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Florida State looks to ink a redemptive story in 2019

After a dismal 5-7 season in 2018, coach Willie Taggart believes his players will rebound with a focus on details and accountability.
FSU junior running back Cam Akers seeks redemption this season after he and his Seminoles suffered through a 5-7 campaign in 2018. [ERNEST HOOPER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Aug. 25
Updated Aug. 26

It’s an artful rendition of the Seminoles logo, inked in the school’s garnet and gold colors.

But in some ways, the Chief Osceola tattoo that Florida State running back Cam Akers bears on his left forearm represents a promise the junior and his teammates have made to each other to restore pride in the program.

“Everybody’s got a chip on their shoulder,” said Akers. “We just want to go win, get back to Florida State football and show everybody what we came here to do.”

Seminoles running back Cam Akers displays his FSU tattoo. [ERNEST HOOPER | Tampa Bay Times]

As the Seminoles move toward Saturday’s season opener against Boise State in Jacksonville, they’re speaking about redemption in a convincing manner. Players at the team’s recent media day session sold the notion that they’re embarking on a fresh chapter in program history. Coach Willie Taggart even refers to his squad as the new “FSU football team.”

MORE SEMINOLES: New offensive line coach brings hard-working approach

Of course, they want to upgrade after producing one of the most disappointing seasons in program history in 2018.

Just five years after winning a national title, FSU bottomed out at 5-7, snapping a 36-year bowl game streak. The offense struggled, the defense proved porous and at times the Seminoles struggled to even put the correct number of players on the field.

The swagger that carried FSU in past years proved to be false and fleeting. It’s not that the Seminoles lost their confidence, it’s that they had too much. Taggart said his players learned they had to do more than show up to win a game.

“Those little things that we’re asking them to do, they’re doing them now,” Taggart said. “They’re setting a standard to what we want it to be and making sure everybody within the program is doing it that way.”

Florida State offensive coordinator Kendal Briles during the Garnet vs. Gold spring game. [LOGAN STANFORD/ICON SPORTSWIRE | AP]

Coaching staff changes also fuel the confidence. Taggart revamped his offensive staff, hiring coordinator Kendal Briles, who understands the tempo Taggart wants to fully employ in 2019 and, like the players, enters the year with a chip on his shoulder.

Instead of calling plays, which Taggart did at the beginning of 2018, he’s overseeing both sides of the ball and allowing the coordinators to concentrate on details.

“I love being able to go around at every spot and have a coach at every spot, and making sure we’re doing what we say we’re going to do,” Taggart said. “That’s been fun for me personally. I’m sure our players — I don’t know, sometimes they might get tired of seeing me around — but it’s been good just to be around and helping out every aspect and learning.

“You know, you’re still learning, too.”

Taggart said the biggest key, however, involves turning the Seminoles into a player-led team instead of a coach-led team. The increased accountability between teammates appears to be more than wishful thinking by the 42-year-old coach. Center Baveon Johnson said film sessions feature a brand of truth-telling that exposes players’ shortcomings and challenges them to maximize their efforts.

MORE SEMINOLES: Taggart remains coy, playful with media

"Please don’t put anything bad on film from practice because you will be called out,” Johnson said. “You will be told that you’re wrong, and you will be told that you need to be better. That’s why we practice perfection. Go out there and make sure your technique is right, your assignment is right, make sure you know what you’re doing.

“People are being held to a standard because there is a standard at Florida State, and you will be held to that standard.”

Florida State's Cam Akers (3) runs the ball down the field in the second quarter against Florida in Tallahassee last season. [Times]

Perhaps no player on the roster represents that standard more than Akers. He came to Tallahassee as the country’s top running back in 2017, and one of the nation’s most prized recruits. With Akers in the fold, FSU expected to continue the success that helped it go 47-7 from 2013-16. Instead, it went 7-6 in 2017, lost coach Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M, then took a nosedive in Taggart’s first season. Some wondered if Akers, a bit underwhelming in two seasons behind an ineffective offensive line, would enter the NCAA transfer portal.

He said the thought never crossed his mind.

“The Lord put me here for a reason,” Akers said. “I was dealt cards, and I had to make the most of them. That was my mind-set: just come and get better and get the team better.

“I don’t think I made any mistakes coming here. I love Florida State University and what they’ve done for me, and I’m going to keep loving it.”

Akers’ loyalty in this transfer era is admirable, but FSU might need more to succeed.

It remains to be seen if the team’s talent can match its talk. Until it proves capable, FSU’s offensive line remains suspect. The precision required to run the offense that Briles and his father, Art, perfected at Baylor might be difficult to instill in the first year.

Mike Tyson has said everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and the Seminoles are going to get punched — maybe in the first series against Boise State. If they don’t want to get tattooed, they’ll have to punch back. Hard.

I think they will.

That’s all I’m saying.

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