Inside Florida State's complicated quarterback battle

Deondre Francois and James Blackman will battle it out into the fall to be Florida State's starting quarterback. Melina Vastola/USA TODAY Sports

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State might have the most complicated quarterback situation in the country.

Deondre Francois started 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2016. James Blackman started 12 games as a true freshman in 2017 after Francois injured his knee in the opener against Alabama. In an era in which backup quarterbacks are more likely to transfer than wait their turn, what Florida State has is an enviable luxury.

But what Willie Taggart has is an unenviable task: choosing one player to be his starter. That is a decision that will be made in fall practice, when Francois is at full strength and the coaching staff gets a look at the way both players not only handle the new offense but handle their teammates, too.

How Taggart manages all this requires a delicate touch, but also a no-nonsense approach. Nobody should assume Francois automatically gets his job back once he is healthy. There are no guarantees.

Both quarterbacks understand that. Both quarterbacks want the starting job badly, too. During spring practice, Blackman sent Taggart a text message that said, "I don't know what you have planned for vacation, but I'm planning on staying in your office all summer long."

"He sent that out of nowhere," Taggart recalled. "He's a competitor. He's a kid that doesn't want to let you down. He wants to be a perfectionist in everything he does."

Then he offers this: "It's good to see how his teammates feel about him. They love being around him. He's that type of kid. You watch some of the hits he took last year -- he has so much respect from his teammates doing that."

Taggart enters the situation without having coached either player, so in a way they both have a clean slate. Though he has evaluated their game tape, the offense the QBs ran under former coach Jimbo Fisher is vastly different from what Taggart is asking them to do in two big ways.

First, it is much less complicated.

"You just don't have the long playcalling," Blackman said in an interview with ESPN.com. "You have shorter concepts: one word, and everyone knows what to do. It's shortened down and quicker."

Second, the tempo is much faster. Last season, Taggart's offense at Oregon averaged 10 more plays per game than Florida State.

"You have to think fast and execute the plays as fast as you can, and as soon as the ball or whistle blows, you have to be ready to look at the sideline, ready for the next play so you can get ready to snap the ball again," Blackman said.

Blackman, a three-star recruit coming out of high school, was completely under the radar when he arrived in Tallahassee. ESPN 300 QB Bailey Hockman was the blue-chip signal-caller in the class, and Francois was coming off a campaign in which he led all freshmen quarterbacks with 3,350 passing yards in 2016, the fifth-highest single-season total in school history. Francois won ACC Rookie of the Year honors, and expectations rose dramatically. Florida State was the preseason choice to win the ACC last July. But the season opener against Alabama, dubbed The Greatest Opener of All Time, ended up devastating both Francois and the Seminoles. Late in the fourth quarter, Francois was hit from behind and landed hard on his knees. Francois knew right away his season was over.

Fisher turned to Blackman to finish the game. Blackman had been at Florida State for less than three months and would now take his first snaps against the eventual national champion.

"You never want to see your teammate go down like that," Blackman said. "I was really hurt he went down that way. My number was called, so I was trying to be there with my teammates, making sure I could do everything I could to help this team win and be prepared for the next games."

Blackman crammed in as much of the offense as he could, but it's nearly impossible to master the complex schemes in just a few weeks. Fisher scaled back as much as he could, but even then it was difficult for Blackman to pick up all the nuances.

Meanwhile, Francois tried to prepare Blackman, but he felt helpless. And guilty.

"It was hard to see us go through what we were going through, knowing not necessarily I could have done better, but I feel like James -- he didn't have a chance," Francois said. "He's a terrific quarterback, but he was fresh out of high school, and Jimbo's playbook is the most complicated playbook in college football. It's the same playbook as the NFL. It took me a whole year to hone in on every detail. That's why the redshirt year is so important in Jimbo's offense. Me being a quarterback, I'm like, 'Wow, James only knows a little bit, but he didn't know the speed of the game ... he didn't even get into the college weight room.' I felt bad for James knowing what he was going to go through."

Blackman always appeared poised in games and did everything Fisher asked of him. He did take a beating: The Seminoles ranked No. 94 in the nation in sacks allowed. But he kept getting back up, even though his wiry, 6-foot-5, 176-pound frame looked at times as if it would break in half.

Florida State finished a disappointing 7-6, though nobody blamed Blackman. He finished with 2,230 yards and 19 touchdowns and was named the team's offensive MVP.

"Everybody was telling me I did a great job, but I felt like I could have done more," Blackman said. "I left a lot of plays on the field that shouldn't have been left on the field. I feel I could have had more plays to help this team execute better. I just feel like there's a lot more I can do. I'm trying to make sure I work hard this summer and make sure I don't have plays left on the field anymore."

So far this offseason, Blackman has gained 12 pounds, though it is hard to tell. Taggart joked with him, "When I can say you're skinny, that means you're pretty skinny," and Blackman replied, "Coach, it's a different kind of skinny."

Francois, meanwhile, could not participate in full contact or the spring game while he rehabs his knee injury but is expected to be cleared for fall practice in August. During the spring, Blackman and Hockman got the bulk of the reps. All three will be in competition once practice resumes, with Blackman and Francois as the front-runners.

"We compete every day," Blackman said. "There's a lot of people who try to break us apart and have us against each other, but we just really have fun with it."

Taggart said he and his staff will keep a watchful eye on every rep. But he is looking for more than just a high completion percentage. Taggart said throughout the spring that he is looking for a team leader, a message that was repeated several times after Francois found himself in the news for all the wrong reasons.

"We're strict on the things we ask them to do, and we grade it all daily," Taggart said. "But to be the quarterback ... it's going to take more than just football. They know how to play. I want someone that can lead this team, someone that can get his teammates to play for him. That's what this football team needs. The summer is going to be a big part of that. If they get the guys to play for them, then they're going to execute better and more consistently.

"I told them all, 'You won't be able to blame the coaches for not playing. You're going to have the opportunity. It's whether or not you take advantage of it. You're going to see the same film we see and you're going to know.' They're not going to blame anyone, and they're not going to make excuses. It's on them."