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

Jon Marchant from Tomahawk Nation joins us to answer some questions ahead of this weekend’s game between the Tigers and Seminoles in Tallahassee.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Holds Collegiate Athletics Roundtable at Florida State University Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Clemson Tigers (7-1, 6-1 in ACC) enter Saturday’s road game against the Florida State Seminoles (2-6, 1-6 in ACC) coming off a bye week that followed a rare regular-season loss at the hands of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. A battered Clemson team is slowly getting healthier, and hopes to get back into the win column against the struggling Noles.

Jon Marchant from Tomahawk Nation, SB Nation’s Florida State site, was kind enough to answer some questions for us as we look ahead to Saturday’s game.

Tom: Another year, another coach, and Florida State is still struggling mightily, a far cry from the powerhouse they used to be. What, specifically, continues to plague the Noles, and when do you think they can snap out of it and return to being a dominant force in the ACC (and nationally) once again?

Jon: How much time you got? You can draw a line straight from the state of the program when Jimbo Fisher left all the way to today. Culture rot, talent issues, and lack of player development. Fisher left the offensive line as one of the worst in the Power 5 while the rest of the roster was more or less okay. Willie Taggart improved the APR and the talent on the offensive line, but the talent elsewhere on the roster kind of got nuked, and he didn’t fix the culture issues. That’s the job that Mike Norvell walked into. To be honest, two transition classes in three seasons during the Early Signing Period will nuke the short-term future of any program. How long will it take? Unfortunately there’s no snapping out of this — the program is looking at a full rebuild from the ground up.

Tom: Of course, it’s hard to gauge anything completely here in 2020, as nothing is quite normal. But with that being said, what are your thoughts on what you’ve seen from new head coach Mike Norvell so far? Despite the struggles, are there signs of promise for the future? Have things smoothed over at all since that weird off-season episode?

Jon: That off-season episode ended as quickly as it started, and by all accounts the players had bought in and stood behind Norvell. Personally, I have really liked what I’ve seen from Norvell. I like his staff; I think they can definitely coach. Norvell has a good offensive system that works, and he is involved and pays attention to details. His approach has gotten results, and former players at Memphis speak really highly of him. I think looking back at his resume at Memphis, it was only a matter of time before he got a big Power 5 job. He just needs time at FSU to right the ship.

Tom: As if things were not difficult enough already for the Noles, star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson and starting offensive lineman Devontay Love-Taylor are both out for the season, wide receiver Tamorrion Terry is no longer with the team, and quarterback James Blackman intends to transfer. It seems like there is a good amount of turmoil still within the program, particularly when looking at the Terry and Blackman situations. Can you shed any more light on what was going on with them?

Jon: I don’t think either of those guys, from what we know, were involved in the culture issues. But as upperclassmen they weren’t going to be here for said rebuild. Both players are by all accounts good kids, great teammates, and great representatives of Seminole nation; Blackman especially. They were dealt some pretty bad hands with, in Blackman’s case, three head coaches and four different offensive coordinators in four years. For Blackman, it unfortunately didn’t work out for him here, and we wish him all the best. For Terry, he came back this season to improve his draft stock, and while we’re not sure he accomplished that, we also wish him all the best and we’ll be rooting for him. But you could argue that Terry and Wilson were the two most talented kids on the roster, and losing them was a big blow to even a poor season like this one.

Syracuse v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Tom: Newly installed quarterback Jordan Travis missed last week’s game against NC State with an injury, but it sounds like he’ll be back for the game against Clemson. Nevertheless, Norvell is thus far not committing to Travis being the starter, so it’s possible that Chubba Purdy gets the nod instead. Can you tell us a bit about each of these quarterbacks? I.e., style, strengths, weaknesses, etc. And any inkling on who we should expect to see getting the snaps on Saturday?

UPDATE: Purdy has now been ruled out for the season, so if Travis does not start, it will likely be freshman Tate Rodemaker. I see he was the No. 25-ranked pro-style QB in the 2020 class, per 247Sports Composite. What else can you tell us about him?

