Mike Norvell was hired by Florida State from Memphis to help turn around a program that has sunk far below historic expectations. Norvell spent 2016-2019 compiling a 38-15 record with the historically moribund Tigers after replacing Justin Fuente. FSU spent those years going 28-23. Like Fuente before him, Norvell is a young, offensively minded coach who’s helped lead elite offenses in the AAC. Also like Fuente before him, this has yet to translate to the ACC.
That’s not being entirely fair to Norvell. This is, by all accounts, a year zero for the Seminoles. Years of deep program rot (I assume termites were involved) has left Florida State with one of the youngest teams in the country. Nearly three quarters of this roster are freshmen or sophomores. That youth is especially apparent on offense, where six freshmen started last week.
That number includes four of the five offensive linemen. Florida State’s offensive line play has been comfortably amongst the worst in the country for years now. These freshmen very well may be better than the players they replaced, but let’s not confuse better with good. FSU passers get sacked more than 10% of the time they pass. Multiple starters have missed time along the line, and the best player (tackle Devontay Love-Taylor) is out for the season.
That’s part of why the quarterback position has been a game of musical chairs. The ‘Noles have already started four quarterbacks, and the preseason starter is transferring from the program. Last week FSU was down to two healthy scholarship QB’s, both freshmen. The starter, Chubba Purdy, had season ending surgery this week. That leaves Jordan Travis as the starter and Tate Rodemaker as the only scholarship backup quarterback.
Although he’s missed time with injuries lately, Travis has been the ‘Noles most successful quarterback in 2020. This is largely because of what Travis brings in the running game, where he leads the team in carries, yards and touchdowns by a comfortable margin.
Joining him is a rotating set of running backs, with La’Damian Webb, Jashaun Corbin, and Lawrance Toafili splitting carries. With little production to lean on (and few healthy bodies) at receiver, expect a heavy dose of targeting them out of the backfield. Corbin has gotten a lot of work as a wildcat quarterback as well.
The wideout position has been stripped to the studs this year, with FSU only having five scholarship receivers available last week. The ‘Noles best receiver, Tamorrion Terry, has left the program. Terry has appeared upset all year, publicly calling out the coaching staff regarding COVID testing in August, and fighting with his position coach during the Miami game. His departure leaves the Seminoles offense even greener. The receivers on the depth chart after starters Ontaria Wilson and Keyshawn Helton have a dozen combined catches on the year.
At least Camren McDonald appears to be a quality tight end. He spent most of last week playing special teams, and didn’t record a single reception. It’s possible that “year zero” is too optimistic for where this offense is.
It’s hard to see Florida State able to put up much of a fight this week with a roster this barren. Vegas has Clemson ahead by five touchdowns, SP+ favors the Tigers by a more conservative four.
Florida State wants to be a run first offense, particularly with Travis under center. The young offensive line is better run blocking than pass blocking. When Florida State can stay on schedule, the running game has been good enough to manufacture offense. All three backs (and Travis) average north of five yards per carry. Some of this has been padded by running the ball while being blown out, but it’s significantly more successful than the passing game.
At Memphis, Norvell showed comfort running a dizzying array of zone and gap schemes, although at Florida State things have been necessarily simplified. This year has FSU based around inside zone, counter, power, and outside zone.
Norvell is quite good at making these schemes look more complex to the defense than they are. Let’s take a series of four plays from the Seminoles’ game against Pitt. The first play is a counter handoff to the running back. Counter is an ancient football play, and it’s been having a renaissance as coaches figure out ways to run it from the spread.
Counter is probably FSU’s best play at the moment, FSU’s linemen are undersized but athletic and move well in space. Inside zone, which requires the size to move defensive linemen and coordination to pick up the second level defenders, is a work in progress.
Notice how the threat of a screen pass helps distract defenders at the point of attack in the gif above. A short time later FSU will come back to the same look, this time flipping the ball to the swing pass for an easy gain because the defense overplayed the run.
And again, from the exact same look, a running touchdown for the quarterback because the backside defensive end crashed too hard and Travis kept the ball.
