Since I spend most of my time just studying into the roster and stats of Alabama, it’s often easy to forget that the other team is a team as well. I sat down with Dylan Kidd with Tomahawk Nation about Florida State’s team. Enjoy.
Brent: I’m generally a pretty bad college football fan in that I often don’t see any games outside of the Alabama game each weekend, instead relying mostly on Twitter and highlight clips to keep up with the rest. So keep that in mind when I say I know little about FSU. Outside of Deandre Francois, Derwin James, Cam Akers, and a poor showing from your O-line in 2016, I really know little about your team. So to an outsider, what unit or aspect of your team are you most excited for/proud of this year?
Dylan: We’re genuinely excited about the talent that the staff has amassed on the 2017 roster. The defensive line is truly fearsome. The defensive tackle position is as deep as it’s ever been at FSU, and the ends are versatile with elite pass-rushing ability. The defensive backfield features one of the nation’s best corners and a safety who could be one of the first players taken in next year’s draft. Among the FSU running backs are a future stud, a big-bodied workhorse, and a track speed burner. The wideouts are unproven but have size and talent for days. And finally, the ’Noles have a quarterback who had a good redshirt freshman season and who fans hope is ready to take the next step.
Overall, the biggest cause for optimism among FSU fans is that we can’t point to more than a couple rosters around the country we’d trade ours for. It’s talent that wins championships, and the Seminoles have it in spades. The optimism is tempered somewhat by the daunting schedule ahead, but this is about as good a group with which one could hope to face it.
Brent: Tell me about your running game now that Dalvin Cook is gone. We Alabama fans are acquainted with Cam Akers, as he was committed to us for a while, but relying on the success of a true freshman is a fickle thing. Who else is in your backfield, and what do they excel at? Will we see a committee of running backs, or one lead guy?
Dylan: Jimbo Fisher typically finds one guy at running back and sticks with him, but if that’s ever to change it might be this year. The starter and the guy who I expect to take the lion’s share of the carries against Alabama is Jacques Patrick, a 6’2” 230-pound bruiser who has come a long way since his freshman season. Despite his size, he was much better as a momentum runner on outside plays when he arrived at FSU but has worked hard to use his size and be a physical runner between the tackles. Cam Akers has been listed as second string on a depth chart we’re not sure the coaching staff actually prepared because it doesn’t track with the positions guys have been playing in camp in some cases, but I’m buying that particular entry. From everything we’ve heard so far, he’s flashed the ability that made him one of the top players in the country and I expect him to see more carries as the season goes along. What typically keeps young running backs off the field in Jimbo’s offense is pass blocking, so we’ll see how Akers fares in that department, but he’s so talented that he’ll be on the field early and often. He has that size, speed, and vision that makes for a next-level type of back, and he’s the most well rounded of the group. Finally, Amir Rasul is finally healthy and seems to have had a great camp. He has excellent track speed and hopefully fits the third-down back mold (even though he’s not small by any means), assuming he can catch the ball.
The variety of runners this year’s group presents would seem to lend itself to a true committee. But this is something I haven’t really seen from Jimbo at FSU, so I’m going to hold off on expecting it for the whole season. I do expect all three guys to touch the ball against the Tide, and the extent of this talented group’s success will determine much of FSU’s fortune on Saturday night.
Note: Those of you that keep up with recruiting on RBR might recognize Jaques Patrick. He was one of my favorites in high school a couple of years ago and one I thought might commit to Alabama
Brent: I mentioned in my responses to you my fear of our corners getting beat deep on jump balls by large receivers. Thankfully, Kelvin Benjamin isn’t around anymore, but word on the street is that you’ve still got some big ones over there. Do you see them being able to connect up with Francois this Saturday?
Dylan: So, Florida State has three wide receivers y’all need to worry about, and after that, things fall off precipitously. I’ll start with Keith Gavin, with whom you’re probably familiar. He’s got great size at 6’3” 220, and our practice sources repeatedly tell us that someone that large should not be able to move that fast, and yet he does. He’s the NFL prospect on the roster, and hopefully he’s grown into his role as a receiver in Fisher’s offense, because he’ll need to be one of its best this season. And that’s a bit of an ask, because he’s yet to record a reception in his FSU career. So yeah.
