Florida State coach Willie Taggart talks about FSU’s class on National Signing Day.
Wayne McGahee III, Tallahassee Democrat
Everyone seems to be in good spirits.
The Florida State Seminoles filled many important needs during the 2019 recruiting cycle.Coach Willie Taggart also believes the class will help further strengthen the culture he’s determined to build on new identifiable values and standards. And it’s always cool when a Tallahassee native and former Seminole makes a public triumphant return home as an assistant coach.
Despite the positive vibes, a valuable piece to the Seminoles’ puzzle was missing Wednesday. Quarterback should be a hot ticket at FSU. But interest from high school players has been lukewarm.
Why is that?
Culture? Scheme? Coaching? Recruiting strategy?
“I was a little surprised, especially with Deondre (Francois) off the team,” former Seminole quarterback Peter Tom Willis said Wednesday.
“Looking back, when I was coming out of high school, Florida State was known for its offensive football. It was a spot I think quarterbacks wanted to go.”
Not so much these days.
Taggart went into Wednesday’s National Signing Day desperate to build depth and production at quarterback. Instead, the boss was left explaining his misses and assuring everyone he had a plan. He also hedged on sharing it.
That’s not ideal posturing by the Seminoles’ second-year head coach, but he’s driving the bus. Taggart has yet to sign a high school quarterback in two recruiting cycles, and FSU is believed to be the only Power Five program without a high school quarterback signee in that span. For Taggart and a staff that was hailed as strong recruiters when hired, the whiffs at quarterback are unsettling to an already nervous fan base.
FSU lost its two identified candidates this recruiting cycle in Sam Howell (North Carolina) in December and Lance Legendre (Maryland) on Wednesday to programs with new coaching staffs that sold hope and optimism. Taggart also went down this path, saying Wednesday the negativity surrounding FSU’s program made recruiting a challenge. Like culture, that’s difficult to quantify, though great teams and leaders know how to succeed despite adversity.
It’s not like Maryland and UNC have enjoyed smooth sailing either. Maryland was in disarray last season following the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and subsequent midseason firing of head coach DJ Durkin. North Carolina had five wins in the past two seasons.
The coaching hires were logical but critics were quick to point out flaws.
Maryland’s Mike Locksley, though the 2018 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant while at Alabama, has a career record of 3-31 as a head coach with a checkered past. UNC’s Mack Brown, though a beloved Seminole as a former player and assistant and revered among UNC fans for his previous 10-year stint at the school, was a college football commentator for ESPN the past five years. At 67, even with a national title at Texas and keen interest in the FSU opening last year, Brown joins a long list of football coaches working past retirement age.
What exactly is the national perception of Taggart and FSU?
“My feeling is we never got better (last season),” said former FSU cornerback Bryant McFadden, who earned two Super Bowl rings in the NFL and currently serves as a studio analyst for CBSSPORTS.com. “I know we have to be patient. To compete for a championship, we are not there yet. But we have to be competitive and relevant in the ACC. We have talent. To say we don’t is not true.”
FSU, at the moment, doesn’t have numbers at quarterback.
The Seminoles are down to two scholarship quarterbacks in redshirt sophomore James Blackman and redshirt freshman transfer Jordan Travis, who needs an NCAA waiver to be eligible this fall. Redshirt senior Deondre Francois was dismissed Sunday after a social media post accused him of domestic violence. He’s among six FSU quarterbacks since 2013 to either transfer, leave before their eligibility expired or be dismissed.
Taggart mentioned the transfer and grad transfer route as one option to fill the void. Another could be heralded defensive back Travis Jay, who also played quarterback at state champion Madison County High. Walk-on Nolan McDonald, a former Air Force commit, was third on the depth chart last season.
“It’s disappointing we only have one (eligible) quarterback,” said Willis, who had to wait his turn at FSU and didn’t start until his senior season in 1989, when he set 15 school records. “On the other side of it, it’s hard to understand why.”
It starts with recruiting and development. Eight of FSU’s 10 career passing leaders played for coach Bobby Bowden, who directed the program to two national titles and a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke. Coach Jimbo Fisher signed Jameis Winston and Sean Maguire in 2012, with Winston winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Seminoles to their third national title a year later.
Francois struggled in Taggart’s spread, read-pass option scheme last season. And while Taggart was known to adapt his system to his talent as his previous stops at Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon, the Seminoles’ offense never found its rhythm or identity in Taggart’s first year. FSU quarterbacks also have been battered and bruised beyond belief behind a porous line the past few seasons.
“Back in the late 1980s and the 1990s, FSU’s offense – from a national perspective – was wide open,” longtime recruiting analyst Bobby Burton said Wednesday. “FSU was so good for so long. I think a large part of that was its offensive success. Even with talent at other positions, quarterback is the great equalizer that can go both ways. A great one can make you better, and a bad one can drag you down.”
Former FSU quarterback Danny McManus, the assistant general manager and director for U.S. Scouting for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, pointed to the lack of elite quarterbacks hailing from Florida in recent years. It’s also an interesting phenomenon that many of the state’s top players across all positions are no longer staying close to home. While McManus believes quarterbacks who can throw and read defenses are keys to success, he is pulling for Taggart and staff to get FSU back on its feet. Regardless of offensive scheme or strategy.
“I’d rather have a thrower who can run than a runner who can throw,” McManus said Wednesday. “But I understand it takes time when there’s a change (in coaching). I am always going to pull for FSU.”
Little has gone right for Taggart since he stole the hearts of FSU fans with his charismatic arrival and exuberant promises. He can’t seem to catch a break either. The Seminoles added quality players during the 2019 recruiting cycle, especially on defense and along the offensive line. But Taggart’s inability to sign a high school quarterback – combined with the mention of a plan at quarterback he’s not ready to share yet – has dominated the message.
Still, more than 300 people showed at FSU’s recruiting event Wednesday night, and the mood was upbeat. New receivers coach Ron Dugans, an FSU alum, received a hearty round of applause, and new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles was well-received.
So now we wait.
This season may make or break Taggart. FSU fans pay a pretty penny to support their Seminoles, and they want to have confidence in their coach and his vision. Organization and developing good habits also help teams win consistently. Taggart believes he’s on the right path. Great to hear. We have to see it, too.
Everyone benefits from winning football.
“I like coach Taggart. Look, it’s tough to be good right off the bat and we just have to stay the course,” Willis said.
“Hopefully, we make a few changes and tweaks. And the kids have to perform, too. Coaching is very, very important…. and there were some things that went on last season that were disappointing. These players have to know what they are doing on the field. Hopefully, he (Taggart) has a plan and he’s going to get these things taken care of.”
Reach Jim Henry at [email protected]
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