Next man up? Why James Blackman is ready to stake his claim at FSU
BELLE GLADE, Fla. – On the western edge of Palm Beach County, you typically have four choices: work in the sugarcane fields, work at the prison, work for the school district, or -- provided you have a specific skill -- you leave.
James Blackman’s skill isn’t merely throwing a football; it’s what he can do with it. Blackman is capable of threading a ball with pinpoint accuracy. Some quarterbacks rely on power. Others use precision. Blackman has both. It’s why at an early age, his arm quickly became his golden ticket out of town.
Sugarcane may have put Belle Glade on the map. Football is what keeps this city of 19,000 people relevant.
College football programs throughout the nation scour this rural community seeking the next Kelvin Benjamin, Santonio Holmes or Fred Taylor. There is a belief here that Blackman can be that good and become Belle Glade’s next superstar.
But first, he must prove he can succeed as Florida State’s newest starting quarterback -- and do it as a true freshman.
“FSU is recruiting the best quarterbacks in America. The fact he was the No. 2 guy there [behind starter Deondre Francois] tells you about his ability,” said Willie Bueno, who has been a head football coach in Palm Beach County for 20 seasons. “Physically, he’s gotta get bigger. But I think he very well could become one of the best to come out of there. No question.”
Blackman’s rise at Florida State has been nothing short of meteoric. He arrived in Tallahassee this summer, entered preseason camp as a fourth-stringer, then quickly worked his way up to No. 2 by the start of the 2017 season. After FSU lost Francois to a season-ending knee injury on Saturday, Blackman was named the team’s new starter.
His first career start comes in Florida State's first home game, this Saturday at noon against Louisiana-Monroe at Doak Campbell Stadium.
This is the first time FSU has started a true freshman quarterback since Chip Ferguson in 1985. It marks the second time FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher has gone with one; the first was Gabe Gross when Fisher was quarterbacks coach at Auburn in 1998.
Blackman’s accelerated path has come with questions. Although he has impressive height at 6-foot-5, does the slender 185-pounder carry the necessary weight to withstand the physicality of a full season? Can he find comfort operating one of the more complex offenses in college football? Perhaps the most important inquiry of all: Is he capable of keeping the Seminoles in the race to challenge for a College Football Playoff semifinal berth?
“It’s about how much can a quarterback take on, in terms of pressure, and can he be able to lead the offense and operate the offense in a game situation,” said Ken Mastrole, a South Florida-based private quarterback coach and consultant, who has tutored Blackman. “He’s shown he has the maturity to do that and he was a mature kid in high school with how he approached training, coming from the Glades area. He was always about football and really well-grounded.
“It’s a really good fit. The stage will not be too big for him.”
'I gotta make it to the league'
A flat-screen television is on in the background, and soon the images of Francois’ knee injury come across the screen. They're followed by highlights of Blackman warming up. The discussion pivots to whether or not he can handle the challenge.
Blackman's family and friends have heard it all. He's too skinny. He has no experience. FSU’s offense is going to take a step back because Blackman is now the quarterback.
His supporters prefer to focus on the experiences that have prepared Blackman for this opportunity.
“No one in this world is tougher than Latangela Cox. That’s James’ mother,” said Glades Central High School assistant athletics director Khadeidra Fletcher. “So, listen, I don’t care how tough you say Jimbo is. If Latangela raised you, you have some thick skin.”
Latangela Cox-Epps, or “Tan” for short, is a no-nonsense mother of four, says Rickey Butts. She’s also not a big talker.
Butts, who is Blackman’s godfather and legal guardian, and Fletcher both asked her to meet with a reporter for an interview. She declined but was extremely polite when interacting during an informal conversation.
Butts said Cox-Epps is tough, fair, shy and usually doesn’t say much. When she does speak, everyone pays attention.
“He don’t like whoopings. Don’t like that,” Butts said of Blackman. “You don’t have to tell him something but once or twice. He was a regular kid. He made good grades and always has. No discipline problems. His mama is really rough on him. She doesn’t play.”
Cox-Epps also is extremely protective of her son. Butts, who was an assistant coach at Glades Central, recalled what he had to do whenever Blackman took a hard hit. He would turn around and motion to an excited Cox-Epps to stay calm and seated.
