Preview: Wake’s unique use of RPO will test FSU’s patience

Florida State (0-2) opens Atlantic Coast Conference play in Winston-Salem, N.C., looking for a win against Wake Forest (2-0), which has played in five straight bowl games, winning three, and hungry for more.

Coach Dave Clawson’s teams do not beat themselves, averaging just three penalties per game and 32 yards, with two turnovers (one interception and one fumble).

The Demon Deacons are particularly difficult to beat early in the year when depth of talent is less of a factor. 

Wake boasts 22 players who are redshirt juniors or above. The Deacons return 19 starters, 10 on offense, including a dangerous quarterback, Sam Hartman (6-1, 215), and receiver, Jaquarii Roberson (6-1, 183), behind a very effective offensive line that averages 6-4, 299 pounds and has over 70 starts. 

Wake has sailed through opening wins over Old Dominion and Norfolk State, averaging 382 yards per game (5.9 yards per play). More specifically, they average 220 passing yards (7.58 yards per attempt, 12.1 yards per catch) and 162.5 rushing yards (4.5 yards per carry). In short-yardage and goal-line situations, Wake runs the “wildcat” using tailback Christian Beal-Smith.

“I got all the respect in the world for coach Clawson,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “He has been there for many years and you can see this is something that is preached on every single day, the discipline of how they play. They don’t beat themselves. And you couple that with explosive playmakers it’s a tremendous challenge.” 

What makes Wake’s offense unique, and a challenge for defenses, is the creativity of their Read Pass Option (RPO) and the tempo with which they play. 

“What they do offensively, very unique,” Norvell said. “Schematically, just timing and tempo that their kids have great confidence in their system.

“This is a team that plays with great tempo. One of probably the fastest playing teams that we’ll face this year.”

While most teams run the RPO horizontally to stretch the outside zone of the defense, and to enable quarterbacks to get the ball out of their hand a little quicker, Wake will also run a delayed vertical RPO where the quarterback and running back will step nearly to the line of scrimmage before deciding whether it is a pass, a handoff to the back or a keeper.

Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Warren Ruggiero’s version of the RPO is a little more difficult for defenders because of an innovative twist that turns the quarterback into an extra blocker to screen defenders from making a backside play. 

When you watch film of what they call the “slow ride vertical RPO” also called the “long ride mesh,” you’ll see the quarterback become a blocker. Pre-snap, you will see Hartman look for where the pressure is likely to come and he’ll hand signal to the running back if he has an indication. If the quarterback decides to hand off during the slow ride vertical, he will then shield the running back from the pressing defender with a “butt block.”  

While effective in slowing down backside pursuit, Wake’s quarterback does take regular hits.

If Hartman chooses to keep the ball, the running back becomes a lead blocker for the 6-1, 215-pound quarterback.

The vertical RPO gives the passing game a little extra time to develop. Hartman will hold the ball for up to 2.5 seconds as he and the back step toward the line. That extended time allows receivers extra time to run dig and comeback routes before Hartman must decide between the run or the pass. 

With how critical ball handling is in this offense, you would think there would be more fumbles, as there typically are in the more-traditional triple option. But Wake suffered seven fumbles in nine games last year, with only two lost, and has had three fumbles in two games this year with just one lost. 

Here is a video explaining Wake Forest’s primary plays:

Here is another story with videos that explain the “slow mesh.”

FSU will not see another offense anything like they will see on Saturday and that makes preparation this week extremely difficult for defensive coordinator Adam Fuller. 

“It takes time, it takes reps, having your scout-team guys take ownership to come in and study film to try to get a sense of what that needs to look like. It’s not like playing a triple option,” Norvell said. “But anytime you can play something unique … the timing of it, make sure the look is the same, make sure that our guys understand keys that we need to see and what we need to do. Sometimes that is part of the Tuesday frustrations that you deal with. And we had a little bit of that offensively and defensively today but at the end of the day our guys have to come in, study film and prepare themselves for what they see and then get the most of the physical reps that they have throughout the week.”

Missing linebacker Kalen DeLoach for the first half of the Wake game, due to the targeting call against Jacksonville State, certainly won’t help.

“That linebacker group is going to have to play at an extremely high level,” Norvell said. “With Kalen being down in the first half it provides an opportunity (for other linebackers such as Cortez Andrews).”

It will be interesting to see how Florida State chooses to play the scheme. Do you read and react or find a way to attack the quarterback and running back in the vertical RPO – move the mesh point back — and force Hartman to make those decisions quicker?

What we do know is Norvell respects Hartman’s decision-making ability.

