And In That Corner … The Florida State Seminoles represent a welcome end to Notre Dame’s layoff

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In Notre Dame’s 30th year on NBC, it is fitting the No. 5 Irish host Florida State, the opponent in arguably the most famous of those 194 games to date. But these are not Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles of 1993. (Let’s all hope for the best for the two-time national champion coach as he, 90, battles COVID-19.)

Mike Norvell’s first year at Florida State (1-2, 0-2 ACC) has gotten off to a rocky start, both on and off the field. To better understand what lies ahead for Norvell as he attempts to revive the ‘Noles of lore, Warchant.com managing editor Ira Schoffel, previously the sports editor at the Tallahassee Democrat, joins us …

DF: I appreciate you helping out this week, Ira. I did not reach out earlier because I wanted to be sure Notre Dame would be able to play this weekend, but all signs point to football this Saturday, with the Irish awaiting only 11 players to come out of isolation or quarantine as of Monday afternoon.

On that note, let me start by quickly asking: How is Florida State faring on the coronavirus front, both overall and as it pertains to this weekend?

IS: It’s hard to know for sure. From the very beginning, Florida state has been adamant about not releasing COVID testing results for athletes and staff, citing privacy concerns — except in rare situations, such as when Mike Norvell tested positive and had to isolate. Through the first three games, they have had times where a handful of players have missed games and we’re pretty sure it was COVID-related, but that’s not confirmed. Either way, the Seminoles apparently haven’t had any major outbreaks since the team came back together. From a university standpoint, Florida State has cut back on in-person classes, so while the team is not in a true bubble, I think they are limiting how much exposure the team has to the general public and other students.

I typically try to build from micro questions to macro in these Q&As, but if the smallest detail is how the Seminoles are handling a pandemic, there is not much micro around this program these days. The defense, however, strikes me as almost a normal football topic.

Florida State placed three defenders on the preseason All-ACC first-team, led by cornerback Asante Samuel, who already has three interceptions this season. Looking through some preseason previews, my notes read succinctly, “decent, promising DL,” “experienced LBs” and “should be a good-to-great secondary.” Then Miami put up 52 points and 517 yards against the Seminoles two weeks ago. Even Georgia Tech gained 438 yards in the opener. What did those two, more specifically the Hurricanes, do to gash Florida State so readily? Where has the defense gone so awry from broad expectations?

You aren’t alone. We’re all kind of scratching our heads about the defense down here.

The secondary has been decent, but certainly not great, although Asante Samuel has been really good at one corner. Senior safety Hamsah Nasirildeen, who was one of those first-team All-ACC guys, still hasn’t suited up for a game. He was thought to be recovered from last season’s ACL surgery, but at this point, there’s no clear indication of when he’s going to come back. And the other defensive backs so far have just been OK. If it wasn’t for Samuel, the group overall would probably get a failing grade. And they’ve been the best segment so far.

The defensive line’s biggest problem has been the lack of a true pass-rusher. There were a lot of hopes junior Joshua Kaindoh could provide that — he’s a former five-star recruit who has battled injuries throughout his career — but he went down again in the season opener with a minor knee injury and missed the Miami game. He is back now and played decently against Jacksonville State, but this will obviously be a big step up in competition. The defensive tackles, led by senior Marvin Wilson, were supposed to be the strength of the defense, but that has not materialized, either. And there was hope that the linebackers would play well given their experience and what is believed to be an upgrade in position coach and defensive coordinator. Alas, that group continues to struggle. Through three games, they have tried a bunch of different players on that side of the ball, with little success. If Nasirildeen comes back, that should help … but they need a lot more than that to get back to where people thought this defense could be.

I focus on that because Notre Dame needs a get-right game for its passing attack, particularly coming off a three-week layoff. If Jacksonville State quarterback Zerrick Cooper can throw for 232 yards on 7.7 yards per attempt, should I expect Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book to finally get a rhythm this weekend?

I don’t see why you wouldn’t. Florida State has played very conservatively on the back end, which I think is out of concern about the lack of pass rush, so opponents so far have just thrown high-percentage passes underneath and marched up and down the field. Maybe the Seminoles are going to break out some exotic blitz packages they’ve been holding onto, but it’s hard to see them affecting Book too much with their front-four.

Jordan Travis
Seminoles junior quarterback Jordan Travis is expected to get his first start at Notre Dame this weekend, coming off sparking Florida State to a come-from-behind victory against FCS-level Jacksonville State. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Character Lines)

Offensively, I worry my line of questioning will be rendered moot by your first answer: Who is going to start at quarterback for the Seminoles? If junior Jordan Travis, the catalyst to beating the FCS-level Gamecocks, I will chuckle that Notre Dame has to face an option offense even though Navy was taken off the 2020 schedule. Travis feasted against Jacksonville State, somehow throwing for 210 yards despite his weak arm. What kind of approach will he lead into South Bend?

It’s going to be Travis. I think they’re pretty much done trying to salvage former starter James Blackman, and the two freshmen they have aren’t ready — especially for a game like this on the road. I think you’ll see a lot of zone-read and RPO stuff, and he is definitely a better runner than a passer, but Florida State’s running backs have shown some potential in the last couple of games, so I think they’ll try to get the running game going and find some opportunities for Travis to take shots downfield.

