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New OL build foundation with Atkins, set ambitious goals

Florida State introduced seven of the incoming football players in their 2022 signing class to the media this past week and there are several distinct take-a-ways from the group ranked No. 17 in the nation. First, each of the players, including the freshmen, aren’t microphone shy. They field media questions with the same ease, candor and humor of the upperclassmen. And the second takeaway, which should validate what you already know, is offensive coordinator and line coach Alex Atkins is a treasure.

Five of the seven incoming players are offensive linemen, including Julian Armella, Jaylen Early, Qae’shon Sapp, Jazston Turnetine and Antavious Woody, which is the group we focus on in this article. Freshman defensive lineman Ayobami Tifase and tight end Jerrale Powers, who are not included in this article, were also impressive. 

Frequently you will hear a player mention how important the relationship with their position coach is in choosing to attend a particular school and Friday’s interviews certainly drove that point home.

Qae’shon Sapp, a four-star lineman from Leesburg, Ga., set the stage when answering the question about his reason for choosing Atkins and Florida State.

“A lot of people don’t know it — it’s unique — but Coach Atkins doesn’t have kids, so his players are his kids,” the 6-4, 310-pound Sapp said. “He’s most responsible than anything else because he treats them like his own. So being around Coach Atkins and me growing up without a father, it just made everything click more because he’s a person I can look up to and call anytime I need someone to talk to, about certain things, personal things in my life that I am dealing with.”

When asked if there was a moment in his recruitment, or since he’s been on campus, when he felt compelled to call Atkins to talk to him about a personal issue in his life, Sapp didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Most conversations I have with Coach Atkins are very personal,” Sapp said. “One of them right now that I’ve been dealing with this month is my cousin passed away in 2017 and Monday is his death anniversary (June 27) and I’ve had a really hard time dealing with that. He’s telling me stuff that he’s been through. He’s been through the same adversity. He’s had some deaths of his own so listening to him and learning from him will help me a lot because I am not by myself. I have someone else I can count on as a father figure and a coach.”

Florida State had a desperate need for linemen and Norvell and Atkins made the position a priority, signing six high school offensive linemen and three transfers. What’s interesting is how many of those linemen share Sapp’s comments about the relationship they built with Atkins and Norvell during the recruiting process by talking to them about personal matters rather than pitching them about ball.

“It’s kind of strange how he recruited me,” Sapp said, who always dreamed of playing for FSU. “One day I texted Coach Atkins and I didn’t know that it was actually Coach Atkins who texted me back. He didn’t seem like a coach. I thought someone was pranking me. He said, ‘No, this is Coach Atkins. I’m probably the realest coach you’ll ever meet in this recruiting process. I’m not going to shoot anything fake to you. Everything 100 percent. I’m going to tell you the truth about what you need to hear and what you need and don’t need to hear.’

“That showed me he was respectful of me and was going to do everything in his power to help me get to where I want to be. Every time he calls me, or talks to me, it’s never about football. Nothing is ever about football. It is always about how my personal life is going and how I am doing.”

Jaylen Early, a 6-5, 290-pound, three-star tackle from Duncanville, Texas, had a similar experience. “Me and Coach Atkins go back to about April of my sophomore year,” Early said. “Coach Atkins has been the same since the first time I met him. He’s the same here. I really respect him. He’s the most honest coach, the most respected coach I’ve ever met. I have never met a coach like him. I would think when I got here, he’d change but no, he’s the same dude.”

Atkins didn’t flatter Early with praise either. “During the recruiting process, he told me what I needed to hear and that drew me to him more,” Early said. “Me and him would watch film together. After we lost state my sophomore year, he told me you need to work on this. You should do this better and that’s what drew me to him. I really respect him.”

Julian Armella, a high four-star player, was among the most recruited offensive linemen in the nation. His father, Enzo, played at Florida State until a knee injury ended his career. Older Seminoles will remember the moment when ambulance drivers carried Armella from the field, with the nose guard doing the Seminole Chop to let people know he was OK.

A legacy recruit who was heavily sought by every school, including Alabama, Armella pointed to the player-coach relationship he found at Florida State.

“Going back to the whole recruiting aspect of it, Coach Norvell and Coach Atkins, those are my two guys,” Armella said. “I’ve been recruited by everybody, like you said, but something stood out to me about Florida State, that it was real people here. It wasn’t about the whole recruiting spiel that we can do this, this and that for you. I was told if you come here and work your butt off you can be in position in a couple years, or who knows, maybe this year to set yourself up for success.”

When asked if there was a particular conversation with Atkins of Norvell that ultimately convinced him, Armella had this to say: “Both of them would call me and it wasn’t about football. It would be how’s your mom doing? I recently just had a little baby sister, so they would from time to time check in and make sure everybody is good. So that’s what drew me to Florida State, because it was a people’s place. Also the foundation they have here and everything they are trying, not they, everything that we are trying to build up. There have been just too many conversations for me to count, but it is the real person, the real communication, the real love for each other that drew me to Florida State.”

Jazston Turnetine, 6-6.5, 335-pounds, isn’t an incoming freshman. He’s a senior transfer, who was a three-star tackle coming out of high school. He started 10 games at the University of South Carolina. He chose to transfer to FSU to work with Atkins.

“My thoughts looking forward to my next school was to focus on my craft as far as the play, as far as offensive linemen, more attention to detail, more attention to technique,” Turnetine said. “I saw that Coach Atkins had a very, very good repertoire to give me, a lot more tools to pick from. He had his eyes not just on the strengths but on the weaknesses.”