“We need to trust our eyes. We need to be where we’re supposed to be. You can’t give this guy anything. He’s extremely sharp,” Norvell said. “There are going to be times we are going to be in great positions and he has the ability to make tight-window throws to big receivers, guys that are explosive movers. It’s going to be a great challenge for our defense. Everything within their offense starts with their running game. We have to stop the run and then that’s going to provide some opportunities outside for guys to step up at a high level.”

Wake’s defense 

While Wake had little trouble scoring in 2020, they did lose five games as they have suffered defensively since 2016 and 2020 was no exception. The good news, and the bad news, depending on your perspective, is many of those starters return.

Wake gave up an average of 33 points and 295 yards per game in going 4-5 last fall. Teams rushed for an average of 4.5 yards per carry and 183 yards per game. Opponents threw for 253 yards per game, 7.63 yards per, with better than a 59 percent completion rate.  

What the Deacs did well in nine games in 2020 was take the ball away 17 times (13 interceptions) and get after quarterbacks (17 sacks) with 13 interceptions. In 2021, WF has three interceptions and five sacks in two games. 

While the Deacons held Old Dominion (an FBS school) and Norfolk State (FCS school) to just 26 points, they were not dominant defensively, giving up 143 yards per game rushing and 161 passing. Those two teams averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 4.67 per passing attempt, with an average gain of 8.7 yards per catch, and scored rushing touchdowns on all three redzone attempts. 
So what I am saying is FSU has a chance to outscore the Deacs as five opponents did last year.

The interior line should be improved with All-ACC candidate Miles Fox, a defensive lineman. The Deacs lost defensive end Carlos Basham to the NFL. Linebacker has not been a strong position for Wake, who has Ryan Smenda returning. He’ll be joined by Luke Masterson, a converted safety. Masterson (13) and Smenda (11) lead WF in tackles in 2021. 

“Coach Clawson is a tremendous evaluator,” Norvell said.  “You look at the guys they have, they are talented. I think it’s an impactful defensive front. Some of their guys at D-tackle are 6-1, 6-2 rather than maybe 6-4, 6-5. But those guys, they play big, they play strong, they play with great pad level and technique with a relentless motor. They are impactful players.” 

Wake likes their secondary. Safety Nick Andersen, a former walk-on, became a third-team All-ACC player. He accounted for four interceptions in 2020. Gene Deckerhoff should enjoy calling this game with cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor (one interception in 2021) and safety Nasir Greer (two interceptions in 2020) in the same secondary. Caelen Carson started at the other corner as a true freshman and has one interception in 2021. Traveon Redd has one INT in 2021. 

Whether Wake’s defense has improved won’t be known until they play a better opponent than Old Dominion or Norfolk State. Florida State’s offense should prove to be a stiffer test. 

Special teams

Nick Sciba entered the 2021 season with a streak of 12 consecutive made field goals, which is the third longest in the country. He is the most accurate kicker in ACC history (min. 50 attempts) at 89.1 percent and third most accurate in NCAA history (min. 50 attempts). He’s been a perfect 128-for-128 in PAT attempts in his career.

Sciba is 2 for 2 in 2021 with a long of 46 yards.

This third game, the first against an ACC opponent, has been circled on The Osceola’s calendar since the spring. The game we believed was most likely to tell you who Florida State is, and what it can become in 2021. The ‘Noles are a 5.5-point underdog in this game. Any time the Seminoles go on the road as an underdog, the game automatically becomes a “Sod Game,” which means this Florida State team can create a lasting memory in FSU history by upsetting Wake Forest.

What will it take?

To use two buzz words in one sentence, FSU’s defense — especially its second and third level — will need to bring “eye discipline” as WF’s scheme shows a lot of “eye candy” with the extended RPO. FSU’s defensive front has been improved this season and they will need to disrupt Hartman’s rhythm if the ‘Noles are to hold Wake to under their 40-point average.

Much of what FSU achieves offensively will depend on the health of their offensive line, which has played the better part of this season without two starters, center Maurice Smith and left tackle Robert Scott. The lost reps in practice and in games, combined with a daily reshuffling of players at different positions, has impeded the development of continuity among a group that showed promising signs of improvement in spring and preseason camp. 

Wake’s defensive front seven is not the best FSU will face this year so there’s reason to believe a hobbled, or quilted, line will find success running the ball and could provide enough protection for McKenzie Milton to find receivers. Otherwise, we may see more of Jordan Travis. 

To close with a cliché, FSU will need to bring a laser focus to minimize mistakes against a team that does not make mistakes if it is to find its way into the win column and bring a piece of Winston-Salem turf back to the “little cemetery on the hill.”