The injury redshirt sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois suffered on a sack in the fourth quarter of Florida State’s season-opener against Alabama looked bad in the moment. The details reported less than a day later made clear just how bad. Francois would sit out the rest of the season after tearing the patella tendon in his left knee. True freshman James Blackman replaced Francois on Saturday night, but by the time he entered the game, there were less than two minutes remaining, and the Crimson Tide were leading by 17 points in an eventual 24–7 win.
We didn’t get to see what Blackman can do against Alabama, but we definitely will over the next three months. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday that Blackman will fill in for Francois as the Seminoles’ starter. That raises a couple of important questions: Who, exactly, is Blackman? And how did he become the offensive leader of a popular preseason College Football Playoff pick?
Blackman wasn’t one of the top quarterback recruits in his class
Blackman ranked 16th among pro-style quarterbacks, 49th among prospects in the state of Florida and 389th overall in the high school graduating class of 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite. When he verbally committed to Florida State last August, Blackman reportedly was also considering West Virginia and Louisville, and he also drew scholarship offers from Miami and Temple, among other programs, according to 247.
Although the Glades Central High product threw for 2,511 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior, scouts prize him more for his potential than his ability to contribute right away at the college level. At 6' 5", 185 pounds, Blackman is slender for his height, but he could eventually grow into a nimble dual-threat playmaker with the bulk to absorb contact and keep moving.
Here’s part of Scout.com’s evaluation of him: “Blackman must continue to dive into the weight room to strengthen up his frame and pack on weight, but this standout out of Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades Central is a mobile signal-caller that flashes undeniable, natural arm talent under center. Blackman isn't a blazer under center, but he can certainly evade pressure and extend plays out of the pocket.”
Blackman took advantage of an underwhelming QB rotation
As a recruit, Blackman was actually less highly regarded than the other quarterback Florida State signed in its 2017 class, McEachern (Ga.) High’s Bailey Hockman, who enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Blackman didn’t get to Tallahassee until the summer, but he beat out both Hockman and little-used redshirt junior J.J. Cosentino for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Francois.
That’s not a lot of competition, which may seem kind of strange for a powerhouse like Florida State. The Seminoles are situated in a state overrun with high-end recruits, they’re led by a head coach renowned for quarterback development and they produced the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft at that position, Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter James Winston.
Shouldn’t Florida State have more QB depth? Let’s go through why it doesn’t.
The Seminoles did reel in one of the top signal-callers in the class of 2016, Long Beach Poly (Calif.) High’s Malik Henry, but he decided to transfer away from the program after only one season without throwing a pass. (You can continue to follow Henry’s story at Kansas-based Independence Community College, the subject of Season 3 of the Netflix series Last Chance U.)
In its previous recruiting class, the Seminoles signed another promising passer, De’Andre Johnson, a standout at First Coast High in Jacksonville who claimed the prestigious Mr. Football award in Florida in 2014. Florida State booted him from the program in July ’15 after video surfaced of Johnson punching a woman at a bar. Johnson, of Last Chance U Season 2 fame, landed at Florida Atlantic.
Having lost Henry to transfer, Johnson for disciplinary reasons and redshirt senior Sean Maguire to eligibility expiration at the end of last season, Florida State entered this season with one young quarterback who’d shown flashes of greatness as a redshirt freshman (Francois) and a group of unknowns. Francois’s injury pushes one of those unknowns onto center stage.
Florida State was counting on Francois. It really needs Blackman to step up
Even before Francois went down, it was clear quarterback play would be one of the strongest indicators of Florida State’s viability as a playoff candidate this season. The Seminoles lost their most effective and consistent source of offense in the spring when running back Dalvin Cook declared for the NFL draft after breaking Warrick Dunn’s program record for career rushing yards.
Francois could have helped account for the yawning statistical hole Cook left behind. Now that he’s out for the year, Florida State needs to reorient its offense around a former three-star newbie with nice physical tools but an unproven arm. Blackman deserves credit for beating out Cosentino and Hockman, and Fisher praised him in camp this summer for how he was getting acclimated to a new system.
“Very knowledgeable,” Fisher said of Blackman in August, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “Very natural. Works at the game. Stores information well. Has good presence and command. I think he’s doing a really nice job.”
One thing that won’t hold Blackman back is Florida State’s roster of skill players. True freshman Cam Akers and junior Jacques Patrick couldn’t crack Alabama’s fearsome front on Saturday, but they’ll keep the Seminoles’ ground game in a good place post-Cook. And if Blackman can deliver the ball, there are ample weapons at receiver, like juniors Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate and sophomore Keith Gavin.
Blackman won’t survive if Florida State’s offensive line doesn’t show improvement after ranking 106th nationally in sacks allowed per game last season, or if the Seminoles’ defense slips after steadying itself during the second half of 2016. The opener was a nice start for the latter, even in a loss: Florida State limited Alabama to about two yards per play below the Tide’s average last season.
Florida State may be able to win 10 games by asphyxiating most of its opponents in low-scoring slugfests, but it’ll come up short against top ACC competition and fail to realize its potential as a national championship participant unless Blackman bucks the recruiting-analyst consensus that he’s a raw project who needs more seasoning before being thrown into the deep end.
At this time last month, Blackman was a true freshman still getting a feel for what it’s like to be a college QB. Now he’s the single most important variable in Florida State’s playoff pursuit.