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Where is FSU football after Willie Taggart’s second spring?

Taggart took a victory lap after his first spring game. There was no such celebration this time.
Florida State football coach Willie Taggart addresses reporters after Saturday's spring game. (MATT BAKER | Times)
Florida State football coach Willie Taggart addresses reporters after Saturday's spring game. (MATT BAKER | Times)
Published Apr. 7, 2019

TALLAHASSEE —When Florida State coach Willie Taggart finished his first spring game a year ago, he took a victory lap around Doak Campbell Stadium.

Maybe he deserved it for resuscitating the Seminoles’ scorned fan base. The exhibition game’s crowd (a program record 53,974) included legends Bobby Bowden, Deion Sanders and Derrick Brooks. Taggart’s triumphant walk seemed so important to FSU’s expected rebirth that its picture hangs outside the athletic director’s suite above Doak.

There was no victory lap Saturday after FSU ended Taggart’s second spring with the Garnet and Gold glorified scrimmage.

The stain of 5-7 is still too strong. The honeymoon period is long gone.

Saturday’s generously announced attendance (27,901) was barely half of what it was a year ago.

The fans who did show up for Gold’s 27-21 win didn’t get a high five from Taggart. But if they looked closely enough, they saw some signs that FSU might finally be headed in the right direction.

The offense looked quick and coherent — a rare combination last year. The ’Noles ran 96 plays in the first half, which means Taggart’s up-tempo offense is finally starting to speed up. As importantly, the misalignments and false starts that plagued FSU last season were largely absent; the offensive line only jumped early once in the first half.

Taggart attributed both boosts to the addition of lightning-rod offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. His system helped FSU’s top two quarterbacks (James Blackman and Travis Jordan) throw for 656 yards in a little over a half.

“Coach Briles and his simple way of teaching has helped big time,” Taggart said.

It helps that FSU still has some high-end talent. Tamorrion Terry streaked for a 50-yard touchdown catch from Blackman, and Cam Akers rushed for two scores.

There were flashes of potential on defense, too. Blue-chip early enrollee Akeem Dent had a fumble recovery and a pass breakup in the first quarter. Another blue-chip early enrollee, Jaleel McRae, led his team with 11 tackles. Wesley Chapel alumnus Isaiah Bolden had a pair of pass breakups — a nice comeback from the shoulder injury that sidelined him almost all of last season.

Players brought up other, intangible changes you couldn’t see from the (mostly empty) stands: a greater buy-in to the coaching staff, tighter chemistry, better consistency.

“It’s a new year,” said Blackman, who finished 23-of-37 for 415 yards and three touchdowns. “It’s a new us.”

Maybe. Except there were too many signs of the old FSU were on display Saturday, too.

Akers gained only 32 yards on his 11 carries. His most impressive rush came after he ducked a defender deep in his own backfield, spun away and somehow gained a yard. It’s an evasive maneuver he has too much experience with. The rest of the run game didn’t find many more holes; FSU’s top four running backs averaged only 3.2 yards per carry.

Which leads to the overarching weakness that predates Taggart: A leaky offensive line that was one of the worst in the country last year.

FSU surrendered nine sacks. That, somehow, is three fewer than the injury-depleted unit allowed in last year’s exhibition. In the first half alone, the ’Noles gave up five sacks, had four poor snaps and committed three penalties (a false start and two holds).

If you could look past that glaring hole and squint hard enough at everything else Saturday, there were signs that FSU might be starting a slow turnaround under Taggart.

But nothing worth celebrating yet.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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