If Gavin is a big body guy, Auden Tate is the bigger body guy that ’Bama fans will probably find themselves especially concerned with, given recent history. He’s 6’5” 235, and has shown the ability to go get the ball. Alabama corners will have no problem running with Tate, but he can win contested catches if given the opportunity. His larger catch radius is a plus for Deondre Francois, who is not the most accurate passer FSU has ever had.
Finally, Nyqwan “Noonie” Murray is another talented guy you may remember from his huge Michigan game. He was featured against Ole Miss to open the season, and then went silent until the back half of the season, which was concerning. That was probably due to the variance in his effort level, which is something Fisher does not overlook in favor of superior talent. When Murray wants to play, which I feel safe in assuming he will against the Tide, he can be a problem. Even he has good size to go with his speed, and if the Alabama corners press Gavin and Tate on the outside on early downs, I expect to see Noonie targeted pretty frequently.
After that, welp, there’s not much to speak of at this point. George Campbell has great talent but has been injured nearly his entire time of FSU’s campus, and it seems he’s still struggling to run routes and catch the ball, to date. DJ Matthews hasn’t leapt up the slot receiver depth chart like we’d hoped as a true freshman so far. A walk-on is listed as Murray’s backup. So I don’t think you’ll have to worry a whole lot about four-wide receiver sets from the ’Noles on Saturday night.
Keys to whether the wideouts will connect with Francois against Alabama include whether they can get off press coverage consistently, which given their inexperience, I’m not terribly confident they can, as well as Francois’s own accuracy, which has been lacking at times. He was a 47% passer against ranked opponents last season, and that’s not going to get it done in 2017 if the ’Noles hope to compete for a title. He has much bigger and more physically gifted receivers this year, but he has to throw passes they can catch. Hopefully that’s something he’s improved this off-season through working on his mechanics, but some of it is just innate hand talent. We’ll see!
Brent: I’ve asked about running backs and receivers. So now lets round out the offense by asking about the elephant in the room. Is the offensive line really as bad as we’ve heard? I heard they struggled to keep Francois upright last year. Do you think it will be more of the same, or has it improved?
Dylan: It probably wasn’t as bad as you heard. I’m not going to argue that the offensive line play was actually good, or even acceptable, but I will argue that pretty much every team in the country hates its O-line at some point in a given season. It’s a position of failure, in that you really notice it when someone screws up and you don’t give them enough credit when they do a great job. The Seminoles also had a ton of different starting combinations due to injuries, which had a detrimental effect on basic chemistry. They did struggle to keep Francois from getting drilled at times in 2016, but some of that was due to #12 holding the ball for approximately forever in an attempt to make a play. It’s an admirable goal, but it needs to stop because the Seminoles are doomed if he goes down this season, and that is not an overstatement. The options behind him are not good.
Anyway, I do expect the line to be better this season. Rick Leonard (RT) improved as the year went on and turned in a really nice performance against Taco Charlton in the Orange Bowl. Derrick Kelly (LT) seems to finally be healthy and played well as a freshman (albeit at guard) before suffering injuries that have limited him since. I really like the two guards as long as they’re healthy. Cole Minshew (RG) and Landon Dickerson (LG) are very talented, physical guys. Alec Eberle (C) was much-maligned by ’Noles fans a year ago, but has since had surgery on both labrums in his hips and Jimbo said he had like an inch of bone shaved off of each to improve flexibility. Jimbo is not a doctor and I don’t advise anyone to take his medical reporting as gospel, but hopefully Eberle feels better now than he did a year ago. I do think this line will be a better run blocking group than a pass protecting group, so I want to see the Seminoles get the ground game going and avoid being sitting ducks on long passing downs. It’s pretty tough to move the Tide defense downhill though, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them use some misdirection to get them moving laterally.
Note: in other words, Da’Ron Payne is going to feast on a maligned center coming off of hip surgery.
Brent: Defensive line, linebackers, or secondary. Which of those units is your strongest? Weakest?
