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College football Florida State Seminoles Willie Taggart long road back

Florida State got the coach it wanted to lead a new era: the optimistic, energetic Willie Taggart, a Seminole at heart who said and did all the right things from the moment he arrived.

His offense would take advantage of all the speed and skill at Florida State. His defense would be physical and aggressive again. His culture would bring more accountability and responsibility, and draw his players closer. His practices would be more fun, music blaring as a smiling Taggart often bobbed along to the beat.

Sold-out booster crowds came to hear him speak across the state, and it became hard to imagine a more perfect fit, for both Taggart and Florida State. In the past four seasons under former coach Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles had signed top-5 recruiting classes. So with the talent returning and all the optimism coming from Taggart, it was easy to believe in Florida State going into 2018.

The Seminoles were picked to finish second in the Atlantic Division behind Clemson in the preseason media poll. They started the season ranked No. 19.

Then came Labor Day night. Taggart joked in the days leading up to the season opener that he wanted to make sure not to trip when he made his long-awaited entrance into Doak Campbell Stadium. What ended up happening was much worse. Florida State, a touchdown favorite against Virginia Tech, got embarrassed at home 24-3. A sheepish Taggart conceded afterward that he had no answers for the unexpected performance.

Thus began a miserable first month in the Willie Taggart era. The following week, the Seminoles needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat FCS Samford. The week after that, Florida State looked even more inept, losing to Syracuse 30-7. Some fans seethed on social media and message boards. Others wondered aloud whether Taggart was on the hot seat only three games into his tenure.

The vitriol and criticism grew so loud, Taggart asked fans for their patience. The anger has faded over the past month, as Florida State (4-3) has won three of its past four. But the Seminoles are about to enter their most difficult stretch of the season, starting with No. 2 Clemson on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, ABC).

A rivalry game that once stood as the centerpiece to the ACC’s revival, Florida State-Clemson has gone from all-important prime-time showcase to off the national radar. Between 2011 and 2015, the winner in this game ended up playing in the ACC championship game and the loser finished second in the Atlantic Division. Between 2013 and 2015, the winner went on to play for a shot at the national championship.

As the trajectory for the programs changed, so did this game’s prominence. Florida State has lost three straight in the series, and Clemson goes into Saturday as a 17-point favorite.

“Coming into the season, we felt we were going to win every game. We thought we were going to play well,” Taggart said in a recent phone interview. “But my only concern with our team wasn’t necessarily football. How are we going to deal with adversity? That was my concern when I took the job. You can do so much when it comes to dealing with adversity, and to me the only way you can is when you’re in those situations. For us, it didn’t come until the fall, and sure enough we didn’t handle it well starting the first game.”

In hindsight, much of the optimism that comes with hiring a new coach glossed over some real underlying problems inside the Florida State program. Sometimes, it is much easier to buy into a vision than look underneath the surface.

Taggart inherited a program that last played for an ACC championship in 2014, one that had a series of inexplicable losses during 2015 and 2016 that should have been flashing warning signs. Still, Florida State went into 2017 as the ACC favorite, with national championship aspirations. Its opener against Alabama was labeled the “Greatest Opener of All Time.”

That game ended up changing the course of the entire Florida State football program. Quarterback Deondre Francois injured his knee in the game and was lost for the season. Hurricane Irma forced the Seminoles to spend two weeks without playing. When they returned, they looked uninspired and listless. Soon, speculation started swirling about Fisher and his future in Tallahassee.

The Seminoles, filled with future NFL draft picks, needed a game rescheduled because of the hurricane just to reach bowl eligibility in early December. They did it without Fisher, who left for Texas A&M. FSU finished 7-6, and then lost six underclassmen to the NFL draft.

When Taggart arrived, he inherited a .500 team that had splintered.

“Last year a lot of guys were focused on themselves, and focused on producing stats to go to the next level,” defensive end Brian Burns said. “There was some division between the team, between players, players and coaches. There was division throughout the entire team.”

Not only that, Taggart had a relatively young team with major depth concerns at key positions. The most glaring: offensive line, where Florida State struggled under Fisher in his last three seasons. In the 2015 and 2016 signing classes, the Seminoles signed six four-star offensive linemen, including five in the ESPN 300. But in 2017, they signed only one lineman, a three-star in Brady Scott.

Despite what appeared to be talent on the roster, Fisher and the previous staff had a difficult time developing those players. Injuries have not helped, either, impacting players such as Baveon Johnson, rated the No. 1 center in the 2016 class. Taggart knew the line he started against Virginia Tech had to stay healthy or there would be problems.

