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Notre Dame Football

ISD Scouting Report | Florida State

August 29, 2021
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Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Mike Norvell in his first season at Florida State. No spring ball, talk of a player mutiny in the summer, and then came the season.

The Seminoles finished 3-6 (2-6 in the ACC). Throw in that a handful of players who were projected to be stars ended up having disappointing seasons, you can see how FSU fans don’t exactly have high expectations for 2021.

Norvell and his staff know they inherited a tough roster situation and did what they could to patch up a quick fix this off-season. They brought in double digit transfers and many of them are expected to start this season.

While that helps, it shows how the end of the Jimbo Fisher era and the disastrous Willie Taggart years have set a national powerhouse back from what they used to be. This is year two of a rebuild for Norvell and they are nowhere near competing with Clemson in the ACC.

This team is going to be better than last year. How much better is uncertain. They’re trying to go from bad to average. They are 62nd in returning production and 50th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections heading into the season. FEI has them projected at 77th.

They just finished a fall camp that wasn’t exactly a smooth one with some key players being held out of practices. They also aren’t a team that isn’t currently close to fully vaccinated and had some players miss time due to contact tracing.

It doesn’t exactly set up well for them to knock off Notre Dame to start the season, but they should have the benefit of a home crowd that can give them a boost on a Sunday night.

Injuries

Returning starter at LB Emmitt Rice is out for this game and shouldn’t be back until later this season.

There are no other major injuries that are public right now where we know they will be missing this game, but the status of QB McKenzie Milton is worth monitoring. He had a horrific leg injury at UCF and he missed practices in camp.

It’s unclear why, but if they are managing the load for him already, that can’t be a great sign.

Offense

The hope is that the offense can only get better this season after finishing 95th in FEI and 73rd in yards per play. FEI has them projected at 77th, so it would be better, but still below average. Connelly has them projected 41st heading into the season and that would be a big improvement.

Norvell’s offenses at Arizona State and Memphis both made leaps in year two of his system, but they started out pretty good (in the top-40 in FEI). This is a different hill to climb.

Expected Strengths

A lot depends on who wins the quarterback battle. If it’s Milton, he should improve their passing game (117th in passing efficiency last season).

Milton was a top-10 quarterback in 2018 in passer rating and yards per attempt. The notion that was only effective because he was a dual-threat is false. He may never be the same player when it comes to running the ball, but if he can get close to the passer he was, he immediately makes their passing game improve.

The other quarterback who Notre Dame fans saw last season is Jordan Travis. He’s a dynamic runner who was a huge reason why the running game made a gigantic leap last year despite some spotty O-line play. They went from 3.83 yards per carry to 5.11.

Travis led the team in carries, YPC (5.76), and rushing touchdowns (7). If he’s not the quarterback, they lose that element of the offense that made their running game go last season.

If the end of camp is any indication, it sounds like Travis has the edge to be the starter, but Notre Dame will have to prepare for both players. 

They have three pretty good backs. They all have some burst. Jashaun Corbin is a good receiver and Lawrance Toafili can do some damage in the open field. He has the potential to be dangerous if he gets a crease. He finished off last year with 117-yards against Duke. Auburn transfer DJ Williams is the other back in the mix. He had flashes at Auburn of being a big play guy, including a 70-yard run against LSU in 2019.

Travis combined with those backs gives them the pieces needed to be above average in the running game.

Tight end Camren McDonald is a good player who can make plays down the seam and he can be a lot more productive with better quarterback play.

Potential Weaknesses

The offensive line remains questionable. That YPC number is misleading in terms of their level of play last season. They were bad again for the fourth straight year.

Just about everybody is back and they have their coach back for the second straight year so the hope is they can make the leap from bad to average. They finished 87th in pass block grade and 104th in run block grade according to PFF. The offense was 108th in Havoc Rate allowed last season and most of that falls on the O-line. They haven’t recruited very well at the position and lacked consistency, which is why the running game was boom or bust. It doesn’t help that they were still mixing and matching personnel because they had some O-linemen miss practices in camp for various reasons.

