The lowdown on Florida State from a ‘Noles beat writer

The Clemson Insider recently caught up with Carter Karels to get some insight on Florida State ahead of Clemson’s game against the Seminoles. Karels covers FSU football for the Tallahassee Democrat.

Hass hit on a number of topics during the following question-and-answer session, including FSU’s offensive transformation, what’s given the Seminoles’ defense trouble this season and more heading into Saturday’s game at Doak Campbell Stadium.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity

Aside from this being a rivalry game, Florida State comes into this one having dropped its last two games. What’s your sense in talking with FSU coach Mike Norvell and players there of just how big this one is for the Seminoles?

It’s a huge game for Florida State. You set this three-game stretch up for them, and it’s really the most difficult stretch of the season. Wake Forest, NC State and then Clemson. They just haven’t shown that killer instinct yet. They were in both of those games (against Wake Forest and NC State), but they had a lot of miscues and a lot of self-inflicted errors. There is no question that this roster is improved. Where this program was when Mike Norvell took over two years ago, they’re a much better team. But they still haven’t learned yet how to have that killer instinct and win a game that maybe requires extra toughness mentally. They just haven’t done that. So this is a game where it’s your toughest game of the year and you have a chance to really put a statement out there that, hey, this is a team on the rise.

I think they’re past the point of moral victories, so it’s not really a matter of oh let’s play them close. This is your last chance to show, hey, this is a team that can beat an elite team. Now they have some other games to really show something. This is a team that hasn’t made a bowl in five years, so just getting to .500 and getting to a bowl is considered progress for this team, but their expectations shifted a little bit when they started 4-0.

How has FSU quarterback Jordan Travis developed as a passer since a year ago when it wasn’t necessarily a strong part of his game?

It looks night and day. I think in the past, because of his playmaking ability and maybe because of the lack of weapons around him and being early on in his development, he was someone who would rely on his playmaking a little too much. He would abandon plays and try to use his legs, and he would run himself into trouble sometimes. Now you don’t even see him run all that much. He’s been much more of a pocket passer this season. He’s anticipated his receivers getting open better. He makes a lot of the right reads. You rarely see him make a bad decision. I think NC State is the one exception where you saw him make some bad decisions. It was definitely one of the worst starts he’s had in a long time. I consider that to be kind of an outlier, but on the year as a whole, he’s someone who’s shown improvement in just about every area.

I think a lot of it, too, is the guys around him. They put in (receiver) Johnny Wilson. They put in (another receiver) Mycah Pittman. It’s just night and day the wide receiving corps they’ve had. Last year, I think they had probably the worst wide receiving corps in the ACC. And this year, they’re one of the best if not the best. Having those weapons has allowed him to be more confident. You see him testing defenses more. You see him not afraid to throw one-on-one to guys. Last year, they didn’t have a single receiver that exceeded 400 receiving yards, which is one of the craziest statistics I can think of when it comes to college football. That’s just nuts. Now they’re going to have three or four that pass the 400-yard mark this year.

So how has that changed the way FSU’s offense operates?

In every way that you can think of. I think they liked where their running backs were, but every other position besides maybe tight end has improved dramatically. Their offensive line is still far from a finished product. They’ve struggled and had some injuries that have definitely hurt them, but they’ve got better depth there. They’ve added some guys to where it’s not a complete disaster like it was a couple of years ago. Wide receiver, just a lot of guys that can win one-on-one battles where as last year and the year before, they could not win one-on-ones in man-to-man coverage on a consistent basis. Now they’ve got guys that can do that, and it just allows you to be aggressive down the field. It used to be a lot more dink and dunk. Now you can be aggressive.

This has been one of the most explosive offenses in the country. I think they’re No. 1 in play of 20-plus yards, and a lot of that has been because of that down-the-field passing game. And it’s made it to where Jordan Travis, he struggled with kind of his durability early on in his career and he was never 100% the guy. And they brought in (former UCF quarterback) McKenzie Milton. Well this offseason was kind of the first offseason he became the guy, and they put the right pieces around him. And now you’re just seeing him really develop into the guy that he’s capable of.

Speaking of Johnny Wilson, for those who are unfamiliar, he’s a 6-foot-7 transfer receiver from Arizona State. Do you see him potentially being an X-factor in this game given Clemson’s struggles in coverage at times?

I do. When I watched Clemson-Wake Forest — and they’ve been very banged up (in the secondary) — but it seemed like they struggled on those 50-50 balls down the field. That’s where Johnny Wilson can really, really beat you. And he’s not just a one-trick pony either. He can be your security blanket over the middle. He can get yards after the catch. And probably the most underrated thing about him is his blocking is exceptional. He’s kind of that all-around guy.

It’s shocking that when he entered the transfer portal, Florida State was one of two schools that wanted him. It was FSU and Oregon State. And now he’s their best receiver in a little bit of time. So he’s someone that’s WR1 for sure, and with a secondary that has been banged up and struggled deep with 50-50 balls, he can be an X-factor.

Defensively, FSU has allowed the 14th-fewest passing yards in the country. What’s factored into that?

I do think it doesn’t tell the full story. I think also it kind of is reflective of who they’ve played and what teams have tried to exploit against them. I think they’ve struggled against the run, and they’ve also played a lot of teams that are good with running the football or their quarterback is a really good runner. I think of (Louisville quarterback) Malik Cunningham, he did a lot of damage. And Jayden Daniels of LSU, he did a lot of damage there. Even NC State’s backup quarterback, when he came in, had some really nice runs. So teams haven’t really had to throw the ball a whole lot.

It sounds crazy that they’re No. 14 in passing yards allowed, but I’d say they still have questions. Their corners, they’ve got some questions for sure. But safety, that’s certainly a strength. Jammie Robinson was a first-team all-ACC safety guy. Had his first pick last week. He’s obviously a guy to watch. A very versatile player. But overall I think teams are running the ball a little bit more again FSU. And you look at Clemson, not only have you got a guy like Will Shipley, but with (quarterback) DJ (Uiagalelei) and how effective he’s been as a runner this year, and then seeing what other running quarterbacks have done to this team, I just feel like this could be a game where Clemson runs for 200 or more yards.

FSU running back Treshaun Ward posted a photo of himself in the hospital following the NC State game last week. How healthy is the team leading up to this game?

(Defensive lineman) Fabien Lovett is someone who has not played since the last drive against LSU (in the season opener) when he went down with a lower-leg injury. Not having him has been tough. That has been a lot of the reason for those runs they’ve given up the middle. FSU kind of has a weird deal where they let us go to practice, but we can’t report anything injury-related or practice participation-related. So they would ban me from practice if I told you who may or may not play, but we asked Norvell about it (Tuesday) and he said that Ward, after further evaluation, does not need surgery and he’s going to try his best to play Saturday. That seems pretty hard to believe, but we’ll see.

That will be a big one to watch just because of how great Clemson’s run defense is and now Clemson’s entire defensive line is intact. And this o-line has really, really struggled with some stout defensive fronts. They struggled with NC State for sure, and I think Clemson, with even better front seven, could do some damage. It may be a game where if you don’t have Treshaun Ward, maybe Jordan Travis throws it 40 times or maybe you’ll have to get a little bit more creative with jet sweeps, running with the quarterback and establishing the run in more creative ways.

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