2016 Season Preview: Wide Receivers

Florida State is rich in receiver history.

Great names like Fred Biletnikoff, Peter Warrick and Rashad Greene have come and gone through this program, donning the garnet and gold as they streak down the sidelines to make improbable catches and score dozens of touchdowns.

The Seminoles enter the 2016 season with a plethora of talent at receiver. They return nearly 100% of their receiving production from last season and three upperclassmen starters are back on the field as well. Backing them up will be a handful of blue-chip receivers, each with their own raw talent and athleticism. On paper, the situation at receiver looks solid.

But, unfortunately, a deep dive into the position unit reveals a gaping weakness.

Florida State’s offense last year was very efficient at times, mostly because of the efforts of a certain Heisman-caliber running back. Although the Seminoles had mediocre quarterback play, they were consistently able to drive down the field towards the end zone.

When they got to the end zone, that’s when the offense stalled.

The problem lies with the fact that Florida State’s starting receiving core is vertically challenged. In other words, they are short. Last year, the starting receivers were listed at 6-1, 5-10, and 5-8. That doesn’t exactly scream of a group that can go up and make contested catches in the end zone or physically impose their will on defensive backs.

Opposing defenses had an easy time in the red zone versus Florida State’s offense. They could sell out against the run, Florida State’s biggest strength, and leave their defensive backs on an island versus the smaller receivers. Unless the receivers ran very precise routes, their chances of making a play on the ball in the end zone was very limited.

In short, Florida State needs a big man to step up at the receiver position.

Luckily for them, the Seminoles have recruited very well at receiver and they have a couple of options available.

The first name on the list is sophomore Auden Tate (18). At 6-5, 225-pounds, Tate has the height and size that Florida State is looking for at receiver this year. After playing sparingly last year due to injury, Tate exploded in the spring game, catching six passes for 100 yards and two scores from Deondre Francois.

Perhaps the most encouraging factor that Tate displayed was his ability to catch the ball away from his body. One catch he had was nearly on the ground, but Tate scooped it up and scampered for a good gain. He also showed this on his touchdown over Tarvarus McFadden in the end zone when he leapt up to grab the ball out of the air.

Another option is George Campbell (11). Another sophomore, Campbell is listed at 6-4, 207-pounds per Florida State’s official roster. While Tate might be the better pass catcher out of the two, Campbell brings insane athleticism to the position along with his size. Campbell is a freak athlete and Florida State fans will remember his impressive catch-and-run touchdown in the 2015 spring game.

But while Campbell has all the athleticism in the world, Jimbo Fisher values consistency more than anything else from his receivers. Campbell is still learning the receiver position after playing it and defensive back in high school. If he can be a more consistent pass catcher, Campbell has a chance to be a major game-breaker with his home-run threat ability.

The third name on this list is a name known by all Florida State fans. It’s Ermon Lane (1). The former five-star recruit has largely fallen under the radar after his disappointing sophomore. After catching 13 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman, Lane only recorded six catches for 50 yards last year.

Despite coming in with a lot of hype, Lane has failed to make a significant impact in the passing game. Last year, he looked very stiff running routes and did not catch the ball consistently. With his junior year fast approaching and Tate and Campbell looming in the background, time is fast running out for Lane to turn things around.

The last, and most interesting, name on this list is true freshman Keith Gavin (89). Physically, Gavin looks like an NFL player. He is listed at 6-3, 225-pounds per Florida State’s official roster but it would not be a surprise if he was closer to 230-pounds. Gavin has all the tools to be an elite wide receiver. He is great at catching contested balls and has the potential to be that big wide receiver that the Seminoles have searched so long for.

But like Campbell, Gavin has to prove to Jimbo Fisher that he can be a consistent route runner and pass catcher before he sees major snaps. How fast can he learn the playbook? Can he run the right routes? Will he be in the right place? These are all questions that need to be answered before Fisher will trust Gavin with playing time.

If Florida State can get one of those big men to step up on the outside, it will free up a lot of space and opportunities for their other receivers to make players. But if Florida State has to wait a bit for that to happen, they still have a couple of proven playmakers in their receiving core.

