TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — If there’s one person who can identify with what James Blackman is going through as he prepares for his first start as Florida State’s starting quarterback, it’s former Major League Baseball outfielder Gabe Gross.
When Blackman takes his first snap against North Carolina State on Saturday shortly after noon ET, he will become the second true freshman to start at quarterback for an offense led by Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher.
Gross — who played seven years with four different clubs in the big leagues—was the first.
“It’s kind of like when I was there playing for [Fisher], and maybe [Blackman] is the same way, I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Gross told Florida State DieHards. “It was happening so fast that I guess I went from, kind of like he has, I went from being a true freshman competing for a third-string job to the backup job and before I knew it, I was in the game. It’s not like you had the luxury of going through spring training as the starter. The world just keeps moving on you. I think his head is spinning pretty good as far as trying to figure out all this different stuff.”
Back in the fall of 1998, Gross was months removed from high school and worked his way up the depth chart as a quarterback at Auburn. Fisher — then, one of the game’s bright, young innovative minds — was the Tigers’ quarterbacks coach.
An injury to Tigers starter Ben Leard against eventual national champion Tennessee opened the door for Gross to enter the game. He would start the following week against Mississippi State — a team that would go on to win the SEC West. Gross was supplanted a week later versus Florida but bounced back to start the rest of the Tigers games that season.
Even though his path took him to another sport, he looks back on his experience playing under Fisher with pride. The current SEC Network baseball and football analyst shed some light on how Fisher may be preparing Blackman to lead the Seminoles now that starter Deondre Francois will miss the season due to a torn patellar tendon in his left knee.
“Coach Fisher is going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on any quarterback that he has, especially a true freshman quarterback, in practice so that he is prepared for the pressure he is going to feel in a game,” Gross said. “In fact, I know from multiple conversations I’ve had with him about this that he wants to put so much pressure on you in practice to perform that when you get in a game, it’s almost like a breath of fresh air. You don’t have same pressure that he puts on you in practice.”
For his part, earlier in the week during the team’s media availability, Fisher said he’s tried to simulate chaos during practices leading up to this weekend’s game against the Wolfpack.
“We’ll find out if he’s ready. We go good on good every day against our defense and that is as good as you can go against probably in this country,” Fisher said. “We do inside drills as a team, seven-on and scout team when he throws fastballs and gets the scout looks. It’s a game-like situation and we always do it, so he’s gotten a lot of that and blitz looks. We’ve thrown every blitz you can throw at him.”
Gross faced his share of adversity during his freshman season, and he knows Blackman will face it at some point over the course of the next few weeks and months. With that said, he’s confident in Fisher’s ability to prepare him for the task that lies ahead.
“I doubt that the stage is going to be too big for [Blackman]. Now the game might be moving faster than it needs to be. He may not quite be ready mentally, or he may be ready to take the world by storm. I don’t know,” Gross said. “I know that he will be prepared as much as you can be to handle the pressure of the moment going into that game. Coach Fisher will do as good a job as anybody in the country would at preparing him and calling plays in a game that will give this kid the best chance to be successful.”
Gross said the hardest thing for him to overcome was learning to get over the mistakes he made. In fact, that’s the main guidance he would offer for a player who is getting ready to embark on a journey he traveled two decades prior.
“My advice to James would be to understand that mistakes are going to happen. Just don’t be afraid to pull the trigger the next time up. If you throw a pick, I know the last thing you want to do is to make another mistake, but you have to trust yourself to make those throws when you have to. Don’t get too complicated. See what you throw and let it rip. Don’t let one mistake beat you mentally.”