Florida State Seminoles — 2019 Syracuse Football preview

Dontae Strickland
Dontae Strickland rushes downfield against Florida State. Mandatory Photo Credit: Initra Marilyn, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its ACC schedule when it travels to the Sunshine State to play FSU on Oct. 26.

BRILES ARRIVES

It was a trying first year for Willie Taggart at Florida State.

For 36 straight years, the Seminoles had been remarkably consistent, going to a bowl game each year during that time period. That all came to a crashing halt in 2018, with the Seminoles finishing 5-7.

Taggart has promised large scale changes, and has reshuffled his coaching staff in hopes of getting his team back on track in his second year.

It starts on the offense, where Taggart’s group finished an unthinkable 112th in the FBS in scoring offense at 21.9 points per game. That led to the dismissal of former offensive coordinator Walt Bell and the hiring of Kendal Briles, the son of former Baylor coach Art Briles (the same coaching tree as Syracuse head coach Dino Babers).

Though the move came with controversy, there is no questioning Briles’ offensive acumen.

During his most recent stop in Houston as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2018, the Cougars finished fifth in the NCAA at 43.9 points per game, and seventh at 512.3 yards of total offense per game. As the OC of Florida Atlantic in 2017, the results were similar: FAU averaged 40.6 points per game with 498.4 yards of total offense per game.

A taste for that offensive was on display for the first time during the spring game, and the “Gulf Coast” offense showed signs that things were starting to click. The split squads combined for 923 yards, six touchdowns, all while keeping penalties to a minimum in the hurry-up offense. The two teams moved so quickly that they ran 96 plays in the first half alone.

“Really excited about where our football team is right now,” Taggart said during his spring game post-game press conference. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but, where we’re at right now, I’m really excited where we’re at, where we’re going.”

WHO TO WATCH FOR

Quarterback James Blackman took advantage of new redshirting rules, and preserved a year of eligibility by appearing in only four games in 2018. The redshirt sophomore impressed in his one start against North Carolina State, throwing for 421 yards and four touchdowns in a 47-28 loss.

He looked sharp in Briles’ system in the spring game, throwing for 415 yards and three touchdowns.

» Related: Previewing Syracuse’s matchup with Pitt

But he hasn’t been officially named the starter ahead of the Aug. 31 opener against Boise State because Wisconsin graduate transfer Alex Hornibrook hasn’t arrived on campus yet.

Hornibrook started 32 games for the Badgers, compiling a 26-6 record during those games. He finished his Wisconsin career with 5,438 yards with 47 touchdowns, though he also had 33 interceptions and never got to fully display his talents on a team that was more known for its rushing attack.

Either quarterback will frequently look for dynamic sophomore receiver Tamorrion Terry. In his first year at FSU, he caught 35 passes for 744 yards (an eye-popping 21.3 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns.

Terry’s athleticism was on display in the spring game, as he hauled in a 50-yard strike in stride for the game’s first score.

Briles will also look to get more out of junior running back Cam Akers, who broke the FSU freshman rushing yards record in 2017 (1,024 yards) before regressing last year (706) due to an offensive line that was considered one of the worst in Power 5 football.

That was the biggest concern for the Seminole offense heading into the offseason, as the unit finished 109th in the FBS in sacks allowed at 36, and also could only muster 2.79 yards per carry, which was 129th. Taggart addressed it by hiring offensive line coach Randy Clements away from Houston, who had also been part of Briles coaching staff at Baylor.

FSU will need to replace three offensive linemen, but the flagging unit was boosted by Ryan Roberts, a graduate transfer from Northern Illinois. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound tackle figured to slide into one of the starting tackle spots immediately.

Keep an eye on the center position. With Alec Eberle (44 starts) having exhausted his eligibility, the Seminoles are expected to choose either Baveon Johnson or Brady Scott to take his place, though neither has much experience.

Defensively, FSU will need to sure up a secondary that finished last in the conference in pass defense after giving up 30 touchdown passes, and was only marginally better against the run.

The big offseason loss was defensive end Brian Burns, who left early and was a first round draft pick for the Carolina Panthers. But the Seminoles are high on interior lineman Marvin Wilson, who was an All-ACC Honorable Mention in his sophomore year after he recorded 42 tackles, including 4.5 for loss with 3.5 sacks.

Florida State also may be experimenting with some 3-4 schemes after moving junior Hamsah Nasirildeen from the secondary into the outside linebacker spot. He led the team in tackles (91) in 2018 from the safety position, and figures to form a nice tandem with senior interior linebacker Dontavious Jackson (75 tackles).

Though the secondary was a weakness in 2018, FSU returns every defensive back other than starting safety AJ Westbrook. Asante Samuel Jr. emerged as one of the team’s best cornerbacks after switching from safety as a freshman and he will likely lineup across from junior Stanford Samuels III.

The secondary will also be bolstered by true freshman cornerback/safety Akeem Dent, one of the most heralded players in his class, and figures to push for early playing time.

PREDICTION

It’s only year two of the Taggart era, so he’s not near the hot seat yet. But if FSU misses a bowl game for the second straight year, that seat may begin to get warm.

The 2019 schedule is a mixed bag that includes away matchups against Boise State, Clemson and Florida, but also includes cupcakes ULM and Alabama State, along with a rebuilding Louisville at home. Florida State certainly has the talent to win seven games, and an opening season date with Boise State should be a good test to see whether Taggart’s team is finally starting to gel.

As for the matchup with Syracuse, I’m predicting a 35-28 victory for the Orange on the road.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2466 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.