Butts remembered one time Blackman took a vicious hit, and before he could turn around to tell Cox-Epps how he was doing, she was already at the security gate waiting to get onto the field.
“She don’t play about James,” Butts said. “She don’t play about any of her kids. But she don’t play about James.”
The love Cox-Epps has for her son is shared by Butts. It’s why he became Blackman’s legal guardian in 2009.
Butts said he and Cox-Epps grew up in the same neighborhood as kids. He married one of her cousins and even quips how she, “told me not to [get married], but I was hard-headed.”
While spending time with Blackman during his youth, Butts saw he had the chance to make something of himself. He had a chance to make it far outside of Belle Glade.
Butts and Cox-Epps talked it over, and they agreed making Butts a legal guardian would be a good decision.
“At the time, I was the best thing for him,” said Butts, who added Blackman has a relationship with his biological father. “[His mother] was capable of doing it. She just entrusted me to do what was best for him because I have always been there and we are close, and he’s related to my kids. We’re always there.”
The 38-year-old Butts is from Belle Glade and is a second-generation mortician. He’s a friendly man who shares stories and doesn’t shy away from answering questions.
Butts, like so many men from Belle Glade, played high school football at Glades Central. He says his greatest highlight was when he and his teammates beat Pahokee and its star quarterback, Anquan Boldin, who would go on to star at Florida State and in the NFL. Butts proudly states he sacked Boldin twice in the same junior varsity game.
Butts also has seen how football can create overwhelming pressure in Belle Glade. He said he didn’t want Blackman nor Cox-Epps to face those expectations alone.
Butts immediately took an active role in Blackman’s life. He helped him increase his recruiting profile by taking him to different college camps. He actually oversees the quarterback's social media accounts to ensure Blackman does not post anything harmful.
Their relationship is similar to that of a father and son, and it has featured many teaching moments -- like when Butts gave Blackman a summer job at the funeral home. Blackman learned a lot about developing a strong work ethic, running a business and how to handle unpleasant situations such as working with corpses.
“I said, ‘James, I need you to go back there and help one of my other workers move somebody from this place to this place,’” Butts said. “That normally takes about 10 or 15 minutes. He went back there, came back in about 30 seconds and said, ‘Man, I gotta make it to the league. I can’t do this.’”
Butts is one member of a team of adults who have helped Blackman navigate his life.
Fletcher, 30, handles the recruitment for all the football players at the high school. While earning her master’s degree from Florida International University in Miami, she was an intern in the athletics department. Part of her duties there required her to meet prospective recruits interested in FIU. It’s how she gained a strong knowledge of the recruiting process.
She and Butts were at the mortuary when Fisher and defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins came to Belle Glade to visit Blackman. They were also there when coaches from other schools came by to see if they could sway him into choosing their school.
Fletcher tries to help in other ways as well.
“When you know a kid like James -- and some of the kids around him – some good, some bad, some horrible, some on drugs at the age of 16, some catching gun charges the age of 17,” Fletcher said. “He treated every last one of them like they were his equal. It was to the point where I used to tell him, ‘You need to watch the company that you keep.’
“He still was a kid. He didn’t see that at the time.”
Fletcher remembers a time when Blackman wanted to go to a party with friends. Once he told her who he was going with, she nixed the idea. She told Blackman he could go to the party, but it would be better to either go by himself or with other friends to avoid any potential problems.
“I saw the potential. I saw what he had in front of him,” she said. “I didn’t want the mistakes of someone else to jeopardize that for him.”
Every teenager encounters peer pressure. Not every teenager faces the expectations that come with playing football at Glades Central.
Glades Central is one of the most illustrious programs in state history. The Raiders have won six state championships, which is tied for the sixth-most among all Florida high schools, according to the Florida High School Athletics Association’s record books.
Several players from Glades Central have reached the NFL and achieved the highest levels of success. Benjamin starred at FSU and caught the famous game-winning touchdown pass in the Seminoles’ national championship win over Auburn. Holmes was a breakout player at Ohio State who later became a world champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also hauled in a game-winning catch in Super Bowl XLIII.
“As an AD, I’m trying to change it to give them other things to look forward to,” Fletcher said. “But that’s the breeding ground here. I’m going to keep it real: [Football is] what keeps the lights on at the school, it’s what keeps the bills paid at the school.”
