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Final thoughts: Challenges of QB decisions, cleaning up special teams

From time to time in football season we’ll offer some final thoughts on Florida State football ahead of a Saturday game. The Seminoles play at North Carolina at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Week to week at QB

Bobby Bowden’s old line was “the best ability was dependability.” In 2021, with FSU’s quarterbacks, the best ability may be availability.

In the preseason, our feeling was Florida State would often need to use McKenzie Milton and Jordan Travis – even on the same play – to bring an extra wrinkle and a playmaker to the field. We saw it early on this year but not since. We also saw quarterbacks alternating drives but not since. 

We’ve seen Milton play well but at times he didn’t have stable footing in the pocket and throws were off. We’ve seen Travis struggle with downfield throws but effective in throwing to the perimeter (essentially getting running backs or receivers the ball in space and similar to a run) as well as the quarterback using his greatest assets, his running and vision.

What we may not see is a consistent starter week to week and it’s probably the one thing fans are seeking most – a definitive No. 1 quarterback to lead FSU to wins for the remainder of the season. It’s not ideal but the Seminoles are developing multiple game plans each week and determining midweek which quarterback is healthy and the best option. While it’s not ideal, it’s the reality given the injury history for Milton and Travis.

If you had asked us ahead of the Syracuse game which quarterback would start, the answer would have been a shrug. Travis did not practice on Tuesday and didn’t move around well on Wednesday, while Milton did not practice on Wednesday. Who would start vs. the Orange? We didn’t have a good feel for it. Coaches felt good about Travis’ continued recovery throughout the week and his ability to run is one of the main reasons the Seminoles picked up the win. The game plan against Syracuse was tailored quite well to the opponent and was a sound strategy that resulted in a win. You could argue the strategy won’t work against a better ACC opponent, which is fair, but the job is to defeat that week’s opponent with the personnel you have available.

Who is the best quarterback to face North Carolina? A case could be made for Travis and his elusiveness, and UNC coach Mack Brown admitted this week the Tar Heels have not defended mobile quarterbacks well. UNC also allows 143.4 rushing yards per game.

A case could also be made for Milton and his quick decision making. And a case could be made that if Travis or Milton are not able to play, that there should be a package of plays available for Chubba Purdy to build experience, whether it’s against UNC or to get him ready after the bye week for UMass.

As much as we are all looking for a definitive quarterback choice, it’s worth underscoring the Seminoles’ offensive identity should revolve around the run and the capability to do that behind an offensive line that at least now has Robert Scott and Maurice Smith back (although each are battling injuries). And it’s worth praise for the coaches and players, who have worked hard to minimize penalties and turnovers so that the Seminoles aren’t in bad down-and-distance situations or leaving the defense with a short field.

Impact of Briggs’ loss

Dennis Briggs had just six tackles and two quarterback hurries in three games before a chop block ended his season early. Briggs’ loss goes beyond what the stats may indicate as he took on blockers and allowed others around him to make plays. He also showed considerable growth as he earned more playing time, coming back midseason in 2020 as well as what he showed the coaches in August and September. Briggs’ positive attitude and energy will be sorely missed.

After the two defensive tackle starters, Fabien Lovett and Robert Cooper, the Seminoles are continuing to develop backups to fill out the rotation. Having Briggs to help develop a young lineman on the fly would have been good for the development of Jarrett Jackson, Malcolm Ray or Joshua Farmer.

One option is for the coaches to have Lovett and Jackson start with Cooper and Ray on the second team, only because it would pair a veteran with a younger lineman. The opportunity to have an on-field mentor could help when it comes to blocking assignments and avoiding communication problems.

Special teams issues

In the preseason, we felt FSU’s special teams could be a plus. And special teams needed to be a positive if the Seminoles were to win a game while figuring things out on offense or defense. What we’ve seen from the specialists is far too much inconsistency and it’s led to a close game against Syracuse and contributed toward losses.

“We haven’t reaped the rewards and the results from all the investment,” special teams coordinator John Papuchis said. “In some cases, I think it is personnel. We’ve got to look at some different options and give some guys some different opportunities. In other cases, it is execution. Some of it is coaching. Some of it is playing. There’s a lot that is leading us not into being what we expect to be. But it is something that we are committed to doing and we will get it right.”

FSU’s coaching staff clearly values special teams as it is an area of focus throughout August and during periods of practice when the media is able to observe. Special teams needs to be a strength for the Seminoles, who have a small margin for error. With a young roster, one that is still seeking confidence, mistakes are magnified and all of the little things add up. 

Our publisher, Jerry Kutz, wrote about special teams in detail on Tuesday but everything from a kick return to the 16 instead of the 25 makes an impact on play calling and the success rate on a drive. Punt return mistakes by Keyshawn Helton and Ontaria Wilson have been too common and are alarming. Injuries have impacted who can be used as a returner, although it’s possible Travis Jay could see more of a role as he returns from injury (he played on just the Hail Mary defense at the end of the second quarter.

Ryan Fitzgerald has missed field-goal attempts as well as extra-point attempts, although he got redemption with a high-pressure kick to lift FSU to a win over Syracuse. A missed field-goal attempt of 40 or more yards is definitely excusable, but missing extra-point attempts on back-to-back weeks are not.