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Final thoughts: Evolving view of Travis, long view of 2021 team

As the week winds down in football season, we take a look at Florida State, the opponent or the matchup. This week, we’ll publish the final thoughts column a bit early. Look for Patrick Burnham’s scouting report and keys to victory on Friday.

The continuing development of Jordan Travis

The problem was always in how we viewed Jordan Travis. Or maybe to the point what we saw as his limitations.

We caught our first glimpse on Nov. 9, 2019, at Boston College. Travis hadn’t played a snap for FSU but came off a cold bench to bring some sizzle to the scoreboard. Two touchdowns, first for 26 yards in the third quarter and then for 66 yards in the fourth quarter, helped break BC. 

The legend began. The legend of Travis’ legs and not really his right arm. He was 6 of 11 passing for 79 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in 2019. Travis felt underutilized or the coaches who were left (offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and interim head coach Odell Haggins) after Willie Taggart’s dismissal had seen enough of him as a passer in practice. Was he good enough as a passer to execute more of the game plan? Travis arrived in January 2019 and was able to practice in the spring, but he was still awaiting his appeal as an intraconference transfer from Louisville — which wasn’t granted until August.

One of the distinctions to us is Travis has never been lacking in competitiveness. But confidence in himself and in his capabilities as a quarterback (as a runner and passer) were areas that he either didn’t have in himself or he hadn’t been given the chance to display. 

Travis was reflective on Tuesday in discussing everything from that first game at BC to his evolution as a quarterback. One of his comments struck home with the competitor-but-lacking-confidence storyline.

“Having people that believe in you is important,” Travis said. “And also believing in yourself is also very important. I feel like before coming to Florida State I really didn’t believe in myself. I was kind of just out there playing street ball. But now I have people that believe in me, that push me every single day to come here and get better, get better as a person, get better as a player on and off the field. In the film room, I’m out there watching film every single day. I didn’t do that before. I’m just growing. I got to keep growing.”

Travis isn’t just playing street ball anymore. He’s growing. Anyone who is watching him in 2021 can tell he’s a better passer and sees the field better than 2020. His numbers back it up, too. In a statistical oddity, Travis has thrown 131 passes in 2021 and threw 131 passes in 2020. The difference in completions is only 12, but those plays add up to a completion percentage in 2021 of 64.1 percent vs. 55 percent in 2020.

While we shouldn’t judge quarterbacks solely by wins and losses, the plays and passes are difference-makers in a game. Fourth-and-14 on Saturday was one such example and also showed Travis’ evolution.

“It speaks volumes to his growth and development,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “I thought he played his best game. The impact he had, everybody will always point to his legs, but you look at the times where he was able to step up into the pocket to make those decisive throws. Fourth-and-14, game on the line, you got to make the play, and he just took a great drop, worked up in the pocket, and delivered the ball in a very tight window.That’s the growth you need to see. Sometimes we get caught up, Jordan is still very young in the process of starting games. He’s been very productive in the opportunities that’s had, but we’re excited with what we’re seeing from him. … 

“You see the confidence emerging. For it to show up in that moment, it was critical, it was a game winner. That’s what you need from your starting quarterback, and you see that confidence that’s really starting to come from him play in and play out.”

And there is patience as a passer, even with a receiver group that has tested patience and could prompt a quarterback to second guess a decision. 

“You watch him in the pocket, and he’s not scrambling out of the pocket, he is going to his first, his second read, his third read, fourth read,” Kenny Dillingham said. “There were three times in the football game he hit his fourth option. One of those was the fourth-and-14 at the end, that was his fourth option on the play.”

Travis has thrown just 287 career passes, including 273 at FSU across parts of three seasons. (That’s roughly a full cumulative season as James Blackman attempted 297 passes in 2017 and 292 passes in 2019.) 

Experience for Travis has helped. He sees his maturation, how his desire to work each day has changed, too.

“I’m just starting to understand football a lot better. I understood in high school and I kind of lost it throughout the first couple years of college. Getting back to it. Getting back to the hard work. The work ethic off the field, that’s also very important. …

“I would say this spring I think I finally flipped that switch where I have a lot of confidence in myself that I can go out there every single day and be out there with the top guys.”

If you’re still doubting Travis, it’s ok. If you’re wondering if FSU can do better, based on what he has shown or simply the rich history of quarterbacks at the school, that’s ok, too. Travis may or may not be the quarterback of the future in 2022 or beyond. But he is the right quarterback for the now, and it’s worth stating he has been a difference-maker in FSU’s three big wins under Norvell (Miami on Saturday and both UNC games). 

