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Column: What we’ve seen, heard in two weeks of camp

Watching Florida State’s practice for a few weeks and some things have become apparent. What we see is an organized team running through efficient practices. Players who needed to add weight have done so, those who had to drop have done so, too (for the most part). 

While depth is built by hitting the transfer portal and via multiple signing classes, it’s also created by competition daily on the practice field. With practices open to the media, it’s evident the maturity and growth of a number of players and position groups. Continuity in the coaching staff certainly helps as every player has his same position coach back for 2021.

In this story, we’ll reflect on a few things we’ve seen and heard (as well as not seen and not heard).

Mike Norvell doesn’t stop

Mike Norvell’s energy is high throughout practices. He’s always observing and moving from position group to position group. He’s vocal when he needs to be. He pulls players aside after a drop or mistake or when it’s clear a player has lost his composure. These aren’t just quick, five- or 10-second reminders. They are extended teaching moments.

Norvell can be seen doing this with a variety of players — offense or defense, starter or walk-on. He coaches them hard, whether it’s a walk-on receiver like Parker Self or a veteran like Andrew Parchment.

Norvell’s voice can often be heard. It’s authoritative and clear what he demands. Kenny Dillingham and John Papuchis are notably vocal, while Adam Fuller frequently hustles to a player pre-snap to fix alignment and coach on the fly. Dillingham was doing it first from a golf cart and now on crutches after a summer knee surgery, hobbling as fast as he can to celebrate a big play or coach a player. The staff clearly likes to teach.

It’s evident this is a team that is growing together. There are veterans who lead by example but it’s also notable that you don’t hear voices of players often. We see veterans take younger players under their wing, and they are good moments. But you rarely hear a veteran’s raised voice and that is an indication this is still a coach-led team on the field and not a player-led team.

There were moments Thursday where, when the team practiced indoors, players on the defensive sideline were encouraging backups on the field. They were loud and it was a great sign of leadership. Eventually, the offensive sideline did the same. 

But for now it is the coaches who are bringing the energy and care about the details. One day we saw strength and conditioning coach Josh Storms handing out cups of Powerade during a scheduled break. Yes, he’s encouraging hydration and recovery. But it’s not often you see a strength and conditioning coach take a job upon himself that is normally delegated to a student assistant. The next day, he’s collecting a stack of Powerade cups from players during a break. It’s a selfless gesture and one of servant leadership.

Emphasis on special teams

Norvell and the staff spend more time on special teams than prior staffs, from kicking and punting to coverage drills and return game. The early returns are positive as Alex Mastromanno has consistently punted well, while a missed field-goal attempt is a rare sighting. Papuchis leads the instruction with various coaches supporting him on special teams, which feature some of the best players on the roster from offense and defense.

With everything that needs to be done in camp, why focus so much on special teams? It is an area of football that can be a difference maker, from points by a kicker to punts that flip a field and help the defense. Coaches don’t want to lose hidden yards by seeing punts or kicks hit the ground. This connects with the above item: Coaches and teaching the details.

The football axiom reminds that you have to typically win two phases of the game to win a game. Norvell and the staff are banking on the Seminoles winning on special teams and then making the critical plays on defense or offense to put them in position to win games.

Areas of concern

After two weeks of practice, one of the biggest worries is that this team needs to reduce the self-inflicted mistakes. There have been days where we’ve seen too many drops and poor shotgun snaps, although it’s mostly with backup centers. There have been days where there has been a high volume of pre-snap penalties. There have been fewer instances where composure has been lost, taunting the offense after an interception as one example. 

The third one is excusable, especially with younger players, and we’ve seen coaches use that as a teaching moment. The first two are deeply concerning. For all the growth at receiver — and it’s considerable with the likes of Kentron Poitier, Malik McClain, Keyshawn Helton and others — there are just too many drops from receivers, tight ends and running backs. It’s a drop or a bad snap that throws off the timing of a play or a pre-snap penalty due to poor alignment that can lead to a three-and-out, sink a drive and halt momentum. 

In a best-case scenario, players get more comfortable with increased reps in camp and mistakes are minimized. But if they flare up in games with any frequency, it could be painful.

It should be noted the first few weeks of camp are a time when coaches take a look at younger players, cross-train across various positions and mix and match a variety of combinations of players. This is done at times on purpose and at other times out of necessity as players are given rest. And it’s this revolving door that can make practice performance the first few weeks of camp less efficient than how the two weeks leading up to the season opener will look as coaches nail down first- and second-team players.

What’s next?

It goes without saying but having the ability to watch practice for two weeks has given us a clearer picture of the team. With scrimmages closed, it’s tough to measure the defensive front four or how improved the linebacker play is or if the offensive line has made strides in pass protection. Jermaine Johnson, Keir Thomas, Dennis Briggs, Fabien Lovett, Robert Cooper and Joshua Farmer are part of a group that could be impactful up front, but we really won’t know until FSU takes the field in two weeks against Notre Dame.

There are definite positives. The quarterbacks have looked sharper than the spring and it’s evident they have a more firm grasp of the offense. This looks like a team that can run the ball, led by a confident Jashaun Corbin (now almost two years out from his torn hamstring) as well as Lawrance Toafili and Treshaun Ward, who was the most pleasant surprise of camp with his quickness and lateral movement. Younger receivers are making most of extended reps in the preseason. The secondary competition is intense and it’s a group with an abundance of talent with a group that includes Jarvis Brownlee, Meiko Dotson, Travis Jay, Jammie Robinson, Jarques McClellion and Akeem Dent. The special teams emphasis is necessary and a welcome sign.

The scrimmage on Sunday night represents an informal end of camp. Coaches will make decisions about the depth chart and begin to install a game plan in the coming weeks of practice. FSU has scheduled a mock game (closed to media and public) for next Sunday, Aug. 29.

We’re often asked to project a record for FSU in 2021 and it’s where we have to acknowledge the improvement, the flaws and the challenges of a schedule that features five of the preseason top 15 teams (Notre Dame, North Carolina, Clemson, Miami and Florida). My frequent comment: FSU fans want to have fun watching this team and they want the Seminoles to be competitive, an expectation that is fair in 11 games (Clemson being the exception). The record defines what a team is but in 2021 we should be as curious and watchful of how the young players develop, how the transfers produce and lead as well as how the coaches navigate the ups and downs.