- The Seminoles' 2016 starter won't just walk back into his old role once he's healthy again, thanks to the progress made by James Blackman. With another heralded QB waiting in the wings behind the top two, Willie Taggart and his staff have a decision to make.
UPDATE: Deondre Francois was placed in a pre-trial diversion program Thursday for a case involving a misdemeanor charge of possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. In a statement to the Tallahassee Democrat, Florida State coach Willie Taggart said the situation would be handled internally. This likely isn’t a dealbreaker for the quarterback competition described below, but it certainly doesn’t help Francois’s case.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — By the time Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison dragged him to the ground in the fourth quarter of Florida State’s 2017 season opener, Deondre Francois had been hit a lot as the Seminoles’ starting quarterback. He’d spent much of 2016 scraping himself off the ground after plays. So Francois knew how the aftermath of a hit was supposed to feel. This one didn’t feel that way.
“It was just different,” Francois says. “I felt the pop in my knee. And when I was laying down on my side, I could see my knee swelling. I could see my tights expanding, and I knew something was wrong. It just hurt so bad.”
That moment, which resulted in a torn left patella tendon that would knock Francois out for the remainder of the season, was merely the catalyst for a bizarre season for the Seminoles that included a major hurricane, gut-wrenching losses, a furious rally to reach bowl eligibility and the departure of coach Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M. But it was something that happened before that Alabama game—which seemed awfully bizarre at the time—that helps explain why the offseason prior to the 2018 season could be so interesting for Florida State.
Before the Seminoles faced the Crimson Tide, their quarterback stood and gave a speech. But it wasn’t Francois. It was freshman James Blackman, who had been with the team for about two months at the time and who, if all went well, wouldn’t touch the field unless a game was well in hand. “He stood up and gave a speech like he was the guy fixing to go out there and play,” tailback Jacques Patrick says with a laugh. The only thing stranger than a true freshman backup giving a speech to the team was the team’s reaction to that speech. Typically, the veterans would simply chuckle and let the words whistle through their ears without landing. That didn’t happen. “Everybody was listening,” Patrick says.* Why? “They could respect it because they knew it was genuine,” Patrick says.
*You can hear Jacques Patrick tell this story as well as interviews with quarterbacks Deondre Francois and James Blackman, coach Willie Taggart, tailback Cam Akers and defensive end Brian Burns on the SiriusXM Florida State spring football tour show, hosted by myself and former Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell. SiriusXM subscribers can listen on demand anytime on the SiriusXM app.
As they played alongside Blackman in the months after he replaced Francois, Florida State players understood why they had listened to a freshman who had never played. “He’s a true born leader—the way he carries himself on and off the field,” Patrick says. Blackman wasn’t supposed to be thrust into that situation. Fisher’s offense requires time to learn. Even Jameis Winston redshirted. But the dismissal of De’Andre Johnson in 2015 and the departure of Malik Henry following the 2016 season took away Fisher’s original plans B and C. After struggling early, Blackman got better as the season progressed. The idea that Blackman was simply keeping the spot warm until Francois got healthy suddenly didn’t seem so ironclad.
Then Fisher left and Florida State hired Willie Taggart. Taggart and new offensive coordinator Walt Bell arrived with fresh eyes and no preconceived notions about any particular position. They declared an open competition at quarterback between Francois, Blackman and Bailey Hockman, who redshirted last season. And by the close of training camp in August, they intend to find their man. A Labor Day matchup against Virginia Tech looms, and they plan to have a definitive starter prepared by the time coordinator Bud Foster’s defense arrives at Doak Campbell Stadium.
“Going into that game, we’re going to have our starter,” Taggart says. “We’re going to roll. I’m not necessarily a fan of having two quarterbacks. Somebody’s got to separate themselves.”
So who will it be? Hockman has the most ground to make up in part because the other two already have a large body of work. Barring a change this summer, it likely will come down to Francois and Blackman. Francois won the ACC Rookie of the Year award in 2016 and seemed poised for a huge season before his injury. He also has the broadest overall skill set. Blackman might be the most polished thrower and, like Francois a year earlier, earned the respect of his teammates by taking a beating and continuing to improve.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Francois hasn’t been fully medically cleared. That will come this summer, but he has been limited to seven-on-seven and individual work in spring practice, while Blackman and Hockman have gotten most of the work in team periods. Taggart won’t pick a starter until August, so he’s confident he’ll have time to evaluate Francois properly and make a fully informed decision. “All those guys are talented enough to do what we ask them to do,” Taggart says. “The most important thing for me is who is going to lead this football team? Who is going to rally the troops and get this entire football team to play for them?”
