New coach, old story: Taggart FSU era starts with QB battle
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Quarterback competitions are nothing new for Florida State, which has had four in the last six seasons.
But this competition is quite different from preseasons past. The Seminoles opened their first preseason under new coach Willie Taggart on Monday with two quarterbacks with starting experience.
Taggart, whose Florida State coaching debut will be Sept. 3 against Virginia Tech, said he has no timetable to make a decision.
“When they decide to separate themselves and make it a no-brainer is when we’ll make that decision,” said Taggart, who arrived at Florida State after a year at Oregon. “It’s going to be pretty cool to watch them go do their thing.”
Deondre Francois and James Blackman may have the edge in experience, but Taggart also said not to discount redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman.
Taggart feels the quarterbacks have similar traits, including arm strength, mobility, toughness and intelligence to run his uptempo, spread-based Gulf Coast offense.
What the Seminoles are looking for is an important intangible — who is the best leader.
“The job description of quarterback is make the other 10 guys better,” offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “Who can do that at a higher rate? That’s going to be the guy that you entrust to be the quarterback. ... You’ve got to be a guy that your teammates can trust, and I think you earn that in a multitude of ways, whether it’s how you work or how you speak to people or the relationships you create.”
Blackman and Francois have a significant advantage in terms of experience. Francois started as a redshirt freshman in 2016, passing for 3,350 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 58.8 percent of his passes. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior returned as the starter in 2017 but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Alabama.
Francois was investigated for a pair of off-field incidents and took part in a diversion program for a misdemeanor marijuana charge. Taggart said Francois has “been doing everything we asked him to do,” which included him moving back on campus and spending more time with teammates.
He also spent much of the last year rehabilitating from knee surgery. His mobility was limited during the spring, but Francois was a full go in practice Monday as he ran with a brace on his left knee.
“I’m in a better place,” Francois said. “It took a toll on me, being hurt, being out for the whole season.”
With Francois sidelined, Blackman stepped in last fall and became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at FSU since 1985. He threw for 2,230 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with 10 touchdowns coming in during Florida State’s four-game winning streak at the end of the season.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore has worked diligently to add weight to his slim frame, adding nearly 20 pounds over the last year to his current weight of 178. Blackman joked on Monday, “I try to eat every second I can.”
All of the quarterbacks have had time to adapt to Taggart’s offense, which features a no-huddle, two-minute philosophy.
“I feel a lot more comfortable, knowing the things that we were going over in the spring,” Blackman said. “I know them a lot better by doing them over the summer.”
Hockman is in the race but he will have to make up for the lack of game experience. The 6-2, 210-pound redshirt freshman throws well on the run and Bell remarked that Hockman’s best four practices of the spring were FSU’s last four, illustrating that with increased time on the field he was showing accuracy and understanding of the offense.
“They are all going to have an opportunity,” Taggart said. “They all understand that. That starts now. We’re in training camp now and those guys understand they have got to go out and perform each and every day.”