Fletcher said it’s common to see former players spend their afternoons watching football practice. She said they’ll line up their trucks on a road near the practice field and set up lawn chairs to observe what’s going on.
The pressure to succeed at Glades Central is immense. From 2000 to 2010, the Raiders went an impressive 126-19. Because they only won two state titles in that period, the program went through four different coaches.
Butts said many Glades Central fans view losing as “unacceptable.”
“I’m going to tell you how serious it is. You don’t want to come back from a game and you lost,” Fletcher said. “Your car is probably not going to be in the best shape when we get back. I just sent an email on Thursday telling all coaches to find rides to school that day and to not leave cars on campus.
“Because these people are serious. The only law and rule you have as a football coach is to not lose.”
'He can still beat you'
Talk to any Palm Beach County high school coach who has studied Blackman, and they all revel about the same thing: His accuracy.
Bueno, who coaches at Royal Palm Beach High, said the tricks he uses against most high school quarterbacks were useless against Blackman.
“He’s probably the best guy we saw in the last two years in terms of overall ability to throw a football,” said Bueno, who went 33-5 and won the 2000 state title when he coached at Glades Central. “What stood out was his ability to make any throw. You don’t come across that too much. He’s so tall, so long, and he could seem to make every throw.”
T.J. Jackson, who is the head coach at Atlantic High in Delray Beach, said Blackman is dangerous because of his accuracy and mobility. He said Blackman has the arm strength to hit out-routes and post-corner routes with ease.
But if a defensive coordinator decides to get cute, Jackson said, Blackman has the speed and wherewithal to take off at a moment’s notice.
“We had some great defensive ends, and it was about trying to mix our coverages up and choose when to apply pressure,” said Jackson, who was a defensive back at Virginia Tech from 1998 to 2003. “He can still beat you. He’s very, very accurate and definitely has a great deep ball. His arm strength is phenomenal for a young player.”
Palm Beach County has long produced talent, but as of late, it’s become a hub for FBS quarterbacks. Former North Carolina State star Jacoby Brissett played at Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens. And then there’s Louisville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who played at Boynton Beach.
Mastrole, who works with many top quarterbacks in South Florida, believes Blackman could be next in line. He said the Florida State freshman possesses a number of “dynamic” abilities that make him versatile. He can move well in the pocket, he has the mobility to extend plays and also the arm strength to make difficult throws look easy.
“The things he did and steps he’s taken is to understand the game in terms of coverages, keys and tips, and that’s what the college game is about,” Mastrole said. “It’s about having a pre-snap read and knowing what to identify. It’s getting a basic understanding of protection.”
Blackman burst onto the scene in Palm Beach County during the spring between his sophomore and junior years. Right away, there was talk that Glades Central had a potential star in the making.
He threw for 2,111 yards and 24 touchdowns as a junior and was named to the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s All-Small Schools first team for Palm Beach County.
Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell said Blackman, who Rivals rated as a four-star prospect, started to become known in recruiting circles between his junior and senior seasons. He said Blackman performed well at 7-on-7 tournaments and in regular camp settings.
“He started getting early spring offers from impressive schools like Miami and Louisville," Farrell said. “He never truly blew up when it came to national offers. When you look at his offer sheet, you don’t see Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. Those schools came on late. He wasn’t a guy who got 30 offers in two months.”
Farrell said Blackman weighed about 160 pounds as a junior and added 20 more going into his senior year. Blackman still was skinny, but his delivery, mechanics and arm strength made some colleges overlook his slender build.
FSU was interested in Blackman after seeing his film, but the Seminoles really fell in love with him when he worked out at Fisher's summer camp in 2016. Fisher immediately offered him a scholarship, and Blackman committed to FSU in early August.
As a senior, he completed 60 percent of his passes and threw for 2,158 yards and 14 touchdowns. Blackman was named to the Palm Beach Post’s All-Small Schools first team, and other colleges started showing more interest.
On National Signing Day, he followed through on his commitment and signed with the Seminoles.
“I just think he is a quarterback that people did not put a lot into,” Mastrole said. “All these kids who are in Elite 11 or the Under Armour All-American Game, and James is a kid that people identified with a ton of upside. He’s a great player, but he just wasn’t spoken about on the national level.
“He’s just a guy everyone recognized as a kid coming to FSU, and nobody knew much about him.”
