Sunday, April 22, 2018
Colleges

Gabe Gross (yes, the former Ray) knows a bit about starting as a freshman QB

Florida State's James Blackman is poised to do something first-round draft picks Jameis Winston, JaMarcus Russell, EJ Manuel and Christian Ponder never did:

Start at quarterback for coach Jimbo Fisher as a true freshman.

Only one player in Fisher's three-decade coaching career knows what Blackman is going through as he prepares to replace the injured Deondre Francois.

"Looking back at it now," former Rays outfielder Gabe Gross said, "I was in no way, shape or fashion, under any circumstances, prepared."

Gross' debut came while he was at Auburn in 1998, when Fisher was coaching quarterbacks. And, like Blackman, the opportunity came because of injury.

Redshirt sophomore Ben Leard bruised his elbow and wrist so badly against Tennessee that he couldn't feel the ball leave his hands. Gross took over against the Volunteers, then became the starter the next week at Mississippi State.

"At the time, I felt like I knew the plays," Gross, 37, said. "I know how to throw the ball. I know how to hand it off. Let's go get 'em."

It wasn't that simple.

A Bulldogs team that went on to win the SEC West blitzed from all over the field. Gross said he played like a typical true freshman — a great play or two mixed in with some horrible mistakes. He threw his first career touchdown pass but also threw two interceptions in a 4-of-15 performance. The Tigers lost by 17.

Gross quickly realized all the things he didn't know, such as all the fine points of Fisher's offense. Like Blackman, Gross joined his team in the summer rather than enrolling early, so he didn't have much time to adjust from a simple high school system to the same pro-style offense that later eased Winston's transition from FSU to the NFL.

"It was like opening up a fire hydrant and trying to drink out of it," Gross said.

Gross knew his first and second reads on passes, but he ran into trouble after that. Even when he understood his third or fourth options, he struggled to digest the defense quickly enough to get the ball to them.

"For me, my third option was my feet," Gross said. "You see that in a lot of young quarterbacks."

And we might see that from Blackman, especially if FSU's blocking remains as leaky as it was last weekend against Alabama or during most of 2016.

Gross came off the bench in a 24-3 loss at Florida the week after Mississippi State but started the final five games. He finished 88-of-197 with seven touchdowns, two interceptions and two rushing scores.

While some coaches might want to be gentle with young quarterbacks to build their confidence, Gross said Fisher was never that way. Fisher might have backed off slightly during games, but his fiery outbursts during practice were the same, no matter your age.

"There is nothing about Jimbo Fisher's coaching style that is kids' gloves," said Gross, now an SEC Network analyst. "I doubt that there ever has been, and I don't think there ever will be."

Fisher and Gross only spent one season together. After Auburn finished 3-8, Fisher left to become the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati before hooking up with Nick Saban at LSU in 2000. Gross appeared in two games in 1999, then decided to focus on a baseball career that took him to seven major-league seasons (including 242 games with the Rays from 2008-09).

Although Gross' true freshman season didn't go as well as he wanted, he is optimistic about Blackman.

Thanks to 7-on-7 leagues, private coaches and recruiting camps, quarterbacks enter college more developed than they were two decades ago. And Blackman isn't just any true freshman. He's one being groomed by one of the best quarterback gurus in the game.

"He's one of the most intelligent football-minded people I've ever been around in my life," Gross said of Fisher. "He will do a fantastic job of knowing what he'll be comfortable with."

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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