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Why a youth movement could be risky at Florida State

James Blackman and Feleipe Franks were both thrown in early during lost seasons. Their development suffered as a result.
Playing a young quarterback behind a bad offensive line carries risks. James Blackman experienced some tough growing pains as a freshman for Florida State in 2017.
Playing a young quarterback behind a bad offensive line carries risks. James Blackman experienced some tough growing pains as a freshman for Florida State in 2017. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 29, 2020

The message-board temptation after Florida State’s second 0-2 start of the past three decades is to forget the present by focusing on the future.

Go full-on youth movement. Give as much playing time as possible to the underclassmen who have a chance of turning this program around in the long term, even if it means taking more lumps and losses in the short term.

But if you’re viewing that idea as a shortcut back to national prominence, beware. Inserting players into games before they’re ready comes with risk, as two recent high-profile examples show.

Related: Florida State, Mike Norvell have been unlucky. But that’s no excuse for this ugliness.

As Jim McElwain was beginning to wear out his welcome at Florida, he named redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks the starter for the 2017 opener ahead of incumbent Luke Del Rio and grad transfer Malik Zaire. McElwain was out of a job by early November, and the move left lasting damage in Gainesville.

Feleipe Franks spent much of his 2017 season under pressure, which could have had a long-lasting impact on his Gators career.
Feleipe Franks spent much of his 2017 season under pressure, which could have had a long-lasting impact on his Gators career. [ Times (2017) ]

“(It’s) fair to say Feleipe probably played before he was ready to play,” McElwain’s successor, Dan Mullen, said in 2018. “I think that’s hurt his development.”

Specifically, Mullen pointed to a pair of plays in a lopsided home loss to Missouri a week earlier, when Franks failed to find the open receiver as the pocket collapsed.

“(If) you’ve kind of played too early, then you’re not ready for that moment and you start before knowing where to go with the ball, you start getting a little gun shy,” Mullen said then.

Franks was probably a little gun shy because he tried to learn the college game a year earlier while playing behind an offensive line that let him get sacked 29 times.

Sound familiar? It probably does to FSU’s James Blackman.

James Blackman was under a lot of pressure in his first season as a starter, 2017.
James Blackman was under a lot of pressure in his first season as a starter, 2017.

The context is different. Deondre Francois' season-ending injury in the ’17 opener left Blackman as FSU’s best option.

But the result was the same. Blackman was rushed into playing behind a bad offensive line that’s not much better, three years later.

“He really got thrown into it,” first-year FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “There were some growing pains that truly happened throughout that experience that probably helped him in some regards and in some other areas probably didn’t help him a whole lot.”

We don’t know how much the hits and early pressure affected the development of Franks (who transferred to Arkansas in the offseason) or Blackman, especially considering the coaching turnover both have endured. But both rank in the bottom seven nationally in passing efficiency this season. It’s fair to wonder whether those numbers would be better if they had more time to develop before starting in lost seasons at marquee programs.

Make no mistake: Unless Norvell brought some magical solutions with him to the practice fields when he returned from coronavirus quarantine Tuesday, FSU is in for another lost season. That doesn’t mean he should torch 2020 with a depth chart full of his recruits unless they’re really ready to play now and truly better than whoever they’d replace.

“The reality is, we have not won a lot of football games around here as of late,” Norvell said. “That is something that we need to do. We need to continue to have that competition.”

Lawrance Toafili has earned his playing time, even as a true freshman for FSU.
Lawrance Toafili has earned his playing time, even as a true freshman for FSU. [ AL DIAZ | adiaz@miamiherald.com ]

Competition is fine. Four-star freshman running back Lawrance Toafili (Pinellas Park High) rushed for a team-high 64 yards at Miami and deserves to keep getting meaningful reps. So does four-star linebacker Stephen Dix.

Related: Florida State’s Lawrance Toafili ‘has been remarkable’ as four-star freshman

But Norvell needs to strike the right balance for other newcomers who have already had their development slowed because of the pandemic.

Three-star freshman quarterback Tate Rodemaker said Monday that his garbage-time experience in Saturday’s fourth quarter means “next time I’ll be more ready.”

Next time doesn’t have to happen immediately. It should happen when he, and the 'Noles, are really ready.

Florida State (0-2) vs. Jacksonville State (0-0)

4 p.m. Saturday, Doak Campbell Stadium

Streaming: ESPN3

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