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Midseason report: Offense

The Osceola staff will take a position by position look at Florida State at the midpoint of the 2021 season. FSU’s bye week is well timed, allowing players to recover and recharge and coaches to recruit. The Seminoles play host to UMass on Oct. 23 (noon on ACC Network) before diving back in to ACC play at Clemson.

There have been injuries on the offensive line and at quarterback. There were also pre-snap penalties and turnovers, but those have been held in check the past three games. As a result, FSU is averaging 28.6 points per game against Power 5 opponents. The schedule gets tougher, especially with matchups against four top 20 scoring defenses ahead: Clemson (2), NC State (11), Florida (15) and Boston College (17).

Let’s take a look at each position, first with some of the key stats and then what we’ve liked, what we haven’t liked and what we’d like to see in the second half of the season.

Quarterback

The numbers: Jordan Travis has completed 47 of 73 (64.4 percent) of his passes for 513 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions as well as 49 carries for 362 yards and two touchdowns. McKenzie Milton has completed 58 of 93 (62.4 percent) of his passes for 548 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.

Bob Ferrante: The FSU offense looks more efficient with Travis in the game. Despite being an observer or limited in Tuesday and Wednesday practices, Travis looks fresh, fast and often effective on Saturdays. He masks some deficiencies up front, avoiding the potential of sacks and negative plays and along with fewer penalties on the offense it has kept the Seminoles in good down-and-distance situations. He has run for 100+ yards in two straight games, the first FSU quarterback to surpass that mark. But he also displayed precision in completing 11 of 13 passes at UNC (including his final 11 as completions). There is plenty of room for growth for Travis as a passer but he could grow along with the offense if he and the offensive line avoid major injuries. That said, Travis and Milton have each battled injuries so it’s likely the coaches will need to turn to Milton at some point in the second half. And the best thing FSU can do against UMass is start well, put up a decent number of points by halftime and get Chubba Purdy some game experience.

Pat Burnham: The first half of the season has been kind of a revolving door at quarterback either due to injury or productivity and that could very well be the case. Both McKenzie Milton and Jordan Travis have looked good at times and other times not so much. Milton’s comeback is one of the feel-good stories of college football this year whether he takes another snap at FSU or not. He was brilliant in the comeback to take Notre Dame into overtime but hasn’t quite looked like the player he was at UCF before his injury. Travis is the team’s biggest playmaker and his ability to make game-changing plays with his legs was evident in his last two starts. He has improved as a passer in the pocket but his success throwing the ball has been and will always (at least for this season) be predicated by the Seminoles having success running the ball. Of course, Travis was spectacular overall against North Carolina but FSU will likely find itself needing to throw the ball more than 13 times to win some of its remaining games in which it will face some of the better defenses on its schedule. Travis certainly looks to have nailed down the right to be the starter with his performance over the last six quarters. That being said I do think Milton, if healthy, will play very meaningful snaps as FSU gets deeper into the schedule for a couple of reasons. First, if you are going to play Travis, FSU needs to take advantage of his ability to run the ball and history suggest that he will have hard time staying healthy because of his style of play. Secondly, Milton may not be the quarterback he once was but he does make quick decisions with the ball and is the better pocket passer of the two and those two things may be needed in one or more of FSU’s remaining games. I do think it is important that FSU plays well enough against UMass next Saturday that Chubba Purdy and/or Tate Rodemaker get to play. With the injury histories with the first two quarterbacks on the depth chart you never know when one or both of needing Purdy or Rodemaker to play could present itself.

Jerry Kutz: Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Kenny Dillingham was overheard singing “Musical Quarterbacks” earlier this fall as he hurried between sessions of practice. And it truly has been. As stated above, both Travis and Milton have physical issues that have had to be managed throughout the season which makes it very difficult to know who will be the starter from one day to the next. The lack of continuity at quarterback has had to affect the offensive execution throughout the season for the line and receivers too. But as Mike Norvell said, “It is what it is.” The coaches do not have an option as just as they choose one quarterback or the other, chronic injury derails their plan. And in this writers view, door three — Chubba Purdy — hasn’t been quite ready.

Instead coaches have had to adapt and improvise with who is available. Give them credit for the juggling act.

The one upside of not having Travis and or Milton available from one day to the next at practice is that third-string quarterback Chubba Purdy has had to take an extra-ordinary number of snaps with the first and second team offense this fall. After sustaining a collarbone injury that held him out of most of last season and all of the spring, Purdy came into this fall with no more experience than a true freshman. Throughout the fall we’ve seen growth in his ability to run the offense. In a perfect world, Purdy would soak a couple of years before being thrown into the fire, just as a long line of FSU quarterbacks like Danny McManus, Casey Weldon, Brad Johnson, Charlie Ward, who didn’t see playing time until they had three years to learn the offense and grow into men. While the games have not leant themselves to getting a freshman experience, Purdy is learning and developing as inevitably the day will come when neither Travis or Milton are good to go.

