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Notes: FSU setting tone with run, coaches see recruiting impact of win

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Florida State has found a clear identity on offense: Establish the run with a deep group of tailbacks and use Jordan Travis’ legs as well as arm.

The Seminoles’ ground attack has continued to strengthen, especially in the last three weeks with Travis in the game. FSU is averaging 183.4 rushing yards per game (30th in the FBS) this season and 4.6 yards per carry. Even last year with Cam Akers, a second-round pick, the Seminoles averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and 140.7 rushing yards per game.

“I think it’s been a blessing to me,” running backs coach David Johnson said. “These guys love to practice and they are all team players. They understand what we have at hand, they want to continue to push and get better.”

After a sluggish start against Georgia Tech (3.1 yards per carry) and Miami (4.2 yards), FSU has seen improvement in its effort to run the ball.

FSU ran for 263 yards on 53 carries, a 5-yard per carry average, in the win over Jacksonville State. Yes, it was an FCS defense but the Seminoles were able to show they could sustain drives and Lawrance Toafili had 12 carries for 99 yards.

At Notre Dame, FSU ran for 153 yards on 40 carries, a 3.8-yard average. The numbers aren’t great on paper, but sack yardage brings the average way down (the Irish had four sacks of Travis and James Blackman for a combined 22 yards). Travis ran for 96 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and a touchdown, while La’Damian Webb added 59 rushing yards and a touchdown (4.5 yards per carry).

FSU then ran for 241 yards on 36 carries, a 6.7-yard average, in the win over North Carolina. The Seminoles had a pair of 100-yard rushers in Webb (109 yards, 9.1 yards per carry) and Travis (107 yards, 6.7 ypc).

What is the difference? There are a number of factors at play. The offensive line has taken a considerable step forward under Alex Atkins. The running backs are clearly more comfortable in the scheme after a few games. Travis’ ability to run as well as take shots deep have made defenses conscious of both scenarios.

Johnson also points to Deonte Sheffield, who was a walk-on that earned a scholarship in August. Sheffield doesn’t have a carry but has made an impact on special teams and has acted as a veteran leader on the practice field and in the running back room, which features first-year players in the program like Jashaun Corbin, Webb and Toafili.

We have seen the formula for FSU to be successful. Travis isn’t expected to drop back 35-40 times per game and pick apart defenses. He can pick and choose his spots as well as use his elusiveness in the pocket to roll out and buy time to throw. 

And with a running game that should get even better, the philosophy of running to sustain drives and control the clock should prove to be a wise one considering the talent on the roster as the Seminoles play in their first season under coach Mike Norvell. Coaches can see the confidence building too.

“That is the reason that you get into coaching,” Johnson said. “A lot of people don’t understand the process of this and it’s going to take a while, but I enjoy the process, watching kids go from one step to the next step and they continue to grow. These kids are working extremely hard for us. I know a lot of times, certain wins and losses don’t show that, but these kids are doing a great job.”

Webb is just 5-foot-8 but has shown a desire to take on tacklers as well as elude them. The junior college transfer leads FSU’s tailbacks with 262 rushing yards (Travis has 342 rushing yards). The coaching staff has raved about Webb, from offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham praising him for being a competitor to Johnson detailing the tailback’s work ethic.

“I think the sky’s the limit just because the way he approaches things,” Johnson said. “His biggest thing is just trying to find a way to get better. He wants to be coached hard. That is one thing I do like about the room and especially Webb. He wants you to correct him on things so if he’s doing something wrong. He continues to watch tape. Even after practice, he’s come up here later when we’re in the office, ‘Coach, what do I need to improve on? Did I do this right? Were my steps right on this? When I block, were my hands inside?’. So continuing to grow daily.”

Recruiting impact of a big win

FSU’s win over No. 5 North Carolina was on national TV in primetime. With coaches unable to go out and visit prospects and recruits not able to make official visits, the best selling point for the Seminoles as they rebuild the program is the product on the field.

“I think that’s major,” said Johnson, FSU’s recruiting coordinator. “That’s the momentum you’re looking for. That’s one of your major recruiting points, you have to win in order to get big-time kids. They’re looking to come to a winning program.”

FSU hasn’t been that in the last few years, from the 7-6 mark in 2017 to 5-7 in 2018 and 6-7 in 2019. Norvell was beginning to build roots in Florida in December and early 2020 before the pandemic forced the NCAA to institute a dead period through the end of the year. That means no face-to-face contact. But a fun product on the field and wins help lock in commitments and convince prospects looking around that FSU is an appealing option.

“We let them know that we are heading in the right direction, but they want to see wins and that was really big for us to do against a quality opponent like North Carolina,” Johnson said. “Obviously the recruits have been calling and texting. They were excited about it.”

FSU has 16 commitments for the 2021 class.

Toafili’s limited playing time

Toafili had just three carries for one yard at Notre Dame and didn’t record a carry against UNC, although he was listed on FSU’s participation report. Norvell said FSU had just 55 offensive snaps against the Tar Heels and often leaned on Webb and Corbin.

“It turned into a game-flow situation,” Norvell said. “We want Lawrance to impact, that’s something we talked about as a staff, just as the game was going we played limited snaps offensively. We had 55 snaps. Prior weeks we were pushing near the 70 range, 70-80. We’re planning to inject him this week. Whether the ball is coming to him or not, just him having a chance to impact the game.”

Extended playing time for Dix

True freshman linebacker Stephen Dix Jr. saw the field for more than 80 snaps on Saturday, his first extended playing time of the season. Dix led the team with nine tackles and added a quarterback hurry.

“Some positives that I took from that game was being out there and keeping myself composed,” Dix said. “I’m young, I’m a freshman. I never really went out there and played a full game like that. It felt kind of like high school again. It was a great experience. I just love the atmosphere at Doak. Some negatives that I have to work on, definitely just I have to tackle better. Get aligned faster. Work on the little things that matter in the game.”

Dix now has 23 tackles, fifth on the team. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said Dix’s reps have gradually increased since the start of the season.

“You just want to allow him to play fast,” Fuller said. “As a true freshman we’re always going to put a little bit more on their plate than they can handle because you want to help them earn that. And there was no reason to take him out of the game. He was playing well. He was playing physical. He was not playing flawlessly. He had his own mistakes. But Stephen has earned those reps.”

Dix was asked what has changed of late with the defense, specifically the last two drives of the Notre Dame and North Carolina games. He said the players’ effort has increased and it has shown on the field.

“I just think that’s a heart thing,” Dix said. “We just have a lot of heart. They can drive down the field but at the end of the drive they have to score. We put our foot down and we’re standing strong. We are getting a lot more confident. We need to just keep going. This is just the start of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to do for Florida State and just turn this thing back around and get back to one of the best defenses in the country.”

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