FSU offensive line coach Alex Atkins couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old when Robin Williams starred in the movie “Dead Poet’s Society” in 1989 but he certainly was channeling his inner John Keating earlier this week when talking about his expectations for his pupils against Georgia Tech on Saturday.
“Every day is a new day,” said Atkins of the line’s development during the preseason. “Most likely trying to instill that what you did yesterday really doesn’t matter. You’ve got to come perform each day. Because, just like you said, we can do all this work and improve, if it doesn’t show, it doesn’t matter. So now it’s about of seizing the opportunity to show what you’ve done, you know you can work your whole life and then you get that one moment, I think about Olympics, you know you train all of them years for one moment. So you have to, especially in football because you don’t get many opportunities.”
The Seminoles’ starting unit will be a mix of inexperienced youth and season veterans. Sophomore Dontae Lucas is back but moves to left guard after being the regular starter at right guard last season. Senior Baveon Johnson will move over to right guard after being the regular starter at center in 2019. Redshirt freshman Maurice Smith takes over from Johnson at center after starting two games at guard last season. Redshirt freshman Darius Washington will start at left tackle and for the second year in a row. The right tackle will be manned by a graduate transfer, Devontay Love-Taylor, who started 16 games in his career at FIU.
Atkins is approaching the opener with guarded enthusiasm but knows his group will see some things during the game that Georgia Tech has done in the past but also knows they must prepare for the unexpected and play within the system and let their the training and fundamentals take over.
“There’s always, you know, some optimism going in first game because they’ve developed, they’ve studied and done different things and pretty sure incorporated some different things in their defense and changed personnel,” said Atkins of what he expects to see from his guys and from Georgia Tech. “So you have two things you’ve got to prepare for: what you see and what you’ve seen in the past, but two, you’ve got to train reaction and that’s what you do through the situational training. ‘Hey, if this three-technique crosses your face, what are you going to do? What is going to be your reaction? Are you going to go eyes to linebacker, eyes to end?'”
“Just training those reactions and those quick, sudden movements as many times as you can, so when you do get something different their reaction matches what they get and at least you got some consistency in the reaction when things break down.”
“‘Hey, if they bring the twist, you seen this twist, you are good, but what if they bring another one?’ Well, hey, it’s the same thing with my eyes, so let my techniques and my fundamentals get me in the right place. So as many times as you can execute that and then, of course, with some continuity of guys doing it multiple times as much as you can is the goal.”
Two players that Atkins has praised repeatedly during camp are Smith and Washington, and both underclassmen bring some much-needed athleticism to the offensive line.
“The good thing about it is we’ve been able to create competition at that position,” said Atkins of Smith winning the competition at center over senior Andrew Boselli. “You know, it’s fun to say he’s won the job because he’s doing a really good job right now but he’s got some guys nipping at the heels. What Maurice does a good job of is really his athletic ability to recover, and in tight situations, he’s been doing a good job of that. And also just learning playing offensive line. A lot of people contribute to athleticism, length, all of that kind of good stuff, which is awesome, but you got to know how to see the pictures of the game, the alignments, fronts, playing with balance. You know, it’s just like people that drive cars. They drive cars every day but how many times have they backed in a trailer. So it’s hard to do. You’ve got to do it multiple times before you can master it, so it’s just building that experience with the time we’ve had. That has been the main goal, so he can see the pictures and be able to execute at a high level, because the more pictures you see the more confidence you can play with.”
And like Smith, Atkins believes Washington has the tools to be successful at left tackle and now just needs to get game experience and reps.
“Very similar to Maurice. They both played some games last year but were able to redshirt so they still have four years to play,” said Atkins when asked about Washington’s development in camp. “I like his athletic ability just like Maurice’s, it is just more seeing the pictures of the game. Can he recognize outside pressure? Does he know what to do when that end is spiking? Does he know how many times have we seen it? That’s what builds the confidence to play at an elite level. I’ve just been impressed with the tools they have to work with. You can watch the Super Bowl and guys are going to take a bad step, guys are going to use the hands a couple of times the wrong way. Can you athletically recover in bad instances is what I’ve been impressed with those guys.”
The reason for moving Johnson from center to guard was simple, according to Atkins. He thinks it gives the combination that will best allow the offense to be successful.
“You try to put your best five out there at any given time, regardless of position and that’s one thing about coaching a position where you have multiple guys on the field, you’ve got to coach a unit,” said Atkins of Johnson’s move. “The outside world thinks I guess differently, we think of more of the unit of how we got to operate when we’re out there together. These are the guys we’re going to go out with regardless of position and we have to work as a unit to defeat what’s in front of us, whether it be front alignment pressures and things like that. How can we build that cohesiveness that starts off the field.”
Brady Scott will start the season in a backup role after being the regular starter at left guard in 2019 but his coach views him as a starter and knows the redshirt junior’s experience can benefit the group whether he is on the field or off.
“Brady can very easily run out there as a starter also,” said Atkins. “He’s a very experienced guy. He’s played multiple positions. He’s fought through a lot. He’s one of the pillars of the program just because he has been through the changes. He’s one of the few guys everybody talks about the coaching changes. He has been here since the start of all of them. And he’s been on the field. He’s played in those moments. He’s been in those games. He was in those games on the last drive. So you can be excited about ability but experience is everything. He brings much-needed experience that we have to be able to educate those guys. The best thing I’ve enjoyed about Brady is this, he is coaching those young guys through those moments. It’s valuable, because as a coach you like to think you see everything but when going into those dorms and going into camps, are they still applying themselves? You got to have a set of eyes there that want to succeed and want to teach those young guys how to be a college athlete. You can’t replace that.”
Scott, along with the rest of the backups on the two-deep, true freshman Thomas Shrader (left guard), true freshman Robert Scott (right tackle), redshirt sophomore Chaz Neal and Boselli will get their chance to earn a way into the seven- or eight-man rotation Atkins envisions having up front.
“Coach Norvell, we like to have a set plan,” said Atkins on whether he and Norvell will rotate players in and out of the game. “We don’t like to surprise guys, because we like to give them confidence in knowing when they’re gonna be out there and when they’re not. So if we were going to rotate, it would be a set deal like ‘Hey, the third series you are going’ or ‘this series you are going’. And then after that, of course, it’ll go by production and level of play and things like that. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been able to kind of have a little small rotation between seven guys, which I think has been valuable for us, especially early in the season when it’s pretty hot. There used to be a time when you just put your five out there and you live and die with it. Some people still operate that way but I’ve had some success when I’ve been able to roll a couple of guys here and there.”
After three disappointing seasons of play up front FSU fans are hoping that the Seminoles’ offensive line will take their opportunity to seize the day and write a new verse under their new offensive line coach in 2020.
To quote Williams’ character as Keating in Dead Poet’s Society there is one question everyone has for FSU’s offensive line this season.
“….the powerful plays goes on, and you may contribute a verse, what will that verse be?” asked Keating to his students.
The first game is here and we are about to find out how much this unit has improved since last season and what their contribution will be to FSU’s success in 2020.