By combining a base play with a QB run option and a screen pass, Norvell is able to turn a simple play call for the offense into a dizzying array of plays for the defense. All of these options, the counters on top of counters, serve to constrain defenses if they can’t stop the first handoff without adjusting.
This is what people are talking about when they say an offense is based around the run. All of these constraints are nice, but none of them work without the threat of that initial handoff. There’s even a play-action off this look, although that runs into Florida States pass blocking woes.
Clemson is going to sell out to take away the run, in part because that is what Venables always does and in part because Florida State doesn’t have the passing game to punish them for it. The two quarterbacks left on the roster have a combined completion percentage of 54% and eight interceptions to four touchdowns.
When this offense is at its best, the passing game is a natural outgrowth of the running game. Norvell can scheme his quarterbacks simple completions to get them into rhythm, as well as one on one opportunities with a combination of a good matchup and/or leverage. Being able to rely on running schemes and play-action helps to compensate for FSU’s offensive line play. The tight ends, who Norvell has always been adept at using, become particularly dangerous after a run fake suckers LB’s/safeties out of position.
Take this RPO (ignore the linemen downfield, the refs do) off an extremely similar look to the power handoff we showed above. Although the defense covers the first two options, the combination of Travis improvisation ability and getting a receiver wide the hell open turns into an explosive play.
The combination of an effective running game and Travis’ big play seeking downfield is enough to make Florida State pretty dangerous on standard downs. Part of the reason FSU is 2-6 is that they aren’t great at staying on schedule, especially after the scripted plays (first 10-20) are over.
It’s just hard living when a TFL, a missed pass, almost any negative outcome really, is enough to take you out of your element. This is one of the most penalized teams in the country and the offense is no exception.
The drop back passing game is disastrous. The offensive line cannot pass block with any regularity. It’s entirely possible to get pressure with four pass rushers, and blitz pickup is scattershot on good days. Part of why FSU has been so liberal sending their running backs into routes is they provide next to nothing as pass blockers.
The Seminoles have had some success compensating with sprint out passes, which have the added benefit of only asking young QBs to only read half the field. The problem with this method is that quarterbacks can generally roll out to one side of the field much better than the other. It’s not a great way to attack the middle of the field either.
Another way to try to slow down the pass rush is the screen game. This is a situation where FSU’s offensive line shines in space. It also lets FSU put the ball into the hands of the guys who make the offense go. Taken together, the three main RB’s rank first on the team for total receptions and third for receiving yardage.
These simple throws also come without much threat of a turnover. Keeping things simple is essential to have success with the quarterbacks on the roster. Even then, success is very much a relative term. Let’s look at two basic plays below.
On both plays FSU asks the quarterback to only read half the field. Above, they run mirrored (identical) quick routes and let the QB throw to the side he feels best about on a curl-flat concept. This is something many high school quarterbacks are capable of.
Below the ‘Noles shrink the field by having the QB read the boundary for a simple smash concept between the TE and RB. In both cases, the quarterback really just has to make a high/low read on a single defender.
Both plays end in passes broken up, one resulting in an interception. The ‘Noles have combined for eight touchdowns to twelve interceptions, and the only QB on the roster with a positive TD:INT ratio (Purdy) is out for the season.
The Noles have some success on dig and crossing routes that let their receivers, who remain exceptional athletes, run underneath. But it’s not enough to string together a consistent passing game, Travis is completing less than half his passes against top-25 teams.
The receivers struggle with drops, the offensive line struggles with pass protection, the quarterbacks struggle with decision making, and everyone struggles with timing. Why FSU has run the ball so much despite trailing is that running the ball, and the passing plays based off of it, are the best ways for the ‘Noles to try to score.
It’s not a good recipe for a comeback, and certainly not for an upset against a coordinator like Venables who will happily throw the kitchen sink at opposing running games. I don’t think that FSU is coaching with an eye towards this Saturday anyways. In my opinion, it’s likely that Norvell will try to continue the work of installing his offense with an eye to winnable games against Duke and UVA and establishing an identity in 2021.