The lowdown on Florida State from a 'Noles beat writer

The lowdown on Florida State from a 'Noles beat writer

Football

The lowdown on Florida State from a 'Noles beat writer

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TCI recently spoke with Andre Fernandez to get some insight on Florida State ahead of Clemson’s game against the Seminoles. Fernandez covers FSU football as a beat writer for the Tallahassee Democrat.

Fernandez hit on a number of topics during the following question-and-answer session, including FSU’s midseason turnaround, the emergence of QB Jordan Travis, where the Seminoles’ defense has been susceptible and more heading into Saturday’s game.

Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity

FSU is riding a three-game winning streak into Clemson after an 0-4 start. What has triggered the turnaround?

I really think more consistency and fewer errors. I think this is a team that’s still very inexperienced and still has a young roster overall. With (FSU) coach Mike Norvell really still laying the pieces into place after last season for his first year with the pandemic, it was pretty rough in terms of not having a real offseason and that sort of thing. They’re kind of trying to find their footing and, at the same time, it’s a team that’s just hurt itself with penalties and untimely turnovers. Every game seemed to have the same theme where early on these mistakes would put them in a big hole, and they’re just not the type of team that’s built to come back from these large deficits. And you kept seeing that over and over, but now the last three games, they’ve gotten off to better starts. If you look at the numbers, their penalties are much lower than they were in the first four games.

And really the emergence, too, of Jordan Travis. They finally settled on one quarterback. He pretty much took that spot and ran with it after they had rotated between him and McKenzie Milton. Not only does he fit the offense better because of what he can do for the rush game, but he’s also shown the ability to effect the passing game with his ability to throw downfield, which is something he’s gotten better at. Throughout his career, he’s been hurt a lot, and he’s been a lot better this year in terms of staying on the field. The Syracuse game started this three game winning streak. That was when he finally was back from injury and became the full-time starter. They’ve rolled since. So I think it’s no coincidence Travis’ play has been a big part of it, too.

Outside of getting healthy, what did Travis do to finally take hold of the starting job?

I think it was mainly the dual-threat ability. It’s not just the mobility and the elusiveness, but he was their leading rusher last year. So they’re able to do the read-option. They can design plays with him to add to the two backs that have had such a good year. And it’s really made the offense that much more explosive. Against Syracuse, they kept it to short passes for the most part. Very methodical type of offense because they were making sure to protect with Syracuse having a good pass rush. But then you could see against North Carolina, they opened it up and more, took their shots downfield and hit a few. And all of a sudden, that’s why they were able to kind of steamroll North Carolina for a couple of quarters and build a big lead. Not only do you have a running game racking up over 200 yards, but then you have the quarterback that you have confidence in that will make a play with his legs or with his arm downfield and hit big plays.

Speaking of the running game, FSU has averaged more yards per carry than anyone in the FBS in October (6.91). How are they doing it?

I think the health of the running backs, too. The offensive line, it’s been banged up. At least one (starter) has been out every game so far this year or maybe if they start with the same five, someone goes down in the middle of a game. So that’s been back and forth. But they’ve done a great job up front in spite of all that little by little these these last few weeks to kind of gel, come together and do a much better job overall than they did last season in terms of the run blocking.

But I think it’s those backs, too, because Jashaun Corbin had dealt with some injuries and he’s finally healthy. And he looks like it. The line’s doing a good job, but when he gets to the second level, he has that shiftiness to make guys miss and then just burst downfield. He didn’t have that in the past because of injuries. Now you can tell he’s 100%. He’s just moving better with the ball. And Treshaun Ward, another kid that was a walk-on before and now he’s on scholarship. They’ve turned into a pretty good 1-2 punch there. (Ward) is fast, but he’s a little more of a breaking-tackles, powerful type of back. There’s a good mix with the two of them to be able to keep that running game going, and it’s shown. They’ve gone over 200 in six out of seven games this year.

How does FSU work the passing game off of that?

They use some play-action, but I think mostly it’s Travis making the right reads in the (run-pass options). He’s doing a better job in terms of his decision-making. I think that’s something that you’re starting to see. Last week against UMass — and UMass, they’re pretty bad — but at the same time, you could see just in general, in terms of decision-making, that’s the kind of stuff that at least gives every play a chance when he’s making the right call in terms of keeping it, handing it off or maybe looking downfield and making the right read. That part of his game is developing, and you can see he’s made strides this year in a lot of ways. So that’s part of it, too. His growth as a quarterback there has been able to make the offense go and make the running game that much more effective.

What’s the scouting report on this FSU defense, which is allowing 26 points per game?

They’ll blitz, but it’s not like it’s constant. The ends are really good with (Georgia transfer) Jermaine Johnson primarily. The addition of him has been huge because they basically had no pass rush last year. They had 10 sacks the whole season, and now (this season) they have 19.  And a lot of it is him. This is a kid that will be playing on Sundays, and the way he can just get around tackles and really pressure the quarterback on a consistent basis has been impressive to watch. Keir Thomas, who they added from South Carolina, has done a good job, too. The interior (of the defensive line), though, they’ve been kind of banged up. They lost one of their main tackles in Dennis Briggs Jr., but they’ve had guys step up and those guys have done a decent job this year.

They’ll give up yards, but they’ve done a good job not giving up big runs to at least the running backs. Where they’ve struggled a little bit in terms of mobile quarterbacks is making big plays like that. (Quarterback Garrett) Shrader, the kid from Syracuse, busted a few big runs on them. Sam Howell did the same thing at North Carolina. So they’ve been kind of susceptible to when you have that type of quarterback, which I know Clemson has. They’re guys that can make plays with their feet, too. That’s been a little bit of a weak spot for (Florida State) throughout the season.

So then you wouldn’t be surprised if Clemson alternates more between D.J. Uiagalelei and Taisun Phommachanh at quarterback Saturday?

I think if they think that’s something they can exploit, I would definitely think they would do something like that. Because throughout the year, even now that their defense has improved, that continues to be something that they’ve struggled with. (Louisville quarterback) Malik Cunningham did it to them. I keep thinking of examples this year. Sam Hartman did it to them in the Wake (Forest) game. That’s something that continues to happen.

One interesting stat is when you look at chunk runs that they’ve allowed, they’ve pretty much all been the quarterbacks I don’t think they’ve allowed a running back to really break loose. There’s no 20-or-more yardage plays from an opposing team by a running back. They’ve all been quarterbacks. And I know both of those guys for Clemson have that ability to different degrees, so that’s something that could help them.

Have the FSU coaches and players talked about preparing to see multiple quarterbacks from Clemson?

They said they’re going to have a game plan no matter who gets the start. They’re kind of preparing for both guys just in case. That’s pretty much what they were talking about. The biggest thing I think they’re trying to warn against is any sort of taking the offense lightly just because Clemson’s offense has struggled this year and is not what it was in the past. They’re kind of just like be weary There are still a lot of good playmakers on that team. And it’s one of those things where that offense could suddenly out of nowhere click and make big plays, and they don’t want to take it to the point where they’re thinking they’re just down this year or anything like that. 

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