freshmen and see who can contribute.
Linebackers: FSU is looking for two, versatile, every-down linebackers in coordinator Harlon Barnett’s 4-2-5 defense. Junior Dontavious Jackson would appear to be one strong candidate given that he has three starts and 37 tackles in two seasons. Leonard Warner could grab the other spot after impressing in the spring. Josh Brown’s athleticism wasn’t valued by the previous staff but he should get a long look. Adonis Thomas also saw some playing time in 2017 but the new scheme appears to be a better fit for him. Emmett Rice, if his knee is healthy, could contribute after a freshman season in which he made plays on special teams.
Prediction: Jackson and Warner win starting jobs but Brown and Thomas see more playing time when FSU goes to a 4-3 front. Early enrollee Jaiden Woodbey is going to be tough to beat out at the “star” linebacker spot.