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Column: Competition, development among clear positives in spring game

Prior to the spring game, we shared with readers what we would be watching at the game and then later from the broadcast. Here’s some observations on my list with this caveat: The spring game was abbreviated to a 15- and 12-minute quarter, with an extra three possessions for plays called by celebrity coaches. Keep that in mind as you read scrimmage statistics presented here.

  1. I want to see how Tate Rodemaker and AJ Duffy perform with fans in the stands.

Tate Rodemaker and AJ Duffy split series with a line comprised mostly of second- and third-team offensive linemen and skill players. Duffy went three-and-out in the five series he led but don’t be alarmed, most quarterbacks his age are at their high school prom this time of year and not facing a collegiate defense. Entering early isn’t easy, especially for quarterbacks, but the time spent this spring can help him prepare for the fall.

While watching Rodemaker live, I didn’t think he looked ready to be the backup either but after watching the game on replay and taking notes, I realized that in five possessions he put together two touchdown drives and two drives that ended with field-goal attempts, one of which was good. Four out of five drives ending in scoring opportunities ain’t bad.

Here’s what his possessions looked like:

The first featured Benson runs of 18 and 2 yards, a 20-yard run by DJ Williams and a pretty 13-yard, back- shoulder toss to Kentron Poitier on the sideline. Rodemaker’s first-down throw was incomplete to Jordan Young and he fumbled the snap on second down. Tight end Jackson West dropped a third-down pass. FSU attempted a field goal, which was blocked by Jared Verse, who hurdled over a gap in the line.

Rodemaker’s second possession included Benson runs of 17, 22 and 4 yards. On second-and-goal from the 5, Rodemaker was chased left and fired over the 6-foot-7 Johnny Wilson, who was well covered coming across the back of the end zone. A perfect, third-down slant to Keyshawn Helton, a touchdown, was called back by officials who awarded a sack to blitzing safety Shyheim Brown. That led to a 31-yard field goal attempt, this one good, and the first points of the game.

In the second quarter, Rodemaker had just one possession with the twos that started at his own 9. He hit Pittman for six. CJ Campbell gained five for the first down. On first down, he missed Pittman. Rodney Hill was stopped for no gain. On third and 10, the defense jumped offsides and, on fourth down, Rodemaker was sacked for a 10-yard loss by Quashon Fuller.

The redshirt sophomore was given the reigns to the first-team offense on the final series of regulation and led them on a six-play, 65-yard drive. He opened it with a 9-yard completion to Pittman, benefitted from a defensive holding penalty, a 28- and 8-yard run by CJ Campbell. He missed a touchdown throw to Wilson in the back of the end zone before DJ Williams scored on a 10-yard run. We’d all have a more-comfortable summer if Tate had hit that chuck to Wilson.

He then led a six-play 50-yard scoring drive in the celebrity-coached bonus possession in which he completed a 25-yard pass to Hill and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Poitier. Duffy had another three-and-out and walk-on quarterback Gino English put a four-play, 50-yard drive together that was also called by the celebrity coaches. 

If you are a bottom-line guy, you are thinking Rodemaker put points on the board on three of his five possessions and put FSU in position on a fourth, the blocked field goal. That’s better than any of the other QBs and better than Rodemaker a year ago. But I’d feel a lot better about this progress, and FSU’s depth at the most-critical position on the team, if he had stuck one or both of those throws to Wilson in the back of the end zone. Rodemaker has improved and I think those throws will come but they can’t come soon enough for you, me or this team. 

If I were in Mike Norvell’s position, I would take a hard look at the portal for an “insurance policy” in the event Jordan Travis sustains injury. I’d have my portal analyst scouring the country looking to see if there’s a guy who is the right fit for this situation. 

2. I want to see who emerges at defensive end when the lights are on. 

We got to see Dennis Briggs, Jared Verse, Derrick McLendon, Quashon Fuller, Patrick Payton, Leonard Warner, George Wilson and Dante Anderson on Saturday. 

The star of the show was Verse, who within the first six minutes of the scrimmage had two sacks and blocked a field goal. He later added two tackles and a quarterback hurry. 

