Ryan Fitzgerald finished the 2022 season with a kicking percentage of a D minus. When Florida State brought in Tyler Keltner, many thought that Fitzgerald’s childhood teammate would come into Tallahassee and take the starting job.
Keltner transferred after one year in the program.
Fitzgerald finished the season 19/21 on field goals and became the most improved player on the Seminole roster.
Fitzgerald became a microcosm of the special teams unit as a whole. Mike Norvell and special teams coordinator John Papuchis spent years trying to revamp the special teams unit.
The 2023 season paid off all their hard work.
It’s time to look back at the best special teams performances of the year.
Best performance: Ryan Fitzgerald, vs. Louisville (ACC Championship)
Stats: 3 for 4 on field goal tries (long of 45), one PAT, five kickoffs for 314 yards (four touchbacks)
Why it’s here: With Brock Glenn making his first career start, points were at a premium in the ACC championship game.
Ryan Fitzgerald knew he would be a factor.
In driving rain and nasty conditions, the Georgia native went 3/4 on field goals, including knocking in two in the final three minutes. This game found itself in the top spot not because of the makes but because of the miss.
Ryan Fitzgerald could have let the negative energy get to him and affect his other kicks. Instead, he responded like Mike Norvell asks all his players to do. The final field goal he made put the Seminoles up by ten and clinched the victory. It also came from 45 yards away and was not a gimme. Ryan Fitzgerald outscored the Louisville team on his own, and the confidence he earned from the coaching staff gave Florida State its first ACC title win of the Mike Norvell era.
“I wasn’t mad about it,” Fitzgerald said postgame after his miss, “It wasn’t the best alignment and stuff like that. It was what it was. I hit a great ball beforehand on the first one, and I hit great balls all day in warm-ups. It is what it is. Next kick, respond.”
Fitzy did, and the ‘Noles became champions.
Best performance: Deuce Spann vs. Duke
Stats: 1 return, 99 yards, 1 touchdown
Why it’s here: Doak Cambell Stadium fell silent.
Jordan Travis threw his first pick-6 of the season, and Florida State found itself down double digits with no answers on either side of the ball. Mike Norvell knew that his team needed an explosive play. He did not know where it would come from.
It came from a quarterback turned wide receiver turned kick returner.
It turned the season on its head.
Spann received the ball just in front of his end zone and darted through the Duke coverage unit around the 25-yard line. As soon as he hit the crease, no one would catch him. The Illinois transfer bolted into the end zone for six and breathed life into a silent crowd.
When deciding the season's top performances, it felt wrong to pick just one play. Spann, the following week against Wake Forest, flipped field position multiple times, which led to a stomping by the Seminoles. However, sometimes the most defining moments come down to a single play. If Spann does not make that return, does Florida State survive Duke?
“We had worked that all practice,” Deuce Spann said about his kick return for a TD, “When it came to the game, Coach Norvell said I was going to take one back, and it just happened.”
Easier said than done.
Best performance: Alex Mastromanno vs. Miami
51-yard coffin corner brilliance from Alex Mastromanno pic.twitter.com/MVMgAxYyKt— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 11, 2023
Stats: 7 punts, 49 yard average, 55 yard long, 5 punts downed inside 20-yard
Why it’s here: Iowa football might be the program most invested in punting.
But do not discount Mike Norvell and his staff for their appreciation towards Alex Mastromanno and a beautiful boot to flip the field.
The mullet-wearing Australian punter became a household name amongst FSU fans and, luckily, should be able to watch him for one more season. This year, Mastromanno's punting prowess launched the Seminoles toward victory against the Hurricanes.
Florida State struggled for most of the first half after an early score, so a rivalry game quickly became a field position battle. Mike Norvell and his staff practice special teams for an hour every practice, longer than most teams, to ensure everyone knows their assignments and can execute at a high level. Of course, a good kick matters, and No.29 delivered plenty.
Mastromanno pinned five within the 20-yard line on seven punts and averaged 49 yards a kick. The punt unit forced a true freshman quarterback to go the length of the field time after time, which resulted in three points in the second half, besides a fluke play touchdown for Miami.
“Alex was flipping the field, but coverage units have to get down there and be able to get them down,” Mike Norvell said after the game, “I thought just the belief in that is something that also speaks to the culture. You know, we have a lot of great players that play on our special teams unit and some newcomers that I think are going to be wonderful players by what they put on display in those teams.”
Special teams may be a team play, but Mastromanno’s right leg is the straw that stirs the drink.
Best performance: Keon Coleman vs. Syracuse
Stats: 6 returns, 107 yards
Why it’s here: Keon Coleman laid flat on his back on the Syracuse 8-yard line. Most players would be ecstatic after running back a 72-yard punt return into the opposing team’s red zone.
But Coleman knew this was the one.
When wearing Peter Warrick t-shirt in warm-ups, the Michigan State transfer wanted to respect the pass catchers and, in this case, punt returners that came before him.
Coleman joined Warrick in the record books during the mid-October contest as the only two players in FSU history to have 100 receiving yards and 100 punt return yards in one game. However, Coleman never took one back, but at the end of the third quarter, it looked like he might do it.
No. 4 found himself with a convey ahead as he sprinted towards the Syracuse endzone. With Florida State up 21 late in the second half, one explosive play would salt this one away. Coleman broke through multiple tackles on his way to the sideline and found himself with more garnet than white jerseys in front of him. As the pay dirt came into view, a slight cutback and an ankle tackle somehow brought the 6’4 freak of nature to his knees. All Coleman could do was stare at the sky for the what-ifs as Doak Cambell stadium erupted around him. Massive punt returns in the most significant moments became a Keon Special as the season wore on. But, no game exemplified what type of playmaker he was with the ball in his hands, then against the Orange.
“That one play,” Coleman said, describing why he likes punt returning so much, “You really can change the momentum of a game. Especially if you back there, it’s like they really have faith in you to put the ball in your hands in that position, trust your play-making ability to do what you need to do.”
As Mike Norvell said at the beginning of the season, thank you, Keon, for saying “yes.”
Agree? Disagree? Head to the comments to share your favorite moments from all phases of the game over the course of the 2023 season.