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Midseason analysis: FSU’s offense

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Florida State is 2-4 overall and 1-4 ACC play at the midway point of the 2020 season under first-year head coach Mike Norvell. The Seminoles have utilized their second, and hopefully last, bye week of the season to correct what went wrong against Louisville and begin preparation for next weekend’s game against Pitt and for the second half of the season.

It goes without saying, but we will anyway, that the dynamics surrounding this season for FSU, and a staff in its first year, have been challenging. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic this past spring, and something we are all still dealing with today, has made life anything but normal let alone college football, especially for a program attempting to change it culture under a first-year head coach.

By now we all know the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Norvell, his staff and his players. Spring practice was shut down after only three days, there was no traditional offseason or summer workout program and even preseason practice was altered out of concerns for the coronavirus. There is no doubt that all of these things impacted where this team and this program is in Norvell’s first fall in Tallahassee.

But they are playing football in the ACC this season and with the Seminoles in the middle of bye week we thought we would offer our thoughts on where FSU is as it enters the second half of the season versus where we thought it might be with analysis from the Osceola staff. And much like I used to beg my professors at FSU to do, we will be grading on a curve because of all the circumstances mentioned up above.

FSU’s Offensive Rankings

Scoring Offense- 22.8 points per game-ranks 80th in the country out the 102 FBS programs to play this season.

Rushing Offense- 197 yards per game-ranks 25th

Passing Offense- 204.8 yards per game-ranks 72nd

Total Offense- 401.8 yards per game-ranks 52nd

Third-Down Efficiency- 38.55%-ranks 70th

Red Zone Efficiency- Overall-70.83%-ranks 86th, Touchdown Efficiency in RZ-54.17%-82nd

Sacks Allowed- 18-ranks 92nd

Big Plays on Offense (plays of 10-plus yards from LOS) – 92-ranks 16th

Quarterback

I am sure it has probably always been the case, but quarterback play seems to be the most important component in today’s modern offense. The best teams seem to have the best quarterbacks and even when that is not the case any team’s offense is usually dependent and quality play from its signal caller.

FSU’s biggest question coming into the season was who would line up behind center this year and just six games into the season the Seminoles have had three different quarterbacks start at least one game. Redshirt junior James Blackman started the first two games (Georgia Tech and Miami), followed by a start by true freshman Tate Rodemaker (Jacksonville State), followed by Jordan Travis starting games against Notre Dame, North Carolina and Louisville after taking over for Rodemaker in FSU’s comeback win against Jacksonville State. True freshman Chubba Purdy saw the first action of his career as he closed out the game against Louisville.

Patrick Burnham-I thought Blackman was going to be the starter coming into the season prior to the pandemic but the loss of spring ball and the off-season all but cemented it with two true freshman and a redshirt sophomore on the depth chart. Blackman’s experience gave him an advantage in camp and his style of play, being a drop-back passer, was in line with the skill sets Norvell’s quarterbacks at Memphis had. There is no doubt that this offense found a spark with Travis under center and he has been the catalyst for the offense’s improvement since the JSU game. He has made plays with his legs in the quarterback run game and defenses having to account for him has helped FSU’s running backs find success and given confidence to a young offensive line. Travis has had success throwing the ball especially with a moving pocket on half rolls/sprint passes and off of play action. He has made some very good throws from the pocket but seems to be more comfortable moving around. Down three scores against Louisville, Travis and the FSU offense found it hard to have success when it had to throw the ball to try and catch up. FSU needs the threat of the running game to help set up success in the passing game Travis certainly has expanded the big play capability of the offense because of his legs and certainly brought a toughness and energy to the Seminoles offense that it lacked greatly prior to his being inserted into the lineup. Both true freshman had forgettable debuts but will only get better with experience.

Bob Ferrante – It’s revisionist history, but what might Norvell had done if he had a full spring to develop and evaluate quarterbacks? And what might have been if Jordan Travis and Chubba Purdy didn’t miss large portions of preseason camp? In the summer, I felt all four quarterbacks would see significant playing time (three have started and four have played). If Travis heals up and can limit his hits, he may be the best bet for FSU right now. But the staff needs to have a plan for using Purdy or Rodemaker.