'I want to see how he responds to that'
Throughout the recruiting process, many college coaches came to Belle Glade's Butts Memorial Chapel in an attempt to sell Blackman on their respective programs. Fletcher recalled there were some who tried to tell him they would tailor their offenses to suit his skills.
Fisher, meanwhile, explained how Blackman would actually fit within his offense. The idea of an unwavering coach with a penchant for developing quarterbacks was attractive to Blackman.
“That particular visit had a different atmosphere,” Fletcher said. “It wasn’t about why we want you or why you should choose us. It was, they were in here with Xs and Os. For real. We were sitting at this same table, with a sheet of paper and Xs and Os. It was different. Every recruiting visit, even with other student-athletes, it’s about, ‘Why you should pick us. What’s the best offense for you.’
“James never once said, ‘What type of offense do you run that would fit me? It was, ‘I will play whatever you put in front of me to play.’”
Fletcher believes Blackman’s willingness to be the best -- and his desire to learn what he needs to become the best -- is why he will succeed at FSU. She beamed with pride when explaining that it was Blackman who gave a pregame speech to teammates before FSU’s opener against Alabama last Saturday.
Butts agreed about the significance of Blackman's intangibles. But his tangibles are pretty impressive, too.
Butts coached Blackman all throughout high school and said his mechanics as a freshman were better than Glades Central’s starting quarterback at the time.
“James could throw a 20-yard out from the opposite hash in the ninth grade on a dime,” Butts said. “It’s different for me because I’ve seen him do it forever, for so long. But when someone else comes out there, they’re like, ‘Wow!’”
The other high school coaches in Palm Beach County are eager to see how Blackman fares. Jackson believes he is in a great position, surrounded by talents like freshman running back Cam Akers, junior receiver Nyqwan Murray, junior running back Jacques Patrick, junior receiver Auden Tate among others. If the offensive line provides adequate protection, Jackson thinks the 'Noles will do damage.
Bueno said his biggest concern is how quickly Blackman will adjust to facing college defenses.
“It’s just the speed of it,” Bueno said. “Guys like that get away with throws in high school that he will not get away with at this level. That’s going to be the biggest obstacle for him in my opinion. The game is more complex, and with what the defenses are doing, they’re going to give him so many looks ... I want to see how he responds to that.”
Regardless, Bueno is sold on Blackman’s potential.
When he was at Glades Central, Bueno coached future Iowa quarterback Brad Banks. In 2002 with the Hawkeyes, Banks threw for 2,573 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also rushed for 435 yards and five touchdowns and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer.
“I don’t think Brad had this type of ability. He could not throw a football like that,” Bueno said. “[Blackman] has been different than a lot of guys that have come out of there with the ability to throw that way. We had some guys who could run and do some other little things, but there’s only been two quarterbacks from Belle Glade like that.
“There was Mark Newman, who went to Florida [in the early 1970s] who was a similar drop-back passer, and since then, it’s really been James Blackman when it comes to that type of quarterback."
As FSU prepares for its home opener Saturday against ULM, Farrell said he believes Fisher will have to simply his offense and play to Blackman’s strengths. He said Blackman has speed but is not a “burner” when it comes to eluding opposing players. Farrell added one of the freshman's strengths is his ability to shift in the pocket and not immediately run at the first sign of pressure.
“He can make any pass and any throw you want him to,” Farrell said. “The big question we had about him was how quickly he was going to get big and strong to handle ACC pass-rushers and take the beating that is required. Also, will he rely on that arm too much? Will he not rely on patience and get nervous and try to fit the ball into tight spots?”
Mastrole might have the most interesting perspective of all.
He worked with former FSU quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Sean Maguire leading up to their respective senior years. Mastrole knows what type of passers Fisher tends to recruit. He said any quarterback who wants to play for Fisher needs to have thick skin; they need to be prepared for tough coaching and big games.
If Mastrole has a concern about Blackman's first season, it would be the lack of quality opposition he faced in high school. While Francois often competed against elite competition as a senior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Blackman and Glades Central feasted on many weaker foes.
“With James, it’s wait and see. Because you don’t know how he will respond as a true freshman,” Mastrole said. “I don’t know if anyone can tell you how well he is going to do. If you were going to put him in one of five offenses, this is a great one to be in.
“You have a great playcaller, great weapons, and I hope he gets the best out of them.”