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Column: Injuries, lack of continuity on OL have domino effect on offense

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For the third week, we’ve seen Florida State play a mistake-prone game, this time in a 35-14 loss to Wake Forest. Everyone is searching for answers and there are any number of explanations for why the team is struggling.

I get frustrated watching this team. In our frustration, we often confuse cause and effect, which leads to getting lost in explaining all the effects — and there is a plethora to be shared by coaches and players — rather than getting at the root cause. 

Every coach I’ve ever met tells me football is a simple game we complicate. It is a game of fundamentals like blocking and tackling. 

I believe that to be true. Do you?

The universe of coaches will also tell you most games are won in the trench; your line has to be consistent — not great — to be effective. If not, play calling is a crap shoot.

I also believe that to be true. Do you?

If those two things be true, then in my mind the offensive line is a root cause of FSU’s struggles offensively and the rest of the mess is the effect.

Do not misunderstand my point. Coaches are never absolved from the consequence, no matter the cause. 

It is why the head coach and coordinators get paid way more than I do and probably more than most of you do. They design a system to their philosophy with the personnel they have and play to those strengths and around those weaknesses. 

I’m not riffing on the people on the offensive line or their coach, Alex Atkins, who I consider to be one of the best coaches on this staff. What I will get at is the effect an unusual rash of injuries have had on this already depleted unit and the effect it is having on our perception of this football team and ultimately of this young coaching staff. 

Identifying the offensive line as the root cause should come as no surprise to Osceola readers as we’ve discussed the lack of depth for years. Every preseason prediction began with the words: “FSU’s offensive line must stay healthy if…”

Well, they have not stayed healthy and the coaching staff has not found answers in their limited grab bag of linemen. Quite the contrary has been true as the ‘Noles played Saturday, again, without three of their five preseason projected starters. 

FSU coach Mike Norvell would have preferred I didn’t ask the question as the rain fell on the postgame press opportunity for fear his answer might appear to be read as an excuse. But the question was so fundamental it begged asking: Have the injuries on the line impeded the development of continuity among your five starting linemen and how has that hurt your offense? 

“That is something, no excuses, but it has hurt,” Norvell said as rain fell on all of us during the outdoor postgame press opportunity.

“Rob Scott, we were hopeful we were going to get him back today. He tried to go in pregame and just couldn’t go. Then we had to basically re-shuffle the line once again, just for different reasons, throughout the course of the game. We’ve got to get those guys (Smith and Scott) back. We’ve got to continue to develop and coach. That is a position that is young. We’ve got young guys and newcomers. We have guys that are battling and working to try to improve. But it is definitely hurting.”

How it hurts everything

No one should accuse Norvell of using the injuries on the OL as an excuse. It is an obvious reason, if hidden in plain sight.

When an offense cannot block the play called, run or pass, on a consistent basis, you got a problem. When an offense is unable to convert third-and-short, cannot move the chains and cannot gain an inch in the red zone, it’s usually a breakdown on the line. When these things happen, the defense is on the field more often than it should be and generally bad things happen to them. 

No disrespect to the replacements but they were not starters because Scott and Smith were more competitive and executed those play calls better. 

When the offense is unable to protect its passer, it leads to negative plays, a harassed quarterback and that leads to turnovers. When these things happen on offense, bad things follow with false starts, linemen down field, holding calls. You even will see the effect on defense as a sense of panic sets in. Defensive players start trying to make something happen rather than play assignment football. Even the coaches’ play calling is affected as they question of what to call and what not to call based on disappointing results of previous plays called. Delay of game penalties and questionable timeouts then follow.

You can always blame play calling for the offensive malaise, but defensive coaches will tell you there are a wide variety of play calls that are tough to defend when well-blocked.

When the first domino falls, and it usually does at the line of scrimmage, the chain reaction leads to a mess of dominoes, which is what we are watching weekly and trying to sort through.

It really could be that simple if you believe in the fundamentals of blocking and tackling and I offer that it is.

It should be no surprise

It’s no secret FSU has struggled on the offensive line for years. Due to past failures in recruiting, FSU returned just 12 scholarship offensive linemen and only six or eight have the experience and talent necessary to compete this year. 

