Having covered Florida State for 38 years, here is my take on Mike Norvell’s Early Signing Day Class.
Norvell grew up with a respect for a game he believes requires a love of game preparation as much as for gameday. After 12 months of evaluating his program, he feels the most urgent need is to change the existing culture. To do so, Norvell prioritized finding and signing players who share his respect for the game and who have a like-minded mentality toward the work.
Attitude and mentality are the team’s primary needs and the lens by which FSU coaches are evaluating the 25 players selected for this class. Those needs are the lens by which we evaluate the class currently ranked 22nd best in the nation by 247Sports.
“We are excited about the 16 guys we were able to sign and announce today,” Norvell said on Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period. FSU would sign two more in the days following this statement. “Definitely filling needs we have and I think we have done a nice job of identifying and attracting the right fit for this football team with where we are and what we need here moving forward.”
Identifying, attracting right fit
Evaluating size, speed and strength are easy. Evaluating intangibles Norvell needs, are not. It takes time to determine if a kid loves the game let alone all the work, the attention to details, necessary to be successful.
When the pandemic led the NCAA to prohibit face-to-face contact between college coaches and prospects, a difficult task became more difficult.
“It is always tough when you don’t get more face-to-face, in-person evaluations so we relied heavily on relationships,” Norvell said. “Not only relationships with (prospects) we have been aware of for years prior to this year but also guys who have been coached by former Seminoles. When you look down our list of signees, it is pretty remarkable the connections to our program.”
Three of the six Florida high school players who signed had played for FSU football players from the 1990s (Corey Fuller at Gadsden County, Brian Allen at Lake City Columbia and James Chaney at Lehigh Acres).
While the relationships helped build a bridge, FSU’s coaches knew these coaches had learned, and now coach, with FSU’s standards. Allen called the FSU staff to let them know about Shyheim Brown (6-1, 180, Lake City, FL), who flew under the recruiting radar.
Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said Allen told the coaches, “Listen, if there’s one player that could have played for us back in the day, Shyheim is one.”
Knowing Columbia County’s standards, FSU coaches studied Brown’s film and found a playmaker. Done.
Joshua Farmer (6-3, 250, Havana, Fla.) played for Corey Fuller, so you know he’s been coached tough. “He’s an extremely hard worker,” Adam Fuller said, noting Farmer is a prospect who is athletic enough to play end but has a frame and a toughness to grow into a tackle. More about that later in this story.
Chaney coached Omarion Cooper (6-1, 180, Lehigh Acres, Fla.), who was one of the top corners in Florida. Fuller loved his feet, his length and his tackling skills. He also liked what his coach had to say about him. “Chaney said he is the most-competitive kid he’s ever coached,” Fuller said.
Don’t be surprised if he competes early in FSU’s secondary.
“We look for kids who are committed,” Florida State recruiting coordinator David Johnson said. “Committed to doing the little things. As you talk to coaches, and you speak with parents and different family members, we want to find out everything about that kid. I think the most important thing is the evaluation process.
“This was a little different this time around, because you couldn’t get your eyes on them, be able to see them in person. But a few of us have been recruiting these kids in the past.”
In addition to many one-on-one Zoom meetings with prospects and coaches, the coaching staff spent studied film.
“We watched so much game tape to really try to assess the mentality,” Novell said. “We want the biggest, strongest, fastest football players we can get but we need the right mentality, the makeup of who they are, the mental toughness, the discipline, the drive, the willingness to work to be great.”
Thus far, the class has 18 players — two are from the transfer portal — and 16 are high school signees. Five of those high school players are four-star prospects and 11 three-star. While there are not as many four- and five-star players in this class as Seminole fans want, Norvell believes he’s finding the kind of players the program needs right now to rebuild the culture.
“That’s where I think we hit a home run with this class. We got young men who are likeminded, who have a workman’s approach,” Norvell said. “Couple that with the developmental potential they bring and it was a really good class for where we are.”
The right QB from portal
“You are absolutely kidding yourself in college football if you do not have a quarterback who can spin it into tight places,” veteran coaches will tell you.
FSU has a room full of promising young talent in true freshmen Tate Rodemaker and Chubba Purdy as well as a dynamic sophomore Travis Jordan. By signing McKenzie Milton, a UCF transfer with one year of eligibility remaining, they add a veteran with nearly 10,000 yards of successful collegiate experience who will help the younger players develop.
Those same coaches will tell you the quarterback becomes the face of your program and Milton represents everything Norvell wants the culture of his team to become. If you have not yet watched the videos on Milton’s determined two-year rehabilitation from a gruesome leg injury, you should take five minutes and a box of tissues to do so. You’ll get an idea of the kind of person he is and the culture Norvell hopes to inspire.
I know what you’re thinking: How does FSU really know if Milton has recovered? How did FSU evaluate his rehabilitation?
My understanding is in addition to an exchange of medical information with FSU’s training and medical staff, Milton sent video of agility and shuttle drills demonstrating his mobility. While he did not play in a game in 2020, he did run the UCF scout team this fall and sent film of those practices.
Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Kenny Dillingham is excited about what Milton brings to the team.
“I think the culture that he’s going to create, that’s a kid who hasn’t played for two years but he’s been around that program and molded their quarterback (freshman Dillon Gabriel) to where he has had all that success,” said Dillingham.
Gabriel, who hails from the same high school as Milton (Miliani, Hawaii) has completed 60% of his passes for 6,952 yards and 59 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in the 22 games he has started.
“(McKenzie) is gonna bring all those intangibles to that QB room to show them what it takes (to be successful), to really take that next step in our room,” Dillingham said. “We love where our room is at and I mean that. I love Jordan Travis, Chubba, Tate. We have a lot of guys in there that are going to be successful, and adding a veteran like that it’s only gonna make everybody in that room better.”
The Seminoles added a second portal player, Jarques McClellion (6-1, 190-pound corner) who was a two-year starter at Arkansas. The physical Delray Beach native logged more than 600 collegiate snaps for the Razorbacks and has two years of eligibility remaining.
Jarques has good lineage. His father played at Ohio State and his cousin, Brandon Flowers, was an NFL cornerback.
Offensive line help
The offensive line, the position of greatest need in 2019, gets my vote as the most improved segment in 2020. The segment returns four starters for 2021 now that Devonte Love-Taylor is returning.
While Love-Taylor won’t count in the class ranking, don’t sleep on the importance of this commitment to the changing culture.
“I will be a part of the turnaround that is coming to Florida State,” said the former FIU graduate transfer, who gained a year of eligibility. “I’m fully committed to the CLIMB and being a Seminole.”
Love-Taylor became the leader of a young line, which featured three freshmen and a sophomore starter. While the OL is the most promising segment, there is always a need to sign three or four each year.
The most difficult position on the line to recruit is left tackle, a man on an island against the opponent’s best rusher. Aside from quarterback, Rod Orr (6-7, 296, Gadsden City Ala.), looks to be the most important signee as he possesses all the tangibles you look for in a left tackle. The former high school basketball player, now in his second year of football, is long and athletic with great feet. According to Osceola analyst Patrick Burnham, “He has big-time potential at the major college level and is a guy you wouldn’t be surprised to see playing on Sunday.”
“He is a big, long left tackle and that’s something we really needed in this class,” said Dillingham. “We needed guys who could protect the quarterback with their length. He’s a kid with unbelievable potential and he fits us because of his personality, his work ethic. That’s the one trend in this class you’re gonna see is you’re gonna see guys hungry and hungry and hungry to be the very best they can possibly be. And those are the guys we’re going to get.”
“He didn’t start playing offensive line until his junior year,” Gadsden City (Ala.) High coach Ali Smith told the Osceola. “And he has really taken on that role and enjoyed it, and he likes to get better. He really wants to learn as much as he can.”
Bryson Estes (6-3, 291, McDonough Ga.) is an interior lineman who shows good feet and leverage and the attention to detail offensive line coach Alex Atkins looks for. “He is a man mover,” Dillingham said.
FSU has a commitment from a third offensive lineman, who will sign in February, and is likely to sign a fourth, possibly from the transfer portal.
Evaluate, project for growth
During the evaluation process, the FSU coaching staff kept an eye out for kids “who could grow one position closer to the football.” What that means is when looking at a defensive back, ask yourself, “Could he grow into a linebacker once on a weight training program and enjoys three, healthy meals a day?”
This philosophy of evaluation paid dividends in the Bowden era. Derrick Brooks was signed as a safety but converted into a really fast linebacker who could cover. Dozens of defensive ends, tight ends and linebackers found their way to the NFL as defensive linemen, none more famous than Odell Haggins, who went from a 230-pound linebacker to as close to the ball as you can get at nose guard.
Five of the 18 players in this class signed as defensive edge players and at least three have the frame to grow into defensive linemen, where FSU simply needs to become more “agile, mobile and hostile” as legendary FAMU head coach Jake Gaither liked his men in cleats. In addition to the previously mentioned Farmer, who coaches project could move inside, defensive ends Byron Turner Jr. (6-4, 237, New Orleans La.) and Shambre Jackson (6-4, 255, Orlando Fla. Boone) have frames to grow.
Jackson is a big-bodied defender who could add substantial weight and line up either as a strong side defensive end or closer to the ball. “I think he’s one of the better athletes at defensive tackle in the country,” Fuller said. “He is a really disruptive force out there and he’s got progressively better. We think he’s got major impact. He’s got a great frame, great athleticism and he’s a violent player.”
“Byron’s a true defensive end,” Fuller said. “The thing about him is you talk about violence and aggressiveness. When he tackles people, he literally tries to put them through the ground. He’s a great fit in our defensive scheme.”
Running backs coach and recruiting coordinator David Johnson had a pre-existing relationship with Turner’s family so evaluation was easier.