Fuller added a sack and three tackles. McClendon and Payton had two each. Those four and Briggs, who is recovering from a chop block during the fall, will resume the competition for the starting jobs in August. 

While the pass rush was encouraging, I thought containment was an issue as several big runs spilled outside.  But that’s what a spring game is for. It gives coaches film for self-study and to teach from. I’m not 100 percent sure what the scheme was Saturday in terms of gap responsibility and won’t venture a guess but the coaches know and they’ll use the film evidence – the eye in the sky don’t lie – to get containment corrected. For example, if Saturday’s scheme called for the ends to defend the C-gap (between the tackle and the tight end), then containment might be up to a linebacker scraping or it could be a defensive back who has responsibility to keep the runner from getting to the sideline.  

3. I want to see if the defense will dominate the offense as they have at times this spring.

The first quarter went to the defense as only 3 points were scored by the No. 1 and No. 2 units combined. The defense was especially tough against the pass. Combined the two units managed just 51 yards on 6 of 15 passing in that first 15-minute period. 

The No. 2 offense had more success on the ground, where Trey Benson gained 77 yards on 7 carries and DJ Williams managed 27 yards on three carries. Remember, these two were running against the No. 2 defense. Lawrance Toafili gained 15 yards on four carries against the No. 1 defense. 

The No. 1 offense fared better in the second quarter, adding 21 points on the board but by that point Fabien Lovett and Robert Cooper were spending more time coaching and encouraging their understudies than grinding it with offensive linemen.  The ground game again ruled the day with 121 yards compared to 52 passing. 

4. How will FSU’s No. 1 offensive front fare against a stout No. 1 defensive front?

The No. 1 offensive line was without veteran Darius Washington and Lloyd Willis, a projected starter. Veteran starter Dillan Gibbons played only a few series.  The No. 1 defense played without Briggs and linebacker Tatum Bethune, both likely starters come fall, so this game did not materialize into the best vs. best matchup we were hoping for. 

 The offensive line had more success running the ball than in protecting the quarterback last year and that has been true this spring too. It proved true again Saturday. The defense logged seven sacks, evenly split between the No. 1 and No. 2 units. The lack of continuity with the No. 1 unit contributed to several of those sacks and QB hurries as did the officials who were quick to blow whistles to protect quarterbacks.

The No. 1 offense logged six runs of 10 or more yards by Travis, Toafili and Benson against the No. 1 defense. The No. 2 offense had five runs of 10 or more yards against the No. 2 defense. 

5. I want to see the competition between FSU’s receivers and FSU’s defensive backs. Who will win the one-on-one battles?

I don’t recall seeing an uncontested catch by anyone in the spring game. With the exception of Mycah Pittman, who won his share of battles, a couple of contested catches by Kentron Poitier and one by Ward, I’d score most of the one-on-one battles to the defensive backs and linebackers, who broke up a lot of passes. I’d go a step further to say the DBs and LBs provided much tighter coverage than we’ve seen around here in a long time. That was a huge plus.

My takeaways after watching the replay

Treshaun Ward and the run game were featured often and it is the strength of FSU’s offense. (photo by Mike Olivella)

The Running Game Continues to be FSU’s offensive identity

As FSU searched for an offensive identity in 2021 it found one in a running game. By season’s end, the Seminoles were ranked fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference with an average of 177 yards per game. Not bad. Even better, the Seminoles’ running game played an important role in wins over arch-rival Miami and North Carolina. 

That trend, which has continued throughout the spring, was on full display Saturday, featuring elusive Jordan Travis, Lawrance Toafili and Treshaun Ward, with the power running of Trey Benson, CJ Campbell and D.J. Williams. Pittman, a receiver who scored on an inside sweep, is also a powerful runner.

FSU’s productivity in the running game starts up front, where the FSU offensive line has looked comfortable and capable as run blockers even without two offensive linemen (Darius Washington and Lloyd Willis) and a third if you count Dillan Gibbons, who sat out the latter half of the scrimmage.

The Seminoles’ passing game was a different matter Saturday. 

We Seminoles are a pass-first fan base for sure. It makes us happy to see the ball thrown vertically and for receivers to make acrobatic catches that light up the scoreboard, a longtime Seminole tradition that has become the trend in college football. Football, pro or college, has become quarterback-dependent and the scheme you choose to run is often dictated by your team’s capabilities. 

