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Column: Florida State earning this recruiting class

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You would think you’ve seen and heard it all after 38 years of covering Florida State football recruiting. And, then, there is 2020.

Mike Norvell and his assistants gathered in the Dunlap Champions Club to interact with Florida State fans ahead of a National Early Signing Day Show. Several moments struck me as peculiar and help to illustrate the challenges Norvell’s staff encountered in signing the first 16 players in a class that will grow to 25 by the February National Signing Day, a class that for all practical purposes came together better than its recent records on the field.  

The first thing you noticed at the Early Signing Day event was every coach and every one of the guests were wearing a mask and wearing it throughout the 45-minute presentation. 

The second realization was the coaches had come off the practice field for a re-scheduled game against Wake Forest. Normally on signing day, the regular season is over and the bowl game is still a ways off. Signing day was an emotionally draining day in and of itself as coaches typically huddled around the fax machine and anxiously waited for prospects to send in their signed Letter of Intent or answered calls from a prospect with 11th hour questions or concerns. 

Not in 2020. No, thanks to the Covid virus, games were pushed back to Dec. 19, which meant signing day and game preparation overlapped this week, adding one more twist to this bizarre recruiting year. 

“It’s definitely a unique early signing day with all the things going on with the game plan and the game week,” Norvell said.         

A third twist was this scene: While coaches engaged fans, the high school state playoffs were underway on Bobby Bowden Field. What made it particularly strange was the coaches could not watch the game through the glass with the fans. Technically, college football is still in an extended “dead period,” which began back in March and will continue until at least April 15, 2021. Under this NCAA rule, coaches can’t leave campus to watch prospects play games or practice. And prospects are not allowed to visit campus to watch games or tour facilities. No face-to-face contact has been permissible. 

That scene in the Dunlap Champions Club drove home the strangest aspect of all: Most of the players signed Wednesday have never met our coaches or visited our campus in person.

Let that sink in for a second. 

“Out of the 16 signees, maybe five visited the campus,” recruiting coordinator David Johson said. “So to have a relationship with a really good coaching staff, with a head coach like Coach Norvell, who’s able to get on zoom and win anyone over — they can feel his passion even over Zoom — was really big for us.”

Not having face-to-face contact was tough on every college coaching staff in 2020 but particularly tough on a first-year staff where only two of Norvell’s 10 assistants – Odell Haggins and Ron Dugans – have long-standing relationships with Florida’s high school coaches.

Not being able to meet face to face would have hindered even the Bobby Bowden staff, who had visited every high school in their area every year, building 20-year relationships of trust. Unless a current FSU coach had met the prospect their sophomore or junior year, they have not met in person. Rather than meeting dozens of times, either in their home, school or on the FSU campus, the coaches and players won’t meet until the signee moves into their dorm room. 

Now that’s just really weird and unprecedented.

You earn your class

Even in those Dynasty Years, where FSU’s signing day classes ranked among the best in the nation, Florida State was never able to sign everyone it wanted. What FSU was able to sign back then was what they earned with victories on the field and through hard work on the recruiting trail.

Let’s be brutally honest. The Seminoles are 21-26 over the past four years under three head coaches and too many assistants to remember. While the FSU brand remains strong among adults, this year’s recruits weren’t in high school yet when the Seminoles last won 10 games. This was unlikely to be a year where FSU could go sign anyone they wanted. It was a year where they needed to find guys who meet their needs and are eager to join the 50 or 60 guys on the current roster committed to changing the culture.

The Seminoles 2021 early signing class is ranked 31st in the nation according to 247Sports right now, sixth in the ACC, behind teams like Notre Dame, Clemson, who are in the national championship hunt, and behind North Carolina and Miami who will play in a major bowl. The Noles are also ranked behind Pittsburgh who beat the Seminoles 41-17 in October.

Given the deficit of on-field success the past four years, and the turnover of assistant coaches in primary recruiting areas, FSU has one of its lowest class rankings in years, and it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I would argue, this class might actually be better than some of us expected given the record and the circumstances of 2020.

According to 247 sports ranking of the 15 high school players signed thus far, there are no five star players, five players who were given a four-star ranking and 11 three-star stars. Graduate transfer quarterback McKenzie Milton, who has 10,000 collegiate yards on his resume, is not counted in the recruiting ranking. For the record, Milton was a three star prospect coming out of high school in 2016.

The Seminoles have nine slots remaining and may climb higher in the final national ranking if they choose to sign more high school kids.

What I like about this class — a lot — is it is meeting critical needs at important positions. More importantly, signing 25 players who want to be here can help Norvell reshape the culture of this football team, which is a critical first step to building a program.

