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Notes: Milton fired up for fall camp, Johnson fuels pass rush optimism

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — McKenzie Milton knew what was coming. From interview to interview as Florida State’s quarterback moved from beat writers to radio to the ACC Network set, the same version of the questions were inevitable: How is the knee and how much is he looking forward to September?

“I feel good — I feel 100 percent,” Milton said. “I’m excited to see what steps I make in fall camp.”

Milton’s journey is nothing short of remarkable, a devastating injury as well as surgery after surgery on his leg, and the UCF transfer quarterback was a popular interview Thursday morning at the ACC Kickoff media event. In Milton’s eyes, a number of the major steps came last fall when he ran UCF’s scout team.

“Being able to practice, get my feet wet, feel comfortable running, cutting, throwing, getting the live bullets at me, the defense rushing me and whatnot,” Milton said. “Just being able to do that. Those are big pillars for me, those are big steps for me.”

The big steps have continued since his arrival at FSU this winter. Media and fans saw Milton in non-contact settings this spring and his final few practices this spring were among his best, including a spring game in which he showed off his arm talent and connected with receivers on back-shoulder passes. Milton feels he has a firm grasp of the playbook and built chemistry with teammates.

“From spring ball to now, getting back to that 100 percent,” Milton said. “… I feel like I can make all the throws. I can run. I feel very confident. I’m super excited to play my first game at Doak.”

Two (quarterbacks) better than one?

One of the biggest curiosities of FSU this offseason has been how to use Milton and Travis, how Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham could feature two quarterbacks in various down-and-distance situations or perhaps on the field at the same time.

“I think we will both contribute to this team, for sure,” Travis said. “So I look forward to how the season goes. I have no idea how it’s gonna go. We still have fall camp to go through. But it’s a blessing that we’re both going to be able to possibly get on the field at the same time and just work together and get some W’s.”

Travis feeds off competition and Milton’s arrival has made him commit even more to improving as a quarterback.

“The standard is very high now,” Travis said. “He holds us to a standard himself and it’s a blessing to have him and he keeps Chubba (Purdy), Tate (Rodemaker), Gino (English) — we’re always just going every single day 100 percent now. There are no off days, throwing every day, just trying to get work and just get better.”

Portal helps provide pass-rush optimism

Florida State’s pass rush was not nearly effective enough in 2020, generating just nine sacks in nine games. It’s why the Seminoles’ coaching staff pursued Jermaine Johnson (Georgia), Keir Thomas (South Carolina) and recently Marcus Cushnie (Alabama A&M) via the transfer portal to shore up a glaring weakness.  

“That was something that was a big focus for our staff as we were going into this year,” Norvell said. “We know we need to have that impact there on our defensive front.”

What’s striking is the amount of talent FSU will lose up front — Marvin Wilson, Cory Durden, Joshua Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson — but also the lack of production from that group. Those four players combined for just 4.5 sacks.

The goal in 2021 is obvious: Put more pressure on the passer, making life easier on a talented secondary and force teams off the field on third down. FSU has struggled up front the past two years but there is optimism about what a group of transfers can accomplish week in and week out.

“You got Keir Thomas, Dennis Briggs, Robert Cooper, Fabien Lovett,” Johnson said. “The whole defensive line is outstanding to me. We have a bunch of defensive freaks here. It’s crazy to me. I feel like they don’t get as much attention as they should.”

Thomas was injured this spring, so the full pass-rush picture wasn’t evident. Johnson said that he has seen what Thomas is capable of in the SEC and in summer workouts.

“If you just look at what the guy did true freshman year in the SEC at South Carolina it speaks for itself,” Johnson said. “He’s an even better player now. He’s getting healthy again. He’ll be ready for this season.”

Norvell has acknowledged hitting the transfer portal isn’t an annual formula for success in building the Seminoles’ roster. But it is a necessity given the youth on the roster. And candidly there haven’t been enough young defensive linemen recruited and developed by Norvell or the prior staff to meet the needs. Now, Norvell has turned to three transfers on the line to provide production and leadership. 

“That has to be a strength for us,” Norvell said. “When you look through the years of our program, the great history that we have, that has always been a staple. It needs to return to that.”

The leadership component is one where Norvell was up front with the transfers, notably Johnson. He has spoken up and set a tone in offseason meetings.

“He’s truly looking to be the complete player and helping bring guys around him that are going to help elevate that, like Keir Thomas, like Fabien Lovett, the guys on the defensive front that have great talent and have an opportunity to get us back to where we need to be,” Norvell said.