James Blackman has the leadership and experience that Florida State is looking for at quarterback.
Depth at the position? That remains a question and in the hands of the ACC and NCAA.
The Seminoles needed to rebuild the depth chart at the position after losing last year’s starter, Deondre Francois, to dismissal. FSU has gradually added quarterbacks via the transfer portal, landing Alex Hornibrook (Wisconsin), Jordan Travis (Louisville) and walk-on Wyatt Rector (Western Michigan).
What’s certain is that Hornibrook will be available as a graduate transfer. Travis’ appeal was filed by FSU months ago, while Rector’s process began when he enrolled at FSU in May. With two months to go until the opener, Travis and Rector are awaited word on their ability to play this fall.
Let’s look at some key questions at quarterback for Florida State in 2019:
Who will start on Aug. 31 against Boise State?: This one should be fairly easy. Coach Willie Taggart hasn’t named Blackman the outright starter, but all signs point to the redshirt sophomore leading the Seminoles in Jacksonville. Blackman has the strongest arm of the group as well as the ability to push the ball downfield, a desire of Taggart’s as well as offensive coordinator Kendal Briles.
Blackman completed 58 percent of his passes as a true freshman and improved to 64.7 percent in 2018. It was a small sample size as Blackman threw just 51 passes last year, but he was 29 of 46 (63 percent) with four touchdown passes and one interception in a road start against NC State in November. He’s a natural leader, has respect of teammates and good chemistry with receivers.
Who will be the backup quarterback?: This depends on who is available for Taggart and Briles. The easy answer in June is Hornibrook because of his experience (704 college passes) as well as leadership. Hornibrook has his flaws – he’s prone to throwing interceptions (33 in his career), has a history of injuries and isn’t mobile.
There will be good competition in practice. But if Travis or Rector are cleared, the backup competition gets very interesting. Travis improved as the spring went on and connected with receivers on short and intermediate routes in the spring game, completing 22 of 28 passes for 241 yards (and distributing the ball well to seven receivers). Rector is an unknown after seeing only a few reps at Western Michigan before transferring and enrolling at FSU in May.
Hornibrook likely didn’t transfer without assurances that he would have a direct path to playing time, even if that is as a backup. That said, Travis and Rector are better system fits for what Taggart and Briles want to do. It’s an intriguing argument and brings us to a third question.
How will Taggart and Briles handle the varying styles of the quarterbacks?: Both coaches have shown a desire to use mobile quarterbacks but a willingness to adapt. Briles has coached a diverse group of quarterbacks at Baylor, Florida Atlantic and Houston, including a dual-threat like Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and a drop-back passer like Bryce Petty. It’s also worth noting that while Petty wasn’t a runner – he averaged 2.2 yards per carry in 2013 – he did rush for 14 touchdowns.
Blackman is a drop-back passer but has more mobility than many realize. The difficulty is projecting how much Briles can run Blackman, perhaps enough as a change-up to keep the defense honest. An offense with Hornibrook would look similar to one with Blackman, but a scheme with Travis or Rector could allow Briles to open up the entire playbook (and that’s a term we use loosely since in the spring the Seminoles didn’t have one). It’s likely that coaches will develop a game plan for Blackman-Hornibrook but also one tailored to Travis-Rector for two reasons – injury or the potential for a sub-package wrinkle where a mobile quarterback could run the offense for a drive here and there.
How different will the 2019 offense look?: Night and day. It’s a new “playbook” under a new coordinator. The tempo will be pushed even more than in 2018. Taggart wanted to use the run-pass option a year ago but Francois was reluctant. Now there will be a desire to use the quarterback’s legs and misdirection of the run game as well as his ability to read the defense and make decisions about whether the advantage for the Seminoles is to run or pass. It’s also valuable to understand that the Briles offense is one that puts quarterbacks in a position to be hit often, and the potential of injuries means coaches will give added reps to backups so that they are ready to go on Saturdays.