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View from the catbird seat of FSU’s open practice

Thursday was the second football practice of spring and the first open to the media in 365 days due to the Covid shutdown. 

First, let me express my sincere gratitude to Florida State University for granting the media access to watch football practice again! 

It has been a full year since the press has had access to watch a practice, the longest any of us have gone without being able to see coaches shaping next year’s team and since we’ve been able to report our observations and perspectives on those developments to you.

Give FSU credit. They listened and found a safe way to keep the team safe while providing the media access to the top floor of the baseball stadium, which overlooks the practice fields. We were asked to socially distance and to wear a mask. Heck, we’d have worn a mask, a tail and a costume to regain access and do our job for you. 

Here’s what I saw

It was a Chamber of Commerce kind of day, clear skies and temperatures in the mid-70s, the kind of day meant to play football and like Christmas morning to Osceola football writer Patrick Burnham and I. 

We have a lot to report so let’s start with this: Mike Norvell runs a well-organized, up-tempo practice. FSU’s second-year head coach has the ability to cram 10 pounds of fertilizer into a 5-pound bag as good as anyone in the business. I know because back in the Bobby Bowden days, I’d meet head coaches at spring practice from all across the country who would come to study FSU’s practices and were amazed at how much work they packed in.

Norvell’s practice Thursday would rival those of the Bowden days. Let me paint you a picture. After warming the team up in the indoor practice facility, the team emerged onto the practice field in high spirits. Norvell, a former receiver, was in full sprint onto the field and as he was getting ready to pass offensive lineman Robert Scott, I heard him say, “Don’t let me beat your, Rob.”

I never saw Bowden, a former quarterback, do it. Wait. Maybe in his golf cart he did.

With the defense doing its thing on the upper practice field, the offense sprinted to the offensive field to run plays. In the Bowden days, the first-team offense would run a play, followed quickly by the second team and then the third team. Rinse and repeat. Norvell doubled the pace by lining up his first-team offense on the 40 heading toward the south end zone of the practice field, while his second team lined up on the opposite 40, heading north.

Non-stop bop with players sprinting back to the huddle to run the next play with coaches running alongside them shouting instructions.

I don’t know how many plays they ran but it was exhausting for this old hack who was trying to watch two units and take notes.

Like the Bowden era, when the time came to change drills, the teams sprinted, hooting and hollerin as they ran to their next duty station. 

Good times! 

Tempo faster in second year

Pat Burnham noted the difference in practice tempo. Last year the pace was more deliberate as the first-year coaches had to take time to teach the players how drills were to be run, and to enforce their standard. “Practice doesn’t make perfect,” coaches say. “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

The FSU players now know the drill, and the standards, and the tempo has picked up appreciably. The tempo is now being driven by the veteran players, rather than the coaches who are correcting technique and execution instead.

The paradigm shift is a marked difference over the last practice we saw 365 days ago, the day the football world stopped, and speaks to player buy in. Looks like the players have taken ownership.

Progress.

I have a tendency to focus on defense but I had a hard time doing that today as the defense was on the farthest field from my perch in the baseball stadium. Pat’s got younger eyes so check out his perspective on the defense. I’ll bring my binoculars to the next practice and give you my perspectives on the defense then. 

McKenzie Milton is good to go

The second most obvious observation I’ll share with you, and maybe the most important to you, is that McKenzie Milton is good to go.

I mean it.

I’m an optimist but until I saw him taking snaps with my own eyes, I was reluctant to peddle the optimism. I’m a sucker for a Hallmark movie but in my dark heart I was reluctant to raise hope that his rehabilitation would allow him to ever play football again, let alone at the highly-competitive collegiate level. Until Thursday, when I saw it with my own two eyes. 

I know it was only a practice in shorts. I know that he’s wearing a green “no contact” jersey as well as a full length black brace on his right leg, but Dude can run, throw and showed no hesitancy to dip and dodge oncoming rushers. And he can dish, quick; a quarterback’s best protection. 

There’s a lot of football to be played before the Seminoles line up against Notre Dame on Memorial Day weekend and Jordan Travis is not going to surrender the starting job without a fight, but my eyes can now tell you this: McKenzie Milton has made the quarterback room a more competitive space and that’s the best thing that could ever happen for Travis. He’ll get better because of it.

Gone are the “Gut Guys”

My lasting memory of recent Florida State teams is guys whose bellies hung over their belt buckle further than an athlete’s should. 

