With newcomer availability around the corner and the transfer portal in the rearview mirror, it is time to examine the roster honestly.
Florida State plays ten teams next year who were bowl-eligible last season and face one of the toughest schedules in the ACC. Moreover, the Seminoles are breaking in 28 new players between transfers and recruits on campus this spring.
Add these two together, and the Seminoles have a roster ripe with potential but also uncertainty.
In an attempt to gain clarity amidst the uncertainty, let’s take a look at some early predictions and still-lingering questions as we sit a couple of months out from the start of spring football.
Question No. 1: Who will be the go-to WR?
For starters, I think D.J. Uiagalelei will work. His skill set fits perfectly in the Mike Norvell offense system, and his weaknesses pair nicely with what the coaching staff focuses on (limiting turnovers and taking what the defense gives you.) If he struggles, it will not be because of the reasons he did at Clemson. It likely will be that he does not know where to go with the ball.
Florida State had the luxury season of trotting out two 6’4+ top 100 NFL draft pick WRs in 2023. For this upcoming season, the leading returning receiver finished with 243 receiving yards on 14 catches, less than half of Wilson’s or Coleman’s production.
Now, the room does not lack talent. Ja’Khi Douglas was the player mentioned previously, and he displayed clutch moments last season, most notably in the Pitt and UF games. However, his role is well-defined, and FSU knows what it can and cannot expect from him.
Kentron Poitier and Darion Williamson battled injuries last year, but the staff believes it has the potential to be big play outside threats. They have yet to put together a consistent season of play, limiting their chances of taking a giant step in 2024.
Transfers Malik Benson and Jalen Brown are burners who ran sub-11 100-meter times on the track, adding a new pure speed dimension the group lacked last season. However, Benson played sparingly with the Tide last season, and Brown feels like an extension of the 2024 recruiting class as he redshirted last year with LSU.
The crown jewel of the whole unit could be Hykeem Williams, the former top 50 recruit in the 2023 class. Georgia doubled the Fort Lauderdale native in the Orange Bowl as they felt he needed the most attention. When left one-on-one, he created decent separation, and I thought he was one bright spot for a game that felt like it was played in a black hole. The coaching staff brought him along slowly last season and did not rush him back from his injuries. However, Williams will be my #1 player to watch for in spring. If he improves from year one to year two, the FSU ceiling will need readjusting — but who will be the guy if he cannot become a surefire threat next year?
Prediction No. 1: FSU will have the best secondary in the ACC
FSU loses Jarrian Jones, Akeem Dent, and Renardo Green to exhausted eligibility, and their secondary should be better next season. It seems hard to believe, but Patrick Surtain has flipped the room and has become one of the best recruiters on the staff.
AZ Thomas and Fentrell Cypress make up one of the longest corner duos on the outside, standing over six feet while playing press-man coverage. Earl Little should slot in at nickel for the departing Jones and be more comfortable playing for his former high school head coach this season.
On the back end, Shyheim Brown changed his number to #1, and for a good reason: he will lead the Seminole defense. Conrad Hussey and Davonte Brown will split time at the other safety position and complement each other nicely. Add in young sophomore corners Ja’Bril Rawls and Quindarrius Jones, who benefited most from the opt-outs leading into the Orange Bowl, and the Seminoles are deep, athletic, and experienced at each level in the secondary. As I said, they would be the best unit in the ACC because of the personnel and what is leaving other schools in the conference.
Miami loses both their starting safeties and Davonte Brown, who played a rotational role for them last year. Mario Cristobal did little in the portal to ease the growing pains that will come from two new starters. Clemson CB Nate Wiggins declared for the NFL draft and shadowed every #1 WR the Tigers faced last year. Dabo Swinney has his work cut out for him as the CU defense will break in a young secondary. =
One final reason for optimism: all four top 150 secondary recruits made it on campus in the spring. Tallahassee should become a no-fly zone.
Question No. 2: Will Adam Fuller continue to run a 4-2-5 base D?
During the 2023 offseason, the FSU coaching staff agreed that they would revamp the Seminole run defense. For the first three years of the Mike Norvell tenure, Florida State would consistently give up devastating runs or get worn down by body blows. The coaching staff felt they plugged a few holes in the boat during the year, but the pass defense finished the season way ahead of the ground game. FSU gave up over four yards a carry in five games this season, not including the Orange Bowl. The up-and-down defense came with Fabien Lovett and Fabien Fiske manning the middle. This upcoming season, Florida State will be without experienced starters at the defensive tackle position, and the run defense could take a step back.
But will Adam Fuller decide to put a third linebacker on the field more often? He could do this to counter-act the loss on the interior and try to hide some of the deficiencies at linebacker. Or, he could keep five members of the secondary on the field and trust that a back-end where every starter stands over six feet tall can handle the extra pressure of tackling in the run game. Of course, Shyheim Brown plays like a linebacker with his ability to tackle in space and play along the line of scrimmage. If it were up to me, I would keep Earl Little on the field and trust Jones and Payton to set hard edges on the outside. But, after rewatching the tape, I saw that the run defense had long stretches of inconsistency, and Adam Fuller will need to get creative to fix the issues.