Now three of those six or eight are out.

So, when FSU warmed up in Winston-Salem without starting center Maurice Smith and left tackle Robert Scott — two of the most important five — FSU’s chances of overcoming a 4.5-point spread declined significantly.

In our preseason outlook, most said if the top five or six offensive linemen can stay healthy, FSU could win six or more games. If not, all bets are off. Unfortunately, the “if not” has become the story. 

If you and I knew FSU would lose three of their top six linemen, we could have made a lot of money in Las Vegas. Of course the betting line would have been a lot higher than 4.5 points against Wake. Frankly, not many teams have enough quality depth to lose three of their top six linemen and win. A young FSU squad certainly does not.

The string of injuries

The first injury came in the spring to promising freshman Thomas Shrader, who was competing for playing time at guard and center when he sustained a knee injury, which takes a full 12 months to rehab. 

The second and third injuries came prior to the opener against Notre Dame when Maurice Smith and left tackle Robert Scott sustained injuries that would limit their playing time against the Irish. Smith played one half and has not played since. Scott played the first half of the Notre Dame game but not the second half. Scott played the first half against Jacksonville State but not the second. 

And the fourth loss came when veteran guard Dontae Lucas and Florida State parted paths. Lucas is among the more talented options FSU had in the preseason but was penalty prone.

Lucas left immediately after the Jacksonville State game and neither Scott nor Smith played against Wake Forest.

Smith’s injury led FSU to move Baveon Johnson from guard to center and to work tackle Darius Washington at center in case Johnson was hurt in a game, which happened at Wake Forest.

Washington started the season at right tackle, was moved to left tackle to replace Robert Scott in the Wake game and then to replace Johnson for a series at center. The redshirt freshman was asked to play three positions in one game.

Brady Scott, who played right tackle Saturday, spent most of his week at practice filling in for left tackle Robert Scott, who coaches thought would be ready by game time. 

Weekly lineups killing continuity

Atkins, who we believe to be a good young coach, has been like the conductor of a musical offensive lineman concert.

Every week at practice, we see a different combination of starting offensive linemen on the field, with starters nursing injuries on the sidelines. Every day that a football team practices without the same five starters playing next to each other is another day they can’t be building continuity.

Continuity is the secret sauce that allows five offensive linemen a way to block defensive linemen and linebackers, who are superior athletes. 

Offensive line play is like a country line dance where everyone is taking steps in unison to the rhythm of the music. The more you do it with the same people, the better it looks. Throw a couple of newbies into the line and the dance floor looks a mess.

FSU has now lost three, or four if you count Shrader who was lost in the spring. Add freshman Zane Herring, another promising redshirt freshman who has been hampered by injuries as five of what might be your top 10 prospects on the line.

A team can absorb injuries but not when they occur at one position, and notably a position that was not deep to begin the season.

We’ve seen teams overcome deficiencies on their offensive line to win some games but it’s tough to play consistently or win without an offensive line practicing and playing together every day.

Norvell and his coaches simply must find a solution, or this will continue to be a very difficult product to watch.

When and if the Seminoles get Smith and Scott back, which remains uncertain, they’ll be able to settle into a starting five and continuity will follow. 

If they are unable to get those two back, they are left to establish something with the five they started Saturday or work young players like Lloyd Willis, Bryson Estes and Herring into the mix.

God forbid there be more injury.  

So what’s longer-term solution and timetable?

The young players, the portal, and more work in the strength and conditioning program are the answers for 2022. Redshirt freshmen like Scott, Washington, Smith, who have been gaining starts this year, as well as Herring, Estes and Willis are your starting point. Add three or more offensive linemen from the portal and you are on your way to where you need to be with numbers (18-20 offensive linemen on scholarship) and 10 ready to go when one man goes down. 

Yes, it is going to take longer than any of us have the patience for but once you fix the offensive line, you’ll see an offensive identity emerge, you’ll see rhythm return and points go up on the board. And you’ll also see your defense — which has some knitting of its own to do — standing on the sideline more.

But the challenge for Norvell and Atkins: What do we do the next two Saturdays against Louisville and Syracuse?