Running back

The numbers: Jashaun Corbin has 75 carries for 556 yards and four touchdowns, Treshaun Ward has 49 carries for 362 yards and two touchdowns, Jordan Travis has 57 carries for 266 yards and three touchdowns, Lawrance Toafili has 19 carries for 61 yards and D.J. Williams has four carries for 16 yards.

Bob Ferrante: FSU has run for 200 or more yards in five of six games, and it goes without saying but the running backs have been the team’s most consistent position group at the midpoint. That’s quite impressive, but a few other smaller numbers also stand out: 14 and 12. Corbin has lost just 14 yards, while Ward has lost only 12 yards. They are showing toughness and the ability to break through the initial tackle. Corbin and Ward are each averaging 7.4 yards per carry, thanks in large part to some breakaway runs. But Corbin is also on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Ward is ranked as Pro Football Focus’ top graded tailback (90.8) and has an 83.4 pass-blocking grade.

Pat Burnham: The most consistent and reliable performers and playmakers on the offense reside at the running back position, which has been better than expected through the halfway point of the season. Jashaun Corbin looks healthier and faster than he did a year ago. He is a tough inside runner who has also shown that he can accumulate yards in big chunks. Corbin leads the team in carries and in rushing yards. Ward was the feel-good story of the spring and that story has only gotten better. The former walk-on is second on the team in rushing and third on the team in receptions and is likely only to see his role in the offense grow. FSU’s success on offense will hinge on the amount of success these two have in the team’s last six games. The pair averaged a combined 153 yards per game on the ground in the first half of the season. If you are looking for a number to watch it is that one. If it goes up it likely means good things are happening for the FSU offense. If it goes down more than 10 or so yards, it will likely mean the exact opposite. Corbin and Ward are the two best players on the offense who aren’t a quarterback.

Jerry Kutz: What a pleasant surprise. Went into this season expecting a stable, if unspectacular, position group. They are stable alright, a stable of runningbacks who bring nuanced styles but determined runs to the party. Runningback coach David Johnson has a deep and happy segment room as the players enjoy each other’s company at practice, pushing one another, and are each other’s cheerleaders on the sidelines during games. Excellent morale.

Wide receiver

The numbers: Ontaria Wilson has 11 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, Andrew Parchment has 10 catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns, Keyshawn Helton has 10 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown, Malik McClain has eight receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown, Darion Williamson has six catches for 59 yards and Kentron Poitier has one catch for five yards.

Bob Ferrante: The group had its best game at UNC, which is important because it shows progress as well as the lack of drops. But the receivers have had an inconsistent first half of the season, and it’s startling to see the team’s top pass catchers are a tight end (Camren McDonald) followed by Corbin and Ward. Helton has shaken off his drop against Jacksonville State and his confidence appears to be back — his sideline toe-tap catch on the sideline in Chapel Hill to convert a third down was impressive. Coaches need to decide if they should keep pushing Parchment, who did not have a catch at UNC, or turn toward McClain, Williamson or Poitier. McClain’s blocking should earn him more and more playing time.

Pat Burnham: This is the unit that FSU needs to see improve the most in the second half of the season if the offense it to reach its full potential. It’s not a good sign when an offense that is designed for playmakers doesn’t have a wide receiver among its top three pass catchers. And that is the case so far this season for FSU. Wilson, Helton and Parchment have all flashed at times but none of the three have identified themselves as a game changer let alone a go-to guy for any of the quarterbacks. The trio combines for an average of just over five catches per game. McClain made a nice touchdown grab against UNC that might help his confidence moving forward but has only eight catches on the season. With the emergence of Ward at running back it wouldn’t surprise me to see Lawrance Toafili get more opportunities in the slot. We haven’t seen as many drops from this unit as we did a year ago but that may be because they haven’t gotten as many opportunities as they did last year. With the games left on the schedule that will likely change and this unit needs to show that it can make a difference for this team.

Jerry Kutz: Frankly, I didn’t expect much of this position going into the season. There were too many drops last season and in the spring, which continued into fall camp. Those drops cost the team against Notre Dame and Jacksonville State but have improved — knock on wood — in recent weeks. Helton, Wilson and Parchment have begun to step up. McClain and Williamson are taller receivers, with higher ceilings (pun intended) and are on a steep learning curve for freshmen. For FSU’s running game to have any success in the back half of the schedule, these receivers — and the tight ends — must pose a consistent threat to opponents who will be inclined to outnumber FSU’s offensive line with defenders at the line of scrimmage if the receivers don’t pose more of a threat. Travis’s success passing against NC and the receivers consistency catching the ball, fended North Carolina off to an extent.

Tight end

The numbers: McDonald has 15 receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown, Jordan Wilson has four receptions for 26 yards and Wyatt Rector has two receptions for 13 yards and a touchdown.