Prediction No. 2: Tight end will be the weakest unit on the roster
For most of the transfer portal, FSU fans worried about the depth of the linebacker position. The Seminoles were losing all three starting LBs and needed to take someone to replenish the loss of depth. It looked like Randy Shannon would be responsible for coaching up second-year players Blake Nichelson and Omar Graham Jr. to be the teeth of the Seminole defense. At the 11th hour, DJ Lundy traded in his CU chain for an FSU sledgehammer and de-committed from Deion Sanders. Linebacker Shawn Murphy gave a piss about something else but the Tide and left Alabama to continue the trend of #rolltribe.
All of a sudden, the linebacker situation became good enough. Now, the attention needs to change to the tight end room. Swiss army knife Jaheim Bell departed the program, leaving only Kyle Morlock, who played significant snaps last season, as a returner at the position. Morlock found his stride as the year went on but did not impact the game as Bell did. Next on the depth chart should be Jackson West, who won the most improved offensive player. However, he sometimes struggled as a blocker, especially late in the season. The coaching staff thinks he will unlock his full potential this season, but I want to see how he looks in spring before I jump on the bandwagon. After that, the Seminoles have unproven talent in Brian Courtney, freshman Landen Thomas, and Preston Daniel, who said he was entering the portal but looks like he will be sticking around.
The weakness comes from a lack of production and the fact that no one jumps off the page as someone who can replace Bell’s impact or consistently be used in two tight-end sets, which unlocked the offense this year.
Spring ball may change my opinion, but the position gives me pause.
Question No. 3: How much will the offensive line rotate next year?
Like the run defense, the FSU offensive line played inconsistently for parts of the season. Of the eight players in the rotation last season, only one player, according to PFF, finished with a run-blocking grade above 70, and that was Maurice Smith with 72.1. Of course, these numbers are skewed, as when Travis went down, teams stacked the box and blitzed more. However, Florida State returned to the portal to pick up three offensive pieces along the O-line, and quietly, they knew that the line needed to improve.
Will Alex Atkins continue to rotate like last year, or does it make sense to create continuity and roll out the same five guys game in and game out before injuries blow up the plan? Additionally, how does Alex Atkins being suspended for the first three games of the year change their strategy?
If they decide not to rotate, the decision becomes simple. From left to right, the offensive line should be Scott, Ferguson, Smith, Leonard, and Byers, with Washington being the Swiss army knife. Maybe Darius Washington should start over Robert Scott, but the other four feel locked in going into spring ball.
However, Florida State has the depth to rotate how they want.
Keiondre Jones split snaps with Meech down the stretch and proved himself a starting-caliber guard. Jaylen Early and Julian Armella are now no longer young tackles and have the physique and practice time to compete for snaps. Jake Rizy, the Harvard transfer, could give the Seminoles another body on the inside, and FSU could run nine deep. If I had to guess, FSU will continue to cycle bodies in and out. The Seminoles can present matchup problems for opposing defensive lines with their depth and avoid taxing the big uglies more than they need to. But, spring practice should give insight into the plan for 2024.
Prediction No. 3: Defensive end will be a strength, not a weakness
Like the linebacker situation, when the portal opened, the defensive end position seemed to be in free fall. Jared Verse expectedly declared for the draft, but out of nowhere, Patrick Payton said he wanted to cash in somewhere else and tweeted his intentions to leave the program. Fast-forward four weeks, FSU retained Payton and received three more commitments from edge players. The ACC freshman of the year two years ago should be a top-ten edge rusher in college football. Payton will have another offseason to put on weight and grow into his body while being the focal point of the Florida State pass rush. Pairing Payton with Marvin Jones Jr. should be the perfect parallel.
Jones feels like a Jermaine Johnson clone with a similar body frame and stories of how they ended up a part of Mike Norvell’s program. The American Heritage product will instantly compete for starting reps on day one and bring a powerful rush off the edge to complement the speed and twitchiness that Payton excels with. However, the real strength of the unit comes from its surprising depth. Adding DJU’s OSU teammate Sione Lolohea gives the edge position a new type of body they did not have before.
Lolohea excels as a run defender and uses his wide frame to set hard edges, a category FSU struggled in last year. He finished second team all pac-12 and should have snap counts close to equal to Jones and Payton. Besides Lolohea, Tomiwa Durojaiye has the potential to stake his claim as a high-level run defender. Durojaiye reminds me of Dennis Briggs’s ability to play inside or outside. Still, the former West Virginia product has a higher potential and a more athletic profile. While the unit may not have the ceiling it did last year without a top 15 NFL draft pick on the roster, they will avoid the drop-off felt when Verse and Payton left the field. All four have the potential to play significant snaps and can play the run or pass, a luxury not afforded last season.
Throw in Dante Anderson and Byron Turner Jr. after another offseason of putting on weight, and they could contribute 15-20 high-quality snaps a game. By the end of the season, Coach JP’s timeline will be quiet again after putting together a solid defensive front.