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Differential equation: The math of FSU’s inexperience

Florida State travels to Chapel Hill on Saturday as a 22-point underdog. A prevailing story line pits the Seminoles — billed as the youngest team in college football — against an experienced University of North Carolina club.

First the obvious tale of the tape: 

  • North Carolina starts 23 upperclassmen to just 12 for Florida State. 
  • The Seminoles start seven freshmen on offense and defense combined; Carolina does not start a single freshman on either unit.
  • Junior quarterback Sam Howell operates behind an offensive line that had 97 starts prior to the 2021 season. FSU’s five, which include three redshirt freshmen, had 26 career starts.
  •  FSU’s depth chart includes 71 players, 53 of whom are underclassmen (74.6 percent), including 22 of 28 on defense, 17 of 27 on offense and 14 of 16 on special teams.
  • UNC’s depth chart lists 62 players, 28 of whom are underclassmen (45.6 percent), including 15 of 28 on defense, 10 of 25 on offense and 3 of 9 on special teams.

The numbers paint a stark contrast in experience and age as well as a reflection of coaching staff changes. Florida State has had two coaching staff changes in the past four years, while North Carolina has had three years of stability under Mack Brown, a former UNC head coach who replaced Larry Fedora in November 2018. 

As expected with any coaching change, Carolina had attrition in Brown’s first year, with 19 leaving, but they’ve been stable since. Conversely, Florida State has had two coaching changes and two roster shakeups. For a variety of reasons, including graduation, the NFL draft, transfer and injury, only 26 of the 88 players signed by FSU’s previous head coaches, Jimbo Fisher and Willie Taggart from 2016 through 2019, remain on the team.

Twenty-one of the 24 players signed by Brown in 2019 — who account for much of his junior class — remain on the squad as opposed to 14 of the 20 signed by Willie Taggart.

Commitment to youth movement

The number of underclassmen on FSU’s roster also reflects a commitment to a youth movement, rebuilding with players committed to Norvell’s vision. Sixty-two of the players on FSU’s current roster were signed by Norvell in 2020 and 2021, including 20 transfers. 

In that respect, the age differential is an investment in the future, a short-term pain with a long-term gain. 

Think about this: 27 of the 30 positions (90 percent) on offense, defense and special teams, have a starter who will return next year.

Other than right guard and both defensive ends, FSU returns a starter at every other position including all eight specialists. The three players who cannot return next year include: Devontay Love-Taylor, a graduate student, Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas. While this is receiver Andrew Parchment and corner Meiko Dotson’s last year, they are listed as co-starters with freshman Malik McClain and sophomore Jarrian Jones, respectively, so those two positions are counted among the 27 positions with a starter returning.

Returning 90 percent of the starters is a good thing in terms of experience gained, player development and team development but only if those position starters have the talent to become a player who one day can beat the opponents on your schedule.

If all you can see is the scoreboard, you may have your doubts about the talent of the returning youth. You may believe FSU needs a series of two, three or four, very good recruiting classes to compete at a high level again. Here’s an argument for hope that the process has begun and the first of the series of recruiting classes are already on campus.

Norvell has granted sportswriters the opportunity to watch football practice, which enables us to evaluate a player’s talent as well as work ethic, to the extent a sportswriter can. We’ve seen how these 18-year-olds have responded to getting knocked down by 22-to-24-year-old veteran, how they respond to the first competition they have seen in their talented lives, and their response to hard coaching.

During Tuesday’s practice Travis Jay, a redshirt freshman cornerback, caught my attention. A five-star prospect, Jay is built the way a talented football player should be and oozes talent. You’ve seen glimpses of it in games this year. Standing next to him were true freshmen Kevin Knowles and Shyheim Brown, two players who have shown early promise, redshirt sophomore Jamie Robinson, redshirt freshmen Sidney Williams and Jarvis Brownlee. There’s at least six more defensive backs that are seeing playing time this year too.

