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Willie Taggart’s always masterfully adapted his offense to his talent. At FSU, he’s adapting to a veteran group of blue-chippers.

This could be fun right away.

Florida State

Willie Taggart has two of the most essential traits in finding success as a head coach in college football: he can recruit and he can adapt.

His predecessor at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher, was a brilliant recruiter who’s been a head coach for exactly as long as Taggart, but exclusively with the Seminoles, until he left for Texas A&M. Taggart’s journeyed from Western Kentucky to USF and briefly to Oregon.

However, while Fisher has shown creativity within his pro-style system, he hasn’t always translated that into consistently elite results.

Jimbo’s recruiting and offensive output

Year Program Class ranking Offensive S&P+
Year Program Class ranking Offensive S&P+
2017 Florida State 6th nationally, 1st in ACC 87th
2016 Florida State 3rd nationally, 1st in ACC 2nd
2015 Florida State 3rd nationally, 1st in ACC 25th
2014 Florida State 4th nationally, 1st in ACC 16th
2013 Florida State 11th nationally, 1st in ACC 1st
2012 Florida State 3rd nationally, 1st in ACC 10th
2011 Florida State 3rd nationally, 1st in ACC 48th
2010 Florida State 6th nationally, 1st in ACC 16th

Conversely, Taggart was hired by alma mater WKU off the strength of his abilities in recruiting to Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford program, but has shown tremendous flexibility over the years, making the most of his talent in various locales, even while inheriting weak programs.

Willie’s recruiting and offensive output

Year Team Class ranking Offensive S&P+
Year Team Class ranking Offensive S&P+
2017 Oregon 19th nationally, 3rd in P12 25th
2016 South Florida 66th nationally, 5th in AAC 7th
2015 South Florida 66th nationally, 1st in AAC 51st
2015 South Florida 42nd nationally, 1st in AAC 111th
2013 South Florida 54th nationally, 1st in AAC 118th
2012 Western Kentucky 97th nationally, 6th in CUSA 78th
2011 Western Kentucky 85th nationally, 2nd in CUSA 97th
2010 Western Kentucky 107th nationally, 8th in CUSA 112th

Like Fisher, Taggart has always recruited well within his division, with three consecutive first-place finishes in the AAC at South Florida and an impressive third-place finish with a transition class in 2017 at Oregon. The 2018 class that Taggart was assembling in Eugene was ranked sixth nationally and first in the Pac-12 before he departed for the Florida State job.

Taggart’s evolution

At Western Kentucky, Taggart aimed to recreate what Harbaugh had at Stanford, a smashmouth team with multiple-TE sets that could line up and shove the ball down throats with power O runs. It usually worked better than it did here against Alabama:

At USF, when he repurposed the power schemes at the heart of the Harbaugh offense into a spread RPO system with a running QB, the Gulf Coast offense was born. This was his big breakthrough. His star as a coach really took off while his QB was running for 1,600 yards in 2016.

Then last season, he took over an Oregon offense that had been chugging along quite smoothly without him. He left much of it intact, but still brought some power to the equation:

While Taggart’s offense set up Flowers with easy option reads and the chance to run in space, his offense at Oregon set up Justin Herbert for play-action throws down the field while still maintaining space for backs to find creases.

Recruiting elite talent is great, but having the best athletes on the field doesn’t translate if you can’t adapt the system to feature their strengths.

Now Taggart inherits a talented group that’s been playing in a complex offense.

Taggart lands an interesting collection at Florida State, particularly at quarterback, where the Seminoles now have two experienced players in Deondre Francois and James Blackman.

You’d assume Francois will get the nod if healthy, but it might be a battle if Blackman can gain some weight (he’s 6’5 but about 170). Francois is well-seasoned in Fisher’s pro-style passing game, which is a bit more akin to what Taggart would have seen back at Stanford under Harbaugh. The Fisher passing game was all about having big-bodied receivers on the outside and a TE in the middle who could get defenders on their hips, then catch balls in the middle of the field.

The Seminoles have also had a very effective run game over recent seasons, particularly when Dalvin Cook was in the backfield, but they found success now and then with star freshman Cam Akers executing similar concepts:

There’s always been a lot to the Florida State offense under Fisher: lots of blocking schemes and protections, passing concepts, and checks and tweaks. The problem was that they weren’t always positioned to just out-play inferior athletes.

The power run game, a mainstay among teams that want to pound opponents into submission, was rarely effective for the Noles in the last several seasons. In a given game, tuning in to see them try to power the ball through the A gaps, you were likely to see weak-side penetration that blew up the play from behind or a failure to create movement with the double team:

Florida State has tended to field taller pass protectors who zone block well but don't always drive opponents off the ball.

The solution for 2018 will be simplicity.

Taggart will pare down to feature the runs they execute best, including run/pass options for Francois or Blackman, something Fisher wasn’t a big fan of.

You’ll see the Noles hurrying up to the line (a drastic change from the Jimbo era) and then executing a spread-option system in which the QB has simple checks, to allow him to get the ball to a playmaker with favorable angles.

Next season’s Florida State might feature a returning starter at every position, save for right tackle. They should execute at a high level immediately and spring athletes like Akers or speedy wideout Nyqwan Murray for massive gains behind big blockers, with greater usage of simple concepts like this outside zone/bubble screen combo and post-snap options:

They might maintain some of their pro-style passing attack, but with more quick hitches and slants to big targets like Keith Gavin (No. 89, 6’3, 225) or Auden Tate (No. 18, 6’5, 225) coming off simple reads that ask the QB to either handoff or throw the quick pass, based off how many defenders try to fit into the box.

Neither QB is a very explosive runner, but Francois had some steady gains in 2016, while Blackman was minimally used in the run game in 2017.

FSU has such athletic players that they needn’t be nearly as complicated about distributing the ball.

The question for defenses most of the time shouldn’t be, “Can you beat the FSU protection quickly or else cover Gavin on a whip route?” so much as, “Can you move fast enough to discourage an easy run for Akers but then still tackle Gavin before the marker?”

As Clemson and Oklahoma have shown, you can always come back to a fully developed passing game when you have a veteran QB and stable offensive line. In those seasons, you can be nearly unstoppable. The rest of the time, make things simple enough for your talent to waltz to 10-win seasons just by virtue of being bigger and faster.

Taggart’s recruiting guarantees Florida State can remain bigger and faster than almost everyone else in the ACC. He’s also showed he knows how to prove it on Saturdays.

Taggart should set a higher floor for the Noles. The ceiling? That’ll still depend on the QB.