Column: What we thought, what we didn’t see and what next for Travis

The words have been uttered as fact, as question, as exclamation and as criticism in the last year. But even more in the last few weeks. In some order:

Jordan Travis can throw.

Can Jordan Travis throw?

Jordan Travis can’t throw.

Jordan Travis can throw!

Jordan Travis can throw, but it came against an FCS team.

How exactly did we get here? It was a perfect storm. Of not doing our own research and watching high school highlights. A reflection of how the prior Florida State coaching staff used Travis. It’s also a 2020 problem: What we saw in three days in the spring was just a small sample size, followed by closed practices in preseason camp and Travis missing FSU’s two scrimmages. Of discounting Travis’ abilities. And maybe even limitations Mike Norvell and Kenny Dillingham had on Travis in FSU’s first two games.

The statements of doubt and questioning were answered (somewhat) when Travis came off the bench to complete 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown, guiding FSU to five straight drives that resulted in touchdowns, in a 41-24 win over Jacksonville State on Saturday. There was also criticism of the quality of the throws as many quickly pointed to an underthrown 41-yard touchdown pass to Keyshawn Helton. Some fans celebrated but quickly felt a better group of defensive backs, FBS or Power 5, would have intercepted the pass.

Without question, Travis was the spark in FSU’s win. He brought energy and enthusiasm. The smile was constant and clearly a positive. Travis is slated to start against Notre Dame on Saturday (7:30 p.m. on NBC), and he’s one of the reasons to watch, to see what happens next, if he can help the Seminoles produce some more magic on offense and bring that same kind of energy against a top 10 team on the road. 

“He’s not a gap-filler,” said Eric Kresser, a college quarterback at Florida and Travis’ high school coach. “He is the guy. He is the answer for Florida State. He could save their season. I think he’s that good.”

Nobody is looking at Travis as the savior on Saturday, which would be blasphemy (especially in Touchdown Jesus’ backyard). But an FSU offense needing a spark has one. And an offense that hasn’t played well around a quarterback all that often through two games and a quarter of week 3 finally looked like an offense in putting up 41 points vs. JSU.

So let’s go back to the start. To the first part of this journey.

Jordan Travis can throw

Kresser is incredulous and directs fans immediately to the Hudl highlights of Travis from his junior or senior years at Palm Beach Benjamin High. Kresser played at Florida, a quarterback in the Steve Spurrier Era, and went on to play at Marshall as well as spending some time in the NFL and other pro leagues.

Kresser first met Travis before his junior season. He saw the intangibles: Very coachable, eager to learn, good attitude, good leader.

“He’s one of those guys that you wish you had 11 of them,” Kresser said. “Never had any issues with him on or off the field.”

Travis did plenty for Benjamin his junior season, throwing for 2,017 yards and 21 touchdowns while also rushing for 384 yards and 11 touchdowns. The numbers are slightly misleading as one would quickly jump to the conclusion that Travis was a dual-threat quarterback, which he was indeed labeled by recruiting services.

“When I had him junior, senior year, I didn’t run him,” Kresser said. “I couldn’t afford to lose him. He was a pocket passer. … The way I used him in high school and what I do with all my quarterbacks, I want them to be able to make every throw.”

Kresser’s goal was to develop Travis into a passer first and foremost. Of course, plays don’t develop just right and Travis could scramble to buy time to throw. Or run. But he was a passer first.

“I had him doing everything that you can think of in the pocket,” Kresser said. “We did roll him out some but it was always with the intent of moving the pocket and letting him throw the ball. It was never as a running back. I always felt like with Jordan his bonus would be if the play broke down, we’d run him and use his legs. But I never intentionally called run plays between the tackles for him. We did call quarterback sweep a couple times and he outran everybody but never the quarterback power that you’re seeing right now. Obviously, he can do that too.

“In high school you never had the benefit of having two or three of those guys. I wanted to make sure he was available every week. We play some pretty tough teams. I didn’t want him taking any hits.”