Dylan: I’d say the defensive line edges out the secondary as the strongest. As I mentioned, the tackle position is so deep. Nnadi and Christmas are great starters, but having three to four total pairs of tackles who are talented and complement each other is really something else. Josh Sweat will move into DeMarcus Walker’s old position and he’s been playing very well in camp. Brian Burns is the freshman pass rushing phenom who is a terror off the edge. We’ll see if he’s bulked up and improved as a run defender, as I expect the Tide to go at him in that respect. Jacob Pugh is also one to watch from that Buck position on the edge. Florida State can and will throw exotic and scary pass rushing looks at Alabama in obvious passing downs, so best avoid those.
Of the choices, the linebackers are probably the weakest, although they got great news tonight in that it appears Matthew Thomas will be available to play for the ’Noles on Saturday. He and Ro’Derrick Hoskins make for a formidable and very experienced group; both are fifth-year seniors, and Thomas is a former five-star. The depth behind them is a little iffy because Dontavious Jackson has been hurt and Emmett Rice weights 208 pounds. If I could break one unit down, though, I’d say the safety position is the weakest for FSU, at least in this game against Alabama, and I’ll address below.
Brent: Not totally relevant to this match, but what are your thoughts on how your season will turn out? Is this a championship-caliber team like many think it is?
Dylan: I think this FSU team will end up being one of the best teams in the country and that measures like Bill C’s S&P+ will bear that out, even if the season results don’t. The ’Noles start with the consensus #1 team in the country and then face what I expect to be top-10 defenses in Miami and NC State within the next 3 games. There’s a break before Louisville, which is still difficult to think about, and then Florida State has to go to Clemson and Florida. I think 10-2 is the most likely outcome, but if the Seminoles get to the conference title game and end up 11-2, I think they’ll have a strong case for the playoff. Once there, it’s a tournament—who knows. But even if they suffer some injuries and end up at 9-3, it could be one of the best 5 teams in the country. Such is the volatile world of college football.
Brent: In your opinion, what is the key matchup between our teams that will have the biggest influence on the outcome of the game?
Dylan: I think the key to this game is explosive plays or lack thereof. Both teams have formidable run games, but I believe both teams have even better run defenses and I don’t expect either to consistently sustain drives against the other. I’m most worried about the ’Bama receivers and the fact that Jalen Hurts looked better throwing deep during the spring. Derwin James has played a lot of Star during ’Bama prep, and I think that indicates the FSU staff wants to limit the run game and make Hurts beat them with intermediate and longer throws. Thing is, that leaves two of AJ Westbrook, Ermon Lane, or Kyle Meyers as your starting safeties for the first half, for which Trey Marshall is suspended because of a carryover targeting penalty (even when Marshall returns, he’s not much help in coverage). I worry about the Alabama wideouts’ speed against these guys, and even against corners McFadden and Taylor. I expect the Tide to take a few max-protect shots early and that there will be plays to be made over the top. A major key is for the ’Noles to defend these shots and keep the Tide off the board. If the Seminoles can make the Crimson Tide play in a drive-for-drive game, I think they keep it close and give themselves a shot to win late. And on the flip side, a couple of explosive plays in FSU’s favor wouldn’t hurt.
Brent: And now it’s your turn. What is your prediction for how this game goes? Who wins? Final score?
Dylan: I always think of season openers as being volatile because we really haven’t seen anything to hang our hats on. But ’Bama seems to take the guesswork out of these things, somehow. So I think it’ll be a bit of a slog with the Tide breaking in a new offensive coordinator and the ’Noles relying on three inexperienced wide receivers and a green running back corps. Special teams will be important, so J.K. Scott will loom large, but it’s a little unsettling to feel more comfortable with Ricky Aguayo than I would with the opposition’s guy(s). I’m gonna go with 24-16, Alabama. I think the Tide will make one more big play than the ’Noles will, but a bounce could very well decide this thing. We can settle this in a soccer-penalty-kicks-style field goal contest if y’all would like, though.
Note: I’d rather have a contest of two-point conversions than trust Pappanastos/Bulovas to win a field goal contest...