- Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois has been compared to Jameis Winston from the moment he stepped onto the field in Tallahassee, but he's only now truly becoming the alpha dog of the offense. Will that lift the Seminoles to an upset of Alabama?
Most young quarterbacks with lofty recruiting pedigrees are principally battling two things in their starting debuts. First, there is the pressure that comes with playing at the high level scouting services have set as a baseline and having the descriptor “former four-/five-star” attached to your name. Second, there is the difficulty of transitioning to tougher competition, with tighter passing windows and rangier defenders than high school ball. Both of those things applied to Deondre Francois when he led Florida State’s first-team offense on the field last September against Ole Miss, but there was one other thing: the towering expectations created by a program legend.
People began comparing Francois to Jameis Winston before he took his first college snap, and they didn’t relent even after it became obvious they were different players with different skill sets riding different development curves. To be sure, there were a lot of resemblances to point to: Francois and Winston both suited up for the Seminoles, they were both redshirt freshmen on Labor Day night when they got their first nod as QB1 and they were both classified as dual-threat signal-callers as prep prospects. Francois never had a say in the matter, though. His performance was going to be assessed against the backdrop of what Winston did in college, whether he wanted it to be or not.
When Power 5 programs hand the keys to underclassman signal-callers, it’s reasonable to expect competent game management, somewhat accurate passing and steady progress. Last season Francois was trying to follow in the footsteps of one of only two redshirt freshmen to win the Heisman Trophy. His charge this season is different, though no less demanding. Florida State doesn’t just need Francois to improve. It needs him to blossom without much of the scaffolding that provided support as he got his feet wet last season: Record-breaking running back Dalvin Cook and the Seminoles’ top four receiving targets (Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield, Cook and Jesus Wilson) are all in the pros.
Francois’s first test as Florida State’s alpha also is likely to be the most difficult one he faces all season. The Seminoles are taking on preseason No. 1 Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Saturday night, in a matchup pitting the two best defensive backfields in the country. Anything less than a spotless showing from Francois could squash whatever chance Florida State has at beating Nick Saban in a game he’s been preparing for nonstop the last eight months—save the time he allotted for calling recruits and watching the Weather Channel every morning. One botched protection call could leave Francois writhing on the turf after a Da’Shawn Hand pile drive. One errant throw could turn into a Minkah Fitzpatrick pick-six.
The Crimson Tide’s D is liable to torment every quarterback it faces into a few mistakes, and Francois probably won’t make it out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a sparkling stat line. But he is ready to lead the Seminoles to the top of arguably the toughest Power 5 conference and a College Football Playoff bid.
Francois actually might have been good enough to do it last year. All the Jameis talk—along with the emergence of a terrific crop of quarterbacks in the ACC, including No. 2 draft pick Mitchell Trubisky at North Carolina and dual-threat Heisman winner Lamar Jackson at Louisville—shrouded how well Francois performed as a rookie. While facing a schedule that included six of the nation’s top-20 defenses, according to Brian Fremeau’s points per drive statistic, Francois topped all freshmen with 257.7 passing yards per game. Among the seven qualifying Power 5 freshmen who averaged at least 185 yards, only one posted a higher Total QBR than Francois: Heisman Trophy frontrunner (and No. 1 pick in SI.com’s latest 2018 mock draft) USC’s Sam Darnold. And only two of them logged higher pass efficiency ratings: Darnold and Oregon’s Justin Herbert.
At the ACC Kickoff in July, Francois described his redshirt freshman campaign as “bumpy,” but Seminoles co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders had a more positive take later in the summer. “Obviously it wasn’t a year that Jameis had as a freshman, but it was a whole lot better than the kind of year most freshmen had,” Sanders said in August, according to the Associated Press. “There’s obviously opportunities for him to improve.”
Francois showed serious arm talent even though he spent way more time than he would have liked either running for cover or getting rocked by oncoming rushers. From the crunching blow defensive end Marquis Haynes laid on Francois as he stood in the pocket and rifled a 16-yard touchdown to Travis Rudolph just before halftime of the opener against the Rebels, to first-round pick Taco Charlton’s unblocked dash off the edge and subsequent takedown of Francois a few minutes before he connected with Nyqwan Murray on the longest touchdown in Orange Bowl history, the frequency and intensity of punishment Francois took last year can’t be repeated if Florida State plans on Francois making it to December in one piece. The Seminoles allowed an average of 2.77 sacks per game, which ranked 106th in the FBS.
Florida State’s offensive line doesn’t bear all of the blame. When asked at that same ACC Kickoff media event about the hits he absorbed last season, Francois acknowledged that “some games it’s me holding it too long.” Francois doesn’t shy away from contact, but he'd benefit from being more judicious about getting rid of the ball quicker at times. Last season he tossed seven touchdowns against four interceptions and rated in the bottom 25th percentile with a 39.1% completion rate under pressure, according to CFB Film Room. Francois did distinguish himself as a deep thrower, however, registering passer ratings 27.4 points and 14.3 points better than the national average on go routes and corner routes, respectively, according to Pro Football Focus.
The best-case scenario for Florida State is that Francois is ready to do his best Jameis impression this season, after using 2016 to adjust to the rhythms of the college game. More likely, Francois will show enough improvement to keep the Seminoles’ offense on track despite the exodus of skill talent. DBs will have their hands full tracking Murray on deep balls, and junior Auden Tate could be a major force in the Seminoles’ passing game if he can scale his output after recording a team-high 16.4 yards per catch last season. And if athletic marvel George Campbell is ever going to break out, he couldn’t pick a better time than against Alabama’s elite cover men on Saturday. Cook leaves a colossal production void in his wake, but the combination of Jacques Patrick and super-hyped freshman Cam Akers might not be a huge step down.
If the line can get its footing without first-team All-ACC tackle Roderick Johnson and second-team All-ACC guard Kareem Are, Francois will have the surrounding structure he needs to provide a larger dose of the best of what he did last season and cut out the fat. The first glimpse of Francois 2.0 might get a bit rough, but that has more to do with the Crimson Tide’s frightening defense than anything Francois can control. Although, it will make for a nice head-to-head battle with reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year and fellow sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts. Francois can outduel Hurts, and then he can use the rest of the season to show everyone who got caught up sizing him up against Winston what they were missing.