FSU head coach Mike Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham have consistently said that their offense is built for playmakers. And one position group heading into this spring that needed to identify a few playmakers is wide receiver.
This is a group that returns just two players, Ontaria Wilson and Keyshawn Helton, who were among the top five last season in both receptions and receiving yards. Wilson and Helton combined to catch 44 passes for 501 yards and four touchdowns last season. Wide receivers coach Ron Dugans knows his unit has had issues with drops — last season and in the first couple of practices this spring — and must be more consistent and productive in 2021 than it was a season ago.
“I think it’s about the same,” said Dugans earlier this week when asked to compare the growth of his group to that of the quarterbacks in season two in Norvell’s offense. “You’ve seen progress in the offense and not necessarily just the guys running the concepts. But now they’re getting more into understanding the details within the concepts and where they need to be, what angle, what leverage, where they’re supposed to be, who are we trying to flush, who is the high low … just having an understanding of those things a little bit more helps those guys play faster and be where they need to be. You see more of that, but we’re still not where we need to be.”
Norvell has seen progress from a group that returns Kentron Poitier, Bryan Robinson, Ja’Khi Douglas (now working full time at WR), Jordan Young and Darion Williamson, a group which combined for just 20 catches last season. He has also been impressed with early enrollees Josh Burrell and Malik McClain, who both signed with FSU in December and are competing for roles on the two-deep this spring.
“It makes me feel good actually,” said Norvell of FSU’s wide receivers. “They’re talented young men. They have the right mindset, the right approach. And that’s why I really like this receiver room. You’ve got guys that are older in Keyshawn and Ontaria, you look at the guys that have had that experience, and Jordan Young. And the youth that’s there, Darion Williamson is another young man. Ja’Khi Douglas, who’s transitioned to receiver. These guys have talent, but they’re hungry to grow, they’re hungry to take coaching. It’s exciting to see their want-to. And then allowing their ability to take over, I think we’ve done a really nice job in the evaluation aspect who we’ve gone after and been able to attract. But then the tempo we play with and the versatility of that receiver, position, we’re going to have guys, like I said earlier, kind of define their role and be able to make a great impact for this team. The competition is great, there’s some talented young men in that room and am excited to see them show up day in and day our to make those plays because we’re definitely going to need it.”
Dillingham believes he has seen improvement in the group’s ability to win their one-on-one matchups this spring.
“I thought our guys won a few one-on-ones today,” said Dillingham after the team’s first scrimmage. “And when you get everybody back, like we did, you should be better. And I think that’s starting to show up. And I think just as much as the receivers, the communication and the timing between quarterback and receiver is getting better. We’re starting to understand each other. And that’s a big piece of it when you’re throwing 1-on-1s is understanding where is somebody going to be. Our wideouts did a nice job today of separating at the line of scrimmage. And that was something we showed out last year. That’s something that through six practices we have improved on.”
One reason for the improvement according to Dugans has been the experience his players are getting from a veteran and talented group of defensive backs that now includes transfer cornerbacks Brandon Moore, Jarques McClellion and safety Jammie Robinson.
“It’s been really good,” said Dugans of the competition between the receivers and defensive backs. “Knowing that going in, and I’m like, ‘Man, we’re going one-on-ones. They got some veterans over there and I got some pups.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to look.’ I hadn’t seen the young guys yet. I had seen them on film, I’ve seen them in the weight room, offseason conditioning, but just didn’t know how it was going to look day 1 in spring ball. I knew in shorts we have a chance. When you put the pads, ‘I’m like, oh, heck. I don’t know what’s going to happen here.’ But just seeing those guys going against the older guys, when they do get the chance to do it, it’s been really good. It helps the younger guys because when you’re going against an older DB, and then you’re a young receiver, not only the coach but those DBs are going to tell you what they saw and what the kid should have done on certain routes. Or in the run game when they’re fitting up in the run game, blocking on the perimeter. Those guys are gelling together. ‘Hey, you get up. Let’s go again. Let’s go against each other.’ Bringing each other along. That’s been a bright spot for those older guys that’s come in and some of the guys that’s been here already.”
Burrell and McClain have impressed Norvell and the other offensive coaches both in the off-season program and through the early parts of spring.
“Guys like Malik McClain, Josh Burrell, they don’t look like freshman receivers,” said Norvell of the two true freshmen during the first week of spring practice. “I mean, Malik, his explosiveness at 6-4, 6-5 to run like he runs, the change of direction, it’s going to be fun watching him go out there and play the game. Josh Burrell is one of the strongest freshmen coming. He is a true physical presence out there, very mature, great young man.”
And McClain has continued to gain praise from Norvell on a weekly basis as the spring have moved along.
“Malik McClain I know is a young man I think I probably mentioned every day, but he had another big play today,” said Norvell. “Just seeing his speed, he doesn’t look like a freshman out there. From the physical aspect of it to the way he moves, I’m really excited about his growth.”
Dillingham is equally as excited to have the two true freshman participating in spring practice and about what they could potentially do for the offense in 2021.
“Anytime you have a true freshman who’s here in the spring, and you get a spring ball, you can kind of be treated like a sophomore, because you get that extra set,” said Dillingham. “So by the time you get to a fall camp, you’ve already been through a camp. Because fall camp, you have seven practices, and then you start getting into your ones, twos, whatever that looks like. Spring ball is pure development. So these guys being here for spring ball, being able to get all these reps, it’s going to help them make an impact in year one. I don’t care if you’re a freshman, I don’t care if you’re a sixth-year senior, we’re going to put guys on the field that play as hard as they can every single snap. And guys on the field that when their number is called they make a play. And if those two are the guys that fit that criteria, then those two are the guys.”
It goes without saying that Norvell, Dugans and Dillingham would like to see a couple of guys assert themselves this spring but FSU’s head coach knows there will be competition at all three receiver spots in preseason camp, with signee Destyn Hill arriving on campus this summer and Kansas graduate transfer receiver Andrew Parchment committed to the Seminoles.
“There’s going to be a lot of competition at that position as well,” said Norvell. “Not only guys that are here, but we’ll probably add. Destyn is coming in the summer. And other additions or addition depending on how it all plays out, but excited about the group.”