Sports Florida State eager to kick off Willie Taggart era with win over Virginia Tech in national spotlight
Florida State coach Willie Taggart wants his players to embrace the spotlight.
No. 19 FSU finally kicks off the 2018 season Monday, playing No. 20 Virginia Tech in Doak Campbell Stadium. Taggart’s debut game leading the Seminoles will air on ESPN and be the sole matchup on national primetime television.
“It’ll be fun, you know,” Taggart said. “I told our guys, you know, everybody will be watching us. It’s Labor Day. Nothing else going on. All your life, you grow up watching Monday night football and now our guys get to play.”
In order to make the most of the spotlight, the Seminoles will need to aggressively attack Hokies redshirt sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson.
Junior defensive end Brian Burns will lead FSU’s defensive effort pressuring Jackson. The quarterback will rely on the run-pass option to distract the Seminoles, constantly testing the Seminoles as a viable run threat.
“[Jackson’s] a really good quarterback,” FSU defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “He’s a guy that we’ve got to get after and understand that he is cool. He’s not going to crack under pressure. He’s been in a lot of tough situations. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois will make his first start back since suffering a major injury against Alabama in 2017 season opener.
Francois will get help from the Seminoles’ deep running back rotation. FSU will enter the matchup with five running backs ready to take the field: sophomore Cam Akers, Orlando native Jacques Patrick, Virginia native Khalan Laborn, junior Amir Rasul and freshman Anthony Grant.
Akers begins the season atop the depth chart with high expectations driven by his record-breaking freshman season, during which he broke the school’s freshman rushing record (1,024 yards) once held by Dalvin Cook.
Taggart has a reputation for making the most of an athletic roster.
SportSource Analytics credits Taggart with the second highest percentage of big-play runs among Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches since 2015. The big play runs include 263 plays with 14.67 percent of rushes called gaining at least 12 yards.
Taggart’s success with big-run plays suggests he could use Akers, Patrick and Laborn to beat down the youthful and inexperienced Virginia Tech secondary.
The Hokies had six key members from last season opt to jump to the NFL. The team also lost two defensive backs in Adonis Alexander (academics) and Jeremy Webb (injury).
“This is probably the most inexperienced that we’ve been in a long, long time,” Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster told the Roanoke Times.
The up-tempo Gulf Coast Offense that Taggart deploys could put pressure on the Hokies’ inexperienced defensive line. During three seasons running the offense, Taggart’s teams have averaged 37.8 points per game.
The Hokies defense does feature talent, with defensive tackle Ricky Walker a crucial set piece to their front four. The redshirt senior has racked up 78 total tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 6 sacks during his career.
FSU offensive coordinator Walt Bell has battled against the Hokies before and understands how tricky it can be to face Foster’s playbook.
While the Seminoles have an array of weapons, the team just learned Taggart’s offense and Francois returning from injury.
“They do a little bit of everything,” Bell said of Virginia Tech. “That’s what makes them so hard to prepare for is you’re going to see everything. Couple that with a lot of pre-snap movement and post-snap movement on the D Line, they’re a difficult group to prepare for, to lock in on because [Foster] does a lot of different stuff. As long as we do what we’re supposed to do, take care of the football and eliminate pre-snap penalties, I think we’ll be OK.”