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State of the position: FSU’s quarterbacks

Why does it feel like the 2019 starting QB decision is one of the most important decisions Wille Taggart will make in Tallahassee?

NCAA Football: Florida State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

In our Florida State postseason series reviewing the Seminoles’ tumultuous 2018 campaign, we are working through each position group, taking a look back at what was as well as glancing forward to what the future may hold. To wrap the series up, we turn to the most important position on the field: quarterback.

2018 quarterbacks

This season saw Deondre Francois return to the field for the first time since suffering a serious knee injury against Alabama in 2016. Despite not participating in spring practice, he won the starting job over James Blackman and Bailey Hockman. Hockman then transferred to NC State.

Francois’ return was not the much-hyped debut that everyone hoped for. The season opener against Virginia Tech saw Francois toss three interceptions, and it didn’t get much better from there.

The redshirt junior finished the year completing 57 percent of his passes for 2,719 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. These numbers, as well as a quarterback rating of 121.2, are drastically down from his freshman season.

Not all of the blame can be placed on Francois, though. As previously discussed, Florida State’s offensive line this season was terrible. They barely gave Francois enough time to pass the ball, and Francois’ frustration at getting hit was very obvious at times. All too often, we saw Francois bail out of the pocket because one or two rushers were able to get free against FSU’s patchwork offensive line.

Francois’ accuracy did not improve as a junior. At times, he would throw a dart over the middle to a receiver blanketed in coverage. Other attempts that were logged as completions were on poorly-located throws that did not put his receivers in an optimal position to do as much as they could have with the ball. At other times, he would overthrow a wide-open man running downfield or short-hop a ball to WRs in the flats. For as many highlight-type passes that Francois threw, there were many that left fans (and probably coaches) scratching their heads.

In 2016, Francois completed 50 percent of his passes against ranked teams. Florida State played six teams that would end up ranked in the final AP Top-25 poll. This year, Florida State played four teams ranked in Week 15’s Top-25 poll. Francois’ completed percentage this year against those ranked teams was 48 percent.

A (non) threat in the run game

Because Francois is not an accurate quarterback, Willie Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense needs the threat of a quarterback run game to be effective. Frankly it needs that regardless, especially with a decimated OL. The threat of a running QB creates leverage.

Back in 2016, Taggart and South Florida were running circles around opponents (including FSU) with Quinton Flowers at quarterback. Flowers was not a great passer but was an excellent runner. The threat of the quarterback run opened up passing lanes for Flowers, who was eventually signed as a running back by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Whether it was a combination of Francois not wanting to run because of his knee injury or him misreading plays, the quarterback run game was virtually nonexistent this year.

Excluding sacks, Francois carried the ball 49 times for 194 yards this year (which is less than the 198 yards he picked up in 2016 with sacks). That’s an average of four quarterback runs per game.

As we saw, defenses had no respect for the quarterback run game. When combined with FSU’s terrible offensive line, defenses bet on the fact that they could use a minuscule number of defenders in the box and still stop the run game. It was a good bet.

A challenger emerges (and then sits the bench)

After Francois injured his knee in 2017, then-true freshman Blackman took the job and played admirably as a first year player. He finished the year completing 58 percent of his passes for 2,230 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.

This past offseason, Blackman took the majority of the first-team reps and was thought to be a contender for the job. Ultimately, Francois won out, and Blackman was forced to sit the bench as the second-team quarterback. But even when Francois struggled, Blackman did not see the field.

It was only when Francois was injured that Blackman stepped in against NC State. In that game, Blackman’s only real playing time of the season, the sophomore completed 63 percent of his passes for 421 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception. It was a great performance, albeit against a bad NC State secondary.

But the next week, Francois was back in against Notre Dame. It was a decision that many in the fan base and media questioned, as Francois had not proven that he could play at a better level than Blackman to that point.

Blackman wouldn’t see the field for the rest of the season, which would make him eligible for a redshirt. As such, he will have three years of eligibility remaining.

The high-school star (committed to FSU)

Florida State whiffed on signing a star quarterback last season— nor any QB, for that matter. But it rebounded and secured a commitment from four-star signal-caller Sam Howell this year.

A Charlotte, NC native, Howell is far from a perfect product, but is one of the better quarterbacks in a mediocre class of QBs. This year doesn’t have a Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields-type player, but the fact that FSU got a commitment from a high four-star in Howell is a major win.

At 6-1, 225-pounds, Howell is likely already at the size he’ll play at in college. Time in the weight room will reshape his body, but Howell is a shorter, stockier quarterback who is more than mobile enough to make defenses pay on the ground. He is listed as a “pro-style” quarterback, but his highlight film shows plenty of long runs.

Howell also has a baseball background, which shows when he throws off-balance. He is fairly accurate and has a great arm as well. He’s a nice prospect, but not someone who would be an automatic starter for FSU from day one. The bigger problem is that there is no guarantee that Howell will enroll at Florida State yet.

Walt Bell, Howell’s primary recruiter, just left Florida State for UMass. In addition, Howell has been linked to North Carolina more and more over the past few months. He took an official visit near the end of the season and has been in contact with Mack Brown’s new staff in Chapel Hill.

Should Howell flip his commitment, Florida State would be in a world of trouble. Not because Howell is a once-in-a-generation prospect, but because pickings are slim this late in the process. FSU would be forced to sign a lower-rated recruit and this, in turn, would put immense pressure on finding a stud in the 2020 class.

For now, Howell remains committed. But until he puts pen to paper, anything can happen.

What to expect next year (and in the future)

It’s not unreasonable to say that the starting quarterback decision in 2019 could be one of the most important decisions Taggart makes in Tallahassee.

After a disappointing 2018 season, pressure is on to return to a decent bowl game next year. Taggart will probably still be the coach of this team in 2020 (baring something drastic), but 2019 needs to be the year in which he rights the ship and shows boosters that everything is moving in the proper direction.

As such, the decision to choose between Francois and Blackman (assuming both are on the roster) will decide if Florida State is playing for the present or the future.

There’s no proof to show that Francois is in line for a breakout season in 2019, but the pure arm talent still remains. If Taggart goes with Francois again, it’ll be because he is willing to run and the coaching staff believes that this can outweigh the negatives of his inaccuracy.

Of course, intangibles also matter with Francois. Can he be a leader of the team? Will the team rally around Francois if he is named the starter? If so, why hasn’t it happened already?

Meanwhile, Blackman presents an option for the future. If Blackman starts in 2019, there’s a decent chance he’s the starter after that as well.

A lot will depend upon the play of the offensive line in 2019. If Florida State can improve to below average play along the line, then that will make the job of the quarterback a bit easier.