Against Miami, Travis completed 69.2 percent of his passes, had no interceptions and two rushing touchdowns. Efficient.

At UNC in October, he completed 84.6 percent of his passes, had three touchdowns, no interceptions and two rushing touchdowns. Efficient.

And the now is also a return to BC on Saturday (noon on ACC Network). Travis returns a far different quarterback. Not just a competitive runner but as a confident, elusive and capable quarterback.

“That game changed my career in reality,” Travis said. “Coach Odell and coach Briles put me in the game. Just blessed. I can’t wait to get back up there.”

How we will remember this team

In less than 10 days, we’ll begin to reflect more on this Florida State team. There are two games to go and they are very different challenges but ones that will tell us more about the team and how coach Mike Norvell has shaped the program.

First, there’s the game at BC. A week after a crowd of more than 70,000 fans at Doak were fired up for a rivalry game, FSU will have to bring its own emotion and energy for a noon game at a stadium that lacks much juice. This is a bigger factor than the weather (cold but sunny). But if the Seminoles can win at BC, they would finish the ACC schedule at 4-4. FSU has not had a .500 or better record in the ACC since 2016 and, while “average” isn’t worthy of a parade, it is considerable evidence of improvement and a turnaround in year 2 under Norvell.

Then, there’s the game at Florida. FSU hasn’t been in position to win a state title since 2016, and a Seminoles victory would give fans a bragging point and Norvell a talking point on the recruiting trail.

Here’s an early view of the 2021 team: Lacking talent in a number of position groups, the Seminoles showed promise (Notre Dame), stumbled (Jacksonville State), displayed flaws (Wake Forest), grew, was competitive, picked up a confidence-building road win (North Carolina), didn’t handle the pressure (Clemson) and knocked off a rival (Miami).

The long-term view of the team will be finalized by late afternoon on Nov. 27 in Gainesville. But regardless of the final regular-season record, and if there is a bowl game, this team should be remembered more for the positives and for the building blocks that Norvell, coaches and players put in place.

Think of teams that didn’t win a ton of games but scratched and fought for every win and 1981 comes to mind. The scheduling is not anywhere close to comparable, but there was heavy roster turnover going into that year but also a team with incredible heart (and a quarterback in Rick Stockstill who was not known as a passer). FSU fans have fond memories of the 1981 team. Maybe years down the road, with the perspective of time and to see the climb under Norvell, we will appreciate this 2021 team even more.

We made an argument in the preseason not to get too caught up in the win-loss record and we’ve tried to keep that perspective. We wanted to see a team that was competitive and fun to watch. We didn’t get it every week. But we’ve gotten it more often than not, along with a rivalry win and two incredible game-day atmospheres at Doak for fans, players, coaches and, yes, recruits.

Johnson among FSU’s all-time sack men

Jermaine Johnson’s three-sack, five-TFL performance against Miami was part of a memorable and long list of defensive performances. Johnson now has 11 sacks in 10 games and he’s climbing FSU’s single-season sack chart, now tied for 11th.

Peter Boulware leads the way with 19, followed by DeMarcus Walker (16 in 2016) and Andre Wadsworth (16 in 1997). Reinard Wilson (1996), Everette Brown (2008) and Brandon Jenkins (2010) are tied for fourth with 13.5. There are a number of Noles between them, but Johnson is closing in on that top-5 group with two regular-season games to go.

“It’s been really great to watch his development and his growth since he’s gotten here,” defensive ends coach John Papuchis said. “He came in with a mindset that he was going to make the absolute most of the opportunity that he had here. I wasn’t sure, in the beginning, what that meant from the team perspective. But very early on in the winter conditioning workouts, he started to show signs of leadership and wanting to lead. It’s not easy for a guy coming in as a senior with all new guys trying to take that role and he’s consistently done it throughout the course of the year.”

Johnson will play just one year at FSU but it’s evident to coaches and teammates that he wants not just is on-field performance to be memorable.

“I think this game in particular was really important to him, because I think he wanted to leave some kind of mark on having a legacy at Florida State,” Papuchis said. “Other than just being a good player who racked up some pretty significant statistics, I think he wanted to have something that people here, whether he’s only here for a year or not, would remember him by and to have his last game at home be a performance like that. … He played about as well as he could have played and, when we were able to punch in at the end, that was real emotion in every way. At that minute draft status or awards or recognition had nothing to do with anything. It was really just about us finding a way to win as a team. I just have a high level of respect for who he is and what he’s about, how he’s approached this year.”