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Sizing up the Seminoles: Will Gibbons’ arrival, experience help push up front?

Florida State’s young offensive linemen received on the job training while under intense pressure. Four freshmen (true or redshirt) started at NC State, the first time since the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl where FSU featured that many freshmen on the line. The Seminoles used five offensive line combinations in nine games in 2020 due to injury, especially once grad transfer Devontay Love-Taylor was lost in November.

Will FSU’s offensive line continue to take a step forward with the arrival of Dillan Gibbons and an added year of experience for the younger linemen?

Bob Ferrante: Trying to figure out which five linemen start for FSU against Notre Dame is still a big question. But offensive line coach Alex Atkins has helped the group take a step forward, developing young linemen while maximizing the contributions of veterans like Love-Taylor as the Seminoles developed the No. 31 rush offense (199 yards per game) in 2020. A line that features a healthy Love-Taylor and Gibbons, with both potentially at guard, could go a long way toward improving the overall pass blocking and helping to mentor young tackles on the outside. FSU coaches appear committed to working Robert Scott and Darius Washington at tackle, and Maurice Smith continues to improve at center. Washington was also praised as the biggest beneficiary of a full winter conditioning program.

The FSU coaching staff has discussed the need to find eight dependable linemen. Beyond the above starting five, the coaches are still seeking backups who can fill in due to injury or develop into starters in 2022 and beyond. Thomas Shrader, who suffered an injury in the spring, has shown glimpses when he has played and started at NC State last fall. Newcomers like Rod Orr and Bryson Estes could also be looked to for playing time. Veterans like Baveon Johnson and Brady Scott are known quantities but could be passed up by the newcomers.

It’s essential that Atkins is able to develop what depth he can in preseason camp. And while it’s not ideal to throw Orr and Estes into the mix this fall, Norvell and Atkins did it with Robert Scott in game 3 in 2020 (and he did not have the benefit of enrolling early). The coaches could opt to roll with a younger lineman and have them gain experience for the long haul compared to using Johnson or Brady Scott.

What we know about the group is they were able to generate a run game with Jordan Travis at quarterback for five starts. Having an extra runner for a defense to account for without question helped the run game and opened up the pass game, too. How will the line perform with McKenzie Milton, who is mobile but less than Travis? Could the line also be better in pass protection and perhaps run blocking with a more experienced and efficient quarterback like Milton? Questions, yes, but reasons for optimism with the line.

Pat Burnham: Once again this season the position group that holds the biggest key to the the success of the 2021 version of FSU’s offense, other than quarterback, is that of the offensive line. The good news is that FSU returns nine offensive lineman who either started at least one game or saw significant playing time in 2020. The Seminoles also added Gibbons, who should add some depth and athleticism to a unit it need of both. Given both of those aspects plus having the benefit of 15 spring practices and a full summer off-season conditioning program this unit should and has to be better than it was in 2020. With the addition of Gibbons and the return of Love-Taylor from injury this fall, you would have to think you would see marked improvement from the spring, where they struggled to protect the passer, to the end of fall camp.

Despite showing improvement in the run game last year this unit still isn’t where I believe Norvell or Atkins want. The improvement was real but it was also helped by the playmaking ability of quarterback Jordan Travis. Can this group continue this improvement by showing that it can have the quarterback turn around and hand the ball off to a running back and impose its will on the opposition? Can they effectively protect a pocket passer (Milton)? I think FSU’s offensive line will be better at both of these things but just how good they are at both will have a huge impact on the the Seminoles’ win-loss record.

There is also the question of who will start (or contribute) and where in the lineup. The good news here is that just about all of FSU’s offensive lineman can play guard but it must find more consistent play at tackle in 2021. Love-Taylor was FSU’s most consistent lineman in 2020 prior to his season-ending injury. The candidates for the two tackle spots are Love-Taylor, Scott, Washington, Willis and Gibbons. If Love-Taylor is healthy and still the most consistent offensive lineman on the roster you would have to think he would end up at one of the two tackles spots with Washington, Scott and Gibbons competing for the other spot. Gibbons was likely brought in to start and if he doesn’t line up at tackle he will line up at one of the guard spots. Scott will be better than he was a year ago because of his baptism-by-fire experience a year ago and because of a full off-season. Willis is raw but talented and should also be benefit from being forced into action late last-season.

Washington struggled at times in pass protection last year and if he is not one of the top two tackles coming out of camp he could be a possibility at guard. Lucas has shown flashes of being a very effective ACC guard but needs to take the next step and show more consistency and more maturity than he has the last two seasons. Johnson and Scott could compete at either guard spot but at the very least will provide experienced depth to FSU’s offensive line in 2021. Smith looks to return for his second season as the starter at center. Shrader showed promise as his backup early in spring before being lost to injury. If healthy, FSU should be two-deep at center. Estes, Herring and Orr are in the mix but are likely looking at playing backup roles in 2021. There are several possible starting lineup combinations for the offensive line heading into camp and if the top eight in the rotation can stay healthy, the Seminoles should show marked improvement this fall and will need to show marked improvement in the win-loss column.

Jerry Kutz: Dillan Gibbons will bring experience and depth to Florida State’s offensive line, which it has been five to eight men short of a full load in recent years. As Pat and Bob said above, he was brought in to be a starter — whether at guard or tackle — which will serve as motivation for all of FSU’s guards and tackles.

I’m not as knowledgeable as Pat, who played the position in high school and college, so I’ll leave the expert analysis to him but I will share what I think. In one word: Competition. There’s nothing quite like it to help your best players focus on their craft and to help them decipher whether they are injured or just ‘hurt’ — there is a difference you know — while in the training room hot tub. “You don’t make the club in the tub,” coaches and players will tell you.

I see Gibbons starting at one guard, with Dontae Lucas starting at the other guard but Gibbons’ presence will push everyone, especially Lucas, to bring their best effort on a regular basis, or risk losing playing time throughout the season. In that respect, Gibbons can be the proverbial “boot in the butt” offensive line coach Alex Atkins needs to get the best out of each player in his unit.

I like Smith at center and I’m of the belief, or perhaps the hope, that Lucas is ready to become a good guard. If Gibbons can deliver solid play at the other guard, then he can solidify the center of Atkins’ line. Nothing is more disruptive than getting beat inside. If FSU’s line can eliminate the befuddling inside pressure and sacks it will go a long way to protecting the quarterback and therefore the tackles.

I like Robert Scott and Devontay Love-Taylor at right tackle and think one of those two can give Atkins another option — or depth — at left tackle, where Darius Washington will return. With more experience and a full year in the weight room, these guys will naturally be better. In addition, I think the tackles will play better if they are getting more help from the guard-center-guard position.

As Pat and Bob said, there’s help coming from guys like Thomas Sharader, Bryson Estes, Lloyd Willis, Zane Herring and others but with very little practice time before the home opener with Notre Dame — three padded scrimmages to be exact — I see Atkins spending the majority of his time repping those starting six in hopes of establishing communication and continuity as fast as possible.

While the spring was for discovery, mixing a variety of combinations of guards and tackles into scrimmages to see who can do what, I think Norvell and Atkins will go with their best six or eight in August. Sure the second-team offensive line will get its share of reps — they’ll need to in order to keep the first-team OL healthy — but my hunch is he’ll work the first-team offense together and the second-team offense together, which should eventually lead to better protection and better cohesion than we saw in the spring.