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Despite poor season, Florida State is building for the future

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Few programs around the country are using more freshmen in critical roles.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The clock struck zero.

Louisville 31, Florida State 28.

James Blackman lay prone on the ground, dropped yet again by a Louisville defender. Gingerly, he lifted himself off the ground and walked around to shake hands with Cardinals players.

It was a somber scene, with Florida State having dropped its fourth game of the season. Playoff dreams died long ago, and only the faint hope of bowl eligibility still existed.

For Blackman, it was especially disheartening. The freshman threw for nearly 250 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but also tossed two interceptions and had a critical fumble in the waning minutes of the game that lead to Louisville’s game-winning field goal.

The players started to file off the field into their respective locker rooms, one team ecstatic and the other gloomy. But one player stopped to share a moment with Blackman, Louisville’s star quarterback Lamar Jackson.

There is no way to know what, exactly, Jackson said to Blackman in those brief moments, but the message seemed to be clear. It seemed to be words of encouragement from the Heisman trophy winner. After all, Jackson is well aware of the position that Blackman is in, having started as a true freshman at Louisville.

When Blackman signed with Florida State earlier this year, he was not expected to play much, if at all, for the Seminoles in 2017. The Belle Glade, FL native weighed in at a mere 169-pounds upon arriving in Tallahassee. He was still learning the playbook as the ’Noles went through fall camp in preparation for a much-anticipated matchup against Alabama to open the season.

But then Deondre Francois was sacked by Ronnie Harrison in the fourth quarter, and Florida State’s season changed entirely.

With Francois out for the season, Blackman was thrust into the starting role. Despite being on campus for less than five months, Blackman has started seven consecutive games for the Seminoles. He is the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Florida State since 1985.

Blackman has performed admirably so far, showing good arm strength and accuracy. But the three-star recruit has also gone through freshman struggles. He has turned the ball over a few times and is still working on moving in the pocket as the chaos of each play explodes around him.

His teammates and coaches have been quick to praise the true freshman for coming in on short notice. Following FSU’s game against NC State, Jimbo Fisher offered some words of approval.

“I thought he did a great job in the game for a young guy making throws and decisions he made for the most part taking care of the ball, I definitely do. I thought he prepared himself very well.”

Of course, Blackman isn’t the only freshman player rushed into playing early and often.

In fact, his partner in the backfield is yet another true freshman in Cam Akers. With the injury to Jacques Patrick, Akers has been Florida State’s bell-cow back for a few games now.

Granted, the two situations are different. Blackman was a three-star recruit, widely viewed as a developmental prospect. Akers was a five-star, all-world prospect and someone expected to contribute immediately at a position easier to do so.

Akers has been nothing short of phenomenal for the Seminoles, leading the team with 779 yards from scrimmage through the first eight games. He ripped off two long touchdown runs against Syracuse, showing patience, power, and game-breaking speed in the span of a few seconds. Fisher has said he’s pleased with the growth of Akers’ patience and maturity this season.

Oh, and the starting left tackle on both of those touchdown runs? Josh Ball, another (redshirt) freshman.

Turn over to the defensive side of the ball and you’ll find more freshmen contributing in major roles.

Stanford Samuels III, the son of FSU legend Stanford Samuels Jr., is fighting for extensive snaps at cornerback and has one of Florida State’s interceptions on the season.

Along the defensive line, Marvin Wilson and Joshua Kaindoh have been primary rotation players at tackle and end. When Josh Sweat left with an injury in the waning minutes of Florida State’s game against Syracuse, Kaindoh took his place.

As Syracuse drove down the field to attempt a game-tying field goal, the two deep safeties were freshmen Hamsah Nasirildeen and Cyrus Fagan, the former of which had just earned his first career start.

We haven’t even mentioned the many sophomore contributors either, like Levonta Taylor, Kyle Meyers, or Amir Rasul.

For a team billed as a national title favorite entering the season, Florida State did not expect to play this many freshman. In fact, the Seminoles’ depth at a variety of positions, especially on defense, was a main reason why many expected Fisher’s squad to return to the playoffs.

Unfortunately for Florida State, 2017 injury luck has been on the terrible side.

Francois and Patrick, both third-year players, went down with injury, leading to an all-freshman backfield with Blackman and Akers. An injury along the offensive line forced Ball into starting action at left tackle. Defensive wear and tear have caused freshmen to play more snaps than expected.

It’s hard to look past Florida State’s 3-5 record, but the fact that this many underclassmen are receiving extensive playing time bodes well for the future.

The hopes and dreams for this season are over. All the goals that Florida State was playing for, including an ACC championship and national title, are long gone.

But this team looks to be building for days to come. Blackman has had freshman struggles, but he has also looked great at times. When paired with Akers in the backfield, there’s a real shot those two could be the future of the program. Elsewhere along the team, it’s not a stretch to say that some of these freshmen, like Samuels and Kaindoh, could be starters sooner rather than later.

Assuming coaching changes are made, this team has the talent to return to the top of the college football landscape.

In that brief moment, Jackson and Blackman represented the present and future of ACC football colliding. For one, it was another hard-fought win, as he continued to add to his legacy as one of the most exciting players in the nation. For the other, the game represented yet another stepping stone on the path to future success.