Florida State’s deep backfield has Hokies’ unproven defense on alert

How Virginia Tech handles Florida State's rushing attack also remains to be seen. The Hokies were 15th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2017, allowing just 119.5 yards rushing per game and a paltry seven rushing touchdowns in 13 games.
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — When Florida State coach Willie Taggart makes his debut on Monday, most eyes will be fixated on Deondre Francois and how he leads an up-tempo spread offense.

Taggart has affectionately called the offense “Lethal Simplicity,” but what makes it dynamic is the run-pass balance. No. 19 Florida State may have Francois, who was a 3,000-yard passer as a freshman in 2016 before suffering a knee injury last year. But the Seminoles will feature a deep backfield with Cam Akers, Jacques Patrick, Khalan Laborn, Amir Rasul and Anthony Grant.

“They are very special,” Taggart said. “You can put a guy in there, you don’t have to change up anything. You don’t have to deviate from what you’re doing offensively. Any one of those guys can go in there and get the job done for us.”

Akers did the job in 2017, rushing for 1,025 yards and seven touchdowns despite starting just four games. Patrick ran for 748 yards and seven touchdowns in 11 games. When he opted to return for his senior season, Patrick cemented FSU‘s status of having the best 1-2 punch at tailback in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But the Seminoles also have Laborn, a five-star prospect who took a redshirt year last fall, as well as Rasul and Grant. Taggart has teased he plans to use all five against No. 20 Virginia Tech.

How Virginia Tech handles Florida State’s rushing attack also remains to be seen. The Hokies were 15th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2017, allowing just 119.5 yards rushing per game and a paltry seven rushing touchdowns in 13 games.

Virginia Tech is rebuilding on defense after losing eight starters, including a pair of first-round draft picks in linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and defensive back Terrell Edmunds. The Hokies will start three sophomore linebackers, a group that has combined for just four college tackles.

It’s one of the least experienced defenses since coordinator Bud Foster arrived at the school in 1987.

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“Are they a group that learns with reps, or can they handle that on the fly?” Foster said. “That’s something that we’ll need to find out as we progress.”

Complicating matters for the Hokies is a lack of video of Taggart’s offense at Florida State to review. The coaches have analyzed the Seminoles’ spring game and also picked apart film from Taggart’s former team (Oregon) as well as offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s former team (Maryland).

“The good news is that, when it’s the first game, you’ve got plenty of time to comb through all of that,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “The bad news is that you haven’t seen those two things together.”

Here are some other things to watch as the schools meet for the first time since 2012:

TAGGART VS. FUENTE, PART V: Fuente is 4-0 against Taggart, going back to when they were college quarterbacks in Kentucky. Fuente passed for 358 yards and two TDs as Murray State defeated Western Kentucky 36-31 in 1998 (Taggart had 104 yards passing, 104 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns). As head coaches, Fuente’s Memphis teams won three games against Taggart’s USF teams from 2013-15.

“He turned the Memphis job around,” Taggart said of Fuente. “And then to be able to go to Virginia Tech in the first year (2016) to play in the ACC championship game, it says a lot about who he is as a coach and what he stands for.”

BACK AT QUARTERBACK: Francois threw for 3,350 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a freshman before injuring his knee in the 2017 opener and undergoing season-ending surgery.

“Just thankful to be playing the game,” Francois said. “It was a long road with ups and downs. It is a blessing.”

LONGTIME ASSISTANTS: The college coaching profession is nomadic, but Foster and Florida State defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins are rare exceptions. Foster has been a Hokies assistant since 1987 and has been the defensive coordinator for more than two decades. Haggins is beginning his 25th season as a Seminoles assistant and went 2-0 as interim head coach in 2017 after Jimbo Fisher’s departure for Texas A&M.

HONORARY CAPTAINS: Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer will be honorary captains. Bowden guided the Seminoles to 14 straight top-five finishes in The Associated Press poll from 1987-2000, leading them to national titles in 1993 and ’99 – including a win over Beamer and the Hokies in the 2000 Sugar Bowl to clinch the title. Beamer won 238 games at Virginia Tech from 1987-2015.