Florida State’s practices have been filled with energy, providing an early glimpse at the enthusiasm that players and coaches have displayed as the program wraps up the first spring of the Willie Taggart Era.
Taggart has used the spring as an opportunity to teach and motivate the Seminoles. And he looks forward to the chance to evaluate the progress the players have made in four weeks when they play in the Garnet and Gold Game on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“It’s going to be highly competitive, and we want them to go out and do something,” Taggart said. “It’s a game. And the spotlight does strange things to some people. Some people show up and show out, and some people hide. They have an opportunity to go out there to show up and show out.”
Taggart has indicated that the defense has shown up consistently, handling the offense in two spring scrimmages. That is a typical byproduct of spring football but also a reflection of the Seminoles’ injuries on the offensive line. Star tailback Cam Akers (undisclosed) and quarterback Bailey Hockman (foot) have both missed some practice time, but Taggart expects them to play on Saturday.
Among the notable players out for the spring game are receiver Nyqwan Murray and defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, who both have knee injuries but are expected to be healthy for the start of preseason camp in August. Quarterback Deondre Francois (knee) is also not expected to play.
Here is a look at five things to watch in Saturday’s spring game, which will be streamed live on ACC Network Extra and the WatchESPN app at 6 p.m.:
Quarterbacks: Eyes tend to focus on quarterbacks and this time it’s with good reason as Glades Central graduate James Blackman, Francois and Hockman have soaked up Taggart’s offense and show him whose skills are the best fit for his scheme. Blackman, a former Glades Central star, has been a consistent performer in open portions of practices, delivering on-target throws, showing mobility and displaying leadership. Francois has gradually been allowed to do more as the spring progressed, rolling out and throwing while on the run but he is expected to be very limited or not play on Saturday. Hockman, who took a redshirt in his first season at FSU in 2017, hasn’t been as accurate on intermediate routes but has shown that he shouldn’t be viewed as the dark horse candidate.
Tempo: FSU coaches have emphasized picking up the speed this spring. A year after coach Jimbo Fisher’s tempo was one of the slowest in the FBS, the Seminoles have learned the nuances of Willie Taggart’s spread option offense. How fast will FSU look on Saturday? Odds are, not nearly fast enough to make Taggart happy. And with an injury-depleted offensive line, this won’t look like a refined offense. But even a work-in-progress offense will be an encouraging sign for fans, who are looking for a preview of what the offense could offer.
“I just want to go out and have fun with my team to be honest,” Blackman said.
Position changers: Taggart’s staff made a considerable number of position switches this spring, eliminating the fullback position (Jonathan Vickers and Gabe Nabers are now tight ends), sliding Olympic Heights standout Wally Aime from defensive tackle to end and moving Ontaria Wilson from corner to receiver. Aime has impressed this spring with his ability to rush off the edge. Nabers and Vickers have also transitioned well, utilizing their blocking background at tight end. Wilson has found plenty of reps with a receiving group that is without Murray and George Campbell (core).
“It feels like home, but I’m not sure if it’s temporary or not,” Wilson said. “I played receiver in high school so I don’t really have to work on too much stuff.”
Hello, linebackers: FSU has also shown a desire to play three-linebacker sets more frequently this spring. That has given linebackers like Dontavious Jackson, Leonard Warner, Josh Brown and Adonis Thomas a chance to impress coaches. Coaches are also using the “star” position as a smaller linebacker, allowing DeCalon Brooks (the son of former FSU star Derrick Brooks) and Amari Gainer some playing time.
“I feel like that really suits me,” Brooks said. “I feel I can do a lot of things. It’s a better fit for me.”
New coaches: The spring game is also a good warm-up for the coaching staff, which will be split on each sideline. How quickly are the plays relayed from the sideline? Is there good communication and synergy with a coaching staff that features nine new assistants?