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Big Willie Style: Previewing the FSU Offense

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This game just ain’t what it used to be.

North Carolina State v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

It wasn’t all that long ago at all that FSU vs. Clemson was a play-in for the ACC championship game. Dabo likes to tell everyone that FSU beats Clemson in recruiting rankings every year, and he has a point. The Seminoles are the only program in the ACC that can match or exceed Clemson’s talent level. 2019 could be the beginning of another one of Willie Taggart’s successful turnarounds, with FSU sitting at 3-2 right now. They are ranked only 45th in S&P+, but the offense (22nd) isn’t the unit to blame and the defense (78th) has improved after getting steamrolled by ULM and Boise to begin the season. New OC Kendal Briles has floated around since his tenure in Baylor ended, and there are valid concerns about his role in his father’s program, but, on the field, hiring Briles appears to be working.

Tallahassee is in a rough patch right now, since 2017 the Seminoles have played exactly .500 football (15-15), snapping their 36-year bowl streak last year. FSU needed a missed PAT in overtime to beat a Sun Belt team a few weeks ago, but Clemson doesn’t exactly play to maximize its margin of victory.

I think the Tigers will be focused coming off a bye week, but it should be noted the Noles got a bye too. The Tigers are favored by around four touchdowns, the same was true against UNC. Clemson was favored by 20+ points in each of its last two ACC losses (Pitt 2016, Syracuse 2017), crazy things just happen sometimes in college football.

FSU has two quarterbacks that are good enough to start for most teams in the country in Alex Hornibrook and James Blackman. Blackman will be the starter this week, although both quarterbacks are expected to play. Hornibrook has performed well since debuting against Louisville, and was a major part of FSU’s two ACC wins. The duo have pretty similar skill sets as pocket passers who can push the ball downfield. Blackman has a stronger arm and Hornibrook has taken care of the ball better, neither is much of a running threat. They’ve had some pretty interesting careers for themselves. Blackman was “put into the fire as a skinny freshman” in 2017, lost his job as the starter in 2018 before winning it back in 2019 with a transfer QB on his heels. Meanwhile I can’t even begin to imagine what going from Wisconsin to a Briles offense was like for Hornibrook.

The Noles operate mostly out of 11 personnel, moving tight end Tre’ McKitty from the backfield, to the line of scrimmage, to out wide. Occasionally they’ll bring out a 12 or 10 personnel grouping, but the offense prioritizes tempo over personnel packages. McKitty isn’t great as a pass blocker or receiver, but he’s good enough at both to remain on the field and athletic enough to line out wide. At the college level that’s a fine tight end, and I’m surprised he isn’t featured more heavily. His versatility, combined with a banged-up Muse, could be a problem for a defense that has been burned by TE’s before.

Florida State added offensive linemen in the offseason to address a unit that was widely regarded as one of the worst in the country. Combine that with the fact FSU couldn’t settle on five offensive linemen last season and there is at least depth now. New line coach Randy Clement’s unit has shown progress run blocking, and Cam Akers is more than capable of making something out of nothing. Akers is doing yeoman’s work with defenders in the backfield routinely and no backup to speak of. He’s averaging 5.1 YPC doing it. He’s special.

The offense is focused on establishing the inside run with iso, inside zone, power and counter schemes. Neither quarterback is much of a running threat, although WR motions have to be honored. Akers does wind up running the ball outside a fair amount, but it’s usually on inside runs that get “bounced”, where Clemson’s team speed should be able to minimize damage.

Akers is the engine that makes the Noles offense go, he’s the best pass catching and blocking back the Noles have as well. He asked to be fed the ball and FSU has obliged.

FSU still can’t pass block to save their lives, and it hamstrings the entire offense. Blackman and Hornibrook look capable of executing an intermediate or deep passing game, and they have the receiver talent to push the ball downfield. None of that matters without protection.

The Seminoles do everything in their power to avoid drop back passing, relying on play-actions, RPO’s, the quick game and screens to mitigate pass rushes. They’re pretty good at three of those. The screen game has yet to come together. The quick screens tend to die on the sideline, perhaps because of the extremely wide splits of FSU receivers. It looks like the offense met each other yesterday on the more intricate delayed screens.

Fortunately for the Noles their quick game does a good job spreading the ball around to weapons such as Tamorrion Terry and Keyshawn Helton. They do a good job taking advantage of Akers and McKitty’s versatility to get matchups on weaker underneath defenders. FSU’s RPO game is legit too. The threat of Akers and a running game that actually “has a plan” opens things up for the Noles receiver talent. WR coach David Kelly has them blocking hard on the perimeter, and that can make all the difference when it comes to generating big plays.

This is a great moment in WR blocking history

The Seminoles mix shorter hitches, slants, bubble screens with more downfield RPO’s like deep outs and posts. Blackman and Hornibrook get the ball out quickly enough that RPO’s are probably less likely to get them hit than a regular play.

FSU also uses play-action early and often to try to slow down opposing pass rushes. Briles has long been a fan of aggressive shots against defenses expecting an inside run.

There appears to be the bones of an explosive passing game here, mixing deep throws with crossing routes that get athletes open in space. Due to the struggles along the offensive line we haven’t seen much of it, and it’s hard to see the Seminoles moving the ball consistently. Last years’ offense was one of the more extreme boom or bust teams in the country. This years’ team, because of Akers and a focus on throwing underneath, has been able to improve the efficiency but it’s still not good. It was always going to be a multiple year rebuild along the offensive line. For all the good FSU is doing coaching around it, it’s next to impossible to win when you can’t block anybody. I think the Tigers win but if I were a gambling man I wouldn’t pick them to cover. This is a flawed Seminoles team for sure, but that much talent is always dangerous.