SEC Country reporter Alex Martin Smith attended Florida State’s media day and preseason practice in mid-August as the Seminoles prepared for their opener against Ole Miss. This is the final post in a three-part series.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Jameis Winston was a once-in-a-generation teenager who fired NFL-grade spirals from the pocket and played with the mettle of a fifth-year senior.
The youngest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy was nearly perfect in his first career start, completing 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and 4 touchdowns on the road against Pittsburgh. It was a video-game debut that led to a video-game season and a national title for Florida State.
Three years later, Deondre Francois’ origin story is similar: He’s a redshirt freshman who has enough talent around him to bring another ring to the Panhandle.
“You could just feel it in (Winston), man,” running back Dalvin Cook said at Florida State’s media day in mid-August. “Francois is the same way. He comes out with a purpose every day, confident in what he can do. That’s the big one that stands out to me: the confidence level.”
Jimbo Fisher tried to snuff any comparisons early in his press conference.
But Francois does offer speed required to escape the pocket and an arm strong enough to make teams think twice about loading up the box against Cook, a Heisman candidate.
He doesn’t lack for work ethic, either.
Last year —his first on campus — Francois had a tendency to hover whenever Fisher gave advice to his older quarterbacks. When coaches identified flaws in his game, he would sneak off to the indoor facility for post-practice training.
“That’s him,” Fisher said. “He can’t get enough information. Some guys play the sport. Some guys love it. Know what I mean? Those are the dum-dums who go into coaching. He likes the whys of the game. He likes to understand it and be around it. He enjoys it.”
Added offensive tackle Roderick Johnson: “His work ethic is through the roof. When you see one guy doing something, it brings the other guys up. That’s what he does. He’s always watching film. Getting better in the weight room. Just doing something to perfect his game. That’s what we see, and then we do the same thing.”
It’s not as if Florida State doesn’t have options; Francois was up against fifth-year senior Sean Maguire and redshirt sophomore J.J. Cosentino all year. Maguire went down with a foot injury earlier this month, but he returned to the field before Francois was named the opening-day starter.
All-ACC defensive end DeMarcus Walker was not surprised.
“He gets the ball out fast,” Walker said. “I try to rush him, and it’s just that split second, I’ll beat a tackle, and he gets the ball off. That pisses me off, man. After so much work to get past the tackle, he gets the ball off.”
Walker is the defense’s spokesman. In July, he declared that this year’s defense might be “the best defense FSU ever had,” and he doubled down on that claim in August.
“You have to think like that,” he told SEC Country. “‘Be confident in what you do,’ is something Coach Fisher always preaches. It’s something I’m very confident in, and you’ve just gotta work for it. We have the potential.”
Led by former Auburn defensive back (and current Florida State defensive coordinator) Charles Kelly, the Seminoles return six starters on “D.” Walker was on the vaunted 2013 defensive unit, and he thinks the 2016 version can be better if it can do two things: “Buy into the system” and bring consistent effort to the field.
One player everyone seems to be talking about is sophomore lineman Josh Sweat, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound edge rusher who will be trying to match his freshman sack total (1) against Ole Miss’ young offensive front.
On the flip side, Florida State has an experienced offensive line that will be protecting a green quarterback and powering an elite rushing attack that should pass the 2,000-yard mark again this autumn.
Cook is the Seminoles’ symbol of greatness, their Heisman candidate on a team that many pundits predict will be one of four squads to make the College Football Playoff. Ole Miss is an excellent team — potentially a playoff team — but few currently slot the Rebels in the same class as the ‘Noles.
Mississippi will need to bottle Cook, who collected 1,935 all-purpose yards on a bum hamstring last year.
The scouting report on him is similar to Kansas City Chiefs star Jamaal Charles, whose skills Cook broke down for us in August.
“Not afraid to run between the tackles,” Cook said. “Could go 60 or 80 at any point. Can catch the ball well. Can block.”
No team was able to shut him down in 2015, but Ole Miss might be able to use its SEC speed to keep him boxed in. Cook had high praise for the Rebels when asked for his initial thoughts on the matchup.
“They’re good up front,” Cook said. “So, they’re going to do a lot of things to try and confuse us. Clog up the alleys and keep me in the box. We’re gonna have to study a lot and watch a lot of film.”
Fisher’s immense success through six seasons has put him in some all-time company, with three conference titles and a national championship to his name.
Offensive line coach Rick Trickett has known Fisher since the mid-’90s, and he recalled being pleasantly surprised by the encounter, saying he wasn’t like other quarterbacks coaches.
“They’re about half soft-asses,” Trickett said. “Jimbo wasn’t. Jimbo was a hard-ass. I liked that … He’s way smarter than I am. I can’t remember what happened two days ago. He can tell you things that happened in the Rose Bowl in 1931.”
It’s been Fisher’s ability to connect with his players — not just yell at them — that has helped him build a powerhouse.
“He can be anything you want: Your brother, your dad. Whatever you want,” Cook, the star running back, said. “Your friend. That’s a relationship you can’t build overnight. That comes with time and trust. I trust coach Fisher. He’s just one of those coaches you’ve gotta love.”
Thanks to the Showtime series “A Season With Florida State” — which has been filming for much of the summer and will continue throughout 2016 — the spotlight is always on for Fisher’s team.
It was a curious decision for a man who hates “clutter,” but, in his defense, these 18-to-23-year-olds are inundated by modern distractions, whether or not the cameras are on.
“Back in the old days, you read one or two articles from the paper,” Fisher said. “They never got half of ‘em. They didn’t know what the Miami paper or the Jacksonville paper or the Tampa paper or the Orlando paper… They didn’t know what was written in ‘em. Now, they’ve got nine or 10 articles popped up on their phone, and don’t think that ain’t a factor of how they handle success or how they handle criticism.”
In order to combat that mass intake of potentially harmful material, Fisher said he keeps an “open line of communication” with his players.
This 2016 team, he said, has, so far, risen to the challenge of prioritizing their goals.
“There’s less clutter because you’ve had more guys that have been in the fire,” Fisher said. “They understand that clutter can hurt them.”
This weekend marks perhaps the greatest slate of opening games in college football history, and Florida State-Ole Miss will be the exclamation mark on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Fisher said there is a fine line when scheduling marquee neutral-site games.
“If you always take jobs for money, it’ll end up biting you,” he said. “If you always go play games for money, for the wrong reasons, it’ll bite you.”
The Ole Miss matchup is not one of those situations, at least in Fisher’s mind.
“I think it’s great for branding and building,” he said. “It’s also good to find out where you’re at and get a taste of where you’re at and get your guys’ attention all summer. It’s good for college football.”
When the No. 4 and No. 11 teams in the country meet in Orlando on Labor Day, the squad from Tallahassee won’t be intimidated.
“It’s SEC football, but it’s nothing that we can’t handle,” Johnson, the offensive tackle, said. “Nothing that should scare us.”