Mark Salva-They had to give James Blackman the first shot. His experience and arm gave them the best chance to run the offense they envisioned given the situation.  But the demons that have plagued James throughout his career showed up again as accuracy issues, a lack of mobility and, in my opinion, confidence bogged down the offense.  What became evident is that Jordan Travis is a competitor and a leader. What he lacked in passing acumen he made up for in just plain making plays. I suspect Jordan doesn’t show well in practice relative to his production in games and hence the delay in discovering his potential. But he has energized this offense and team with his playmaking ability and has been able to generate some impressive plays not just with his legs but in the passing game as well. The key moving forward is keeping Jordan healthy and finding ways to be productive in the passing game. Tate Rodemaker and Chubba Purdy are true freshman and looked like it in their respective debuts. One can only hope that FSU is able to get in situations where they can get some meaningful snaps by design and not by necessity.

Jerry Kutz-There’s been improvement in 2020 with Jordan Travis at quarterback. The coaches are designing and calling plays to accentuate what Travis does well with his feet and his arm. Travis’ ability to sense pressure and avoid sacks is extending plays and moving chains that would have been sacks last year. His competitive spirit and poise has given the offense an identity it didn’t have. While limited in the passing game, Travis has proven to be a poised quarterback capable of managing the game. Travis is a candidate for team MVP at the midpoint. Good to see the freshmen getting playing time too.

QB Stats

Jordan Travis-48 of 95 for 758 yards, 50.5% completion percentage, 4 touchdowns, 4 interceptions

James Blackman-43 of 75 for 366 yards, 58.1%, 2 TD’s, 2 INT’s

Tate Rodemaker-13 of 21 for 105 yards, 61.9%, 2 INT’s

Chubba Purdy-No completions on nine attempts versus Louisville

Running Back

La'Damian Webb
La”Damian Webb (above), Lawrance Toafili and Jashaun Corbin have combined for 797 rushing yards. (photo by Don Juan Moore)

Norvell spoke with excitement in the preseason about a group of running backs that included transfer Jashaun Corbin and 2020 signees La’Damian Webb and Lawrance Toafili. It sounded like FSU was going to go to running back by committe in replacing Cam Akers, and that is just what we have seen. Webb seems to have asserted himself as the starter but all three have been highly productive and shown versatility as receivers out of the backfield or when lined up in the slot. The trio has combined to rush for 797 yards on 131 carries for an average of 6.08 yards per attempt. Travis leads the team with 446 rushing yards but Webb is second on the team with 357 yards rushing and all three running backs have gained at least 230 rushing yards. Corbin is fourth-leading receiver on the team with 13 catches for 80 yards and Toafili is tied for sixth with 5 catches.

Patrick Burnham-We thought this would be running back by committee and that has come to fruition. It is easy to see why Norvell was excited about this group. While none of this year’s running backs are as dynamic as Akers was last season, they have been good fits for Norvell’s offense and seem to complement each other very well. Webb runs with toughness and great balance and has proven himself to be tough to get to the ground. Corbin and Toafili’s versatility have stood out and allow FSU to utilize a two-back set where the can create mismatches by lining up in the slot against linebackers and safeties.

Bob Ferrante– We felt good about this group in the preseason. It was the position that Norvell and the staff was consistently pleased with in August. Over the last four games, running backs like Lawrance Toafili, Jashaun Corbin and La’Damian Webb have been quite productive and the Seminoles have a top-25 rushing offense at the midpoint. (FSU’s backs have averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2020, far ahead of the 3.8 in 2019.) Jordan Travis’ legs have been a big factor here and we would love to see the RPO possibilities expanded in the second half.

Mark Salva-As a position group this has been the most consistent and productive aspect of the offense. The most dynamic is obviously La’Damian Webb as he has demonstrated the ability to make people miss and shown incredible balance and runs with toughness. He looks like a legitimate threat moving forward. Jashaun Corbin looks like a solid between-the-tackles runner with good vision and Lawrance Toafili has a shifty style that looks good in space. Webb is the most complete of the three and I would suspect he will be featured more than the others moving forward. Collectively, they are a dangerous group and, along with Travis, give FSU the best chance for success. Finding ways to utilize their skill sets and plugging the right guy in at the right time is going to be critical for the remainder of the season. 

Jerry Kutz-We expected production by committee at best this season but have been pleasantly surprised by each of the back’s performances, especially Webb — who is working well with the offensive line in the running game and has proven to be a capable receiver. Toafili brings an exciting skill set to the position and Corbin, who is recovering from major knee surgery, has delivered tough first-down runs. The unit has exceeded expectations.

