Just 17 days now separate us from the start of Florida State’s 2019 football season as the Seminoles open things in Jacksonville against Boise State.
In this week’s installment of “What to Watch For Wednesday”, we will give FSU fans a storyline to pay attention to this coming season for every position group of the roster. The Seminoles will look to bounce back from a 5-7 campaign in the first year under head coach Willie Taggart — their worst since 1975.
What to Watch For: James Blackman’s progression and leadership
Although FSU has yet to name a starter for the Aug. 31 opener against the Broncos, the overwhelming sentiment is that the job belongs to redshirt sophomore James Blackman. Blackman passed for 421 yards and four touchdowns against NC State in his only start last season after making 12 starts as a true freshman in 2017.
The first true freshman to start at quarterback for FSU since Chip Ferguson in 1985, Blackman was forced into action in 2017 and had an up-and-down campaign. After sitting behind Deondre Francois last season, Blackman has emerged as Florida State’s vocal leader, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to wins on the field. In 2017, Blackman was largely inconsistent and struggled with untimely turnovers. Blackman was outstanding in his only start last season and in the spring game, but whether or not he can be consistent will be seen throughout the 2019 campaign.
What to Watch For: Cam Akers and Khalan Laborn as a 1-2 punch
Running behind a porous offensive line, FSU was dismal on the ground last season, but it wasn’t due to a lack of talent in the backfield. Cam Akers, a junior, took a significant step back last season after setting the Florida State freshman rushing record in 2017. With a new offensive coordinator in Kendal Briles, the Seminoles could get creative with Akers this season, including using him on direct snaps and more in the passing game.
Perhaps equally as talented is redshirt sophomore Khalan Laborn. The Virginia Beach native has impressed in each of the last two springs and recorded a catch for 37 yards on his only touch last season before suffering a season-ending kneecap injury in Week 2. Akers and Laborn could spend a lot of time together on the field. Sophomore Anthony Grant should also not be overlooked.
Wide Receiver/tight end
What to Watch For: Which young players emerge?
After a breakout redshirt freshman season, Tamorrion Terry is expected to be the face of the wide receiving corps for Florida State. Junior D.J. Matthews and senior Keith Gavin should also be in the mix, but there are a number of second-year players looking to showcase their skills and take the passing game to the next level.
Keyshawn Helton and Tre’Shaun Harrison each found the end zone last season and shined in limited reps, but the youngsters looking to make a difference don’t stop there. Jordan Young and D’Marcus Adams have skill sets similar to the two aforementioned receivers while Warren Thompson, at 6-foot-3 and more than 200 pounds, is a match-up nightmare. Sophomore Camren McDonald could also share time at tight end with junior Tre’ McKitty. The internal offseason competition should make for a very deep receiving corps in 2019.
What to Watch For: Massive improvement
After serving as one of the worst position groups among Power 5 schools, FSU tabbed Randy Clements as the new coach of the unit. The Seminoles could neither open holes nor protect the passer last season. Clements, who previously coached at Houston and Baylor, has a proven track record with his zone blocking scheme, but after 2018, will have his work cut out.
Mike Arnold, Cole Minshew, Jauan Williams, Abdul Bello and Brady Scott all return after making multiple starts last season, but none of those players had particularly promising seasons. Baveon Johnson, a redshirt junior, is expected to take over for 4-year starter Alec Eberle at center, but all other spots seem up for grabs. Christian Armstrong, Christian Meadows and Jalen Goss are among three redshirt freshmen looking to crack the lineup. The Seminoles also brought in several new faces hoping to contribute right away in freshman Dontae Lucas, junior college transfer Jay Williams and Northern Illinois transfer Ryan Roberts. If the Seminoles can be even average up front, the offense has the skill players to be very good.
What to Watch For: Can FSU generate a pass rush?
Brian Burns declaring early for the NFL Draft was not unexpected, but it leaves huge question marks for Florida State when it comes to applying pressure. Defensive end Janarius Robinson and Joshua Kaindoh, both juniors, were highly-sought prospects out of high school, but to this point, the two have combined for just nine career sacks. Losing Xavier Peters this offseason was a significant blow and there is hope that linebacker hybrids like Leonard Warner and Amari Gainer can help in that category.
With Burns now playing for the Carolina Panthers of the NFL, defensive tackle Marvin Wilson is FSU’s leading returning sack man with 3.5. FSU recorded just 28 sacks last season and 12.5 of those are gone. The defensive tackle position looks to be in decent shape with Wilson, Cory Durden and Robert Cooper, but there is also a lack of depth there. The Seminoles are expected to show more 3-4 looks this year.
What to Watch For: Which players step up
Dontavious Jackson is the face of Florida State’s linebackers unit, but who plays next to him is anyone’s guess at this point. Emmett Rice, Adonis Thomas and Josh Brown are all fourth- and fifth-year players who have yet to become major contributors at FSU. Leonard Warner and Amari Gainer are expected to be used primarily as pass rushers. DeCalon Brooks, a redshirt sophomore, should be in the mix, but Brooks had an up-and-down season last year.
Freshmen Jaleel McRae and Kalen DeLoach are both candidates to play right away. FSU could also utilize some defensive backs at the position as it did last season with Jaiden Lars-Woodbey and Hamsah Nasirildeen. FSU hasn’t had an All-ACC linebacker since 2015 and no first-team selections since Geno Hayes in 2007.
What to Watch For: Depth and versatility
When it comes to the secondary, FSU has a ton of depth and versatility. The Seminoles also have a nice mix of youth and experience with fourth-year players Levonta Taylor, Kyle Meyers and Carlos Becker looking to finish their careers strong. First- and second-year players A.J. Lytton, Asante Samuel Jr., Akeem Dent, Jaiden Lars-Woodbey, Isaiah Bolden and Travis Jay will all be fighting for reps.
Taylor, Becker, Jay, Lars-Woodbey, Bolden, Jay, Stanford Samuels III and Hamsah Nasirildeen have all been or are expected to be used in multiple ways. Despite the depth and talent, the Seminoles weren’t particularly good against the pass last season and defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett will have to find a way to make his rotations work this season. Safety Cyrus Fagan could also be in the mix.
What to Watch For: Can Ricky Aguayo bounce back?
As a whole, the specials teams unit for FSU left much to be desired in 2018. That was part of the reason defensive ends coach Mark Snyder was moved to special teams coordinator, but perhaps no aspect of the unit was more disappointing than kicker Ricky Aguayo. After going 18-for-21 as a sophomore, Aguayo was just 11-for-17 last season with two misses of inside 40 yards.
Aguayo’s 64.7 field goal percentage was the lowest for an FSU starting kicker since Xavier Beitia hit 64 percent of his kicks in 2004. If Aguayo can’t return to form in 2019, don’t be surprised if Taggart and company turn to punter Logan Tyler or true freshman Ryan Fitzgerald to handle the placekicking duties.
Mike Ferguson is the editor of The Daily Nole. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson. Like The Daily Nole on Facebook. To pitch an idea, author a post or to learn more about The Daily Nole, email Mike Ferguson at Mike@TheDailyNole.com.