Bob Ferrante: There are a few ways to look at McDonald being the team’s leading receiver — it’s a problem or it’s a good thing McDonald has been an option over the middle. McDonald has been sure-handed as well as a good blocker, even if it’s clearly not his strength. Wilson hasn’t been the lead blocker that we thought he could be, but the Seminoles have often used him in a two-TE set as well as some jumbo formations that have been effective. As the coaches contemplate which younger tight ends are ready for more playing time, it will be interesting to see if Jackson West is ready to get on the field (against UMass or in other games) or if they give Rector and walk-on Preston Daniel more opportunities on offense (each has been utilized on special teams).

Pat Burnham: McDonald continues to get better in his development has a player. Of late FSU has found some success with McDonald in the screen game. He has established himself so far as the go-to guy for FSU’s quarterbacks if they have such a thing. His being tied with Corbin as the team’s leader in receptions (2.5 per game) and being third in receiving yardage tells you all you need to know about the Seminoles’ passing game and production at wide receiver. McDonald has continued to get better as a blocker this season as well. Wilson has helped make the FSU offense better than it was a season ago when it has gone to its 12-personnel package (one back, two tight ends), where he has helped strengthen the Seminoles run game as a blocker. His impact as a receiver has been minimal.

Jerry Kutz: One could argue McDonald has the best hands on FSU’s football team. One could also imagine FSU using the dependable receiver in the slot and/or on vertical pass routes to keep linebacker and safeties from boldly creeping up to defend the run game. Norvell likes to use tight ends in all aspects of his offense and you can see the productivity in the running game as the tight ends are key blockers. He’s getting production out of what he has but frankly , I think there will be better days ahead at this position as this segment grows or recruits bigger, stronger and more talented.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The numbers: FSU is averaging 207.8 rushing yards, 176.8 passing yards. The Seminoles have given up 17 sacks but did not allow a sack in the win at UNC.

Bob Ferrante: FSU has needed to use four different offensive line starting groups due to injuries to left tackle Robert Scott and center Maurice Smith. Right guard Devontay Love-Taylor suffered an injury on the second drive and was in crutches on the sideline at Chapel Hill. Despite the injuries and shifting Darius Washington at times to right tackle and center, the line has held up as well as can be expected although Travis’ mobility has definitely been an advantage. Smith’s return stabilizes the interior, and he will be a critical piece if FSU needs to turn to Baveon Johnson, Brady Scott or Zane Herring at right guard. Dillan Gibbons has been consistent and often shows his capabilities as a pulling guard, which opens up the playbook. In the preseason, we felt the offense’s identity would be to run. When the Seminoles have “ran the damn ball,” in Gibbons’ words, the rush offense is 29th in the nation. The biggest concern will remain the fear of injuries.

Pat Burnham: There is an argument to be made that FSU’s ability to run block is better than it was a season ago. FSU is having much more success running the ball this season with its running backs than it did in 2020. Travis was FSU’s leading rusher in 2020 and accounted for over 31 percent of the team’s yards on the ground. Through the halfway point of the season he is third on the team in rushing and has only accounted for 23 percent of FSU’s yards gained rushing. That argument will be tested as the Seminoles face Clemson, NC State, Miami, Boston College and Florida in the second half of the schedule. Three of those five are ranked among the top 27 rushing defenses in the country at this point in the season, while the other two, Miami and Boston College, still rank in the top half of that category nationally. There were questions about the group’s ability to protect the passer coming into the season and those have been justified. Its issues to protect the passer have been a huge factor in the lack of success in the passing game. FSU has given up 17 sacks this season, which ranks 105th in the country, and Travis’ ability to escape the pocket has probably kept this number from being worse. Its woes in protecting the quarterback are one of the reasons I believe Travis has moved into the starting role. One of the keys to continued success in the run game and improving pass protection will be the unit’s ability to remain healthy.

Jerry Kutz: Our greatest fear for the 2021 season was the offensive line, a unit that would have to depend upon three redshirt-freshmen to start and a unit that has more guards than tackles. Every preseason prediction made by the Osceola staff had this caveat: “If the offensive line can stay healthy.”

As Pat and Bob have noted, we were more concerned with pass protection than run blocking and those fears were realized even before redshirt-freshman tackle Robert Scott was injured along with center Maurice Smith. Those two missed the second half of the Notre Dame game, the Jacksonville State game, parts of the Wake and Louisville games and contributed to the 0-4 start. The loss of Smith also forced redshirt freshman left tackle Darius Washington to take his first snaps ever at center. And then of course, veteran guard Devontay Love-Taylor went down with injury and missed the UNC game.

Long story short, there has been no continuity on the FSU offensive line. When FSU’s offense went three and out to open the UNC game and quickly fell behind by three points, I made the comment that this was the first time all week the eleven starters were together on the field as most spent the week in the training room or in walking boots. As you know an offensive line without continuity is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the peanut butter. In spite of not having the sticky stuff, this offensive line continues to manufacture a lot of yards running the ball. Major props to offensive line coach Alex Atkins and each of these linemen who are finding ways to exceed our pre-season expectations. With so little depth, it would be good to see one or more of the younger linemen — like Zane Herring, Lloyd Willis, Bryson Estes and maybe Rod Orr – relieving the starters some against UMass Saturday.