Good news: six packs have replaced kegs.

The transformation is most obvious on the offensive and defensive line. Even Big Coop. “The Trench Monster” has slimmed down. No longer does he look like the guy who ate Robert Cooper. At 6-2 and 335 pounds, he won’t be mistaken for a 50-meter butterfly swimmer, but he is now a dense version of his former self, shedding more than 50 pounds.

Dontae Lucas is another example. “The Pope” is still 324 pounds but he doesn’t look it. Freshman Zane Herring looked soft when he arrived last January but now looks long at 6-5 and wears his 305 pounds above his belt buckle. Some of the offensive linemen — in particular Jalen Goss (6-7, 284) — have put on good weight.  

Are there still guys who could stand to push away from the dinner table? A few but not more than a handful, which is saying a mouthful.

More receivers than usual

Chief among the head scratching questions I’ve had is: How does a Florida college ever have a void in the wide receiver or linebacker segment room? The Sunshine State is famous for producing retirement villages, cows, oranges and skilled athletes. Drive from Tallahassee to Miami and you’ll pass 50 future NFL draft picks at those two positions, which have shockingly evaded the Seminoles over the past half-dozen or more years. 

Here’s my first impressions: Bryan Robinson will be an NFL draft pick and Malik McClain is going to get a real hard look this spring of playing in the fall. Less sexy but more significant is the fact FSU now has a room full of receivers who will push each other to get on, or stay on, the field. I like Keyshawn Helton and Ontaria Wilson but would like to see them become more consistent. I like Kentron Poitier and Jordan Young but again they have room to improve. There’s nothing like the bench to help a guy focus on catching the football. 

FSU now has competition at receiver and enough drops today to make it an interesting segment to watch this spring. Interesting thing about the drops is they didn’t occur until the 11-on-11 scrimmages started and DBs contested passes. 

I’ll wait until the pads and the lights in Doak go on before I’ll predict who will stake a claim.

Runing backs

Lawrance Toafili is sudden. He changes directions. He catches. He accelerates. And he’s not a coward. For those reasons, I suspect Norvell and Kenny Dillingham will make certain he gets his touches. But as we know, one back does not a team make. 

Jashaun Corbin is an under-appreciated weapon, maybe because I believe the shortest path to a first down is straight ahead. Corbin looks leaner but I can’t say he looked any quicker today. When the pads go on and he’s facing men with evil intentions, we’ll see if he’s got an extra gear after a good offseason of rehab. D.J. Williams, the transfer from Auburn, will compete for totes. He’s got a thick base (5-10, 222) so I’m really looking forward to seeing him in pads. He also catches the ball with his hands cleanly, as opposed to trapping it against his body.

Corral of tight ends

Jordan Wilson (6-4, 262) — a big guy who catches the ball and blocks — seems to be the prototype for Norvell’s offense. Unfortunately, he hasn’t practiced while still rehabbing a knee injury. In his stead, at least four others compete including Camren McDonald, Preston Daniel, Wyatt Rector, Markeston Douglas and Jackson West received most of the snaps. West is a long, athletic-looking freshman (6-4, 245) while Douglas, a freshman, is a surprisingly agile receiver at 6-4, 289. I have an idea you’ll see him become a shape-shifter too in the coming years. While your tendency is to think he’s a Big Mac away from being an offensive tackle, he showed the ability to run and catch Thursday like a tight end.

It looked to me like FSU worked on the passing game more today than the running game but as the spring wears on, and the team dons pads, I suspect we’ll notice the running game more.

You’ll get to see for yourself on April 10

At one point, well past the halfway point and while sprinting between practice segments, Mike Norvell passed the baseball stadium, looked up, and waved to an appreciative press corps.

Very excited to be back on the practice field. As they say, seeing is believing and I’m encouraged by what I saw, at least on offense, for this 2021 team to become competitive again. On April 10th, you’ll get a chance to see this 2021 team with your own eyes at the annual spring Garnet and Gold game.  Until then, we’ll do the best we can to keep it real.

Save the Date: The Osceola will host a Friday Night Happy Hour at the new Hotel Indigo in College Town on Friday, April 9 before the spring game. Stay tuned for details and consider booking a room. You’ll be right in the middle of the pregame action and a short walk to Doak Campbell Stadium. Great way to check it out.

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