In our Florida State postseason series reviewing the Seminoles’ tumultuous 2018 campaign, we are working through each position group, taking a look back at what was as well as glancing forward to what the future may hold. Up now: offensive line.
2018’s offensive line
This was, quite frankly, a disaster.
By the numbers
Some metrics, like Pro Football Focus, had FSU with three of the worst nine offensive linemen in the entire country, among regular contributors, and two more who ranked in the bottom 750 nationally, two in the mid-500s, and only one who ranked better than 450th. That means FSU had zero linemen graded in the top-half of the nation by PFF.
Using another metric, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system, FSU finished the year at 130th in Line Yards, 129th in Line Yards on SD, 119th in Line Yards on PD, 126th in opportunity rate, 108th in power success rate, and 125th in Stuff Rate allowed. Reminder: that’s out of 130 FBS teams.
Now granted, those metrics do not account for strength of schedule. Throw Florida State in the MAC or the Sun Belt, and it probably looks OK. But FSU was not in one of those leagues. Its schedule featured lineman after lineman who will be drafted highly. And this line was no match.
Simply put, FSU had one of the worst offensive lines in the nation, and almost certainly the worst in the Power 5.
The disrespect and the results
Opposing defenses routinely disrespected Florida State, betting that they could use a minuscule number of defenders in the box and still stop or limit the run despite being outnumbered at the point of attack. And they were right in that assessment, because the mismatches up front were so severe that they would blow up the scheme anyway. FSU’s offensive line broke math.
This offense looked nothing like any of the successful offenses coach Willie Taggart had directed. FSU’s QBs routinely were under almost immediate pressure.
Basically, FSU’s offensive line destroyed its season.
Its rate of outright failure caused the offense to have one of the worst success rates in the nation (120th), which meant that the offense couldn’t utilize tempo, play-action, etc. It also meant that FSU was routinely losing the field position game.
Contrary to the misperception of some fans, this offensive line was way worse than anything FSU had fielded in recent memory. It was not comparable to lines from recent years.
Of course, the players who were actually playing were not who we thought would be playing for most of 2018
Florida State’s staff knew that if it kept its starters healthy, it could be decent. But also that its backups were so poor that they could “barely conduct practice.”
But after a behavioral dismissal for dating violence, a transfer, a graduation or two, and numerous injuries, FSU was stuck playing many players who it never thought it would have to. I covered this early in the season in “How did Florida State’s offensive line get this bad? If you have not read that linked piece yet, you should do so before continuing here.
Of course, having a group of players who are used to playing in the tight confines of a condensed, pro-style system, and switching them to a wide open, though simpler system, was going to have some consequences. But the main issue is that FSU was running out of backups at almost every position.
Backups it knew weren’t any good, weren’t ready, or weren’t good due to playing out of position.
In hindsight, Willie Taggart should have done a better job of hedging fan expectations by saying “we can have a good year if we stay healthy up front.” While it’s not realistic to ask Taggart to tell the world his backups cannot play worth a lick, letting the fanbase know through more subtle means that there was a substantial drop off from starter to backup could have helped, and that was not done early and often enough. While he was trying to build up the broken psyche of many of his players following a 2017 season in which a coaching staff up and quit on them, he no doubt knew this group’s limitations, should injuries mount.
Kelly never seemed to bounce back from the knee injury he suffered, and his lack of athleticism clearly hurt him at tackle. Perhaps he could have still been a decent guard, but we won’t know because he was forced to play tackle out of desperation.
Williams was a defensive tackle for the entirety of his career at Florida State until he had to switch to the offensive line over the summer. He was not physically overwhelmed as often as others, but he frequently looked like he had no idea what he was doing.
Eberle was a below average football player, but was still one of the best two players on Florida State’s offensive line. Eberle did battle injury throughout his career, but never developed into a good player. Of the three, he could be the toughest to replace.
Unfortunately, it looks like few fixes are on the current roster.
There is little reason to believe that redshirt senior Abdul Bello or redshirt junior Jauan Williams will turn into serviceable players. Both were raw or very raw players coming out of high school, and have been hampered by various injuries, which stunted their development early in their careers. The issue is that both are tackles, the worst position group on FSU’s team. Counting on them would be foolhardy.
Armstrong was known as a recruit with good size and athleticism, but needing toughness. Goss and Neal both needed to add weight to their long frames and learn the position. The latter two as recruits were players who would clearly need at least two developmental years before they hit the field, so depending on them in 2019 would seem unwise.
On the interior, the picture is more promising. Redshirt senior Cole Minshew and redshirt junior Landon Dickerson, assuming they are still with the program in 2019, are FSU’s best linemen. They also happen to be extremely injury prone to this point in their careers. If you could guarantee FSU fans that they would combine to start a full season of games in 2019, they’d likely take that in a heartbeat.
Redshirt junior guard Mike Arnold started several games following injuries to intended starters, but he was slow and not physical. Unless both of those things get fixed, he won’t be a part of the solution.
Redshirt freshman Christian Meadows is a player the old and new staffs were high on as a recruit. The 6’3, 330-pound guard may turn out to be a decent player, but was hampered by injury as a freshman and redshirted.
Redshirt junior Baveon Johnson has failed to get on the field under two different coaching staffs. He has struggled with conditioning, confidence, and snapping the football consistently, which is a major issue for a center. But a source told me that the staff still believes it can get something out of Johnson, so he could be part of a turnaround for FSU’s line in 2019-20.
Another center candidate is redshirt sophomore Brady Scott. Scott was thrust into the lineup in 2018, likely too early in his career, and asked to play tackle. It is unfair to write him off, considering he was playing earlier than expected, and out of position. Scott likely profiles as a center or guard, at least earlier on in his career. Scott has taken center reps in practice, and could be the starter in 2019 if Johnson doesn’t get it together.
So, that’s a bit of a depressing rundown. But it shows how important the next section is.
Unfortunately for the Seminoles, offensive line recruiting is not going that well, considering FSU has a ton of immediate playing time to offer. It is moving on to Plan B— and Plans C and D. It seemingly can’t give away playing time to prospects who are actually good enough to come in and take it immediately. Though there is still time.
Florida State needs to bring in three non-high school bodies in the form of junior college or graduate transfers. It has cast a wide net in doing so. The thought is that if the Seminoles can bring in three veteran players, perhaps they can get two starters out of the three, plus a backup.
In the high school ranks, FSU needs to sign at least three players. As of this writing, it has four-star OL Dontae Lucas committed, and it has several other targets on the board. Other than Lucas, these are players who are likely to need a year or two of development before they can or should be counted on as starters.
For 2019, just improving from horrible to below average would be a major step forward. But if FSU does not have a decent-to-good offensive line by the 2020 season, it will cost Willie Taggart his job. Plain and simple. He didn’t cause the problem, but it is his job to fix it.