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2018 FSU football preview: Quarterbacks

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A deep unit led by a familiar name.

Alabama v Florida State
ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 02: Deondre Francois #12 of the Florida State Seminoles looks to pass against the Alabama Crimson Tide during their game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 2, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

First-year Florida State head coach Willie Taggart has brought to Tallahassee his Gulf Coast offense, and with it the philosophy of “lethal simplicity.” This will be a very different offense than the one the Seminoles ran for the last decade under Jimbo Fisher. To understand where the offense is going though, and what these quarterbacks will be asked to do, you have to go back and understand where Taggart has been.

Taggart played quarterback at Western Kentucky under Jack Harbaugh, the father of Jim and John Harbaugh. After his playing days, Taggart went back to Western Kentucky to coach. He worked his way up to co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and then associate head coach, before leaving to coach running backs at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh. After three seasons Taggart returned to Western Kentucky, but this time as head coach. Three seasons later he accepted the head job at South Florida. There, Taggart struggled to run the same West Coast smashmouth power offense he learned from the Harbaughs, but he was in Florida, and had access to plenty of athletic offensive skill talent.

So he adapted, adding spread passing concepts from Baylor, Clemson, and Ole Miss, such as Baylor’s wide-split receiver alignments, and a fast tempo to help simplify defensive reads and force coverage busts, and put it on top of the Harbaugh legacy running game. A few growing pains later, and the Gulf Coast offense was born. After leading USF to its best seasons ever, Taggart had a short stint at Oregon, and has now brought the scheme to Tallahassee, where he also added offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Walt Bell. Wide splits, RPOs, and tempo. Welcome to the new Florida State.

Here are the quarterbacks on the roster going into 2018:

Nolan McDonald

The 6’2, 180-pound true freshman was a composite three star in the 2017 class, and will redshirt.

James Blackman

Blackman is a 6’5, 180 pound sophomore. After Francois went down against Alabama in Week 1 last year, Blackman stepped in and threw for 2,230 yards and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman. Blackman possesses natural arm talent and has flashed anticipation and NFL-caliber throws down the field, but has struggled to put on weight. Where Blackman has gotten himself into trouble is there are times he’s not always sure where to go with the football. However, he does possess a year of starting experience.

Bailey Hockman

The 6’2, 205-pound former composite four-star recruit redshirted last season. Hockman is a southpaw, and the son of a coach. That background gives him a good understanding of football, and with his good accuracy and ball placement makes him a high-floor prospect. However, his arm strength is not on the level that Francois’ is, or Blackman’s. He also possesses good mobility when running and the ability to extend plays.

Deondre Francois

Francois is a 6’1, 215-pound redshirt junior. Last season he suffered a devastating torn patellar tendon injury in his left knee in Week 1 vs. Alabama and missed the rest of the season. In 2016 he led all freshmen quarterbacks nationally in passing yards and was named ACC Rookie of the Year. Francois was limited this spring in his recovery from his knee injury, but is now healthy.

Francois is known for his toughness, but he’s also prone to taking more hits than necessary because he often holds the ball waiting for his receivers to come open. As such, his anticipation could use some work, but he can sometimes make up for it with his tremendous arm strength, which can allow him to attempt throws and windows other quarterbacks can’t. In general, Francois understands where the ball should go, but he can also at times struggle with his accuracy. Francois is a good athlete and displays good quickness on runs outside the pocket, and he’s also recently added weight and muscle to his frame.

Willie Taggart recently named Francois the starter.

Outlook

Lethal simplicity is not just a slogan— it’s Taggart’s process. This may be a run-first, quarterback-friendly offense, as Taggart looks to establish the run and then throw deep play-action off of that, but this is still a new offense. Francois will need to minimize the possible mistakes that come with a new offense, process quickly, and be as accurate as possible.

That includes little things like smooth exchanges on hand-offs and jet sweeps. He will need to consistently make the right decisions in his zone reads, and he will at times be asked to run with the football. When running RPOs he will need to correctly identify his key and consistently make the right decision on whether to hand the ball off or pass. Just as important, he will shoulder some responsibility for the tempo and will need to be a leader and get his teammates lined up as quickly as possible and ready to snap the ball again. The Baylor wide-split receiver alignments will give Francois more one-on-one coverage, but also some longer throws down the sidelines. He will need to be accurate enough to at least give his receivers a chance to come down with the ball.