Then Landon Dickerson, arguably the Seminoles’ best offensive lineman, got hurt against the Hokies. Derrick Kelly got hurt against Syracuse, and a difficult situation got worse. Taggart admits he had to get players in who were not quite ready to play because they had no other options. Still, he thought in the absolute worst-case scenario, the Seminoles would at least be able to run the ball with 1,000-yard rusher Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick returning.

But with a patchwork offensive line, the holes in the run game never opened. Akers had a hard time adjusting to the new blocking scheme, and when the yards stopped coming so easily, he started pressing, and the running game faltered. Meanwhile, pass blocking was a mess. Francois, having his own issues in the new up-tempo system, started taking one hit after another. He has been hit 63 times behind the line of scrimmage, more than any quarterback in the country.

But it was not just the offensive line. The wide receiver position was an issue, too. Florida State has not had a 1,000-yard receiver since Rashad Greene in 2014. Between 2015 and 2017, they signed four ESPN 300 prospects at the position. Three remain on the team. Among them, Keith Gavin already has a career high for receiving yards this season with 358.

After the opener, Taggart realized the transition to the up-tempo system took the biggest toll on his receivers, who made far too many mistakes because they were not accustomed to moving so quickly. So Taggart decided to slow down the tempo against Syracuse. But slowing down created more problems for his offensive line and the Orange lived in the Florida State backfield. In hindsight, Taggart regrets making that choice.

“We were going slow, and we weren’t running the ball, we threw it 40-something times and that isn’t our offense, we weren’t ourselves,” Taggart said. “We weren’t going fast and we were trying to throw it and ignoring up front, that’s not our cup of tea right now. In that game, Deondre had a lot of open guys. He didn’t have time to get it to them. That killed it, but again when they know you’re going to throw, that doesn’t help our O-line at all. Tempo and running the football alleviates a lot of that pressure you get from teams. That’s why places we’ve been before, it’s worked for us because you don’t get all the exotic things that people do to you because you’re going so fast and you have a lot of misdirection that don’t allow the defense to sit there and tee off on you.”

All those lessons learned in the first four games ended up helping the Seminoles, but they are far from a finished product. Against Miami, they played their best half of football and took a 20-point lead into the third quarter. But again, they reverted to the mistakes that cost them early in the season and that sent the team into a tailspin. The Seminoles ended up losing the game, a heartbreaking ending that provided yet another lesson: learning how to finish.

But players say that if there is one thing that is different from last season, it is the overall attitude. Though they are still working through how to deal with adversity, Burns said the team is “light years away” from where it was a season ago.

“Everyone wants to win,” said Burns, who ranks second nationally with nine sacks. “Everyone has that desire to get better for the better good of the team instead of individually. That’s what makes this team different from last year.”

Center Alec Eberle has not seen any quit in his teammates, either.

“Honestly, after you lose some games like we’ve lost, you could turn it in,” Eberle said. “Guys could give up and say, ‘I’m going to focus on myself, focus on the NFL’ and stuff like that, but that hasn’t happened. The whole team is still bought in. The whole team feels it’s completely possible for us to win these next games. We just have to start fast and finish fast.”

Taggart says he firmly believes he has a bowl team. But the Seminoles also have the toughest remaining schedule in the nation, with three top-10 teams remaining (Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida) and opponents with a win percentage of .882. ESPN FPI projects the Seminoles to finish 5-7.

No matter what the finish, Taggart just wants to see continued improvement. Though there was widespread panic among the fan base in September, Taggart is all too familiar with this situation. In his three previous head coaching stops, his teams have struggled in Year 1. At USF and Western Kentucky, he went 2-10.

“Like I told our guys, we’ve got a lot of talented guys on this football team,” Taggart said. “I just don’t think we have a lot of football players, guys that just love football. That’s where we’ve got to get to. Each one of them needs to get back to how they felt when they decided to come to Florida State. For whatever reason, some of them have gotten away from that. And we’ve got some guys that love it. You can see it the way they practice, the way they play. They do it daily but there’s some guys who want to take the easy route. You don’t do that here at Florida State. That’s part of the culture we’ve got to get out of here. It’s happening, slowly but surely.

“I will say this: These guys want to do what I ask them to do. They’re really competitive, but they get down on themselves when it doesn’t go their way, and that’s one of their biggest issues. If we can overcome that, this football team will be really good.”

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