The magnitude of the rebuild that Willie Taggart is tasked with at Florida State was on full display Saturday, as the Clemson Tigers needed just 37 minutes to race to a 45-0 lead.
The game was close on the scoreboard for a minute. But then Clemson showed FSU who was boss and just how far the Seminoles have to go.
After the game, I asked Taggart how long it’ll take for the ’Noles to be competitive in the ACC.
“Personally I don’t think it’s going to take long. I think we’ve got some issues that we need to correct. I think we all know that, and get those corrected, I think you’ll see a big change in our entire program. But I don’t think it’s that far away. We just got to keep track. We’ve got to keep climbing and keep working and keep recruiting and that’s the only way you’re going to get to where we all want us to be.”
From 2012-14, Florida State went 26-1 in ACC play. That’s an impossible standard, accomplished with an incredible roster headed by perhaps the best QB in ACC history, and, for a few of those seasons, a weaker schedule.
FSU’s a long way from being Clemson’s equal as long as the Tigers have QB Trevor Lawrence, who, as a true freshman, is completely living up to his No. 1 overall recruit ranking. He was the highest-graded QB recruit most can remember, and as a true freshman is already the best QB in the ACC.
How ACC fans felt about their chances of beating FSU when the Seminoles had Jameis Winston is how the league is about to feel about beating Clemson as long as Lawrence is in town.
But Clemson is just one team. It only accounts for one conference loss per season.
Over its last 26 ACC games, FSU is 12-14
A program such as Florida State shouldn’t have a losing record in the ACC over 3+ conference seasons. But that’s where FSU finds itself.
The problem didn’t start in 2018, and it won’t be solved this year, at least not completely. Beating Clemson with Trevor Lawrence might not be a reasonable goal, but getting back to winning seven out of ten ACC games is.
Willie Taggart needs to weed out the quitters
There are some players on Florida State’s team who were known by the prior staff to be bad teammates. And their behavior largely went unchecked by a checked out staff.
While the new staff has been much stricter, these guys may have conned the new staff into believing they were changed players, or simply reverted back to their bad habits once the going got tough.
Worst of all, some players quit, according to FSU’s head coach. He brought it up several times Saturday.
“First time since I’ve been here I felt like we had some guys that quit on our football team and that can’t be tolerated. One thing you can’t do, you can’t quit. You quit, you don’t play. So we’ve got to do a great job of making sure we’ve got the right guys and at every aspect of the game, offense, defense, special teams.
“Embarrassing. I was disappointed. We’re going to find the guys that quit and we’re going to find the guys that kept playing and make sure that we keep those guys in there. So there will be some changes come next week.”
Question: “You’ve been doing this for a while. When you feel like, I don’t know how many times you felt like in your career a team quit or players on your team quit. How hard is it to turn that around to get them to not do that?
Answer: “Well, part of it is those guys just can’t play. That’s a big part of it, and then you’ve got to find the winners. You know, find the winners on your team and make sure when you’re out recruiting, make sure you’re recruiting winners. That’s really important. You can’t just recruit off the Internet. You have to make sure you do your work and get the right kind of people here.”
The thing is, for some players, it’s not the first time they’ve quit. Nor is it the second time. It’s the third. It’s happened each of the last three seasons.
Somewhere over the last 25 or 30 conference games, something happened within the program that signified quitting was fine.
- FSU had players visibly not giving a damn against Louisville as the Cards dropped 63 points against what was supposedly the No. 2 ranked Seminoles squad in 2016.
- We laughed at Jimbo Fisher when he vehemently claimed his players didn’t quit in the 2017 35-3 loss against Boston College.
Fisher was lying, of course. His players quit. Perhaps he didn’t want to admit he lost his team with one foot out the door for another job. Or perhaps he just wanted to be defiant with the media.
Taggart hasn’t lost his team. But it’s clear he also hasn’t rid all the players from their existing bad habits.
And he might not be able to. Some of the upperclassmen might be stuck in their ways.
Taggart acknowledged that in his Monday press conference.
“That’s adversity. Our guys learning to deal with it, and part of it is some guys are stuck that way, some get better with it, and a big part of it is you’ve got to recruit those guys and you’ve got to do a good job of recruiting and digging in deep and finding out what kind of players you’re getting, who’s going to fight when it’s tough, who relishes those opportunities when it gets tough, to go out and to make something happen.”