So now Francois must try to win back his job, and Blackman must try to beat out the player who helped him more than any other when he was thrown into action last season. “It’s hard to look at it like that,” Francois says. “We look at it as a big brother–younger brother thing. That’s how it’s always been with us. Now that we’re competing for the job, it’s hard to switch the outlook on things.”
There is no friction between the two, and it’s easy to understand why when talking to Blackman about last season. On his third play as Florida State’s starter—which came after Hurricane Irma caused the cancellation of the Louisiana-Monroe game (later rescheduled for Dec. 2) and the move of the Miami game (to Oct. 7)—Blackman faced third-and-six against a ferocious NC State defense. “I messed the cadence up,” he says. “They called a false start on our offensive line. That was me just getting out the little jitterbugs and butterflies.”
Blackman can laugh about that penalty and the sack that came after it now, but at the time circumstances were dire. Francois, who was recovering from surgery at the time, thought back to how much he learned during his redshirt season. He couldn’t imagine trying to assimilate Fisher’s offense on the fly against ACC competition, so he tried to help shorten Blackman’s learning curve by offering the perspective of a player who had just spent his first season running the offense. Blackman got more comfortable as the season went on, and he gives much of the credit for that to the guy he’s trying to beat out for the job. “That came with the help of my teammates—especially my brother Deondre Francois,” Blackman says.
Taggart will pay attention to how much work each quarterback does on his own with his teammates this summer. He also will monitor how those teammates respond to each quarterback. “All those guys are talented enough to do what we ask them to do,” Taggart says. “The most important thing for me is who is going to lead this football team? Who is going to rally the troops and get this entire football team to play for them?” No matter what Taggart says, execution of the offense will matter just as much. We’ll get an idea of how Blackman and Hockman run Taggart’s up-tempo, ultra-wide spread during Saturday’s spring game.* For Francois, the debut with the full offense will come during preseason camp.
*After Saturday’s spring game, Florida State will put on a concert featuring Vanilla Ice, Rob Base and Salt-N-Pepa. Blackman, who was born in the late ’90s, had never heard of Salt-N-Pepa. Francois had, though I declined to force him to prove this by making him sing “Push It”.
Only a few quarterbacks have run this offense since Taggart switched from a pure West Coast scheme (similar to the one his former boss Jim Harbaugh runs at Michigan) to this, during a 2016 bye week at South Florida. Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers was a great runner with a serviceable arm. When Taggart moved to Oregon, Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert—an O.K. runner with an NFL arm—showed he could pilot the offense just as effectively. When Herbert was healthy, the Ducks went 6–2 and averaged 49 points.
Blackman is more similar to Herbert, though not as sturdily built. Blackman came to Florida State weighing 185 pounds. Taggart says Blackman has packed on 15 pounds of muscle, but the way the 6'5" rising sophomore is built, he could put on another 20 pounds and still seem slender. Blackman can run well enough to keep defenses honest, but he’s built more like a drop-back passer. Francois combines the best attributes of Flowers and Herbert. He’s a dynamic runner who throws a beautiful ball. Both players have proven their toughness by getting up again and again after getting battered behind shaky offensive lines in 2016 and ’17.
A healthy Francois should have a physical edge, but could Blackman close the gap based on intangibles? Much was made publicly of Francois skipping senior day against Delaware State last season to hang with suspended receiver Da’Vante Phillips. If that decision affected the locker room at all, the players interviewed this week didn’t let on. In fact, the player who talked the most about Francois’s off-field contributions was Blackman, and those comments were all positive.
The choice likely will come down to which player makes primary play-caller Taggart the most comfortable. And Taggart intends to give all his quarterbacks ample opportunity to win the job. “They will not be able to blame the coach for them not playing,” Taggart says. “They will get the opportunity to go out there. It’s on them to execute.”
The quarterbacks, meanwhile, already have grown comfortable with Taggart. “He’s smiling every time you see him,” Blackman says.
That’s probably because Taggart has one of the nation’s most pleasant quarterback dilemmas.