The Seminoles have addressed an urgent short-term need at quarterback, on the offensive and defensive line and to create a pass rush. There are also talented defensive backs in the class, some of whom could help at linebacker. I really like the fact this coaching staff is recruiting players with an eye toward finding bodies who could “move one position closer to the football” during their career. What they mean by that is a defensive back, who has the frame and the mentality maybe to become a linebacker. Defensive ends who have the frame to become athletic defensive linemen. FSU made a living on that in the 1990s with guys like Derrick Brooks, who moved from safety to linebacker, and Odell Haggins, who moved from linebacker to noseguard.

You need to recruit unselfish culture — “Big Team, Little me” kind of guys — in order to ask them to move and the coaches believe there are prospects in this class who will.

FSU will use its remaining nine slots in the class of 25 to add a couple of offensive and defensive linemen, a pair of receivers, a runningback and at least one more linebacker. The Noles have a commitment from 3-star offensive lineman Kimo Makaneole (6-4, 285, Niceville) who plans to sign in February.

Evaluation is key and more difficult this year

FSU leaned heavily into past relationships in the recruiting areas where they have them, while developing new relationships with one-on-one Zoom videos with coaches, players and parents. They also made creative use of technology to bring the players and their parents on virtual tours of the campus and the football complex, and with lots of phone calls and texts. 

FSU had to find new ways to develop relationships and do their primary evaluations.

Several assistants credited Haggins and Dugans, who have had relationships in Florida. Dugans was instrumental in Miami, where he recruited for the Canes. Haggins, of course, also has relationships in Florida and in the Virginia Beach area, where he signed Derrick Nnadi back in 2014 and defensive end George Wilson this year. You’ll notice FSU signed several Florida prospects whose high school coaches are former FSU players, guys like James Chaney, who coaches at Lehigh High School, and Brian Allen, at Lake City Columbia, and Corey Fuller at Gadsden County. Of course, Norvell and the other assistants also relied on relationships they established in the areas they recruited for years to find kids they believe are good fits for the culture they desire. 

“It is always tough when you don’t get more face to face in-person evaluations so we relied heavily on relationships,” Norvell said. “Not only guys we have been aware of for years prior but guys who been coached by former Seminoles. It is pretty remarkable when you look down this list the number of connections to our program.”

Norvell said the coaches watched a lot more game tapes than normal searching for the intangibles.

“We watched so many game tapes to really try to assess the mentality,” he said. “We want the biggest, strongest, fastest football players we can get but we need the right mentality, the makeup of who they are, the mental toughness, the disciple, the drive, the willingness to work to be great. That’s where I think we hit a home run with this class. We got young men who are like-minded, who have a workman’s approach. Couple that with the developmental potential they bring and it was a really-good class for where we are.”

I think that last phrase sums this class up well… “it was a really-good class for where we are.”

Sure you’d like to have more four-star and five-star players but the reality is FSU hasn’t won enough games to have earned those players. And based on where this program is right now, maybe like-minded, three-star players, who bring a a workman’s approach, is exactly what Norvell needs to re-build the foundation of this program.

The key to every recruiting class is evaluation. It begins with a clear-eyed evaluation of the roster to determine needs, which were relatively obvious to everyone. FSU made a big step to meet those needs in the early signing period at quarterback, on the offensive and defensive line and in the secondary. They signed one receiver this week and are likely to add two more with another running back. Norvell would like to bring in another offensive and defensive lineman. I see them adding another linebacker. Some of these signees will likely be guys from the college transfer portal, who can make an immediate impact at a position of need. 

As you read the coaches quotes in the Osceola’s offensive and defensive analysis, you will read a lot about work ethic, attention to detail and hunger to get better.

Evaluation is how college coaches EARN a recruiting class. It is a really laborious process when done correctly. It takes a lot of time and a lot of conversations to cross check the information you gather. I’m always reluctant to weigh in on this part of the equation on signing day even when the prospects are four- or five-star players. I don’t have to tell you, four- and five-star prospect go bust too. 

Having said that, if McKenzie Milton is healthy enough to go this spring, FSU will have met a major need at the most important position in college football. As veteran coaches likes to say: “You are just kidding yourself if you don’t have a quarterback who can throw it into tight spaces.” 

We have every reason to believe FSU’s medical evaluation of his two-year rehabilitation of a gruesome leg injury was thorough. Milton was able to run scout-team quarterback for UCF this fall and sent films of those practices and other drills to the colleges who were interested in bringing him into their program.

A former Heisman candidate, Milton can spin it. He has a track record for distributing the ball accurately, which is absolutely vital to challenging a defense with a full playbook. Importantly, Milton gets it out quick, using his legs primarily to buy time to throw. That quick, pass-first mentality will help him in the comeback. 

The quarterback room just matured. I don’t know how freshmen quarterbacks Chubba Purdy and Tate Rodemaker truly feel about the signing of Milton, but I agree with Norvell when he says Milton will help them in their development over the coming 12 months. There was a time when FSU quarterbacks had three years to apprentice before becoming the starter for two. Wally Woodham, Jimmy Jordan, Danny McManus, Peter Tom Willis, Brad Johnson, Casey Weldon, Charlie Ward and Danny Kanell all had time to learn from veterans before being thrown to the lions. 

