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Final thoughts ahead of Wake: On FSU’s identity, OL, Brownlee

From time to time this football season, we’ll clean out the notebook and offer some final thoughts ahead of a Saturday game. Below are a variety of reflections not just on the 0-2 start and Saturday’s game at Wake Forest (3:30 p.m. on ESPN) but a few that take a look at the big picture.

FSU’s identity in 2021

Toward the end of August, with the luxury of being able to watch weeks and weeks of practices, it felt like Florida State could win some games with a mix of the running game, defense and special teams. Through two uneven performances, it still feels that is a formula (or identity) for the Seminoles in 2021. FSU is 25th in the FBS in rush offense, Jashaun Corbin has back-to-back 100-yard games and – except when down and distance have gotten out of hand due to injuries – running the ball has been a success despite offensive line injuries and depth. The defensive backfield hasn’t been nearly competitive enough in 1-on-1 situations, but the defensive line has exceeded our expectations — Jermaine Johnson is the impactful pass rusher FSU has been lacking since Brian Burns left for the NFL a year early. Alex Mastromanno has been a strength, flipping the field with impressive consistency. 

We felt the passing game would take a step forward with a combination of McKenzie Milton and Jordan Travis as well as receivers and tight ends who have an extra year of experience. Darion Williamson, a redshirt freshman, has been a bright spot. Coaches have been creative in using jumbo packages with multiple tight ends. Regardless of how you feel about the wildcat usage, the versatility from tight ends has been an advantage enough times to keep using it in the run and pass game in short-yardage situations.

Yes, FSU needs to hit some passes downfield. Travis hit a 60-yard pass to Ja’Khi Douglas against Notre Dame. Milton threw some dimes that Malik McClain (who was well defended) couldn’t handle and Keyshawn Helton outright dropped on the first drive against Jacksonville State. Milton’s numbers from Saturday weren’t great – he was 18 of 31 for 133 yards, a touchdown and an interception. But add in the 44 yards with the Helton would-be TD reception and it’s a more respectable 19 of 31 for 177 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. 

FSU has some receivers who we think can stretch the field — Andrew Parchment, Helton, Douglas and McClain among them. The recevers just need to, wait for it, catch the ball. The problem is the numbers vs. JSU don’t look good and Milton averaged just 4.3 yards per attempt. FSU’s run game averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and putting those two stats side by side is jarring.

Norvell’s answer to the question, after Wednesday’s practice, about FSU’s identity focused more on the need to reduce mistakes and penalties. That’s fair. With little margin for error on a roster that is still in rebuild mode, despite the influx of transfers, the Seminoles can’t afford self-inflicted mistakes. 

Bottom line: FSU looks like a run-first offense that must be efficient in the short and intermediate passing game but keep trying the downfield throws. If the passing game can simply align correctly and minimize drops, the defensive line remains a strength and special teams plays more like week 2 than week 1, there are areas in each phase of the game where the Seminoles can feel confident while trying to shore up deficiencies.

Offensive line concerns grow

FSU’s depth on the offensive line was going to be extremely thin given the low number of scholarship linemen in 2021. The coaching staff has frequently mentioned the goal of finding eight linemen who are dependable. Without left tackle Robert Scott and center Maurice Smith, that forced a number of moving parts. Now, the depth is even thinner without guard Dontae Lucas. The number of offensive linemen with significant game experience (using that as a qualifier and not necessarily dependability) is down to Baveon Johnson, Robert Scott, Maurice Smith, Devontay Love-Taylor, Brady Scott, Dillan Gibbons and Darius Washington. If Robert Scott and/or Smith can’t go at Wake, the situation becomes tenuous and the Seminoles would need to turn to a younger inexperienced lineman.

Practice observations

Tuesday’s practice was “The Hangover, Part II” but without the entertaining wolfpack of comedians. The Seminoles looked lethargic and drops were persistent. On Wednesday we saw improvement. As we’ve mentioned quite often, it has been good to see practice on a consistent basis to shape opinions of players and position groups. But one of the big picture takeaways from Tuesday was a rough one. We know this team has leaders but we don’t hear them on the practice field, a point we made as camp transitioned to preparations for Notre Dame. The voices we hear remain those of Mike Norvell and coordinators. This is a team with lead-by-example types but it wouldn’t hurt to hear a few voices on the field. We need to see and hear players who have the passion and energy of Norvell, Kenny Dillingham, Odell Haggins and other coaches and have those veterans pushing players throughout their position group.

Brownlee’s candor

Beat writers have always wondered which players are willing to talk on Saturdays after a loss as well as which ones will do interviews on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For the most part, players are requested by the media. Four who talked this week were Milton, Wyatt Rector, Fabien Lovett and Jarvis Brownlee. The final one was stunning. Brownlee could have begged out of the request and we wouldn’t have been the least bit bothered. He not only showed up but also explained how he felt, how coaches and teammates supported him and how it would shape him moving forward. It was impressive. Brownlee is still a corner who has huge upside and, for this defense to be good in 2021, the Seminoles will need him and Travis Jay to be in position to win one-on-one battles and play with confidence. 

There are a number of instances that come to mind but Brownlee’s appearance reminded me of Dustin Hopkins in 2010. He missed a kick against North Carolina that contributed to a loss but spoke with the media after the game and referenced Bible passages where he found strength to push forward. The next week: Hopkins drilled a 55-yard field-goal attempt to beat Clemson.

Parting thoughts

FSU’s last 0-3 start came in 1976 in Bobby Bowden’s first year. This is also the Seminoles’ 30th year in the ACC, one that began with a 29-game winning streak and questions about if or when FSU would lose a game in league play. Hard to fathom now. Oddly, the ACC has quality players and head coaches but the league through two weeks appears wide open. Weird times in 2021. If you’re struggling with optimism, it’s understandable. But remain curious as we scream (and resist the temptation to cover our eyes) during what will be a roller coaster of a season.