Jon: No idea who will start, as we aren’t sure whether either of them is healthy at the moment, but at the time of writing this we are hoping to hear more later in the week. Travis is athletic, and on the ground is where he does most of his damage. He’s got burst and great elusiveness. I don’t think it’s a coincidence he committed to Bobby Petrino’s Louisville Cardinals following Lamar Jackson, though of course he doesn’t touch Jackson’s level as an athlete (no one does). He’s raw as a passer, but with baseball as his background he’s got some fun skills he’s transferred to football, including the ability to throw on the run, off-balance, or off-platform.

As for Purdy, he’s also got some athleticism and speed to him, though I think as a true freshman he’s still getting used to the speed of college defenders. But he’s definitely a pass-first quarterback with a good arm. Unfortunately, he’s also still raw as a passer and he definitely doesn’t have as good of a grasp of the playbook. A lot of what we saw last week against NC State was short quick throws with schemed open receivers. The staff didn’t really challenge him with more difficult concepts or ask him to really throw down the field. That’s made it a bit more difficult to evaluate him.

As for fellow true freshman Tate Rodemaker, as an early enrollee he definitely appears to have a better understanding of the offense. However, his arm strength isn’t great, he’s not very mobile, and we found out last week he has a bad habit of staring down his receivers. In 26 career attempts over three games this season, he has three interceptions (one in each game) and has averaged 4.8 yards per attempt. It’s a little unfair to make final judgments on who he is as a quarterback so early in his career, but there’s perhaps enough there to have legitimate questions or reservations about his ability to be FSU’s future at the QB position.

Tom: When Florida State has the ball, what should we expect to see schematically from Norvell and staff? And which playmakers should we keep an eye on? What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the FSU offense?

Depends on the quarterback! Norvell’s core offensive philosophy is to run the ball, but he is very committed to bending his playcalling to the talent on hand, so the offense looks very different when Travis is in versus when another quarterback is in. But some things don’t change — you’ll see lots of 11 and 21 personnel with a varied run game with inside and outside zone, lots of counter, power, pin and pull, and much more. He loves to pull blockers to change gaps and outflank the defense at the point of attack. Norvell approaches the pass game with a matchup philosophy, and it’s built on the run game to be explosive. So you might see lots of rolling pockets, play-action, and RPOs. One of Norvell’s favorite concepts is the three-level Flood. The weaknesses right now are youth, talent, and offensive familiarity. Travis gives FSU the best chance to win with a read-option offense, but defenses may have figured out how to take the ball out of his hands to limit his impact.

As for playmakers, I love FSU’s two running backs in La’Damian Webb and Lawrance Toafili. Webb has incredible balance and Toafili is a load to bring down. In the pass game, tight end Camren McDonald has been a bright spot.

Tom: On the other side of the ball, what should we expect to see schematically with FSU’s defense? Similarly, what are the defense’s biggest strengths and weaknesses, and who should we keep an eye on?

Jon: Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller likes an attacking style of defense. He loves to blitz, especially on early downs. He ran a lot of man coverage at Memphis, but here at FSU he’s run a lot of zone coverage, including Cover 2 or Quarters. The biggest strength is still the interior of the defensive line, but the weaknesses are everywhere. The pass rush from the defensive ends is nearly nonexistent; only Joshua Kaindoh can reliably threaten disruption, and he still disappears for long stretches. The linebackers are very young and are frequently exploited in coverage, especially freshman Stephen Dix. In the secondary, Asante Samuel Jr. is really good. But his height usually keeps him at field corner, and FSU does not have an answer at boundary corner. At safety they have good young players there in Travis Jay and Renardo Green, but they’re also prone to mistakes.

Florida State v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Tom: Clemson opened as 29-point favorites, and that margin has already jumped to 33.5 as of this writing. Nevertheless, while the Tigers are 7-1 overall, they are only 2-6 against the spread. So, while I won’t ask you for an official prediction, I will ask if you think there are any areas/matchups where the Seminoles could give the Tigers some trouble and keep things within this spread.

Jon: No. FSU isn’t really a competitive team right now, especially if Jordan Travis can’t play. That’s doubly true now after losing Tamorrion Terry and Marvin Wilson. Maybe if Travis can play and is healthy, he might give the Clemson linebackers some issues, or maybe Asante Samuel makes a play. But I would be surprised if FSU was able to hang around for even two quarters.

A big thank-you to Jon for sharing some insights on Florida State. Click here to see my answers to his questions on Tomahawk Nation, where you can also get fully up to date on all things Seminoles.