West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown knows exactly how the staff of his opening opponent feels. He was in that spot just one season ago.
The Mountaineers are scheduled to kick off their season Sept. 5 in Atlanta against Florida State. New Seminoles coach Mike Norvell is trying to rebuild the FSU program after a few seasons of, by Florida State’s standards, underachieving.
The Seminoles won the 2013 national title under Clarksburg native Jimbo Fisher, but the Fisher-FSU relationship eventually disintegrated to a point that Fisher jumped from Tallahassee in 2018 to a fully guaranteed $75 million deal at Texas A&M.
In response, the Seminoles hired Oregon head coach Willie Taggart. Yet Taggart didn’t last two full seasons, fired nine games into the 2019 campaign. The Seminoles went 9-12 during his short tenure and, in 2018, finished with a losing record for the first time since 1976.
Enter Norvell, who is in much the same situation as Brown was in 2019, a coach from a Group of Five school jumping to the Power Five ranks to see if he can push a team back into the upper echelons of college football. His resume from four seasons as Memphis’ head coach helped in that promotion.
In Norvell’s four seasons at Memphis, the Tigers never won fewer than eight games, won 10 games in 2017 and went 12-1 with an American Athletic Conference title and Cotton Bowl berth in 2019 before he took the FSU job.
His first team as the Seminoles’ head coach comes with an experienced, though uneven, starter at quarterback. James Blackman started 10 games for FSU last season but threw for just 17 touchdowns against 11 interceptions along with 2,339 yards, a shade under 195 passing yards per game. Blackman will have All-ACC second-teamer Tamorrion Terry (60 catches, 1,188 yards, nine touchdowns) leading his receiving corps.
He will not have 1,000-yard rusher Cam Akers, who left FSU early and was drafted in the second round this spring by the Los Angeles Rams. The three running backs behind him — Khalan Laborn, Deonte Sheffield and Treshaun Ward — combined for 476 yards and five touchdowns.
FSU also will deal with a young offensive line. Only two linemen, Baveon Johnson and Brady Scott, started at least 10 games for FSU last season, and nine of the 15 offensive linemen on the spring roster were freshmen or sophomores. The Seminoles did pick up Florida International transfer Devontay Love-Taylor, who started 16 games for the Panthers in 2019 and was an honorable mention All-Conference USA pick.
Norvell and staff will need to shore up a defense that last season performed between middling (66th nationally at 27.8 points allowed per game) to bad (90th nationally at 424.2 yards allowed per game).
New defensive coordinator Adam Fuller, a former defensive coordinator at Marshall, has the luxury of a returning All-American at defensive line. Marvin Wilson was Mel Kiper Jr.’s No. 3 defensive tackle prospect in the 2020 NFL draft, but Wilson decided to return to Tallahassee for his senior year. Though he missed the last four games of the season due to injury, he still led Florida State with 8½ tackles for loss and tied for the team lead with five sacks.
The Seminoles also return their top two most prolific tacklers in defensive back Hamsah Nasirildeen and linebacker Emmett Rice. Nasirildeen’s 101 tackles were the second most among Power Five defensive backs last season, while Rice finished with 72 stops. Nasirildeen also shared the team lead in interceptions with two.
On special teams, the Seminoles will have their first non-Aguayo handling place-kicking duties since 2012. Ricky Aguayo took over for older brother Roberto, but Ricky has graduated. The Seminoles return kickoff specialist Parker Grothaus and punter Tommy Martin.
If there’s anything Norvell must work on most with his new team, it’s mistakes. Last year’s FSU team was one of college football’s most error-prone. The Seminoles committed 21 turnovers in 2019, throwing 13 interceptions and losing eight fumbles. They also were the fourth-worst team in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 73.3 penalty yards per game.