RB stats

La’Damian Webb-57 attempts for 357 yards and 5 touchdowns

Lawrance Taofili-29 attempts for 247 yards and one touchdown

Jashaun Corbin-45 attempts for 230 yards and one touchdown

Offensive Line

Robert Scott
Robert Scott has stepped in and started as a true freshman. (photo by Kyle Pulek / FSU)

No other position group had more questions coming into the season than the offensive line. There was no clear-cut starting lineup coming into the season and there were huge questions as to whether this unit could improve enough for the offense to be very effective but it has shown the ability to be able to run the ball so far as evidence by the FSU offense being the 25th-ranked rushing offense in college football seven weeks into the season.

Patrick Burnham-This is by far the most improved position group on the Florida State football team and it’s not even close given all the circumstances surrounding the season and given the group’s relative youth. What offensive line coach Alex Atkins has done with his unit has been remarkable and they aren’t playing up to his expectations yet. Atkins has cobbled together an ever-improving unit that consist of two seniors, Devontay Love-Taylor and Baveon Johnson, and four underclassmen in Dontae Lucas, Darius Washington, Maurice Smith and Robert Scott, who have all started games this season. They still need to improve as a unit in pass protection but certainly have been effective and have gotten better with each passing week in the run game. Travis has certainly helped this unit’s development with his ability to run the ball but if anything good came out of the Louisville game it was that fact that Webb, Corbin and Toafili all ran for more yards than Travis which is a credit to the offensive lines improvement. It’s a unit that should only continue to get better but will be challenged right away coming out of a bye week by a Pitt defense that allows under two yards per rushing attempt so far this season.

Bob Ferrante-FSU quarterbacks have been sacked 18 times, but nine were in the first two games. Travis’ mobility has helped elude pressure in the pocket and limited the sack totals but it’s clear the health and consistent performance of the line has led to improvement. The Seminoles are taking a step forward. They have been effective run blockers, too. And FSU is doing it with mostly players who are in their first and second year in the program like Maurice Smith, Darius Washington, Dontae Lucas, Robert Scott and Devontay Love-Taylor.

Mark Salva-No position group in the country entered the season under more scrutiny than the FSU Offensive Line. For three years they have been hammered relentlessly for the sheer ineptitude displayed prior to this season. At the midpoint of 2020, no position group has accounted for themselves better than this same group. Alex Atkins has done a masterful job molding this unit and making it not just serviceable but a strength of this team overall. This group has not “arrived” yet.  There is so much room for improvement. Yet this group is the main reason that I have hope for this team moving forward. FIU transfer Devontay Love-Taylor has surprised me with his consistency and leadership. Playing right and left tackle, he has done a much better job than I expected going into the year. It is obvious to me that his impact goes beyond his play.  Senior Baveon Johnson has held down the right guard position and has shown improvement throughout the year. Sophomore Dontae Lucas is the guy that makes you pull your hair out. His talent is immense. He is a true mauler and has had moments of really good ball and moments that leave you shaking your head. If Lucas can find the secret sauce to play with more consistency and poise, it would galvanize this group and make them a force moving forward. The real talent in this group lies with the youngsters though. Redshirt freshman Maurice Smith has emerged as a talent at center, showing tremendous athletic ability and sublime technique for such a young player. He commands the game, making calls and I am excited to watch him continue to develop both this and in the coming years. Fellow redshirt frosh Darius Washington had shown his athleticism early but has been hampered with injuries of late. Getting him back the second half of the year will offer an element of competition at the tackle position that will be fun to watch, especially with the emergence of true frosh Robert Scott. Playing any position in Power 5 football as a true freshman is difficult, but none more than playing tackle.  Scott’s length and athleticism have been on display as he was forced to start several games with Washington being out, but man, has he delivered. It’s a testament to his maturity and emotional IQ that he has produced and not been a liability. In fact, he has accounted for himself very well considering. Having three quality tackles seemed like a pipe dream several months ago. If FSU is going to be successful, this group will need to take it to the next level. 

