Ahh, spring football. Hope springs eternal. Excitement about football renews. Angels weep.
While FSU fans have an excellent basketball team to watch, new head coach Mike Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham begin their first spring guiding the Seminoles’ offense. Seminoles fans will see it up close and personal April 18th, for the 2020 Spring Game.
The coaching duo will be preparing for their sixth year together, dating back to 2014 at Arizona State. That first year in Tempe, Norvell coordinated the offense, and Dillingham was an offensive assistant (what is now called quality control by most programs). Both have specialized in coaching quarterbacks.
Norvell’s time in Tallahassee begins with two returning quarterbacks and two class of 2020 signees. We will profile these quarterbacks, their strengths and weaknesses, and their general attributes.
The Grizzled Veteran: Redshirt junior James Blackman
James Blackman comes into spring with by far the most experience in the quarterback room. Thrust into action as a true freshman after Deondre Francois injured his knee against Alabama, Blackman acquitted himself well in 2017 - particularly for a freshman in Jimbo Fisher’s notoriously complex offense.
Blackman has had a roller coaster career. We praised him for how quickly he took to Jimbo Fisher’s offense in 2017. He displayed incredibly good decision making for the offense, despite being a fall enrollee. That year, his game was notable for that decision making, especially pre snap, a strong arm, the good ball placement on depth throws, and a general ability to run the offense smoothly. Blackman looked a great option for the future of FSU under Jimbo. Then Fisher’s Christmas tree hit the street.
Francois returned the following year, and Blackman earned the redshirt under the not so dynamic duo of Willie Taggart and Walt Bell. Bell departed for U Mass, and Kendal Briles came to Tallahassee, bringing with him the venerated Briles offense.
Blackman was not a great fit. Blackman is a good decision maker - but his throwing motion is not fast. Briles’ offense is predicated on the ball being out fast, especially to stretch defenses horizontally with screens or through RPO’s with concepts like slant and stick. Blackman also had an uncharacteristically poor year with placement on deep throws, which I attribute somewhat to a lingering knee injury - placement improved through the year as the injury improved.
Norvell and Dillingham have described the offense varyingly in words that can be distilled to pro style concepts at a high tempo. Note that it is high tempo, so FSU fans won’t lament a slow pace like Fisher, but FSU will not run blisteringly fast like it did under Briles. The Norvell-Dillingham Memphis offense ranked 18th in adjusted pace in both 2017 and 2018.
This should be a boon for Blackman. While the coaches refer to the offense as pro style, it more resembles the “pro” offense of Jimbo Fisher’s FSU than it does a two back, under center attack of old. The RPO concepts aren’t always full “three-way” options that feature all of quick pass, give, or keep.
Many FSU fans were ready to give up on Blackman after a rough 2019 campaign - but look at the improvement through the year despite playing behind a porous offensive line. His skills project well to fit Norvell’s offense, and the relative inexperience in the QB room will be in his favor.
The Flashy Backup: Redshirt sophomore Jordan Travis
Jordan Travis makes plays with his feet. While Travis notched a couple late big plays with his arm, his speed and shiftiness are what FSU fans and his new coaches will have noticed in 2019. When your first snap is a long rushing touchdown, people will focus on your running ability.
Norvell has not had a rushing talent at the QB position like Travis since Taylor Kelly was the signal caller for Arizona State. Kelly was an adequate college passer, but a solid ball carrier. Norvell gave an average of 10 runs per game to Kelly (including sacks), showing a willingness to let the quarterback be a threat but not a feature in the run game.
Dillingham just finished a one year sabbatical from his Norvell-focused career, spending a year under the tutelage of Gus Malzahn. It’s hard to divine how much influence Dillingham had, but Auburn under Malzahn has always been known for featuring run first quarterbacks.
Travis could fill this role, as Blackman is little more as a runner than a decent scrambler. But it seems more likely that the North Palm Beach sophomore will play little more than a niche role for the first edition of Norvell’s Seminoles.
The Kid: Freshman Tate Rodemaker
Florida State signed two quarterbacks in the 2020 class. FSU signed a quarterback! They signed two! Both were good high school prospects!
Tate Rodemaker enrolled early. Rodemaker is less heralded in the recruiting world, but was named 6A South Offensive Player of the Year by Georgia’s high school football coaches. Rodemaker threw for over 3,000 yards and 40 touchdowns on his way to that honor. He also comes from Valdosta, one of the most successful high school football programs in the country, and historically a program that churns out significant talent.
Rodemaker was a 3 star prospect, with his delivery being considered too slow or funky and questions about his arm strength. His production was immense as a junior, and he did one camp in April before his senior season, but the recruiting services never warmed up to him. This is editorializing, but Rodemaker didn’t do the camp circuit heavy, so I think some of his ratings may have to do with lesser exposure despite a high exposure high school.
The recruiting services tend to move on to the next class after signing day, and Rodemaker’s first major event was the All American bowl - after signing day, where he replaced an injured player. Notably, 247 does update its rankings late in the cycle and has him as the 12th ranked pro style QB, whereas ESPN and Rivals had him at 25th ranked dual threat and 26th ranked pro style, respectively.
The future: Chubba Purdy, not yet on campus
While most of these previews will focus on on-campus personnel, we know you can never get enough quarterback talk.
The signing of Chubba Purdy was a heralded coup, with Norvell pulling the blue chip quarterback quickly after officially becoming Florida State’s head coach. Purdy is a strong armed, quick footed quarterback whose highlights live up to his billing as a top 10 dual threat quarterback. The Arizona native is the younger brother of Brock Purdy, who has helped Matt Campbell lead Iowa State to some of their best football since dirt was young.
Purdy is a good talent, who would fit near any college offense well. But he is not an early enrollee. It is very rare that fall enrollees see much time in the spring, as they are not on campus.
What to look for?
The most obvious: who gets the most reps during spring. We expect the open nature of Norvell’s regime to continue, so we’ll be able to get at least a partial glimpse into who is running with the ones, twos or threes. (And you’ll be able to read all about it, right here on Tomahawk.)
Who looks the most comfortable in the new offense? Blackman is now learning his fourth new offensive system, but it’s one that should suit some of his strengths. He looks to be the early favorite for myriad reasons, but new coaches mean new opportunities.