Photo courtesy of Mike Erdelyi/Florida State athletics
With the preseason injury to talented freshman Chubba Purdy, all signs point to redshirt junior James Blackman being Florida State’s starting quarterback — at least to begin the 2020 season.
Over the last year or so, Blackman has gone from a fan favorite in Tallahassee to a player that many fans are tired of. Blackman has made starts in each of the last three seasons, but consistency just hasn’t been there.
Into the Time Machine
In 2017, Blackman was forced into action following the season-ending injury to Deondre Francois in the opener against Alabama. The first true freshman to start for FSU at quarterback since 1985, Blackman had a season of highs and lows.
Things didn’t start great as the Seminoles sat at just 3-6 over their first nine games. Over that stretch, Blackman had costly late-game turnovers in losses to Louisville and Clemson. His freshman season however, ended on a high note as FSU won its final four games.
Over those four games, Blackman completed 63 percent of his passes with 10 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. He capped the year with a 4-touchdown effort in a 42-13 Independence Bowl rout of Southern Mississippi.
It appeared as though Blackman would enter the spring in a quarterback competition with Francois. Under first-year head coach Willie Taggart however, Francois would get the nod. Blackman would appear in just two games in 2018 while redshirting.
In those two contests however, Blackman made a case to move into the starting role. In his only start of the season, Blackman passed for 421 yards and four touchdowns in a 47-28 loss to NC State. The week prior, Blackman came in and helped FSU avoid the shutout in a 59-10 home loss to Clemson. He led two scoring drives while going 3-for-4 passing with 88 yards and a long touchdown pass to Keyshawn Helton.
Following the dismissal of Francois, the starting job was all his.
Then Came 2019
With Kendal Briles as his third offensive coordinator in as many years, Blackman’s redshirt sophomore season couldn’t have started any better. In the season opener against Boise State, Blackman passed for 327 yards and three touchdowns while leading FSU to 31 first-half points. Unfortunately for Blackman, the Seminoles failed to score in the second half and lost the game, 36-31.
From there on, the 2019 season was a mixed bag. By the early parts of ACC play, Blackman was splitting time with Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook. For a brief period of time, Hornibrook had supplanted Blackman as the starter.
Blackman would eventually get his job back, but the season ended on perhaps his lowest note. After throwing four touchdowns in his first career bowl start in 2017, Blackman was intercepted four times in FSU’s 20-14 Sun Bowl loss to Arizona State. That included a fourth quarter interception that was returned for a touchdown to give the Sun Devils the winning score.
While Blackman has failed to emerge as some would hope, he does not bear all the blame. In four seasons, Blackman is now on his fourth different offensive coordinator. Throughout his entire career, he’s played behind an awful offensive line.
Though there has been plenty of bad, there also been a lot of good. In addition to his Independence Bowl MVP effort and 421-yard performance against NC State in 2018, Blackman has had his moments.
In 22 career starts, Blackman has passed for at least 300 yards three times. He’s also engineered four game-winning drives. The most recent came in a 38-31 win last season at Boston College. In what was one of the finest performances of his career, Blackman passed for 346 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner to D.J. Matthews.
The Dillingham Effect
Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham will be Blackman’s fourth in as many years. Briles certainly had a nice track record with quarterbacks, but that is also true of Dillingham.
Riley Ferguson was already a solid quarterback for Memphis when Dillingham took over as position coach in 2017, but Ferguson’s numbers did improve. Ferguson raised his touchdown pass total from 32 in 2016 to 38 in 2017.
On 33 more pass attempts, Ferguson increased his yardage total by 559 and his yards per attempt from 8.3 to nine yards. He threw just nine interceptions as opposed to 10 the season prior. In 2017, Ferguson ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdown passes and passer rating.
In Dillingham’s final season at Memphis of 2018, quarterback Brady White finished in the top 25 nationally in passing yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt and passer rating. White doesn’t have the arm talent of either Ferguson or Blackman.
Overcoming struggles early in a career is not uncommon for quarterbacks at FSU or nationally. LSU’s Joe Burrow ranked just 12th in the SEC in passer rating in 2018. Last season, Burrow had a record-breaking season while leading the highest scoring offense in college football history to a national championship.
Oh, and Burrow wound up winning the Heisman Trophy and being picked first overall in the 2020 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
FSU’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, was plagued by turnovers early in his career. Ward was intercepted four times in each of his first two starts in 1992 and had 17 for the season. The following year, he threw just four picks total while leading Florida State to its first national title.
This isn’t to say that Blackman will rewrite the college football record books or be an All-American. That however, doesn’t mean that Blackman can’t finish his career strong and play a major role in bringing FSU back to respectability. Teammates have raved about Blackman as a leader and there isn’t a throw he can’t make.
The biggest obstacle may be mental. So far under first-year head coach Mike Norvell, Blackman seems to be filled with confidence.