Jerry Kutz– This unit is making large strides each week against formidable opponents. This unit, as well as the special teams units, would be early leaders for most improved thus far this year. Offensive line coach Alex Atkins deserves accolades for what he’s accomplished with a much-maligned unit that is building continuity and confidence thanks in part to his guidance and to fewer injuries thus far. As the line develops, it needs to reduce false start and other boneheaded mistakes that have killed drives. Dominated by youth, this unit goes from least likely to succeed to most likely to improve.

Wide Receiver

This was a unit that was thought to have some big-play potential, especially with the return of Tamorrion Terry for his redshirt junior season. Terry looked like the perfect fit for Norvell’s offense and his ability to attract double coverage would allow for other wideouts to have breakout seasons. That simply hasn’t been the case so far this season. Terry has been inconsistent, with no catches against Miami, but played like a go-to wide receiver should against Notre Dame. He is now injured, missing the UNC and Louisville games, although he is expected to return soon. Despite missing two games he still leads the team in receptions (21) and receiving yards (275). No one else has stepped up a viable go-to receiver although Ontario Wilson is second in both categories. After that there is a significant drop off in production from this group.

Patrick Burnham-This has been the most inconsistent group on offense. The wide receiving corps production must improve drastically over the second half of the season if FSU is to have any chance of finishing with a winning record. Terry’s injury and absence have hurt the offense and its big play capability because of how teams have to defend FSU when he is on the field. This is a group that has considerable potential but has been plagued by drop passes and lack of production across the board. Keyshawn Helton, Jordan Young and Warren Thompson have combined for just 16 catches so far this season.

Bob Ferrante-The most disappointing group on offense and I’m not sure it’s close. Tamorrion Terry lost his grandmother and battled injuries before a big game at Notre Dame and then had surgery. This group definitely misses him. There are some complementary pieces like Ontaria Wilson, Keyshawn Helton and Jordan Young. And there may be some rising talents like Kentron Poitier. But without Terry there’s not a defined No. 1 option and it shows.

Mark Salva-This has been the most disappointing group on offense. Not a lot of consistent production, too many dropped passes and an inability to get open especially early in the year have plagued this group and limited the offense. All eyes have been on Tamorrian Terry and early season setbacks, especially personally, have hampered his expected impact. His status moving forward is questionable and his ability to stretch opposing defenses vertically will be missed if he doesn’t return. That leaves a lot of unrealized potential. I can throw Pokey Wilson, Warren Thompson, Keyshawn Helton, Jordan Young and Kentron Poitier all in a bucket and say the same thing for each. Flashes of big plays, inconsistency in route running and catching the ball. They must help Jordan Travis by being available in the passing game. As defenses hone in on the run and begin to cheat up, they will have opportunities. Cashing in on those in the coming weeks will play a big part in whether the offense can break out and make this season something to remember. The onus is on them to make plays and help make this offense more than one dimensional. Until they do, the biggest impact they may be able to make is blocking downfield for big plays in the running game. 

Jerry Kutz– FSU has struggled at the receiver position for as long as they have on the offensive line. FSU has had issues catching the ball and getting open. Terry came into this season looking to improve his draft stock by growing into a more complete receiver. He’s struggled to do so, partly because of injuries. FSU’s other highly rated receiver, Warren Thompson, has not been consistent. Nor have the others. Some of the inconsistency may be the result of the style of the quarterback as many plays are on scrambles and go routes.  There has not been as much production, or improvement, as you would expect on an improving offense. Young, Robinson and Poitier have not flashed.

WR Stats

Tamorrion Terry-21 catches for 275 yards, one touchdown

Ontaria Wilson-20 for 212, one TD

Keyshawn Helton-7 for 101, two TD’s

Jordan Young-5 for 65

Warren Thompson-4 for 80

Kentron Poitier-3 for 31

Tight End

Camren McDonald
Camren McDonald has caught a pass in every game. (photo by Don Juan Moore)

This group was unproven and inexperienced coming into the season after losing Gabe Nabers to graduation and Tre’ McKitty, who transferred to Georgia after last season. The starter this season was supposed to be UCLA graduate transfer Jordan Wilson, who was lost for the year early in fall camp with a knee injury. That left Norvell with just three scholarship tight ends, Camren McDonald, Carter Boatright, who is a true freshman, and Wyatt Rector, who was a quarterback until this past spring. With the loss of Wilson it was uncertain what kind of play and production FSU would get from this unit but given the circumstances the tight ends have done about as good as could be expected. McDonald continues to improve as a run blocker and has shown himself as a more than capable receiver. Boatright hasn’t played very much and the main backups to McDonald have been Rector and freshman walk-on Preston Daniel. McDonald is third on the team in receptions with 15 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Daniel has only one catch on the season but has been utilized as the primary backup to McDonald. He also joins McDonald the vast majority of the time when FSU goes to a two-tight end package. Rector has been used primarily as a blocker and on special teams.