Can they protect whoever is at quarterback? They finished 112th in sack rate last season. If that number isn’t significantly better, Notre Dame’s front is going to eat all night against them.

In last season’s matchup, Travis was pressured on 51.6% of drop backs. If not for his ability to escape the rush, he would have been sacked a lot more than four times.

Travis didn’t finish in the top-100 quarterbacks in the country in 3rd down passer rating. They were 101st in 3rd down overall. On 3rd and 6+, Travis had a dismal 93.1 passer rating. He was a one read guy last season and that is a tough ask against Notre Dame’s defense.

Now that Tamorrion Terry is gone, I’m not sure they have a receiver who scares a defense. They’ll need someone to step up. Perhaps that’s Ontario Wilson (382 yards in 2020) or Kansas transfer Andrew Parchment (829 in 2019). He was a good 50/50 ball receiver for the Jayhawks and FSU needs someone to step up in that department.

They may need to rely on freshman Malik McClain to play an important role and Keshawn Helton is someone who impressed in camp.

A stronger passing game is necessary for them no matter who is playing quarterback. They were one of the least explosive passing offenses in the country in 2020. Travis was a below average passer and the reports from this offseason have indicated he’s improved. We’ll see if that’s the case.

They finished 121st in EPA (expected points added) per pass.

Scheme

I’m going to continue with what I wrote about them last season.

Notre Dame fans should be fairly familiar with this scheme because a lot of what Chip Long did was influenced by his former boss, Norvell. Expect to see quite a bit of screen game (no team threw more screens in the FBS last season), jet sweep motion, and misdirection built into the offense in order to try and create favorable matchups. They will run plenty of influence blocks up front to try and confuse the reads of the linebackers and safeties.

Marcus Freeman faced Norvell’s Memphis offense twice in 2019 so he’s familiar with the bones of the scheme.

The quarterback run game and zone read are going to be a big part of what Notre Dame will have to prepare for if Travis is the guy. He averaged 9.4 YPC on zone read runs and the Irish defense has to play disciplined and assignment sound against him.

RPOs are going to be likely more prevalent if Milton wins the job, but the threat of Travis running opens up some passing plays where he is outside of the pocket on RPOs.

They run unbalanced a lot. Only three Power 5 programs ran unbalanced formations more often and they try to hit some plays while catching the defense off guard by going at a fast tempo.

19.8% of Travis’ passes were attempts of 20-yards or more down the field.

Notre Dame is going to have to spy Travis as much as they can on 3rd downs. He ran on 40% of his drop backs on 3rd and 6+. On 3rd and medium he ran on 47.8% of his drop backs.

You can see the potential of the offense if they improve up front and at receiver. They want to play at a fast tempo and run 80+ plays in a game.

They had 38 receptions from the backs last season and I’d expect that number to go way up given how Norvell utilized the backs at Memphis.

Key Players

QB McKenzie Milton - Even with less mobility, Milton can win from the pocket. He was only pressured 26.3% of drop backs and that number is sure to go up at FSU.

QB Jordan Travis - He completed 49.5% of his non-screen passes in 2020. His growth as a passer is critical to their offensive improvement if he’s QB1.

RB Lawrence Toafili - 10 of his 37 carries went for over 10-yards.

T Devonta Love-Taylor - A Super Senior who spent his first four years at FIU, he’s FSU’s top returning O-lineman. He suffered a knee injury at the end of 2020, but is expected to be healthy for the season opener. He may kick inside to guard this season.

Key Matchup for Notre Dame

The Trenches - The Irish should have a significant advantage up front. FSU wasn’t able to address their questions at offensive tackle in the transfer portal and the guard they brought in, Dillan Gibbons, was going to be a backup at Notre Dame. They should be better than they were a year ago, but that’s been said for a while.

Defense

Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller was able to fix Memphis’ defense in his lone season there, but this group is still a work in progress.

Despite having NFL caliber talent on the defensive line and in the secondary, they finished 108th in FEI and 105th in YPP. They simply don’t have the talent and depth that they used to on an annual basis.

