Cam Akers was running like he did in 2017, with confidence and without nagging injuries.
Khalan Laborn was running, cutting and doing more than anyone could have expected just seven months after knee surgery.
Anthony Grant was running and looking like anything but a No. 3 tailback, showing that he is a viable option for playing time.
Maybe Florida State doesn’t have the deepest stable of tailbacks. But the three options the Seminoles have are quite talented and they appear ready to put the difficulties of 2018 behind them, and they could benefit significantly from new coordinator Kendal Briles’ fast-paced offense.
What is a realistic expectation for Akers?: FSU had a 1,000-yard rusher from 2013-17, from Devonta Freeman to Dalvin Cook to Akers. He was well short of that mark in 2018, rushing for 706 yards and six touchdowns. But it’s quite possible that Akers can get back to 1,000 yards if the offensive line can maintain its blocking assignments – they should be shorter now under line coach Randy Clements – and holes open up against defenses that are worn down by tempo.
What was missing from Akers last year, in coach Willie Taggart’s view, was the patience to let rushing lanes open. (Akers also had foot/ankle injuries that slowed him in 2018.) There were times where there was nowhere to go, but others where Akers could have turned an opportunity into a big gain. If there is patience and confidence as Akers goes into his junior season, also his money year, then the offense could again achieve run-pass balance and the Seminoles will put more points on the scoreboard.
It’s worth noting that Briles had 1,000-yard rushers in 2015-16 at Baylor and 2017 at Florida Atlantic. Injuries prevented that in 2018 at Houston, although the Cougars averaged 216.5 rushing yards per game.
How much can Laborn handle and what does he bring to the offense? Laborn wore a heavy knee brace during spring practices but otherwise showed no signs that he missed 11 games due to injury (he had one reception for 37 yards and three kick returns against Virginia Tech before being sidelined). It’s likely that coaches will see just how much stress Laborn’s knee can take in preseason camp and then decide how many touches per game he should receive.
Laborn has excellent vision and a make-you-miss ability and is dangerous as a rusher or receiver out of the backfield. He could be used as a slot receiver, he could line up alongside a quarterback and catch short flare passes or take handoffs. The object of Briles’ offense is to get the ball into playmakers’ hands in space and Laborn is an ideal, versatile option for the Seminoles.
Where does Grant fit in? Grant only had five carries as a true freshman, seeing most of his playing time on special teams. He’s a No. 3 option that most FBS coaches would love to have and a quality kick return man (22.5 yards on average).
What makes Grant intriguing is that he looks like an All-ACC back in practice. Grant frequently takes the ball in the ‘Nole Drills, which features a handoff to a tailback who must run down a narrow tunnel and evade different levels of would-be tacklers. Often, Grant gets quality blocks in these drills and has room to run but he also has a knack for eluding defenders and finishing the drill on his feet. A rising sophomore, Grant just needs to earn more reps so that he can show coaches how he can contribute on Saturdays.
Can FSU get the running game going again? The Seminoles need to and should achieve an improved ground attack after managing just 2.8 yards per carry last fall. One of the main problems in 2018 was that tailbacks were being hit behind or at the line of scrimmage, giving them little time to build up forward momentum. As a result, confidence and optimism was lost. If the scheme change benefits the linemen – hold a block for a short amount of time, open a hole against a “lighter box” that features fewer defensive linemen or linebackers – then the running backs will be put in positions to be successful. Briles wants to be physical in the run game, and he should be able to accomplish it given the tailback talent and the prospects of better line play.