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Five storylines to follow in Florida State’s fall camp

As fall camp gets underway, what are the pertinent position battles and storylines to keep an eye on?

NCAA Football: Florida State Spring Game
FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

As I’m sure you all are well aware, football is (kind of) back. After a 211-day break dating back to last year’s Orange Bowl victory over Michigan, the Florida State football team kicks off its fall camp Tuesday afternoon.

On a team with so much talent as well as a palpable level of hype surrounding it, there’s good reason to be following this year’s fall camp session closely. If nothing else, that reason is the fact that the Seminoles kick off their season September 2nd in what is being considered one of the biggest opening weekend games of all-time: a matchup with Nick Saban’s Alabama.

As such, Tomahawk Nation has you covered with a set of fall camp storylines that could prove to be the most pertinent towards FSU’s potential success this season.

Who will be the backup quarterback?

It’s safe to say that redshirt sophomore Deondre Francois, who represented the FSU offense at ACC Kickoff last month, will be the ’Noles starter for their season opener against the Crimson Tide. Much attention will be paid to how Francois looks throughout fall camp as well as the early-season stretch to see if he has made strides in his game.

Just as important in my opinion, though, is who emerges as the second-string QB behind Francois.

In 2016, Francois became known for taking his fair share of massive hits, some his fault, some not. Regardless, another season of hits like that has a chance to land him on the shelf for a more extended period of time than they did in 2016. Furthermore, FSU no longer has the crutch of having the experienced veteran Sean Maguire on the bench. Instead, the backup options look less desirable this time around.

The battle will likely come down to JJ Cosentino and Bailey Hockman. Cosentino, a rising junior, has been thrust into games on a few occasions due to an injury to the starter or the game being in garbage time. In just about every one of these situations, Cosentino has looked extremely uncomfortable in the spotlight, making head-scratching decisions in all aspects of the game.

Hockman is surely the better long-term option. However, he is a true freshman who only enrolled at FSU back in January. Should Francois go down against Alabama, I find it hard to believe that Jimbo Fisher would turn to a true freshman.

True freshman James Blackman is another QB who FSU signed in its 2017 recruiting class, but he only arrived this summer and will likely take a redshirt in 2017.

In the post Dalvin Cook era, which running back(s) rises to the occasion?

FSU will dearly miss Dalvin Cook. There’s no use denying it.

Losing the star running back who left Tallahassee after the 2016 season as the leading rusher in program history will not be an easy hole to fill.

That being said, the Seminoles’ deep and versatile running back group has the potential to go a long way towards softening the blow of the departed Cook.

Jacques Patrick, who served as a capable backup behind Cook in his first two years at FSU, will now be leaned on to take a larger role. The junior, who has an impressive 6’3, 231 pound frame, showed signs of becoming the bruising running back his size allows him to be in his limited work in 2016. Now, he may be looked at as FSU’s No. 1 option at running back, at least early in the season.

Patrick will be supplemented (and possibly supplanted) by stud freshman Cam Akers. Akers, the No. 1 running back and No. 7 overall recruit in the 2017 recruiting class, impressed in FSU’s spring game, running for a game-high 87 yards on the ground. If FSU is to live up to the hype this year, Akers will need to be ready to be a major contributor from day one.

There are numerous other options FSU has at running back, ranging from veterans Ryan Green and Johnathan Vickers to talented but unproven sophomore Amir Rasul and even a pair of additional true freshman who were blue-chip recruits, Khalan Laborn and Zaquandre White.

In spite of all this depth that FSU possesses in the backfield, I think the most common and productive combination that will be seen this year is the thunder and lightning-esque duo of Patrick and Akers, a pair which may prove similar to Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. in 2013.

Which wide receivers take the next step?

In further scrutiny of FSU’s skill position players, the Seminoles lose a decent amount of their wide receiver production from 2016.

In all, the Seminoles return 38.5% of their receiving yards from a year ago. The vast majority of those come from juniors Nyqwan Murray (441 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2016) and Auden Tate (409 receiving yards and six touchdowns last year).