Pass rushers, please
Converting defensive ends to tackles certainly improves your interior pass rush and sideline-to-sideline mobility but FSU also signed two long-and-lean, pass rushing specialists who can get after a quarterback’s rear end.
George Wilson (6-5, 215-Virginia Beach Va.) originally committed to South Carolina but decided to give FSU a call when the Gamecocks fired Will Muschamp.
Evaluating Wilson wasn’t difficult for Odell Haggins as he had trusted relationships in the Tidewater area, where he recruited Derrick Nnadi a half dozen years ago.
It was near impossible for me to evaluate Wilson as he made a mockery of the high school tackles he faced in the highlight film I watched. He simply blew by people.
“We knew going in to this recruiting class, we needed to get more athletic guys on the edge on defense, especially defensive end,” Fuller said. “We identified George early but because of the COVID and not being able to get him on campus, we weren’t able to develop the relationship we thought. Then things changed here over the last month and a half with George and he reached out to us. He’s somebody we are extremely excited about. He immediately makes us more athletic as an edge of the defense, as a pass rusher, as an edge setter.”
Patrick Payton (6-5, 215, Miami Fla. Northwestern) is also a gifted athlete with a long frame and another edge rusher that flies by high school linemen. I found film of him playing inside linebacker at Miami High his junior year and that film provided a better look at his football instincts, which I like.
The Seminoles have relationships at Northwestern and felt comfortable evaluating Payton. The Bulls program has produced 31 NFL players, including the Seminoles Marvin Jones and Snoop Minnis.
“Patrick is the requisite length and athleticism and I think we are going to probably start him at Fox,” Fuller said. “We wanted to see his development, especially in his senior year, and I mean every time he took the field he was picking balls off, sacking the quarterback, scooping scores with fumbles. He impacted the game in every way his senior year.”
Fuller believes the Seminoles met their needs on the defensive front.
“With him and George Wilson, those two types of guys that we put on the edge, Shambre, Josh, Byron, I think we absolutely made ourselves super athletic, and we love the playmaking ability,” Fuller said.
Noles hope to improve themselves on offense too
Norvell’s offense likes to use tight ends who can block like a tackle, lead block like a fullback and line up with the receivers. Jordan Wilson (6-4, 250), who transferred from UCLA last year, before sustaining a knee injury before the 2020 season, fits the mold. He’s expected to return in 2021 along with Camren McDonald, Preston Daniel and Carter Boatwright, who redshirted.
Jackson West (6-4, 235-Huntsville Al.) also fits the mold. “Jackson was just a kid that we actually saw in camp a few years ago and is underrated for how fast he is,” Dillingham said. “Really good ball skills but more importantly, he’s a guy who can put his hand in the dirt and knock somebody off the ball.”
Dillingham likes his intangibles.
“The thing that excites me most about Jackson is he texts me and says, ‘Hey, coach, I’ve been watching your games on YouTube and I see the route that you’re running. So I’ve been practicing them with all my buddies in the backyard.’ So this is a guy who has a passion to be the very best he can be,” Dillingham said.
Koby Gross, who is 6-3, 235, of Diablo Valley (Ca.) Junior College grew up a Seminole fan.
“This is a guy who can put his hand in the dirt and block but his ball skills are extremely underrated,” Dillingham said. “He’s been out there, working, sending us videos almost every day and is going to be a playmaker for us.”
The Seminoles are looking for as many as three receivers. Josh Burrell (6-2, 212, Blythewood S.C.) is the first to sign. Malik McClain (6-4, 195, Bradenton IMG Academy) is a four-star player with speed and size and the last to sign in the early period. Burrell would remind you of his position coach Ron Dugans in terms of size, speed and physicality. McClain is a vertical threat with the frame to gain muscle mass. McClain was heavily recruited and was a game changer at the high school level.
“Josh runs low 4.5. Strong hands, strong runner with the ball,” Dillingham said. “When the ball is in his hands, he becomes a running back. When the ball’s in the air, he goes and gets it. So he’s got that great balance of being that big wideout that can go win contested catches, shrugs off the corner and goes for 70.”
“We needed somebody to go make those contested catches, and somebody who could make a play with the ball in their hands.”
Like so many others in this recruiting class, Dillingham sees a player who has a passion to get better.
“This is another kid, all he knows how to do is work,” Dillingham said. “Work, work, work. He fits that mold of what we’re looking for.”
FSU added two good prospects at receiver and will likely add another, possibly from the transfer portal.
As I listened to Norvell speak, and thought about the culture of entitlement he is changing, I thought maybe we don’t need those five-star players we have always wanted, at least not right now, not where this team is today.
And that’s when I began to hear a choir in my head, and the voice of Mick Jagger. You are welcome to sing along with me to this Rolling Stones classic:
“You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes,
You just might find,
You get what you need.”
Jerry Kutz is the publisher of theosceola.com, a website that covers FSU sports and fan experiences. Kutz was senior vice president of Seminole Boosters from 2000 to 2019.