Deondre Francois went down with an injury in the first game. How has James Blackman played in his place? Overall how has the offense played?
I think he’s been as good or even better than you could hope for from a 3-star true freshman who didn’t enroll early. You can see the growth in his game from week to week, and I think Fisher is slowly feeding him more concepts. He still makes the mistakes you’d expect—struggling to go through his reads and get the ball to the right receiver, etc.—but he’s got great arm talent and makes some really special throws at times. The offense as a whole hasn’t been quite what we’d hoped yet, but it’s worth noting that it’s dealing with a bunch of injuries. Aside from Francois, losing LG Landon Dickerson for the year was a blow, and FSU’s banged up receiving corps didn’t have the bodies to spare, yet they’re dealing with injuries to Keith Gavin, Auden Tate, and George Campbell. So while we expected them to block and catch a little better, there are a bunch of mitigating factors to consider. The backs have been pretty good, overall. Jacques Patrick has run really well and Cam Akers has flashed the ability that made him the best running back in the 2017 class. FSU fans certainly want to see this offense continue to improve as the year goes along, and they may be faced with a shootout on Saturday.
FSU sits at 2-3 on the year after starting the season in the top five. What do you think has caused such a slow start?
Well, the injury to Francois obviously changed the complexion of FSU’s season, but I don’t think this is the title-contending team we expected even if he hadn’t gone down. The vast majority of that is due to the defense, which just isn’t as elite as we expected, or even as good as they looked against Alabama. They’re not a well-coached group, and it shows in film review every week. And that’s not acceptable, given that the FSU defense is as loaded with talent as anybody in the country, including Alabama and Clemson. Some of the schematic decisions have been baffling, especially in situational football. They don’t defend the RPO stuff all that well, as their only answer seems to be playing man coverage, which will kill them against Lamar if they’re not able to mix in some effective zone coverages. We’ve also seen some of them start to freelance a bit more than they should, which could indicate a lack of belief in their scheme. I think plays will be there for Louisville to make on Saturday afternoon, and I’m sure the Petrino-Jackson combination will make a few.
Derwin James is an elite talent at safety. How do they utilize him in the defensive scheme?
During his freshman season and during the few possessions he played last season, FSU moved James all around the defense. He lined up at deep safety, linebacker, star, and as a rush end with his hand on the ground. The ‘Noles have gone away from that quite a bit this year, relying on him to play significant time in the star position. I think this has been due to playing weak passing offenses and being worried about the other options at that spot holding up in the run game. He hasn’t made the huge highlight plays that most in the country expected from him this year given his billing as one of the best players in the country, but he’s still played pretty well. He dictates where the offenses go, much like Jalen Ramsey did. He’ll have a tough task against Lamar, though, as there’s no one like him in the country in his ability to create with his feet while presenting the deep ball threat.
Outside of Lamar Jackson is there a player on Louisville's offense that you think could exploit a weakness?
I think Reggie Bonnafon presents a unique challenge as a converted wideout in the backfield. That’s only increased by Lamar’s ability to run the zone read and RPO with such patience. He really reminds me of Cam Newton in how smooth and relaxed he is at the mesh point. The Miami game also demonstrated that FSU is not awesome defending slot receivers, so someone like Traveon Samuel could have a coming out party against Kyle Meyers if the ‘Noles opt for that match-up. While I don’t know that the UL outside wideouts will consistently win match-ups against McFadden and Taylor, the deep shots will be there off of the RPO game and I expect the Cardinals to hit a few. It may be that the FSU defense will need to rely on UL mistakes and turnovers to stop the Cardinals, rather than being able to do so consistently.
FSU is giving up a lot of tackles for loss. Do you think this is an offensive line issue or more of a play calling issue?
I don’t think there’s one cause. Against Wake Forest, in which FSU gave up a record 17 or 18 or whatever, it was more the offensive line than anything else. They’ve since rebounded to play a very good game against Miami and a solid one against Duke. I think a substantial amount of it is the opponent. Alabama is going to tackle you for losses. So is NC State. Wake and Duke rely on shooting gaps rather than trying to control a gap, so the risk-reward choice they make will result in TFLs, but also big plays. Then there’s also the freshman quarterback factor, as he will often hold the ball too long because he doesn’t know exactly what he’s seeing yet. Likewise, Cam Akers was a little too eager to hit the big play early in the season and didn’t hit the right holes. I don’t mean to excuse the offensive line play; on the year, it hasn’t been great. But I think it’s been a confluence of factors leading to those astronomical numbers.
With Louisville's defense playing so poorly, do you expect FSU's offense to get things figured out, or do they have bigger issues?
I think it depends on what we’d consider “figured out” to be. Do I think they’re going to go out and explode for 40 on the Cardinals? No. Do I think they can continue to improve and post their highest point total of the year? Yes, definitely. Louisville is the worst defense FSU has played this season by over 20 spots by S&P+. But something we’ve been harping on in recent weeks at Tomahawk Nation is the fact that FSU is the second slowest team in the country by offensive pace. Jimbo Fisher searches his play sheet for the perfect call, and the ‘Noles often don’t snap the ball with more than 5-10 seconds left on the play clock. Coupled with Fisher’s ultra conservative approach to 4th downs, and the Seminoles don’t rack up many drives and plays against opponents. This puts a lot of pressure on every play to be effective, which probably isn’t the best strategy with a freshman quarterback, freshman running back, and inexperienced receivers. The approach fails to maximize FSU’s depth of talent, as logically you’d want to give the more talented guys as many cracks as you can. It also has an effect on player development, as young guys who Fisher isn’t confident know the playbook perfectly often don’t see the field. So yes, FSU definitely has bigger issues moving forward. Last week’s first drive against Duke (the first one after we published the article laying this out, coincidentally enough) saw FSU get plays in much earlier, go for a 4th down, and score a touchdown. Then, they decided to go back to plodding around. So, maybe we’re making progress?
FSU has had a big drop off in sacks this year. Is this due to the loss of DeMarcus Walker, or something else?
His loss probably plays a role in that, but the other sack machine, Brian Burns, is now a sophomore, and he hasn’t had nearly the impact we’d have expected. I think the biggest thing is that FSU hasn’t been as good against the run, so they’re not forcing as many obvious passing downs. But even on the occasions that they have, the ‘Noles have given up a bunch of huge conversions on long down, most maddeningly at the end of games. In past years, FSU was really tough to deal with in those spots because they could bring pressure with freak athletes from anywhere. The defensive line havoc rate is still really strong, which demonstrates how much the Seminoles rely on that group. And as well they should, because Sweat-Christmas-Nnadi-Burns is an incredible unit. But we’ve also seen that group get frustrated with those behind them for not holding up their end of the bargain. It really is unfortunate that FSU can’t put all of this talent into a coherent attack, because a bunch of these guys will be showing out in the NFL in a few years and will make all of us really mad all over again.