(UPDATE: On Sunday afternoon the Tallahassee Democrat's Jim Henry reported that Francois suffered a season-ending patella tendon injury in his left knee and is scheduled to have surgery this week.)
ATLANTA — After a nightmare 2016, the first night of a new season hadn’t gone so badly for the Florida State offensive line. Two critical special teams mistakes had put the game nearly out of reach, but with just less than six minutes remaining, the Seminoles—who allowed 36 sacks last season—had allowed only one sack against one of the nation’s best defenses.
Then, on a third-and-four play, Alabama’s defense lined up in a “bear” front. Five offensive linemen faced five defenders on the line of scrimmage. But not all of those Alabama players would rush. One man dropped into coverage. He was replaced on the other side of the line of scrimmage by safety Ronnie Harrison, who charged from linebacker depth at the snap. Florida State left guard Landon Dickerson never saw Harrison, who zoomed into the backfield. Harrison dove and grabbed quarterback Deondre Francois by the lower legs. When the two untangled after the sack, Francois stayed on the ground, holding his left knee.
“Everybody was blocking their tails off. Pass protection was pretty good the entire game,” Seminoles center Alec Eberle said. “And then in the fourth quarter, you look back and see your quarterback on the ground holding his knee. That’s definitely something that is frightening.”
Minutes later, Francois was on the back of a cart with a brace on the knee. True freshman James Blackman—all 185 pounds of him stretched across a 6-foot-5 frame—was running the offense through its final few downs in a 247 loss. Francois completed 19 of 32 passes for 210 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He moved well in the pocket to avoid pressure for much of the night, but he took his share of hits. “He’s a really tough quarterback and he did a really good job of taking all the blows that we gave him,” Crimson Tide cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “But we’re Alabama. We put a lot on him. I feel bad for the guy, but it’s football and it happens. If you hit any quarterback a certain amount of times, he's going to break.”
Francois took a lot of hits last season and usually popped right back up, but this looked different. Still, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was careful not to make any definitive statements about Francois late Saturday. “I don't know until we diagnose it and see,” Fisher said. Then he started to say “I'm not a doctor,” but he stopped himself after “doc.” “I don't know,” he said. “I've learned to wait until they see. Unfortunately he's hurt, though.”
That’s probably a good idea with Francois, who returned last season from some hits that looked game- or season-ending. But just as Florida State could least afford to lose safety Derwin James last season—and did to a knee injury in the second game—the Seminoles are least prepared to lose Francois. Last year, Florida State had veteran Sean Maguire, who had backed up Jameis Winston in ’14 and split starting duties with Everett Golson in ’15. This season, the Seminoles have Blackman and fourth-year junior J.J. Cosentino, who briefly served as the backup last season when Maguire was injured early in the season. Two other quarterbacks—DeAndre Johnson and Malik Henry—have moved on in the past two years. Johnson was dismissed in July ’15 after he punched a woman in a bar, and Henry left the team last December after one season.
Eberle offered high praise for Blackman, who arrived on campus this summer from Belle Glade, Fla. “Ever since he stepped foot on campus, he’s been a special kid,” Eberle said. “There’s something about him. In football, sometimes people have the ‘it’ factor. Whatever ‘it’ is, he has it.”
James, who had to watch last season as the Seminoles’ defense struggled in the weeks following his injury, said everyone must pitch in if Francois has an injury that sidelines him for a while. “Any play, anybody can be hurt,” James said. “We’re not quitting as a team. We’re not fixing to just lay down because one person is hurt. Next man up.”