I have also read Facebook posts from Seminole fans encouraging Jordan Travis to transfer. I’m not convinced that’s good advice. 

Travis has two years of eligibility remaining, so even if Milton is healthy enough to win the starting job and able to play every game next year, Travis will still have another year of eligibility remaining. Travis could also receive a lot of touches next year in a rotation with Milton or in a “Wildcat” package. If Milton wins the starting job, Travis might also choose to use his dynamic talents as a slot receiver or running the ball.

“(McKenzie) is gonna bring all those intangibles to that QB room to show them what it takes (to be successful), to really take that next step in our room,” said quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham. “We love where our room is at and I mean that. I love Jordan Travis, Chubba, Tate. We have a lot of guys in there that are going to be successful, and adding a veteran like that it’s only gonna make everybody in that room better.”

There are other really talented players in this class, including offensive tackle Rod Orr, for FSU fans to get excited about. Check the Osceola’s offensive and defensive breakdowns for critical analysis of the signees.

Historical perspective

One of the first recruiting classes I covered for the Osceola was in 1983. This was of course back in a time when ABC’s Wide World of Sports was king and before the World Wide Web was unleased on the public. There were no “star rankings” back then. The measuring stick was more abstract so there were no recruiting class rankings. 

Nevertheless, we all knew the score. Everyone got a white participation ribbon and everyone knew who signed the blue ribbon classes. And make no mistake the class you signed back then was an indicator of future performance. 

Those of us who covered recruiting looked to All-County, All-State, All-South and one of a handful of All-American teams attempted by Parade Magazine, Adidas or the National High School Coaches Association. It was the first year USA Today named an All-American team.

Amari Gainer’s dad, Herb, was a prominent member of the 1983 class, earning All-State and All-South honors. Marvin Jones’ older brother Fred was in that class, along with his high school teammate Pablo Lopez, who was one of two FSU players to make an All-American team, Darrin Holloman being the other. 

Danny McManus, who is in the FSU and Canadian Football Hall of Fame, did not earn any of those accolades. “Fred,” as Bobby Bowden mistakenly called him, had the highest distinction of All-Broward County. 

I remember the Seminoles were in the hunt for Parade All American Mark Maye from Charlotte, N.C. Bobby might have got him if not for a phone call from none other than the legendary Dean Smith.

FSU earned one of the five visits from Maye, who was offered by the top schools in the nation. 

According to Carolina Blue, a publication like the Osceola at North Carolina, Bowden also made a positive impression on his home visit.

“He was a really animated coach,” Maye told Carolina Blue. “I remember him getting up in my living room, dropping back like he was going to throw and then motioning to me. He wanted to let me know they were going to throw the football — a lot.”

Florida State fans thought Maye would be our Dan Marino or in today’s vernacular, our “Sunshine.”

It didn’t happen. The North Carolina native had his eye on the prestigious Morehead scholarship – which he earned a month after making the verbal commitment to the state’s flagship school – and FSU was left to make do with all-county quarterback Danny Mac.

According to Carolina Blue, just before the start of spring camp, Maye severely injured his shoulder — an injury that would plague him the rest of his career.

“One of our trainers took him out to the baseball pitching surgeon (Dr. Frank Jobe) who did Tommy John surgery and that kind of stuff; he looked at Mark and said ‘He has a shoulder of one of my 40-year-old pitchers,’ ” former UNC coach Dick Crum recalled. “That was all from playing baseball when he was younger and probably throwing too many curveballs.”

In addition to coming up short on Maye, a number of other Parade All Americans from Florida gave the Seminoles the stiff arm, including Orlando Evans offensive lineman Jeff Zimmerman (Florida) and Sarasota Riverview’s Glen Mogle (Michigan). Four Sunshine State running backs signed elsewhere: Titusville’s Gerald White (Michigan), Kissimmee’s Brent Fullwood (Auburn) Miami Northwestern’s Melvin Bratton (Miami) and West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman’s Alonzo Jefferson (Notre Dame). Brooksville linebacker Jerome Brown signed with Miami.

While FSU did not get all the players it wanted that year, the 1983, 1984 and 1985 classes were essential building blocks for the 1987 team – quarterbacked by McManus – which started the Dynasty Era run of 14 consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins, and EARNED the Seminoles’ future recruiting success. 

Former coaches are fond of sharing Bobby Bowden’s wisdom. One of their favorite examples is the talk Bowden would give his assistants after every recruiting class was signed. “He would tell us, ‘Don’t worry about the ones you didn’t get. Worry about the ones you got,’ ” former defensive ends coach Jim Gladden said. “ ‘There will be another prospect next year.’ ” 

That’s the mindset Mike Norvell’s coaches – and Florida State’s fans – would be wise to develop after this crazy 2020 class is completed on February 5, 2021, when National Signing Day will give the Seminoles a final bite of the recruiting apple.

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