New Florida State football coach Willie Taggart was finally asked the question everyone expected earlier during his Westin ballroom interview Thursday at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff.
Basically: Who’s the starting quarterback for the Sept. 3 season opener against Virginia Tech?
He didn’t come close to answering it.
“I know everyone talks about James Blackman and Deondre Francois — and we’re leaving out Bailey Hockman, he’s another quarterback on our roster that’s talented and is going to have an opportunity to compete for the job,’’ Taggart said. “I’m kind of like the rest of you all. I’m ready to see who’s going to be our quarterback, as well.”
So are FSU followers, who watched their perennial powerhouse fall to 7-3 overall and 3-5 in the ACC, and that’s with four consecutive victories to end the season.
Taggart did say that the 6-1, 210-pound Francois, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the season opener last year against No. 1 Alabama, was 100-percent healthy and ready to go should he be the guy. Francois, the 2016 ACC Rookie of the Year his redshirt freshman season, dazzled with 3,350 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Off the field, he hasn’t been as stellar. In April, Francois was charged with misdemeanor possession in Tallahassee for more than 17 grams of a marijuana/tobacco mixture, and eventually entered a pretrial diversion program that kept him from being prosecuted and is set to end next week, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
How much will Francois’ offseason situation in April factor into Taggart’s decision?
“It won’t,’’ Taggart said. “He handled his consequences fine and moved on. That’s behind us.”
Blackman, a wiry 6-5, 180-pound sophomore out of Belle Glade Glades Central, took over for Francois in the Alabama game and finished the season with 2,230 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.
Taggart, 41, will bring a high-octane, no-huddle offense to FSU and will be confident in whichever quarterback he chooses. A Florida native who graduated from Bradenton Manatee High, he broke 11 school records when he started all four years at Western Kentucky. He replaced the Texas A&M-bound Jimbo Fisher. As a head coach, he spent last season with Oregon, the previous four with South Florida and the three before that coaching his alma mater.
On Thursday, Taggart conceded that when he first got to FSU as the Seminoles practiced for their bowl game against Southern Miss, he thought he “was going to come here and have a bunch of turds, and we don’t.”
“We had a bunch of really good young men that want to be great.’’
But young men that “didn’t handle adversity well,’’ Taggart said.
“It’s how you respond when you get hit in the mouth, how you respond when things get tough,’’ the coach said. “To me, that’s life. And a lot of people don’t respond well when tough things happen. They back away...rather than fight through things and lean on each other.
“I look at our football team this past season. Talent wasn’t an issue... We had a lot of adversity last year and didn’t respond well until the end of the season. Usually when you don’t handle adversity well as a team it’s because you don’t care enough about each other. I didn’t feel like our team cared enough about each other to overcome those tough times.
“When you do care about one another, you can lean on each other. Somebody will step up and make a play for their teammates.”
Taggart said “a big part of caring about someone is you’ve got to get to know each other. I know our guys really didn’t know each other well enough....what makes a guy tick.’’
To that end, Taggart has helped his team achieve relationship-building in several ways, which in turn, he said, has made them be more accountable. One way: separating players into groups and having them talk about each other and their lives and “their trials and tribulations and what they’ve been through. You’d be shocked if you heard some of these stories of what some of these kids have been through.”
FSU junior defensive end Brian Burns, a Plantation American Heritage alum, said Taggart “has brought a new wave” and “new culture to Florida State.”
“He’s bringing enthusiasm,’’ Burns said. “He’s making everybody hold themselves accountable. Whether it’s missing a class, weight room, it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuses for anything, and he’s really changing our guys. I’m really appreciating him, and I’m excited for this year.’’