I think head coach Mike Norvell and offensive coordinator Alex Atkins have built their scheme to suit the capabilities of the players they have on the roster. Right?

I went back to look at what production the No. 1 offense had against the No. 1 defense and here’s what I found:

Jordan Travis led seven possessions with the No. 1 offense, driving the ball 60 yards and 66 yards for touchdowns on his last two possessions. Here’s what happened on the first five: Travis moved the team 40 yards on the first seven plays before a called sack and a dropped pass at the 35-yard line ended the drive. The second possession ended after a called sack on a third-down conversion to Cam McDonald. The third and fourth possessions were three-and-out with DJ Lundy breaking up a pass on a third-down throw. The fifth possession, four plays for 16 yards, ended when the first period clock expired. 

It’s important to remember this was a practice scrimmage and not a game. When Benson ripped off long runs down to the 5-yard line, I doubt the coaches would have taken him out to call a pass play for Rodemaker. These scrimmages are opportunities to put your players — in that case Tate — in a position to see what he can do. Duffy was struggling but it’s a much-needed, if painful to watch, opportunity coaches owe him and their future self.

If Norvell had featured more Travis, with less reps to develop an early-entry quarterback, we’d feel better about the offense, especially if the receivers had a cleaner day squeezing catchable balls. But this was a practice, an opportunity to develop backup quarterbacks, Rodemaker and Duffy, who are unlikely to get those kinds of opportunities in the fall. Saturday was also an opportunity to test reserve guards Bryson Estes and Zane Herring with the starting offensive line and those receivers too.

Developing players is like making sausage, you like the result but the process ain’t pretty to watch.

What you saw Saturday is what we’ve seen all spring, a lack of depth at quarterback. Rodemaker and Duffy will get better but how quick? The temptation would be great to go to the portal if the right QB becomes available now that spring practices across the country are over and guys know where they stand on the depth chart.

Defense continues to get better

FSU’s defensive backs are far more aggressive than in 2021. (photo by Mike Olivella)

As we’ve reported, the FSU defense has improved and has been ahead of the offense this spring. They are good enough to hold opposing offenses below 28 points a game. The defensive interior line with Lovett, Cooper, Dennis Briggs and Ray will win more than their share of battles this fall. The linebackers have improved and the secondary will win more one-on-one battles than they have in years past. 

The defense did give up more big plays than you’d like to see, which will give coaches plenty of ammunition heading into the fall. In reality, many of those big plays came with the aforementioned front four on the bench. Looked to me like the coaches do have reason to fuss about containment with their edge players, which will be motivation for the offseason. 

All that important stuff

There was a scarcity of penalties and an absence of turnovers in the scrimmage portion of the practice, which are signs of improved discipline. Myself as well as a couple of our former coaches noticed a very clean sideline operation Saturday, which is an indication of discipline and that the players and coaches have established common communications. Those are significant improvements over last year and impressive considering 30 of the players on that sideline have only been here since January.

Team morale looked night and day better than when Norvell arrived. The players and coaches were engaged, veterans were helping rookies, and the offense was competing with the defense. It may sound corny, but they were having fun playing football and at the end of the day that’s important too.

One closing comment

The format of the practice was very difficult for fans to follow, whether in the stadium or at home watching it on television, and I think that took something away from fan enjoyment of what was otherwise a very fun day. As much as we love hearing sideline interviews with former players and hearing about their playing days at Florida State, I would have liked for the broadcast team to keep the camera on the action and some more time explaining what the format is and why the coaches planned it this way. 

I also think 27 minutes of scrimmage was much shorter than people who drove three or more hours to get here expected. I had several ask me, “Is that all?”

Otherwise, it was a full weekend of fun with the Hall of Fame Banquet, the Terrell Buckley Pillar of Champions event, a concert after the game, which included a heck of a fireworks show, as well as the Friday Night Block Party concert, top 5 Beach Volleyball matches all weekend and a softball series with a very good Virginia Tech team.

Add the Masters and it was a spectacular spring sports weekend.