Travis continued to progress. His senior year, he competed 130 of 213 passes (61 percent) for 2,190 yards and 24 touchdowns as well as 905 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Accurate? Yes. A runner? Yes, quite often. But to Kresser’s point, not often by play design.

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino took notice and signed Travis. But late in his freshman season, Travis decided he wanted to transfer and picked FSU. Following a prolonged appeal, made complicated because he was an intraconference transfer, Travis was given the chance to play in 2019.

But before that, there were Travis’ first throws in an FSU uniform. Even though it was not a true game and often came against reserves or walk-on defensive backs, Travis completed 22 of 26 passes in the 2019 spring game. Take spring games for what they are but it was a positive first impression of Travis.

Can Jordan Travis throw?

Travis came off the bench on a cold afternoon in Chesnut Hill, Mass., last November and ran circles around the Boston College defense. His first play was a 26-yard touchdown run. Later, a 66-yard touchdown run to seal the win. Without that spark, especially those two plays, it’s quite possible FSU does not win at BC and doesn’t go bowling. 

But it also began the legend of Jordan Travis the runner and not Jordan Travis the passer. By the end of the 2019 season, Travis was just 6 of 11 passing for 79 yards (and that included one 63-yard completion vs. Alabama State). With each time he was sent from the sideline there was the excitement for what he could do as a runner but the uncertainty, or perhaps a unanimous thought, that Travis would run and would not throw.

Throughout a very long offseason, Travis couldn’t escape the chatter.

“I’m definitely looking forward to showing off my arm,” Travis said on Aug. 8, at the beginning of FSU’s preseason camp. “That bugs me a lot – being known as a runner because I’ve always been known as a passer. I’m working to get better every single day, honestly. Just trying to get better.”

But Travis missed FSU’s two scrimmages in the preseason and it was clear the quarterback competition was between James Blackman and Tate Rodemaker. Travis returned later in camp and it was evident he and Rodemaker were battling for the backup job.

Travis bounced a pass to a receiver in the opener against Georgia Tech, his only throw of the day. It was one pass, but it ramped up the questions. He threw just two passes at Miami, one a 12-yard completion but the other a horrible under-pressure decision to throw when he should have taken the sack but instead of tossed the interception. Questions ramped up even more.

And then there was Travis’ performance against Jacksonville State, accurate albeit a performance with some doubts. Dillingham called it “comical” this week, the thought that Travis was purely a runner and maybe a thrower here and there but not really a passer.

“The thought that he couldn’t throw to begin with always was comical to me,” Dillingham said. “He can throw the football. He can throw the ball really well. A few things hindered him in fall camp, which he didn’t get a lot of reps. We tried to work him into the game slowly the first two weeks, and he got dinged up.”

Jordan Travis shows mobility in the pocket to elude pressure and can throw on the run. (photo by Don Juan Moore)

Jordan Travis can’t throw

Going into preseason camp, Travis was viewed as the dark horse candidate in the four-man FSU quarterback competition. When the conversation turned to Travis in the offseason it began with the speculation, the question. But the question mark seemingly turned to a period after the Miami game and can became can’t. 

What happened? Did Petrino miss on his evaluation? Was Kresser wrong? Did two FSU coaching staffs misjudge Travis as a viable option at quarterback? Were Travis’ injuries holding him back and by how much?

“I’ve been kind of upset with a lot of the talk around Jordan over the past month or so,” Kresser said. “A lot of people were jumping on the bandwagon that he can’t throw, he can only run. Nobody has seen him throw until last week.”

FSU fans began to view Travis as a runner. Writers on the beat, myself included, speculated that Travis was a guy where the coaches could develop a package, perhaps in short-yardage or goal-line situations. 

Defensive coordinators hadn’t seen much of Travis in a college game. And what they saw of him was as a runner. They didn’t respect the pass, so when Travis went into the game he was a runner. Defensive players creep up towards the line of scrimmage.

Jordan Travis can throw!

