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Clemson at Florida State Preview: Q&A with Tomahawk Nation

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NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

This rivalry clash may not be the game of the century we expected at the start of the year, but it is still the game of the week. We are fortunate to have Dylan Kidd from Tomahawk Nation join us to share some insights on his FSU Seminoles.

The media built up Florida State to be a juggernaut whose only question mark would be a young QB. Francois hasn’t been too bad, but his supporting cast hasn’t lived up to the (extremely high) bill. What position group or groups are most notably failing to meet expectations?

I’d add that it wasn’t just the media, but FSU’s own coaches as well that hyped this team heading into 2016. The same sources that told us to temper expectations for last year’s squad were all-in on the 2016 group, and it’s a mystery how the staff missed so badly on the quality of this year’s team. Anyway, I think it’s FSU’s secondary that has disappointed the most, which would probably be followed by the offensive line.

My answer to question four below has a full discussion of the secondary, so let’s look at the offensive line. The O-line probably hasn’t been as bad as most FSU fans think it has been, as everyone undervalues their team’s offensive line. However, it was expected to be a strength of this team, and thus far it has struggled at times. The right side was always a question mark, and Rick Leonard turned out to most certainly not be the answer at right tackle after being moved over from defensive end in the spring. Brock Ruble has come in for him and improved the quality of play, but he’s still far from an elite player. The right guard spot has seen true freshman Landon Dickerson take over. He’s still growing as a player, obviously, but we think he has a high ceiling going forward. Overall, I think this is a pretty decent and improving unit now, but it hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations set for it before the season began.

What have you seen from Deondre Francois so far that encourages you for both this season and the future? And where does he still need to make the most progress?

I think his play has been about in line with expectations for a redshirt freshman in Jimbo Fisher’s offense. Francois certainly has the arm strength to be very effective, and I think that his running ability has me most excited for his future. When Fisher uses him, he’s definitely a weapon on the ground. His decision-making is a predictable problem, as he tends to hold onto the ball much too long at times. He’s missing base offense throws pretty regularly, both due to misreads and poor accuracy. But I don’t think his performance has been egregiously bad overall. Jameis Winston and Deshaun Watson are the exceptions as young quarterbacks, and it was unwise to ever expect Francois to match those levels of play. I think he can eventually be a better version of EJ Manuel, if that reference helps.

What’s the status of Derwin James and some of the other key injuries on the FSU defense?

Derwin had a large tear of his meniscus and underwent a full repair. This differs from the normal scope and cleanup, which is a 2-4 week injury. I don’t expect James to play this week, even though he is a freak of a fast healer, another facet of being an exceptional athletic specimen. His loss is enormous, for sure. Nate Andrews is another safety who will miss Saturday’s game. As a result, FSU has moved receiver Ermon Lane to safety in the middle of the season and will start him, and players we never believed would see early reps for the ‘Noles are seeing many of them, like 170-pound true freshman Kyle Meyers. The defensive line finally seems to be getting healthy, so that’s a much-needed positive.

The FSU secondary, with or without Derwin James has an incredible amount of talent. Across the two deep, they average 4-stars! Some players were recently shuffled around with the injury to safety Nate Andrews and some inconsistent play. What can we expect in this contest from such a talented group?

The 2016 secondary was projected to be the best and deepest position on Florida State’s team. While they’re certainly still quite talented, it’s been a rough year for a group from which so much was expected. The unit really struggled with its base scheme early in the season, even granting that they were playing against some great offenses. The basics of communication and understanding their roles in Fisher and Kelly’s favored pattern-match coverages were largely lost on this group, leading to multiple blown coverages per game and wide open receivers. They particularly struggled against spread teams that made them defend all 11 players with the quarterback run threat. Trips, stacked receivers, etc, quite often spelled doom for the secondary in these games.