However, those two wideouts, along with FSU’s two returning tight ends with game experience, will not be enough by themselves in 2017 to accomplish the team’s goals. More receiving targets will need to step up. The indications of who the most likely candidates are will emerge early in fall camp.

The candidates to take the next step at wideout are few in number, but bountiful in potential.

Junior Da’Vante Phillips has battled injuries during his two years in Tallahassee, but managed to play in nine games in 2016, making four catches for 33 yards. He had a mixed bag of a spring game, making some nice plays while also dropping some easy throws, a direct contrast to his reputation as the best hands in the receiving corps.

George Campbell redshirted in 2016 after suffering an early-season core injury. However, he remains possibly the freakiest athlete of the wide receivers. Standing 6’4 and with a recorded 40-yard dash time of 4.36, Campbell just needs to stay healthy and he could make an impact as a big-play threat in 2017.

The person many people are pegging to step up in 2017 is sophomore Keith Gavin. Measuring in at 6’3, Gavin did not record a catch as a true freshman in 2016 despite playing in eight games, touching the ball just once. That single touch, though, a 66-yard kickoff return to set up FSU’s game-winning touchdown against No. 6 Michigan in the Orange Bowl, was a major display of his potential.

FSU also brought in two talented wideouts in its 2017 recruiting class, D.J. Matthews, who projects as a slot option, and Tamorrion Terry, another big-bodied receiver who FSU got in on late in the process. First-year wide receivers rarely break into the regular rotation in Fisher’s complex offensive system, but both of these two have enough talent to make it at least somewhat of a possibility, especially considering the unit’s lack of depth.

Who emerges as starters in talent-rich defensive line and secondary?

On a team loaded with talent, that fact is most evident on the defensive line and in the secondary.

Both of these defensive units return the majority of their contributors from the 2016 squad which led the nation in sacks per game and saw significant growth in the secondary as the year progressed in spite of numerous injuries.

Although this is true, both groups also lost a key member of last year’s team. The defensive line will be forced to replace DeMarcus Walker, whose 16 sacks last season were the second most in the nation, while the secondary will be without cornerback Marquez White.

Still, the potential successors at each level are rich in number and talent.

On the defensive line, both interior linemen starters from 2016, Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas, return on the 2017 squad along with edge rushers Jacob Pugh, Josh Sweat and Brian Burns. Additionally, some fresh faces should break into the rotation as well. Among those is Joshua Kaindoh, the No. 20 recruit in the 2017 class.

In the secondary, the contenders to replace White include sophomores Carlos Becker III and Levonta Taylor, who both flashed in their first years at FSU, and true freshman Stanford Samuels III, the Seminole legacy who has a good combination of pedigree, size, and instincts to make an early splash.

Exactly how the starting lineup shakes out is up in the air and worth following over the course of fall camp, but regardless of who becomes the starter, each of these players should get more than their fair share of action in 2017.

Will there be a kicker position battle?

At this time a year ago, little was known about FSU’s special teams situation. Two true freshman, Ricky Aguayo and Logan Tyler, entered fall camp with the placekicking, punting, and kickoff duties up for grabs.

The dust settled with Aguayo handling field goals of regular length while Tyler was the long field goal specialist, punter, and kickoff man.

On the surface, Aguayo’s 19-26 (73.1%) freshman campaign was good enough to ensure he has earned a second year as the place kicker. However, a closer look at his stat line brings an unfortunate trend to the surface. After a phenomenal 6-6 outing on field goals in his debut against Ole Miss, Aguayo made 13-20 field goals (65%) over his final 12 games and was given no leash to attempt any kicks beyond the 50-yard threshold.

Does this indicate that Tyler, who undeniably has the bigger foot of the two, has a chance to snag the starting job on all field goals entering his second year with the Seminoles? Only time will tell.

Fall camp begins with a press conference with Fisher at 1 PM on Tuesday and the opening practice is slated for later in the afternoon. Stay tuned to Tomahawk Nation for all your news from the opening day of the FSU preseason.