Turnetine was smitten by Atkins’ and Norvell’s approach to the recruiting process. 

“There was no pitch,” Turnetine said. “In your final year of college football you don’t really look for the butt kissers. You look for the people who are paying attention to detail, whose telling you, ‘Here’s your problems and this is how we are going to fix it.’ That struck my interest.”

“As a young’un coming into college football, you are like glitz and glamour and the fans. No. No,” he said with a cautionary laugh. “When you are older it is like, ‘What is this coaches’ background? What does he have to offer to me? Where are the NFL connections? Where is there more experience?’ When you are older you are more into your craft. You are really paying attention to the details. It’s true details.”

Turnetine had the opportunity to see Atkins’ work during a workout.

“That workout was great,” he said. “I asked for a little workout because I needed to stay in shape. That workout showed me he is really detailed. It wasn’t see ball, get ball. It was more like your foot should be this way. Your drive blocking should be 45 degrees. It was more practicing the details, the technique (instead of) ‘go block the guy.’ ”

A united front

Sapp was an early commitment to FSU and deflected offers from numerous schools and helped Atkins and Norvell bring together six high school offensive linemen, including two who entered early in January. 

Sapp takes credit for helping to recruit Antavious Woody, Jaylen Earley, Julian Armella and didn’t want to talk about the one who he lost to Georgia. 

“I recruited a lot of offensive linemen in my class and that’s how we got a lot of guys. Over the years we are going to become brothers and build that bond together,” Sapp said.

“Everybody knew I was going to Florida State but being true to my word to Coach Atkins and Coach Norvell that I was going to stick with them, meant a lot to them because it showed that I’m really into Florida State.”

While some recruits might not have wanted to be in a signing class with so many other freshmen at their position — let alone three transfers — it became a selling point to this group.

“Yes, I do (like the number of linemen) because it allows me to take bits and pieces from these players. It helps me learn,” Sapp said. “I wouldn’t mind being a rotational guy because I still get to learn. You can’t just jump in the fire if you don’t know what to do. If you got older guys who can help you then take the lesson they try to give you.”

Armella could have signed with Alabama and looked forward to playing in the college football playoff with a legitimate chance to win a national championship ring, but he was attracted to something even more challenging. 

“I wanted to be a part of something that could change the culture,” Armella said. “I wanted to come here and be with a bunch of guys who knew it wasn’t just going to just be handed to you; that you have to put in the work. Everybody has to come together and participate to get those goals and aspirations that we all want. Coach (Josh) Storms says from last year to where we are now, there’s a lot of improvement. We all kind of hang out with each other and from what I’ve been told, it wasn’t really like that in the past couple of years so I feel like we’re changing the environment. Coach Norvell is doing a great job of maintaining that energy he always has 24/7. I would say the biggest thing about everything is everybody is on board. Everybody wants the same goal.”

Jaylen Early loves being a part of this offensive line.

“An offensive line class that big, that’s like a blessing,” he said. “It is always cool to have that many dudes in the same grade, the same position, the same things you are going through. I feel like I am blessed.” 

Early said his fellow linemen were excited when Armella committed and thrilled again when Antavious Woody, a 6-3, 297-pound four-star guard from Lafayette, Ala., qualified academically. Armella and Woody are both four-star players, according to Rivals. Armella is rated the No. 7 tackle in the nation, while Woody is rated the No. 17 guard.

“We were going crazy. We are going to put Florida State back on the map,” he said. “This offensive line class is going to bring (the Seminoles) back to where they are supposed to be.”

Bold statement. Early doesn’t back down and he’s not shy about why.

“It is a brotherhood,” he said. “We’ve all been talking. When we committed that’s when we all got close. We’ve all been texting. We all talk. We pick each other up. I see their work ethic. I see my brothers’ work. I see them lift. I see them run. I see how bad they want it. I admire them. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to do something very special. That’s why I’m confident.” 

Armella also sees the potential. “My favorite part of campus is the people. That’s the main reason why I came here,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of teammates I am now turning into my brothers. Got a bunch of guys who have the same mindset and goals as me and that uplifts you every single day to go out there and be great. Being around these guys, I feel like I’m home.”

The ranking of these offensive linemen, at least according to Rivals, would support a more-optimistic outlook up front as all six were ranked among the top 50 players, three at tackle and three at guard. In addition to Armella earning Rivals’ No. 7 ranking at tackle, No. 33 tackle Daughtry Richardson, a 6-5, 286-pounder entered early, and Early is the No. 46 tackle in the 2022 class. The Seminoles also signed three of the top 50 guards according to Rivals — No. 16 Sapp, No. 17 Woody and No. 34 Kanaya Charlton, a 6-4, 330-pound early entry. 

Acknowledging the work ahead

As you’ve probably already noted, Atkins has made each of the incoming players aware of their weaknesses as well as their strength. Each of the players interviewed have embraced the critique and chosen to come to Florida State because they believe Atkins can help them improve.

“I know what my problems are,” Gamecock tackle Turnetine said. “My strength is the run game. My weakness is in pass protection. Coach Atkins has offered me different theories and different tools to properly coach pass protection at its finest, which is what I need and what brought me to Tallahassee. The love and attention to detail from him, so many different tools and methods to do one job.”

There’s always room for improvement, Turnetine said. “It’s like my father always says: ‘You have to be a sponge in this world,’ So I’m not going to back away from new methods, new techniques, whether it is a strength or a weakness.”