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The 4-letter word fueling Florida State football’s turnaround

There’s compelling evidence that backs up one of Mike Norvell’s coaching cliches.
 
Florida State football coach Mike Norvell tries to put his Seminoles in uncomfortable situations during FSU's preseason camp.
Florida State football coach Mike Norvell tries to put his Seminoles in uncomfortable situations during FSU's preseason camp. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 11, 2023|Updated Aug. 11, 2023

JACKSONVILLE — There are plenty of reasons Florida State has risen from national punching bag back to ACC heavyweight.

The development of star quarterback Jordan Travis. The evaluation and schematic prowess of coach Mike Norvell and his staff. The organizational overhaul that created stability on and off the field.

But don’t overlook the four-letter word emblazoned on the sweat-soaked shirt Norvell wore at Friday’s practice.

WORK.

Work during another scorching morning on a Spartan, one-goal-post field at the University of North Florida. Work after a night of sleeping in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar dormitory. Work in the dog days of summer with the Sept. 3 opener against LSU three weeks away.

“Those are the moments where your real identity’s going to show up,” Norvell said. “I like what I’m seeing from this team so far.”

It’s hot in many parts of the country, and the importance of hard work is a true but well-worn coaching cliche. The next coach who brags about how easy his practices are will be the first.

But Norvell vowed in his introductory news conference that his Seminoles would finish strong in everything. And they’ve shown signs of progress because of the difficult situations Norvell revels in putting them in.

In 2020, Norvell’s first season at FSU, the Seminoles averaged 8.1 points per game in the second half. That was No. 113 nationally. The defense wasn’t much better, ranking No. 83 (15.4 points allowed).

Florida State had second-half issues in Mike Norvell's second season, including in the walkoff loss to Jacksonville State.
Florida State had second-half issues in Mike Norvell's second season, including in the walkoff loss to Jacksonville State. [ PHIL SEARS | Associated Press ]

Year 2 was better. The second-half offense was up to 74th (12.6 points), and the defense inched to 73rd (13.3 points). Those figures back up some of the key moments of that year: a walkoff loss to Jacksonville State and turning a 7-7 halftime tie into a 24-21 loss at Florida and its interim coach.

And then last year. Progress.

FSU jumped to 31st in second-half defense (11.3 points allowed) and 28th in second-half offense (15.5 points). Over the last three games, only seven teams in the country averaged more points over the final two quarters than FSU (20.7).

The Seminoles beat LSU on a blocked extra point on the final play in their opener, scored winning touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Florida and at Louisville, and used a last-minute field goal to top Oklahoma. Finishing games strong was the difference between a middling season that could have cost Norvell his job and a 10-win breakthrough that will put FSU in the top 10 of the preseason Associated Press poll when it comes out Monday.

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And the way to get those strong finishes is by thriving in the work during what has become an annual trip across Interstate 10.

“I feel like Jacksonville just tells you how your season’s going to go every single year,” Travis said.

So how will FSU’s season go this year? Based on what was on display Friday:

The lines are deeper than they’ve been in years. The talent level is FSU’s highest since at least 2017.

Trey Benson looks ready to have another big season at Florida State.
Trey Benson looks ready to have another big season at Florida State. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]

There are no reasons to doubt the returning known commodities. Defensive end Jared Verse is poised to dominate. Running back Trey Benson should have a chance to rush for 1,000 yards, unless Caziah Holmes and Pinellas Park High alumnus Lawrance Toafili take too many of his carries. Travis, teammates said, has become even better at reading defenses.

Norvell bolstered them with a transfer class that again looks strong. Receiver Keon Coleman (Michigan State) may end up as FSU’s best receiver, ahead of preseason all-ACC pick Johnny Wilson. NFL personnel are gushing about cornerback Fentrell Cypress (Virginia). Tight ends Jaheim Bell (South Carolina) and Kyle Morlock (Shorter University) have added red-zone targets FSU lacked a year ago. Defensive lineman Braden Fiske (Western Michigan) is one of the most intriguing players in the state. If his versatility and mid-major production carry over to the ACC, the Seminoles have another difference-maker at a key position.

But in order for it all to click — in order for FSU to challenge for its first ACC title and playoff appearance since 2014 — the Seminoles will have to fall back on the four-letter word Norvell is emphasizing on muggy mornings 170 miles from home.

WORK.

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

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