The Daily Nole

Rebuild or Transition? Thoughts on Taggart’s Inauspicious FSU Start

Ross Obley/FSU athletics

It’s safe to say that nobody within the Florida State football program is thrilled with the results so far.

A disappointing 24-3 loss to Virginia Tech slowed the hype train after an offseason of new head coach Willie Taggart grading out with high marks in nearly every conceivable way. The opener gave a glimpse into what Taggart’s offense might look like when it’s fully instituted, with huge chunk plays and a whole range of players getting their chance to shine. The second half detracted from that hope.

But Virginia Tech was a negotiable loss. It wasn’t totally surprising, and it was a game that many viewed as one of the potential defeats of an 8-4 season. We predicted 9-3 but certainly did not find 8-4 an unlikely result.

So now FSU is 1-1 after a win against Samford. That’s not unexpected.

What is unexpected is the fact that Samford pushed FSU to the brink and nearly gave the Seminoles the worst loss in program history. A deflating offensive performance and suspect defensive performance in back-to-back games have FSU and neutral observers alike wondering the question…what’s going on?

There seems to be some confusion and arguments over what can be ascribed to the previous staff vs. the new one. At risk of finding ourselves wading into rehashed waters, it is fair to give a reexamination of what exactly was left for Taggart to capitalize on.

Reexamination does not mean revisionism however.

Scorched Earth

The biggest weakness by far has been the offensive line. We discussed much of this in our column a week ago, but it bears repeating: the lack of development by the previous staff puts the current one in a truly precarious position.

We were likely too generous when discussing FSU’s offensive line in the preseason. Even with the assumption that everyone remained healthy, there’s still the fact that one tackle spot was being manned by a player without a single start to his name (Jauan Williams).

Another guard spot was occupied by a player that never really found a permanent position in three seasons of work (Derrick Kelly). We assumed that Williams winning the job meant that he had developed like originally planned. That was an incorrect assumption on our part. It’s not just incorrect because it turned out wrong, it’s incorrect because it logically did not follow.

It’s really hard to understate how much of a raw deal Williams got from the previous staff. He was a top-200 recruit coming out of high school who was being chased by major programs across the country. The potential is absolutely there.

Now, if you rewind the tape, Williams does not look like an FBS player. He has been pulled from the first two games of the 2018 season because of how bad he looked at tackle. That sounds like it’s insulting him, but it’s not his fault.

This is not how a player should look after a whole redshirt year and offseason to get adjusted to the college game. Greg Frey, the offensive line coach, isn’t a miracle worker, and it’s obvious that Williams is not where he needs to be at this stage of his career.

Depending on how you interpret this next statement determines what outlook you take on the program: the coaches looked legitimately shocked that the offensive line could struggle against an FCS team.

I say this because the game plan for Samford didn’t look all that different from Virginia Tech. There was more of a focus on exploiting mismatches in the passing game, but that’s a fairly small change in the grand scheme of things. FSU tried to run the ball against an FCS line and it simply could not do it.

Is that their fault for misjudging their competency? Or is it the previous staff’s fault for leaving them in a substantially worse position than originally thought?

Point being, the issues at offensive line are fairly put upon the shoulders of departed coaches, in one way or another.

A note should also be made that culture is something which takes years to correct. By all accounts, Florida State’s culture at the end of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure had taken a turn for the worst and caused many players to check out.

That doesn’t get resolved in one year. Some guys will still be struggling to give 100 percent effort for 60 minutes, and that only gets fixed when a coaching staff is totally invested and has brought in recruits they’re personally familiar with.

Not So Fast

But saying that Fisher and company left the cupboard empty is not an accurate statement. It’s true for the offensive line and linebacker positions, but it simply is not true for others.

In terms of offensive skill positions, FSU has an embarrassment of riches. Cam Akers, Jacques Patrick, Nyqwan Murray, Tre’ McKitty, Tamorrion Terry, and the list goes on. Very few of the players on the roster are an example of inflated hype gained by attending Florida State.

Virtually all of them were sought after by multiple big-name programs and considered elite prospects. Even guys like George Campbell or Keith Gavin, who have struggled to begin the season, were big recruiting victories on the trail.

At least five of the aforementioned players look like they belong on the field. There is no good excuse for these positions to not produce. The offensive line handicaps everyone to an extent (especially the running backs), but it is absolutely possible to plan around it.

Taggart needs to give up on the idea that he can run his ideal offense in 2018. Don’t abandon it altogether — that’d do more harm than good for the future. But if FSU keeps trying to do what it has been doing against Virginia Tech and Samford, a bowl game might not be in the cards.

Injuries are a different story, and a major one to someone like quarterback Deondre Francois or center Alec Eberle might force another reevaluation of season expectations. There does come a point where injury luck simply can’t be counteracted. It hasn’t reached it yet at FSU, but it seems to be coming closer every week.

Virtually everyone agrees that the defense has more than enough talent and well-developed players to succeed. Odell Haggins played a large part of that with his defensive line. The secondary had a rough start to the Samford contest, but defensive coordinator Barnett made key adjustments in the second half which kept the Seminoles in the game.

His system takes some time to install and fans will witness disappointing busts every once in a while. It’s still no reason to get overly concerned — not when you have the players that FSU brought in.

Pointing Fingers

Dichotomies can be deceiving. Admittedly the title of this piece qualifies, but it does speak to a genuine question about the state of the FSU program and the difficulties of a new coaching staff.

Saying that FSU is in a rebuild is not true. There is a lot of talent on this roster that has been developed properly and is getting hamstrung for various reasons. As players get more experience in Taggart’s system, they’ll probably start to look better.

It might occur over time, or it might occur if Walt Bell begins to take over play-calling duties, or it might occur when the offensive line improves. There’s no easy prediction to be made here.

Yet saying that FSU is in a simple transition is also not true. Going from Bobby Bowden to Jimbo Fisher was a transition. Fisher was the offensive coordinator for three seasons and had more or less instituted his offense in that time span. It wasn’t complete, and it took him being a head coach to make other significant changes, but the foundation was already there.

That’s not a parallel situation for Taggart. It’s entirely new systems on both sides of the ball and a completely different approach. It’s unfair to judge those systems and that attitude in just two games. If you can’t blame the current staff for the troubles at offensive line, you also can’t blame them for trying to rid the program of the previous methods.

All this to say: it’s probably not as good or as bad as you think. Taggart and staff deserve blame for their team committing sloppy penalties and for making questionable decisions in regards to play calling. They also might deserve blame for not taking advantage of their strengths, but there’s 10 games left on the schedule for that to play out. They do not deserve blame for trying to fix a porous offensive line or for players not executing the offense/defense 100 percent in less than a year.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Tallahassee, but it’s also not the end of the world. Unless this team absolutely bombs the entire season (anything less than six wins), the calls for serious changes are premature — very premature.

One Comment

  1. finance85

    September 12, 2018 at 1:12 pm

    Rebuild implies there’s not enough talent. I don’t think that’s true at all. Lethal simplicity hasn’t turned out to be simple, on either side of the ball. While it’s undoubtedly more simple than the previous regime, Francois is having to make too many decisions. Besides poor O-line play, playcalling has been bad as well. Too much east-west, and not enough north. With this much talent, stretch the defense, and run quick handoffs. Forego all the faking in the backfield.

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