SP+ has them projected to be 69th on defense and FEI has them at 65th.

Expected Strengths

The defensive line isn’t deep, but they have some talent. They’re going to count on Georgia transfer Jermaine Johnson to deliver as a pass rusher and the reviews of him this offseason have been glowing. He was good in a reserve role doing that for the Bulldogs (14.1% pressure rate).

Johnson and South Carolina transfer Keir Thomas give them a solid duo on the edge. Thomas started 32 games at South Carolina and at the very least will provide solid play against the run.

Redshirt freshman CB Travis Jay has been getting rave reviews in camp and he could be one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC this season. I was a big fan of Akeem Dent as a safety prospect coming into FSU, but he played corner and struggled last season. A move to safety could provide a boost for them. Another South Carolina transfer, Jammie Robinson, can play the nickel or at safety for them and should be solid.

Amari Gainer was their best linebacker last season and it sounds like he is going to be a chess piece for them with how they use him as a pass rusher and in coverage. He led them in tackles.

Potential Weaknesses

If some of those expected strengths seem unexpected, it’s because they have questions at all three levels of the defense.

The depth on the defensive line doesn’t look great, which is why two transfers can come in and start. If they have an injury or two, it’s going to be very tough for them. Notre Dame may be able to wear them down.

The linebacker group is one of the weaker units on the team. Redshirt freshman DJ Lundy sounds like he will start at linebacker, but he’s over 250 pounds. He might thrive against the inside run, but what about when he gets matched up in coverage?

The secondary is young or unproven outside of Robinson. The future could be bright there, but the present is uncertain. It’s a good thing Notre Dame is getting them early in the year.

They were 98th in Havoc Rate last season and 113th in sack rate. They are going to rely on players like Johnson and Gainer to get to the quarterback and if those players don’t deliver, they are going to be in serious trouble. They finished 104th in 3rd down defense and need more pass rushers to emerge to compliment Johnson so that gets better.

Their EPA per pass allowed was 117th. That kind of performance in pass defense is an all three levels problem.

Scheme

They will mix fronts with some three down against teams who spread things out more, but I’d expect plenty of four down against Notre Dame, especially when they see two tight ends on the field.

Gainer played a Rover type of role for them last year, but it sounds like they will play more of a traditional 4-2-5 with him playing inside and Robinson or Kevin Knowles in the nickel. Look for that player to be activated a decent amount with blitzes and a good amount of early down shifting and slanting up front. Notre Dame’s O-line has faced a good amount of that with their own defense in the spring and in fall camp.

Fuller’s defense at Memphis finished tied for 21st in tackles for loss. When he was at Marshall in 2018 his defense finished 18th in Havoc Rate. He wants to attack on early downs and force long yardage situations, but he didn’t force enough of them at FSU.

A second year in the system for these players could help with that.

Key Players

Edge Jermaine Johnson - The Nolecast has speculated that he might be the best player on the team, which says a lot about Johnson and more about the rest of the team.

Edge Keir Thomas - He’s been disruptive in their camp, but is that because of the competition he’s facing? Thomas had 5.5 TFLs in seven games in 2020.

CB Travis Jay - Moved from safety and the former 4-star has FSU fans buzzing.

LB Amari Gainer - Shows explosion as a blitzer, but only 6.5 Havoc plays in 2020.

Key Matchup for Notre Dame

LT Blake Fisher vs edge Jermaine Johnson - Fisher gets his first true test of the season against the former top ranked JUCO prospect.

Special Teams

Florida State had kicking issues last season. They finished 109th in field goal percentage (57.9%). They had two kickers and both converted 4 of 7. They need one of those two to step forward.

Sophomore punter Alex Mastrommano was solid last season (43.5 per punt).

They didn’t show anything dynamic in the return game, but Jay returned kicks last season and averaged 22.9 yards per return.

They were decent in punt coverage (30th) and less than that on kick coverage (72nd), but that’s not entirely unexpected when the depth of the roster is questionable. Special teams are usually going to suffer when that’s the case.

 
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