FSU coach Willie Taggart addresses media at 2019 ACC Football Kickoff
That did not go well.
Willie Taggart’s first season as Florida State’s football coach last year resulted in a 5-7 record — the Seminoles’ first losing ledger since the bicentennial (1976).
FSU lost to its two main rivals last season — Miami and Florida — and the Seminoles’ offense finished 13th in the 14-team Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (21.9 points). FSU allowed 36 sacks, and the run game averaged just 2.8 yards per rush.
Following the season, starting quarterback Deondre Francois was booted from the team because of off-the-field issues.
The new quarterback is expected to be redshirt sophomore James Blackman, who has made 13 starts at FSU, including 12 as a true freshman in 2017 when Francois sustained a first-game knee injury. Blackman completed 58 percent of his passes as a freshman and had 19 touchdowns and 11 picks.
In his only start last season, Blackman passed for 421 yards and four touchdowns against North Carolina State. The 6-5, 195-pounder could be primed for a big year.
“I love to compete,” said Blackman, who has gotten significantly stronger since reporting to Tallahassee two years ago as a 162-pound freshman. “I love the challenge.”
Blackman is getting challenged by graduate transfer Alex Hornibrook, who started 32 games at Wisconsin and defeated Miami in the 2017 Orange Bowl. Hornibrook, who went 26-6 as a Wisconsin starter, will make an excellent backup if he’s unable to unseat Blackman.
Louisville transfer Jordan Travis was also in the fight.
Kendal Briles, who ran a top-10 offense at Houston last year, is FSU’s new coordinator. Besides the quarterbacks, Briles inherits talents such as junior running back Cam Akers and 6-4 sophomore receiver Tamorrion Terry.
“All gas, no brakes,” Briles said when asked about his up-tempo offense.
Akers, who rushed for 1,025 yards as a freshman, slumped to 706 as a sophomore. A poor offensive line had a lot to do with his struggles as Akers’ average per rush fell from 5.3 to 4.4.
“We’ve got to get things fixed up front so that we can execute like we want to,” Briles said.
Akers also dealt with an ankle injury for most of last season. However, he is still considered one of the top three running backs in the ACC.
Consider that coming out of high school, Akers was the top-rated running back recruit in the nation, and then he broke Dalvin Cook’s FSU freshman rushing record. Akers also has 39 receptions the past two years.
Meanwhile, Terry broke the FSU freshman reception-yardage record (744) that had stood for 41 years. His average per catch of 21.3 ranked fifth in the nation among all receivers, but he also had offseason knee surgery — classified as “minor” — and it remains to be seen how he returns from the injury.
On defense, the Seminoles return seven starters from a unit that struggled last year. FSU allowed more than 40 points in four of its final five games. Overall, FSU’s defense finished 11th in the ACC, allowing 31.5 points.
A repeat of that type of collapse should not happen this season because the Seminoles have so many defensive standouts, led by Marvin Wilson, who has moved to end in FSU’s new 3-4 alignment.
Inside linebacker Dontavious Jackson is another player to watch, and the secondary is the most stacked position on the team with Asante Samuel and Stanford Samuels III (four interceptions) at cornerback and Levonta Taylor at free safety.
In addition, Akeem Dent, a freshman from West Palm Beach who at one point had committed to the Miami Hurricanes, had two interceptions in his first practice this spring and figures to make an impact.
The weakness on defense may be its pass rush, but the athleticism is there.
“Our guys are flying around [in practice],” Taggart said. “We’re not where we need to be, but we’re seeing improvement every day.”
While many people in Tallahassee and on social media have criticized Taggart’s first-year performance, the coach has not wavered.
Taggart points to his previous head coaching stops. Western Kentucky went 2-22 in the two years prior to his arrival, and Taggart led the Hilltoppers to a 7-5 record and a bowl game in his second year there, using that as a springboard to South Florida.
At USF, the Bulls went 8-16 in the two years before he arrived. But the Bulls went 10-2 in his fourth and final season in Tampa, and in his only year at Oregon, the Ducks improved from four wins to seven.
“All the things we’re doing [at FSU] are what we’ve done before,” Taggart said. “I know it works.”
Seminoles fans are waiting.