It starts with junior Travis Rudolph (15). The former blue-chip led all Florida State players in catches and yards last season, hauling in 59 receptions for 916 yards and seven touchdowns. Rudolph is the No. 1 receiver on the team and showed that he has the potential to completely take a game over, as seen by his stat line versus Syracuse (5-191-3) and Houston (7-201-1).

Rudolph is Florida State’s best receiver for a reason. He is a consistent route runner and very dependable at catching the ball. He went toe-to-toe with some of the best corners in the nation last year, including Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander and Houston’s William Jackson III, and created separation from them. Rudolph is not a freak athlete by any means, but his amazing catch-and-run versus Syracuse shows that the junior receiver has the capability to extend a play and score on any catch.

If the Seminoles can get a big man to step up on the opposite side, then it will open up a lot of opportunities for Rudolph. With defenses shifting their focus to account for Tate/Campbell/Gavin, Rudolph will be left with many one-on-one situations. If the play of the quarterbacks improves in 2016, Rudolph could be in line for a breakout season in his junior year.

Another player that could be in line for a big year is slot receiver Kermit Whitfield (8). The 5-8, 182-pound senior has developed immensely as a receiver during his career in Tallahassee. Apart from his famous kickoff return in the national championship game, Kermit did not really produce as a receiver during his freshman and sophomore seasons.

But then he exploded onto the scene last year as a junior, catching 57 passes for 798 yards and six touchdowns as a slot receiver. Kermit lacks the height to be an outside receiver, but has world-class track speed that makes him a very dangerous player from an inside position. He dominated against Louisville (9-172-1) and NC State (6-117-2) and showed throughout the season that he is a dependable pass catcher.

Kermit wins with speed. He is not a receiver that Florida State sends on a lot of vertical routes, simply because there is an element of height that is still necessary for those routes and Kermit is very small at 5-8. Rather, he runs a lot of curl and short routes. If a defender misses a tackle, Kermit is gone. No one can catch him. Similarly, screens are very effective with Kermit because he has the short-area quickness to turn a short pass into a first down.

The only other senior receiver is Bobo Wilson (3). Wilson is the most experienced receiver on Florida State’s roster, starting games dating all the way back to his sophomore season. As such, he is trusted by the coaching staff because of his knowledge of the playbook and route running abilities. While he drops a ball here and there, sometimes more often than FSU fans like, he is a very dependable options and made a lot of big-time catches on third and long to extend drives last year.

If Florida State can get a big man to step up, Wilson’s role in the passing game will likely be diminished. He was an outside receiver last year, but has the skill set and build of a slot receiver. With Kermit unlikely to be benched, Wilson could see his snaps decreased. Of course, this is dependent on Tate/Campbell/Gavin making a big leap in their development, which is not a guarantee.

One player that has been receiving a lot of offseason hype is sophomore Nyqwan Murray (80). The 5-11, 176-pound receiver has been consistently praised by both coaches and players for his consistency in route running and his ability t0 break away from even Florida State’s best defensive backs in coverage.

Unfortunately, Murray does not bring anything to the offense that they don’t already have. Kermit and Bobo are already entrenched as the primary slot options and Murray does not have the size to play on the outside. So while there has been a bunch of hype for the sophomore, he may have to wait until 2017 when both Kermit and Bobo are gone to take major snaps.

One option buried on the depth chart is Ja’Vonn “Pigg” Harrison (13). Harrison was a blue-chip recruit and entered with a lot of praise for his athleticism, but has never put it all together. He is still a junior and has two more seasons of eligibility left, but there are concerns that he may never play major snaps with some younger players passing him on the depth chart.

Similar to Harrison, Da’Vante Phillips (5) has kind of flown under the radar this offseason. A former blue-chip recruit, a lot of analysts were very high on Phillips and his potential. Unfortunately, multiple surgeries have sidelined him for the time being. He is only a true sophomore though, and still has time to see the field.

So while Florida State is still searching for their big guy to step up a receiver, they have plenty of options available. Auden Tate and George Campbell should be their primary options and Keith Gavin is lurking in the background as a dark horse contender as well. With those three, as well as Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield, and Bobo Wilson still on the roster, this wide receiver has the potential to break out as one of the nation’s best in 2016.

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