FSU’s first four drives vs. JSU went nowhere. Travis came off the bench and there was uncertainty if it was for a few plays or not. The drive began with runs by Travis, Lawrance Toafili, La’Damian Webb, Jashuan Corbin and then a play-action 41-yard touchdown pass to Helton.

Fans erupted in celebration. The Seminoles’ energy changed.

Four of Travis’ five incompletions came on his second drive but, from then on, he was very accurate. Travis completed passes from the pocket, off play action and on the move.

“There’s something I’ve seen in practice, I’ve seen him go out and throw the ball with great velocity,” Norvell said. “With great accuracy. There were some things you saw in practice tonight, fundamentals really carry over into the game. Coupled with not being able to practice as much this week, that’s a tremendous compliment to the young man being able to focus on the little things. When the moment was there, he was on point and hit some unbelievable throws downfield.”

Norvell has often said he wants a “rhythm passing game,” meaning the timing between quarterback and receiver is in sync. The ball is not sitting in the quarterback’s hands, something James Blackman had done consistently. Watching Travis against JSU, there was rhythm to the passing game.

Kresser was among the first to see it, reflecting back on Travis’ senior season.

“There were a lot of times, especially his senior year where before the game I would say ‘Alright, Jordan, you got them. Let’s go no fast, let’s go no-huddle and you got the plays,’ ” Kresser said. “And there were several games where he would march right down the field and score. And it was all him.”

Travis earned valuable experience as a passer with game film to review from Saturday. But maybe it’s ironic he also learned a lesson about being a runner, too. Slide.

“I have to learn that, for sure,” Travis said. “That’s one thing that’s important. We’re not in high school anymore so I’ve got to start saving my body and getting down when I have to get down.”

Jordan Travis can throw, but

The asterisk is always there and it’s part of the deal. An FBS team should dominate an FCS team. Especially when FSU is playing game three and Jacksonville State is playing game one. We often discount the performance of a Power 5 quarterback, rusher or receiver against an FCS defense. An NFL scout likely wouldn’t turn on a film of an FBS vs. FCS game to do a true evaluation.

Seemingly mid-celebration, social media erupted with enjoying FSU’s first touchdown pass from Travis to Helton. From the press box, my tweet: “Jordan Travis can’t throw with accuracy, huh?”

The four responses come in quickly:

Big brother Devon Travis, who played baseball at FSU and with the Toronto Blue Jays, simply had a man shrugging emoji. But it follows three who are quick to criticize: “Calm down. If we weren’t playing an fcs school that’s a pick.” “It was underthrown.” “That wasn’t a very good pass lol”

Yes, the questioning continues. Maybe it won’t stop simply because fans are fanatics and writers are critics. But it’s also essential to realize that Travis is a redshirt sophomore by name only. He has thrown just 45 college passes across three seasons. It’s tough to come to any real conclusions, not this early in his career.

When Norvell says it, the comment comes off as pure coachspeak: We play the player who gives us the best chance to win the game. On Saturday, it will be Travis. (And it’s worth reminding Travis is the third FSU starting quarterback in as many games, something that hasn’t happened since 2002.) Maybe Travis is the starter because of everything he brings to the table: how he throws, runs, commands the offense, takes pressure off the offensive line, leads in the huddle.

“What I love about him, he doesn’t just always rely on his legs,” Norvell recalled on Saturday postgame. “I think my favorite play of the night was when he scrambled and was able to hit Ontaria Wilson on the comeback on the far side. That was probably my favorite play because the defense, he was able to work up trying to get to him and kept his eyes downfield. Threw a great strike. It was really a big play for our offense, just to see him on third down.

“For Jordan, he’s got to continue to work. We don’t really have to change anything. He opens up some unique opportunities with what he can do with his legs, but we just want to take what the defense gives us.”

How does this story end? We don’t know. It’s just beginning, just 45 passes old. We do know Jordan Travis can throw. We do know he can run. And we do know he brings a positive attitude and energy. Whether he is FSU’s quarterback of the future or simply the quarterback of the moment, Travis is the man that Norvell has turned to, the one who gives FSU its best chance to build drives and, potentially, win games.

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