Florida State University

Forget the moon. FSU coach Willie Taggart needs to reach new heights in Tallahassee

The last question for Florida State football coach Willie Taggart on the main stage Wednesday at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff drew laughter. But the start of Taggart’s second season at FSU will be no laughing matter.

“We celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this Saturday,’’ Taggart was told. “Do you have any interest going to space or the moon?”

Quipped Taggart: “No, I’m good in Tallahassee.’’

The way Taggart’s first season at FSU went in 2018, not all FSU fans are as good with him. The Seminoles finished 5-7 last season and are “in danger of selling less than 25,000 of a possible 40,000 ‘main bowl’ season tickets for 2019, according to Warchant.com.’’

The phrase “hot seat’’ for Taggart has been used in several preseason stories and publications, but Taggart and his two athletes who represented the Seminoles on Wednesday — junior defensive tackle Marvin Wilson and redshirt sophomore receiver Tamorrion Terry — are concentrating on what lies ahead and how they can improve.

“They’re determined and they’re passionate about righting the ship,’’ Taggart said. “That’s the one thing [for which] I applaud our guys. Not one of them made an excuse for last year. We all owned it and all working our tails off so see that we right the ship and I think we will.

“I’m still a good person. I’m still a good football coach. There’s a new season and I got an opportunity to prove that.

“I learned about the situation and knowing what it takes to get out of it and I see things going in the right direction to get out of there and a lot of those have to do with holding people accountable and making sure people are in the right position so we can go to where we all want to go. Last year was one of those learning experiences where you had to learn those things.”

Terry called Taggart, 42, a Florida native who graduated from Bradenton Manatee High, “a great coach.”

“He’s always been like a dad to me,’’ said Terry, who had 35 catches last year for a team-high-tying 744 yards and team-best eight touchdowns. “Ever since he came here, he believed in me. He always told me to stay focused, work on your craft, whatever you have going on on and off the field. Just be yourself. That’s what I am right now.”

Added Wilson, who had 42 tackles, including 4 1/2 for loss, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble last season: “We’re not worried about it. We’re behind Coach Taggart 100 percent. We’re not worried about that hot-seat talk because he’s not on the hot seat. He understands us. He’s more than a coach to us. He’s more like a father figure. He cares about us developing off the field He reaches his hand out for anything we need.

“He has our back no matter what we do.’’

Unlike last year, when Taggart insisted he didn’t know who would start at quarterback, this season has a definite No. 1 going into fall camp: 6-5, 195-pound redshirt sophomore James Blackman out of Glades Central High. Blackman (33 of 51 for 510 yards, five touchdowns and an interception last season) will be competing against former Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, a 6-4, 220-pound graduate transfer.

UM fans know Hornibrook well. He has beaten them more than once, including a rout in the Pinstripe Bowl last December.

“It’s going to be highly competitive,’’ Taggart said of the quarterback competition. “I want James to understand the game of football better. He’s been a great leader and players love him. Just understand the game better, understand why we’re doing things what we’re doing. He put the work in. Every day he’s up there learning. Every day he’s asking questions.”

Taggart insists the perception of FSU has not changed, and he said that talk of last year’s problems will not serve as a distraction to the Seminoles.

“We understand what it is. We understand you have a bad year and those are the things people are going to say about you. There’s no need to go look for it. It’s there. The most important thing is we focus on each other, we focus on getting better, we focus on getting back to where we all wanted to be.”

Wilson said there will always be detractors who “have something to say.’’

“You got to know deep down who you are, what you mean to this team, what you mean to this program,’’ Wilson said. “You got to decipher the real from the fake. Only so many people’s opinions matter. The only thing that really matters is what your parents say, the coaches say and what we say inside this cocoon. Everything else doesn’t really matter. We keep that mindset we’ll be good this year. More than good, we’ll be great.

“People on social media just going at us guys... We’re not going to worry about that. Let them talk. [We’ll] go on the field and handle our business.”

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Miami Herald sports writer Susan Miller Degnan has been the Miami Hurricanes football beat writer since 2000, the season before the Canes won it all. She has won several APSE national writing awards and has covered everything from Canes baseball to the College Football Playoff to major marathons to the Olympics.