If Travis is the starter, how long or short of a leash will he have? Does Mike Norvell want to give freshman Tate Rodemaker another chance after last week’s struggles? Is James Blackman’s Florida State career essentially finished? Could highly-touted freshman Chuba Purdy’s shoulder be healthier than expected? On the surface, these wonders should fall into the “micro” category, but given how widely they could impact Norvell’s first year in Tallahassee, I see them as “macro” thoughts.

If Travis can stay healthy — injuries have been a concern and he’s obviously not a huge dude — he likely will stay out there as long as he’s willing. If they have to play someone else, I would think it will be Rodemaker. Unless maybe it’s a close game and Travis has to come out for some reason late, then maybe … MAYBE … they go back to Blackman at that point. But if they’re just going to give someone reps because the game is out of reach, my guess is it will be Rodemaker. It sounds like Purdy is close, but I would be really surprised if his first action was this weekend.

Whoever is throwing the ball, he will be trying to connect with preseason first-team all-ACC receiver Tamorrian Terry. Just how fast is Terry?

Terry has gotten off to a disappointing start, but he showed some signs of life last Saturday. He came into this season hoping to prove that he’s more than a tall, fast guy who can run takeoffs, but he had an awful drop in the opener and was a total non-factor against Miami. Norvell says he challenged Terry last week, and he likes the way he has responded. This would be a great opportunity for Terry to kind of redeem himself on a big stage. As for his speed, he is very fast when it comes to straight-line running, but he intentionally put on about 20 pounds this offseason and it seems to have slowed him down a bit.

Some of the quarterback troubles undoubtedly tie to the offensive line. It has been a problem for the last two seasons, and it does not look to have improved much. As you well know …

2018: 91 rushing yards per game, 36 sacks given up.
2019: 141 rushing yards per game, 48 sacks given up.
2020: 174 rushing yards per game, but only 130 per game against FBS opponents, 11 sacks given up in three games.

Is this still the underlying issue to the Seminoles’ ongoing struggles? Is there any reason to think the tune may change as 2020 continues?

The offensive line is still not a strength by any stretch, but that group does look better today than it has the last few years. Grad transfer Devontay Love-Taylor has been a huge addition, and he can play either tackle or guard position. The rest of the starting line is really young, as they’re building for the future. The redshirt freshman center, Maurice Smith, has shown a lot of promise, and they like several of the other young linemen. But they’ll likely have a tough time against any experienced defensive front.

Mike Norvell Ron DeSantis
Mike Norvell, forefront left, had his work cut out for him no matter when he took over this version of the Florida State program, but doing so in an offseason disrupted by a pandemic made the Seminoles head coach’s life much more difficult, not to mention his arrival served as a wanted distraction for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right in August. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

At Notre Dame, early criticism of the offensive line was met with insistence it just needed some time to reestablish its chemistry after missing spring practice and getting only so much routine built into preseason practices. Perhaps that is true for Florida State, as well. But what is certainly true for the Seminoles is this was a terrible offseason to not have a usual offseason. On their third coach in four years, time to build a program was needed.

On top of that, Norvell put his foot in his mouth at least twice. Nationally, those missteps (one regarding the pandemic, one regarding systemic racism) came across as clear ways to lose a locker room for a new head coach. Was that overblown? Where do things now stand for Norvell in that intangible aspect?

Not having a traditional offseason was definitely a bad break for Norvell and his coaching staff. The spring would have been a great time for them to not only build stronger relationships with the players but to also get a better evaluation of how each player could best be used in their offensive and defensive schemes. Instead, a lot of that is being determined on the fly during the season.

As for the controversies, only one was really Norvell’s fault — when he misspoke about meeting with every player individually about the country’s racial strife. That seemed to get resolved fairly quickly, and I think the players were open to moving on from that. The second one was really more of a situation where the player misunderstood the COVID testing protocols and vented his concerns on social media instead of asking direct questions to the coaches or staff. Norvell never apologized for that. Instead, it was the player who had to ask for forgiveness and to be allowed back in the program. 

At the same time, it’s hard to say how close the relationship is with these players and coaches. The veterans in this locker room have been through the wringer over the last few years with lots of ugly losses and a slew of coaching changes, so some might never be totally on-board with where things are heading. And that might not be the fault of anyone on the current staff. Other players have clearly have bought in, and those are the ones I think you’ll see get more of the playing time as the season unfolds.

Coming back against Jacksonville State from a 21-7 deficit seemed to please Norvell, citing Florida State’s response to adversity. It struck me as coach-speak, but I am a skeptic like that. Is that momentum carrying forward such that the ‘Noles could make Saturday night interesting, despite the three-touchdown spread?

I think Norvell is trying to build on any positives he can find, and rightfully so. He took on a major rebuilding job when he came to Florida State, and if he didn’t know that before, he certainly does now. The Seminoles have not been even competitive against good football teams the past couple of years, so it’s hard to predict they’re going to make things interesting facing the No. 5 team in the country on the road. Their last trip to Notre Dame was one of the poorest performances I’ve ever seen from a Florida State team. Having said all that, if Travis can have some success running the offense, that would be a very big deal. A major reason for their lopsided losses in recent years has been woeful quarterback play in those games. If Travis can give the players on both sides of the ball hope, then maybe it can be a game. But it’s extremely hard to envision a Florida State upset.