TALLAHASSEE – Looking back on a 2017 season in which Florida State lost six of its first nine games and nearly had a 40-year bowl eligibility streak broken, it's easy to trace back much of the Seminoles' struggles to one play late in the season-opener against Alabama in Atlanta.
Down 24-7 with just under six minutes remaining in the game, FSU quarterback Deondre Francois dropped back to pass and was sacked from behind by Alabama defensive back Ronnie Harrison and Francois immediately grabbed his right knee in pain. The Orlando native had to be helped to the sideline and didn't return to the field again all year, with the sophomore's season coming to an end with a torn ACL.
True freshman James Blackman performed admirably in his place, going 7-5 as a starter while completing 58 percent of his passes for 2,230 yards and 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. One might assume that Francois' return from injury means he has the inside track to regaining the starting job, especially after leading all freshman quarterbacks in passing yards as a freshman in 2016.
However, new Seminoles coach Willie Taggart still has not named a starter with less than two weeks until the team's season opener against Virginia Tech on Sept. 3. Taggart said at Sunday's FSU Media Day that the reps gained by Blackman and redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman in the spring while Francois was still recovering from his injury have given them a leg up in the competition.
"I think you can see where Bailey Hockman and James Blackman have a great understanding of what we're doing (and) are probably a little ahead of Francois from that standpoint," he said. "They are doing some things and getting better at what we did in the spring, and it's been really good because it's starting to click for those guys and (they're) making plays. It's just that those guys have more reps than Deondre, so the more reps you get, the better you get at things."
The advantage for Blackman and Hockman may be more pronounced given that it's a new coaching staff and a new offensive system, with Taggart employing an up-tempo, spread option attack that looks and operates differently than former coach Jimbo Fisher's pro-style offense.
FSU offensive coordinator Walt Bell said that, while he appreciates Francois' track record of success and experience with the Seminoles, it's not as relevant to who wins the QB competition as some may think.
"We really only care about what's happened since we've been here," he said. "I get it, Deondre has had some great in-game experience and has been a really good player for Florida State at times. Obviously you're not discounting that. You don't put blinders on and pretend like that doesn't exist, but you really want to evaluate these guys on what they've done since we've been here. I think all three have done a good job.
"We're just worried about right now, what's happened through the spring and through (Saturday's scrimmage). Whoever gives us the best chance to win will be the guy."
Francois didn't endear himself to the new staff in the spring when he was cited for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, though the quarterback said he believes he has grown and learned from the experience.
"My maturity has really gone up," he said. "I'm just growing up and seeing things, understanding the platform and influence I have. It's just me being a leader on and off the field. No matter what hiccups you go through, it's about bouncing back. I know I let my family down with some of the decisions I made, but for a chance of a lifetime to be part of a program like this, I can't let it slip away."
It has been a year of adversity on and off the field for Francois, but he said that he believes he's ready to get back in the saddle and regain his position as the leader of the Seminoles.
"It's been a rollercoaster, but it's been a learning curve for me," he said. "(The ACL tear) was my first injury and that was hard to take in, but it's happened and it's over. Now I'm looking back to September (of last year) to where I am now and I've come so far. I'm working hard with the trainers and doing everything they tell me to do. Now I'm running and throwing and back to my old self."
But he'll have work to do to hold off the 6-foot-5 Blackman, who struggled at times as a freshman but finished the season strong, capping the year with a four-touchdown performance in a 42-13 win over Southern Mississippi in the Independence Bowl and being named the game's Offensive MVP.
"I was just getting better and better with each and every game," Blackman said. "I was just focusing on things I could do to help myself, limit mistakes, watch a lot of film with the coaches to try to get better each day. I felt myself progressing with going through reads and being a better leader for my team. I just felt a little more comfortable as the year went on."
Unlike the other two quarterbacks in the competition, Hockman hasn't taken a snap as a college quarterback yet. The former four-star recruit from Powder Springs, Ga., was redshirted in 2017 but isn't concerned about any experience deficit he faces in the competition for the top job.
"I would say I'm definitely the underdog, but I like being in that situation," he said. "It's something I can handle. I've kind of always been the underdog in football and I kind of like it. I'm just going to grind and do my thing."
However the competition shakes out, Francois said all three quarterbacks are ultimately on the same side and are motivated primarily by helping Florida State win football games, whatever their role in that may be.
"We really don't look at it how everybody looks at it on the outside," he said. "We don't pay attention to people trying to start commotion between us. We just go out every day and do what we're told. I want the starting job back real bad, and I know Bailey wants it and James want it. Whatever happens, I'm all for the team. We just want to see the team succeed. It's not about me or Bailey or James. It's about the Florida State Seminoles. Whatever decision coach Taggart makes, I'm all in on."
This article is written by Dustin Kent from The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.