This has led to a significant amount of simplification over the last two games. The ‘Noles are playing much more man coverage with single or two-high safety looks, and it seems they’ve simplified the few zone coverages they’ve played. While this has probably led to some amount of actual improvement, I’m not at all convinced that the issues FSU’s secondary faced early in the season have been fixed. After struggling mightily against the #2, 5, 12, and 28-ranked offenses by S&P+, FSU’s improvements have come against #s 37 and 101, both of which featured immobile quarterbacks. Clemson currently sits at #25 on offense, which is closer both in quality and in style to those attacks that gave FSU fits early on. Additionally, while simplifying coverages helps FSU’s athletes to rely more on their talent than scheme, it also has its own problems. FSU cannot play man all night against Clemson, as Deshaun Watson will eat them alive on the ground. Basic coverages will also make life easier for Watson in terms of reads and decisions. So, while it’s reasonable to expect some improvement from FSU’s secondary against the Tigers (it’s hard to get much worse with the quality of athletes the ‘Noles have), it’s hard to think that everything is fine now.

Is there any legitimate concern about Jimbo Fisher leaving after this season for LSU, or is that mostly SEC rumor mill fodder?

I think it’s possible that Fisher leaves for LSU. Does he want to go back to the SEC and compete against his mentor in Tuscaloosa? Does he feel that his message is no longer getting through to FSU’s players like it did earlier in his tenure? We know that almost every coach not named Saban who has won a national title in the modern era did so within his first five years at his respective school. It may be that Fisher wants a change, and I can’t claim to know what he’s thinking. That said, LSU won’t pay him a meaningful amount more than FSU will, and his son’s medical treatment is rooted in Tallahassee. I don’t know that his recruiting fortunes or national championship aspirations are improved by a move to Baton Rouge. It just depends on his state of mind as the season comes to an end, and I wouldn’t bet on it one way or another because of that. I think he’s a very good coach, but I don’t think he’s irreplaceable, and it’s not among my greatest worries about FSU’s program right now.

What player or position group gives you the most optimism that the ‘Noles can once again defend Doak Campbell and knock off the Tigers?

Well as I mentioned, the play of the secondary has thankfully improved, though it would be hard for it not to. The defensive line is truly healthier, as Derrick Nnadi has started to look like himself on the interior and Josh Sweat has played better in the last couple of weeks. The offensive line has looked pretty good since USF, save for a sleepwalk against Wake Forest that the whole team participated in. And FSU still has Dalvin Cook. FSU will show up for this game, which is a real concern for other games, as its season is effectively over. I think the ‘Noles are going to need help from the Tigers if they’re going to pull this off, because on a down-to-down basis, I don’t think FSU’s offense is going to be better against Clemson’s D than vice-versa. The Seminoles will need CU turnovers, and will also need some explosive plays on offense or special teams. Home field helps, but I can’t come up with too many reasons to expect Florida State to win this game right now. I think the spread should be north of a touchdown and would put FSU’s win probability at about 30%.

Conversely, what player or position group worries you most as the #4 Clemson Tigers roll into town?

Deshaun and his receivers are the obvious answer, but I don’t think FSU fans are paying enough attention to the monster-laden defensive front that Clemson features. Nobody has blocked Dexter Lawrence as a true freakin’ freshman, and I don’t expect that to tangibly change this Saturday. The rotation is pretty frightening, and I think FSU will be hard-pressed to have sustained success on the ground, which will be necessary to pull an upset. That said, Fisher will have a plan, as he’s very good at offensing. Florida State will use its two tight-end sets, which have been very effective so far. The ‘Noles will probably run a bunch of counter trey and interesting screens to deal with the Clemson front, but the plan still has to be executed by a redshirt freshman and an offense that has struggled mightily in first halves. The Seminoles can’t continue their tendency to fall behind early in games. This isn’t to say FSU can’t win the game; they definitely can, but I think they’ll have to be pretty fortunate to pull it off.

Again, huge thanks to Dylan for joining us. Please check him out on twitter and visit Tomahawk Nation to see our answers to his questions.