Welcome to Florida State’s upside-down 2019 season. When a hurricane can move a home game turned into a neutral-site game back into a home game, Louisiana-Monroe is made to look like Louisiana State, and there’s actual reason for belief in a Seminole quarterback who wears No. 12.
Graduate-transfer QB Alex Hornibrook made his ’Nole debut behind center Saturday in FSU’s win over Louisville, and it didn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself to the dozens of Florida State fans in attendance. Hornibrook was given every third offensive series to begin, with his first try coming in the opening quarter and FSU up 7-0 after a scoring drive led by starter James Blackman. His first pass attempt was a solid RPO ball to Keyshawn Helton for a 44-yard score.
On Hornibrook’s second series, he marched the ’Noles, up 21-7 thanks to another Blackman TD drive, from their own 25 to the Cardinals’ 30, before Ricky Aguayo came in for one-third of his botched-FG hat trick. And then in the third quarter, when Blackman (who’d played well) went down with an injury, Hornibrook took over for the duration.
FSU will wait to see what Blackman’s MRI reveals, but now that we’ve seen each Florida State QB in action, we can begin the discussion as to their strengths and weaknesses. But remember, we’re working on about a half of football here with regard to Hornibrook, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as that’s a small sample size, obviously.
Let’s start with the play that put Florida State back on top, for good, after losing a 21-point lead:
Is this is an easy throw to a wide-open Tamorrion Terry, thanks to a busted coverage? Of course. It’s also the pass, down the same right sideline, that Blackman overthrew badly against Virginia, one that would have tied the game in Charlottesville. Is it easier than that throw against the Cavs? Sure. But it’s also easier because Hornibrook recognizes it so quickly, to his credit.
Again, just as we’re not ready to make a call for either Blackman or Hornibrook after one game, we’re certainly not about to do so based on one throw. But perhaps this can serve as a microcosm of sorts for a possible distinction between the two QBs.
Blackman has the superior arm, and it’s not even close. Hornibrook’s success in fall camp came because of his accuracy, albeit with less velocity. Blackman has a higher ceiling on throws like the second-quarter post pass to Helton that could have been caught for a score and a 28-0 FSU lead. That was a great, high-difficulty laser from Blackman that may have sent UL packing.
The thing is, those kinds of pro throws aren’t an absolute necessity in offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ attack. There’s more of an emphasis on correct reads and delivering the ball accurately. Blackman has struggled all season hitting deep balls like the one to Terry, but against UVA, he also missed a bunch of shorter throws.
Moreover, reads have to be made quickly, otherwise you can end up with linemen winding up downfield illegally, as happened a couple times with Blackman in Charlottesville. Hornibrook may have a higher floor in this aspect, as he seems willing to take what the defense is allowing him— and sooner. Blackman loves to go hunting for the big play, but he often sets himself up as prey to hungry defenders by holding the ball in the pocket too long. Call it an after-effect of being brought up in Jimbo Fisher’s offense.
Whoever is behind center will be playing with a substandard offensive line, so mobility — maybe escapability is a more appropriate term — is important as well. Blackman did well with this against the Cavaliers, and Hornibrook showed some nice flashes vs. Louisville. A QB who knows when to run makes Briles’ offense that much more difficult to defend, and with this OL, it’s a requisite survival skill.
Hornibrook did make a couple of late throws across the middle after extending plays, but they were open enough that they weren’t risky, at least this time. Then again, that’s basically been Hornibrook’s training at Wisconsin: don’t screw up, just make the safe throw and hand the ball off. That worked for him with the Badgers, and their run-heavy approach— but does FSU need more of an explosive playmaker? Or is a game-manager enough?
And then there’s the more intangible quality of leadership. Blackman’s teammates love him, which is great to hear. Players also love winning, and that can foster quite a few followers as well, regardless of who’s taking snaps. This is one of those soft factors that you can’t really quantify. But Blackman was named not just the starter, but also a captain, for a reason.
Again, let’s not get too hung up on the numbers, but here are the final passing stats for Blackman and Hornibrook:
We all hope that Blackman’s injury isn’t serious. Because if it is, FSU is without an important team leader, and a player who’s been its first choice as a quarterback. But in the event that he’s not available, the Seminole do appear to have another viable option at QB.