As the final chapter of Florida State football’s 2020 season came to a close, a daunting task was staring head coach Mike Norvell squarely in the face — he had to find a way to improve with a depleted roster following a 3-6 campaign in which the pandemic had obstructed his staff from building relationships with recruits.
Needless to say, it wouldn’t be easy.
Florida State’s roster had been decimated by the struggles of Norvell’s predecessors (the end of Jimbo Fisher’s time in Tallahassee, and the entirety of Willie Taggart’s tenure). Therefore, FSU wouldn’t have the luxury of sixth-year super seniors or fourth-year sophomores like many other teams. Any on-field benefit you might’ve received from an additional year of eligibility due to COVID-19 was effectively erased.
The Seminoles would have to rely on the growing pains of underclassmen who didn’t know how to win and hadn’t had the coaching to believe in silly notions like player development. Norvell and his staff would have to rely on graduate and waiver transfers from the portal; on the unknown.
Still, FSU found success in the unknown. Quarterback Jordan Travis (Louisville Cardinals transfer) stepped in against Jacksonville State and cemented himself as the offensive catalyst. Beside him was running back Jashaun Corbin (Texas A&M Aggies), who became FSU’s second-leading rusher (trailing only Travis). Blocking for them was arguably the Seminoles’ best offensive lineman, Devontay Love-Taylor (Florida International Panthers). Meanwhile, defensive tackle Fabien Lovett (Mississippi State Bulldogs) flashed as a valuable piece.
And although the Seminoles were granted a high number of waivers allowing these players immediate playing time, the NCAA process was at best a guessing game. There are no certainties in the cutthroat arena of the transfer portal. Among teams vying for potential difference-makers no quarter is asked for, nor given.
Norvell and his staff had their work cut out for them to repeat this level of portal success, but it was necessary if the program was to take the next step. Fortunately, Norvell had crafted a staff full of grinders and now had numerous selling points to transfer targets. And sell is exactly what FSU did.
Over the course of the next two months, the Noles added eight transfers. By the start of the 2021 season, Florida State had recruited 12 transfers. And while the debate continues over the merits of the portal and what qualifies as a good hit rate, there’s no question FSU did what it had to do.
After an 0-3 start to the season, fans were getting restless, with a contingent calling for Norvell’s head. Tomahawk Nation’s Jon Marchant penned an article explaining why that would be short-sighted. It was so well done, ESPN’s Anish Shroff mentioned it on-air during the Seminoles’ game against Louisville.
Fast-forward to the close of the 2021 season, which saw Florida State win five of its final seven games and place eight players on the All-ACC teams, seven of whom arrived at FSU through the portal.
The eight recognitions were the most for Florida State since 2016. Among those players were first-team stars Jermaine Johnson (Georgia Bulldogs) and Jammie Robinson (South Carolina Gamecocks). Johnson was also named the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year.
The transfers didn’t all head to Florida State for the same reason (depth chart, injuries, proximity, etc...). Whatever their reasons or motivations, whatever their varying levels of on-field success, many found redemption in the Garnet and Gold.
And in turn, Florida State may have found its own path to redemption.
Jermaine Johnson became a star. Keir Thomas (South Carolina) set career numbers. Jammie Robinson and Fabien Lovett elevated the defense at their respective position groups. Dillon Gibbons (Notre Dame Fighting Irish) provided much-needed experience for a young offensive line. McKenzie Milton (UCF Knights) didn’t have huge success, but he was able to overcome a gruesome injury to play again. And the list goes on. But a common goal became clear; they were changing the culture in Tallahassee — building a foundation. A future. Together.
“When your best players are your hardest workers, they can be that example of what it takes,” Norvell said in November. “It’s huge. It’s huge for the young guys, it’s huge for the guys that work side-by-side next to him. I think we’ve got a core group of leaders that really tried to be that example.”
Florida State admitted transfers to improve the play on the field, but what the Seminoles got were leaders who shaped the locker room. They held their teammates to higher standards, gave younger players opportunities, and showed the team how to CLIMB. And although there’s growth from the “homegrown” players, it was the group of transfers that had the attention and showed the way forward for their fellow ’Noles.
Credit goes to Mike Norvell and his staff. Through coaching and opportunity, they were able to unlock new heights for many of these players. But what FSU received in return was far more beneficial. Florida State now has a defined path forward. A renewed culture. A new standard. The Seminoles are closing in on a potential top-10 recruiting class. And they’ve established themselves as a destination that transfers must consider when looking for a second chance.