This is a group without veterans, a group who are becoming veterans the hard way, without the luxury or watching talented veterans show them the way. While college coaches are always trying to recruit players more talented than what’s on the current roster, it would not take much for this to become a tight-knit secondary one day.

The defensive front seven includes redshirt freshman DJ Lundy and redshirt sophomores Kalen Deloach and Amari Gainer. Next to them was redshirt freshman Derrick McClendon at end, true freshman Josh Farmer at one tackle and redshirt freshmen Jarrett Jackson and Malcolm Ray taking reps with the first team.

Redshirt sophomore Dennis Briggs, who has been lost for the season, wasn’t on the field but will return next year.

Over on the offense, four underclassmen are running behind an offensive line that includes three redshirt-freshmen. Running backs Treshaun Ward and Lawrance Toafili are redshirt freshmen. Jashaun Corbin and DJ Williams are redshirt sophomores. It’s a talented and tight running back room, comprised of people who enjoy cheering for one another.

The three redshirt freshmen who start on the offensive line are center Maurice Smith and tackles Robert Scott and Darius Washington. Dillan Gibbens, a redshirt junior transfer from Notre Dame, returns at guard. While FSU has offensive line as top recruiting priority, they also have a handful of freshmen and redshirt freshmen who will compete for the starting job as well.

The Seminoles will return seven of the top eight receivers. Freshman Malik McClain and redshirt freshman Darrion Williamson and Kentron Poitier have been the most-promising of the freshmen. 

You are thinking but what about quarterback? McKenzie Milton will complete his eligibility, but redshirt sophomore Jordan Travis and redshirt freshmen Chubba Purdy and Tate Rodemaker return. You’ve seen Jordan. You know his skill set. But what about Purdy and Rodemaker? When will they be ready to play?

Purdy missed most of his freshman season, including spring practice, with a broken collarbone so his development began with the opening of fall camp in August and it has been an emersion for the 6-2, 215-pound quarterback who has had to take more than his fair share of snaps on days where Milton and/or Travis were unable to practice. The development has been noticed and game day reps are likely to come.

While it’s been tough for fans to watch the scoreboard this year, it’s been encouraging for this and other sportswriter to watch the young talent, the work being done and the development of what could become a formidable team in years to come. 

College Experience

Offense                       UNC     FSU 

Graduate students      2          0

Seniors                        4          2

Juniors                         4          4

Sophomores               1          2

Freshmen                    0          4

Defense                       UNC     FSU

Graduate students      1          0

Seniors                        3          3

Juniors                         3          1

Sophomores                5          5

Freshmen                    0          3

Specialists                   UNC     FSU

Graduate students      1          0

Seniors                        0          0

Juniors                         5          2

Sophomores                1          1

Freshmen                    1          5

Total                            UNC     FSU

Graduate students      4          0

Seniors                        7          5

Juniors                         12        7

Sophomores                7          8

Freshmen                    1          12

Note: FSU lists 12 starters on offense (two runningbacks) while UNC lists 11 starters (one runningback).

Charting movement through the years:

2016 Jimbo Fisher enrolled 23 (three remain): Baveon Johnson, who is in the two deep, and Emmett Rice, who is rehabilitating a knee injury.

2017 Jimbo Fisher enrolled 24 (five remain): Ontaria Wilson and Brady Scott have played this year. Leonard Warner is rehabbing injury, DeCalon Brooks, and Deonte Sheffield who has announced his transfer.       

2018 Willie Taggart enrolled 21 (seven remain): Robert Cooper, Amari Gainer, Cam McDonald, Keyshawn Helton, Jalen Goss, Jordan Young and Dennis Briggs (injured).

2019 Willie Taggart enrolled 20 preps (14 remain) and five transfers (two remain).

2020 Norvell enrolled 25 preps (20 remain) and nine transfers (8 remain).

2021 Norvell enrolled 17 preps (17 remain) and signed twelve transfers (12 remain).