If so, Taggart needs to follow through on his “you quit, you don’t play” promise. Not for the upperclassmen, but to set an example for the young players. Taggart’s transitional 2018 class looks to have a surprisingly high hit-rate already, compared to the normal pattern of new coaches whose transitional classes are often filled with busts. Those players cannot see their head coach tolerate quitting.
Understandably, Taggart on Monday wouldn’t name who might sit due to quitting, presumably not wanting to tip off the Wolfpack and assist with North Carolina State’s game-planning. If Taggart’s willing to take some players from 60 snaps/game to 20, that might do the trick. It has to be understood that getting the cultural issues rectified is more important than keeping FSU’s bowl streak alive.
Receiver Noonie Murray and linebacker Zaquandre White are both suspended for the first half of the NC State game, Taggart announced Monday, following ejections for losing their composure and throwing punches in the Clemson loss. We’ll see if setting the standard that poor effort, or extreme lack of discipline will result in a loss of playing time helps set the tone. A suspension of one half may not be enough, especially for repeat offenders.
Taggart also spoke Monday about accountability.
“We addressed it internally, and we’re going to make sure that we continue to build a culture and a program the way that we want to, the way that I know how, and we’re going to make sure we have individuals in here that are going to live up to those standards. They’re going to be great teammates who are going to compete and guys that are going to put FSU first. It’s going to always be that way, and we’re not going to make any excuses about it. That’s how it’s going to be, and that’s what we expect out of our guys every time they line up to play.”
The line about putting FSU first is very similar to his off-season worries that the 2017 team was not playing for each other, based on what he watched during bowl practices.
Some cultural answers are in recruiting
Taggart referenced recruiting many times in Saturday’s post-game presser and on Monday. And recruiting the right sort of players.
I don’t know that Florida State’s recruited too many players with issues in recent years. Having covered FSU recruiting for close to a decade, I’m of the opinion that the bigger problem is the right standard not being set when these current upperclassmen were in years 1 and 2.
But it can’t hurt to flip the locker room. From most indications, the hastily-assembled 2018 class is a good start. Taggart needs to follow that with a class of quality character individuals.
But recruiting isn’t just about character
Yes, FSU needs to flip the character composition of some of its position groups through recruiting. But it also needs a talent injection at several positions.
The main issue, as it has been since Week 1, is the offensive line. Florida State simply doesn’t have good players on its line, and many are not even close to ACC caliber. While FSU has had offensive line questions for several years, it’s never had personnel issues of this magnitude. It has guards playing tackle (some who are hobbled) out of sheer desperation. I explained how attrition, bad luck, a ton of injuries, and some poor development let it get this bad.
The best tackle in the stadium on FSU’s side of the field Saturday wasn’t even in pads. It was Evan Neal, a 17-year-old from IMG who was in the stands on a visit. At this point, Neal doesn’t project to sign with FSU (Alabama is the favorite), although things can certainly change. The Seminoles have done a good job to get Charles Cross, the four-star tackle out of Mississippi, and Dontae Lucas, the four-star guard from IMG. They also need to sign a JUCO tackle, and JUCOs are frequently attracted by guaranteed playing time.
It’s common for recruits to be told about the opportunity for early playing time. It’s another thing entirely for them to be in the stadium and realize they’d be in the starting lineup for a program like FSU if they were allowed to suit up at halftime.
It also helped that QB commit Sam Howell made his way down from North Carolina to impress upon the linemen in attendance that there’s a major need for them, while also chatting with Auburn receiver commitment George Pickens, who made his third trip to Tallahassee.
Howell could end up starting as a true freshman in 2019, as well. QB Deondre Francois doesn’t seem to fit the offense, and the staff has been resistant to play James Blackman over him. If Francois isn’t at FSU in 2019, or if Blackman isn’t the heir apparent, Howell could be.
The other position that needs real addressing is linebacker. FSU has two linebacker commits in IMG’s Jaleel McRae, and Georgia’s Kalen Deloach. It would like to sign 1-2 more.
If Taggart’s going to completely flip the culture, it’ll need to be done with in-house changes and recruiting.