And In That Corner: Florida State looks to transfers to slow No. 9 Notre Dame

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Florida at Florida State
Getty Images
7 Comments

After waiting through the spring and summer, what is one extra day? Notre Dame and Florida State fans alike have to wait through a full day of college football and then a Sunday of idle time before the No. 9 Irish and the Seminoles return to a full stadium for the first time in nearly two years.

Notre Dame will trot out a new quarterback behind four new offensive linemen with a pair of new starting receivers. In that respect, Florida State hardly knows what it will face.

But the Seminoles brought in 14 transfers this offseason to bolster a roster that has gone through three head coaches in four years. To help grasp that new-look roster and the program trying to lay its foundation, let’s turn to Ira Schoffel, managing editor of Warchant.com and previously the sports editor at the Tallahassee Democrat

DF: Thanks for helping out, Ira. After the spring and summer, I don’t know if any of this will be new ground to cover, but such is the nature of season openers.

There is one piece yet unknown, though, at least to my knowledge. Florida State’s depth chart does not name either Central Florida transfer McKenzie Milton or sophomore Jordan Travis as the starter. How much of that is (arguably ineffective) gamesmanship and how much of that is a genuinely ongoing quarterback competition? Perhaps more to the point, is Milton healthy? (I should say, Milton having any role on a football team at this point is a feel-good story, given how severe his injury was in 2018. I think all college football fans just hope the story eventually ends in an end zone.)

IS: I think it has been a legitimate competition through fall practice, but I’m also sure Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham have had a good idea of who they’re going to start for at least a week or two.

DF: Maybe I am making too big a deal of the quarterback decision, but in my head, the two lead to very different offensive approaches. Travis’ strength is his legs, his arm enough to keep a defense honest but perhaps not a true strength. When healthy, Milton excelled in all facets, but right now, one would have to think his mobility may be limited and his strengths would be his arm and his experience. How much will this decision alter the Seminoles’ attack on Sunday night?

IS: Milton and Travis are similar in some ways but different at the same time. Neither one is a prototypical drop-back passer — someone who is 6-foot-4 and can stand tall in the pocket and see over the line of scrimmage. They will each try to throw from the pocket, but they’re probably more dangerous when they get outside. And at that point, that’s when their differences really emerge.

Travis is more likely to be a running threat at that point, whereas Milton is very creative and can throw from a wide variety of arm slots to weave the ball around defenders. While I don’t think Milton is quite the athlete he was in 2017 or 2018 at Central Florida, he still is pretty mobile — they even work on some designed runs for him in practice. Of course, he wears a non-contact jersey in practice, so that thought process could change once he starts getting hit. I think both quarterbacks will play this season, and maybe even Sunday, but my guess is we’ll see more of Travis. That’s just a guess though

No matter who the starting quarterback is, he will line up behind former Notre Dame offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons. How has Gibbons been received in Tallahassee? How has he looked with his first extended chance at a starting gig in his college career?

Gibbons definitely won over a lot of fans when he committed to the Seminoles during the summer, but that respect soared to another level when he launched a GoFundMe to pay for a young Notre Dame fan (with serious medical issues) to be able to come watch the game in Tallahassee.

Gibbons is very well-spoken and personable in interviews, so the fans have embraced him, and he seems to appreciate the opportunity he’s getting to be a starter here. Florida State’s offensive line has struggled for years, and he seems to be an improvement over a lot of the interior linemen they have started in recent years.

Transfers have been a storyline for Florida State, and not just in these questions. I count at least eight transfers who will contribute for the Seminoles this season. Was this an intentional step by head coach Mike Norvell and his staff, or one that simply developed as they saw available talent? I suppose those may go hand-in-hand. Did Norvell enter this offseason intent on raiding the transfer portal?

It was definitely intentional. When you transition between three different head coaches in four years (Jimbo Fisher in 2017, Willie Taggart in ’18-’19 and Mike Norvell in 2020), you have an awful lot of attrition. Not only did the Seminoles lose a lot of talent during those regime changes, but they also lost a slew of upperclassmen.

They were one of the youngest teams in the country last season, so Norvell was looking to bring in both better players and more experienced players. They’ve done that on both sides of the ball. There’s Gibbons, Milton and former Kansas receiver Andrew Parchment on offense, and a slew of guys on defense, led by Georgia defensive end transfer Jermaine Johnson and a pair of South Carolina transfers, defensive end Keir Thomas and defensive back Jammie Robinson.

The one of those transfers that most has my attention is not Milton or Gibbons, but Johnson. He had 7.5 sacks in two years as a backup in Athens, and anyone getting any defensive playing time at Georgia should be considered talented enough to handle a starting role most anywhere else, including with the Seminoles. How does he align in Florida State’s defense? I am curious which Irish tackle will face him most. Am I thinking too highly of Johnson already?

He might be the most important transfer they brought in. Florida State’s defensive line created no pressure at all last season, and that was part of the reason why their pass defense was so porous. Johnson gives the Seminoles a legitimate SEC-caliber pass-rusher, and he has been dominant at times during practice. I think he’ll be their best player on that side of the ball this season.

My impression is he’ll play on both sides of the line, but usually to the “field” side depending on where the ball is spotted, but I’m sure he can play both sides when needed.

Editor’s Note: So Johnson is likely to flip right and left, depending on where the ball is spotted. Notre Dame fans, Johnson is No. 11. File that away.

I bring up Gibbons and Johnson specifically because of the Seminoles’ problems the last three or four years, most of them began along the line of scrimmage. The weaknesses in the trenches compounded issues everywhere else. While the roster has improved, has it improved enough up front?

They have improved a lot on both lines of scrimmage, but they’re probably still not up to traditional Florida State standards. Some young offensive linemen could have that group in the top half of the ACC within a year or so, but the defensive line could be close to that right now. The major concern on the defensive line is depth — how big of a dropoff there would be if anything happened to the top-five or -six guys.

What kind of atmosphere will Sunday night bring? Sure, a loud Doak Campbell Stadium, but I am more referring to two years of pent-up energy. Are Florida State fans set for a full-throated release, or is there some hesitancy?

The atmosphere should be outstanding. As you said, it has been a long time since they’ve been allowed to fill the stadium, and there is a lot of excitement with a top-10 Notre Dame team coming to town. Add into that this is the first chance Florida State fans have gotten to see a Mike Norvell-coached team with a normal offseason to establish an identity, plus the emotions that will come with all of the Bobby Bowden tributes. It should be one of the best atmospheres in Doak in years, but we’ll have to see if the players can keep the excitement up once the game begins.

That noise may be part of why Notre Dame remains only a 7-point favorite. I would have expected that to be a double-digit edge, partly because the Irish rather easily dispatched the Seminoles a year ago. What do you expect to see Sunday night?

I think Florida State is going to have some success on offense, but what’s really going to determine the game is whether the Seminoles can slow down the Irish running game. If they can, then I think it could be a great game. If they can’t — like last year when Notre Dame averaged 8.4 yards per rush — then I could see the Irish winning by 10 or more. My hunch is Florida State’s defense will compete more this year and at least force Jack Coan to make some plays to beat them. If it can do that, then I think it should be a one-score game. I predicted Notre Dame 30, FSU 24.