FSU's receiving corps could pose matchup nightmares in title game
It was one of those rare moments this season when Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston did not look like the Heisman Trophy winner he would go on to become. He'd just taken a sack, and he'd followed that by getting called for a delay of game penalty. He faced third-and-26 in the second quarter against Florida on Nov. 30, and he knew that the Gators' defense knew what was coming. Still, Winston didn't worry. He knew one of his receivers would make a play, because they seemingly always do.
Winston surveyed the weapons arrayed before him. Split wide to his left was 6-foot-5, 234-pound Kelvin Benjamin. In the slot between Benjamin and the offensive line was Kenny Shaw, a tiny burner known for his ability to absorb more punishment than any 170-pounder should and still hang on to the ball. In a three-point stance next to right tackle Bobby Hart crouched tight end Nick O'Leary, whose penchant for brutal blocks and refusal to wear gloves earned him the nickname "Old School" as a freshman. To Winston's far right stood Rashad Greene, a junior who runs routes as precisely as if he had a GPS in his head.
One of these guys will get open, Winston thought. He called for the snap. Florida showed blitz, but the linebackers dropped away. Only three rushers came, leaving eight Gators to cover four potential Seminoles targets. (Tailback Devonta Freeman had slipped through the line as a checkdown safety valve, but the down and distance rendered him useless on the play.) Benjamin was forced toward the sideline. Greene wasn't open, either. But Shaw settled into a pocket in the middle of the zone. Winston saw him and fired. He knew he'd have to apologize later. The ball settled into Shaw's hands in line with the first-down marker, but Florida safety Cody Riggs arrived at the same moment. Riggs put a shoulder into Shaw's chest, lifting him off the ground. Shaw flopped to the turf, but the ball remained wedged between his hands and his waist.
As usual, the defense simply couldn't cover all of Florida State's receivers. Someone had made a play, just as Winston expected. "That's what we do," Winston said.
A preponderance of such plays led to Winston winning the Heisman, and he was quick to point out that he had a better set of targets than any other quarterback in the country. Not that the receivers would let him forget it anyway. "That's what we tell him every day, if it wasn't for us, he wouldn't have won," Greene joked. "So he has to give us props."
Individual credit for the receivers will likely have to wait for the NFL drafts of 2014 and '15, but the group could help secure national title rings by playing its typical game against Auburn in the BCS championship on Monday night. The Tigers have been susceptible to explosive plays all season, and this will be the best group of receivers they've faced. "It's going to be a big challenge," Auburn cornerback Justin Mincy said. "That's all I've been hearing about -- their wide receivers."
With good reason. The Seminoles' receivers have such unique skill sets that defenses simply can't take away all of them at once. Asked how he would cover Florida State's wideouts, Greene turned deadpan. "Uh, I definitely wouldn't play man," he said.
That would require defensive backs fast enough to stay with Greene and Shaw and physical enough to keep from getting boxed out by O'Leary. But even if a defense had such a trio, it would still need to find someone capable of covering Benjamin -- who is essentially a smallish NBA power forward with sprinter's speed. Greene questioned the wisdom of anyone trusting a 5-10 cornerback to cover Benjamin alone. Just ask 5-10 Clemson cornerback Darius Robinson, who stood no chance when Benjamin leaped over him to catch the first touchdown of the Seminoles' 51-14 rout of the Tigers on Oct. 19.
Winston has avoided locking in on any one receiver, spreading the ball almost evenly among his three top wideouts. Benjamin, Shaw and Greene have all caught between 50 and 67 passes for between 929 and 981 yards. When opponents concentrate too hard on limiting that trio, Winston finds O'Leary either wide open or outmuscling a much smaller defender.
O'Leary, who was best known when he came to Florida State as the grandson of Jack Nicklaus, earned more notoriety this offseason when TomahawkNation.com unearthed this video of a May motorcycle crash in Tallahassee. O'Leary was riding his bike when a black Lexus attempted to cut across the lane in which O'Leary was traveling. O'Leary hit the Lexus and his motorcycle flew into the windshield of a bus. The junior was jettisoned 75-100 feet, but he walked away with only minor injuries. "Are you a robot?" Winston recalled asking O'Leary after the crash.
O'Leary isn't a cyborg, but he can terminate a linebacker during a run by one of Florida State's backs. His blocking ability, though, belies the softness of his hands. "Nick opens it up a lot," Greene said. "He's a great tight end who can block and catch passes. I rarely see him drop anything at practice or in games." O'Leary, who has caught 33 passes for 557 yards and seven touchdowns, makes opposing defenses pay when they worry too much about Benjamin, Greene and Shaw.
"When we've got a linebacker on Nick O'Leary, come on, man," Winston said. "Nick O'Leary is probably one of the best tight ends in the country."
So what is a defense to do? It's tasked with stopping all of these Seminoles standouts. "There's KB with his size advantage and his weight," Winston said. "And Rashad ... If I throw the ball right to Rashad, you can't cover him. Then you've got Kenny Shaw, a possession guy. He's in the slot, and he's quick."
Oh, and by the way, they also have a Heisman Trophy winner throwing them the ball.