Patrick Burnham-This group has accounted for itself well under the circumstances. McDonald looks to be building chemistry with Travis in the passing game and has shown the toughness and want-to as blocker in the run game where he should only continue to improve. Daniel was pressed into action because of Wilson’s injury and really is being forced to learn on the fly and probably wasn’t in Norvell’s plans coming into the start of fall camp. He and Rector are overmatched at times in size and strength at the point of attack but play hard. Anything you get from Daniel and Rector in the passing game in the form of receptions is an added bonus for the offense.

Bob Ferrante– With Tre’ McKitty (grad transfer to Georgia) and Jordan Wilson (UCLA grad transfer injured in the preseason), we all wondered if Camren McDonald would be ready to step into the starting role. He hasn’t been a big piece of the offense but he has a catch in every game and has held his own as a blocker. Freshman walk-on Preston Daniel has also emerged.

Mark Salva-Norvell’s affinity to utilize multiple TE sets plays right into where this offense is evolving. Running and play-action looks like the focus and these guys can play a key role. They haven’t had a major impact yet. I keep waiting for Cam McDonald to blow up. He has shown flashes of being a real playmaker in the passing game and can be that classic matchup problem for opposing defenses. He seems to be a willing and serviceable blocker, which is good for a guy with his skill set. Wyatt Rector and Preston Daniel look like the lunch-pail guys. They haven’t been much of a threat in the passing game but have made some plays.

TE Stats

Camren McDonald-15 catches for 187 yards, and two touchdowns

Preston Daniel-1 catch for 36 yards

Offensive Overview-

Patrick Burnham-What FSU has been able to do running the ball through the midway point in the season has exceeded my very conservative expectations coming into the season. By the same token, I thought the passing game would be more effective than it has been. Jordan Travis added another dimension to Norvell’s offense because defenses now have to account for him on every play. The ability to run the ball effectively and early in games gives FSU the best chance to win because it does two very important things. It opens up opportunities for Travis in the play action passing game and he seems to be more comfortable throwing off of run action or on roll out/sprint out action. Secondly, FSU needs to shorten games and keep its defense off the field given its propensity for giving up big plays. Until the passing game catches up with the running game FSU simply can’t afford to get behind by three scores like it has several times this year and have to be totally reliant on throwing the ball to get back in ballgames. It’s much easier said than done but FSU needs to control the ball and control the clock and it has shown the ability to sustain drives this season and it will need to continue to improve in that area. More offensive efficiency in the red zone would go along way into giving this team a chance to secure more wins in the second half of the season.

Mark Salva-Going into this season I think we were all hopeful that better organization and elevated standards would result in a solid offensive identity and better production. I never had any illusions that FSU would be among the leaders in yardage, scoring, and efficiency; but was hopeful that we could win ball games by just being better at the things FSU has been deficient in the previous two or three years. More discipline, less penalties, better execution, better effort.  Unfortunately, the pandemic happened and shelter in place was instituted, depriving Coach Norvell and the staff of instituting their system, culture, and probably most damning, the ability to evaluate the roster. An abbreviated off/pre-season only exacerbated the effect of Covid and, before you know it, the season starts. Early returns were disastrous. It was evident that some of the demons of the past two or three years were deep-seeded in the psyche of the offense and the offense floundered early as the OL worked to find their way and the instability of the QB situation made life difficult on the offense. I have to give Mike Norvell and Kenny Dillingham credit in that they recognized the best path for this group was utilizing the skills of Jordan Travis, stable of talented RB’s, and a young and improving OL to change the offensive philosophy and create an inventory of plays that made sense for this roster. At midseason, there is hope moving forward

Jerry Kutz-There’s been an elevated level of organization in 2020. Plays come in on time and the number of delay of game penalties have decreased. There’s a modicum of tempo and rhythm since Jordan Travis has taken the reigns. We’re seeing improvement on offense as a result.