Why is FSU playing “Midget” Receivers?

Photo by Logan Stanford

“Why is Florida State playing midget receivers?”

This question has been asked dozens of times over the course of the season, so much so that it might be etched into the brain of every Florida State fan. With guys like Auden Tate and Keith Gavin sitting on the sidelines, why are smaller receivers seeing playing time over those physical freaks?

While there is no clear answer for this question, as Jimbo Fisher will never tell the media about his decision to start which players, we can take a look back at both recruiting and the national landscape of college football to get a better idea as to why “midget” receivers are getting major playing time in Fisher’s offense.

First and foremost, yes the receivers that Florida State trots out as starters are smaller. Travis Rudolph is listed at 6-1, Bobo Wilson is listed at 5-10, and Kermit Whitfield is listed at a paltry 5-8.

Each of them are very good players in their own right. Rudolph has compiled 1,968 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns during his three years on campus. Wilson has been a very reliable target in his four years on campus, racking up 1,562 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Kermit came to FSU as primarily a kickoff specialist but has developed into a reliable receiver over the course of his career at Florida State.

The problem with playing smaller receivers is that it limits the potential and ceiling of the offense, particularly in the red zone and in short yardage situations. In the red zone, where space is compacted and the value of precision route running is somewhat negated by tight spaces, big receivers thrive because they are able to use their size and get vertical above defensive backs. Think of Kelvin Benjamin’s catch in the national championship game where he jumped and was able to come down with the score because Jameis Winston threw the ball where only Benjamin could grab it.

Smaller receivers also have trouble blocking, both in the screen and run game. Watching the Wake Forest game, there were several occasions where Florida State had a successful screen set up initially, but one of the smaller receivers was not able to make the block downfield and the play failed. A bigger receiver, even with bad blocking technique, at least presents a more difficult option for the defender to move around.

So why is Florida State playing smaller receivers?

I’ve written previously about the fact that, across the national landscape of college football, wide receivers see the majority of their production in their third and fourth (and sometimes fifth) years on campus. That is to say, juniors and seniors on average see more production than freshman and sophomores.

This should not come as a surprise. Juniors and seniors have been on campus longer, presumably have a better knowledge of the playbook and route trees, and have more trust from their coach than younger players. While we like to point to guys like Amari Cooper and Sammy Watkins, who came in and lit college football on fire as freshmen, those guys are the one percent and do not represent the national average. The realistic truth is that many receivers contribute sparingly in their first couple of years before playing major snaps as juniors and seniors.

A quick look at Florida State’s depth chart will confirm this. If we remove the height option and simply look at the years of eligibility, we are left with Florida State’s starting receivers being a junior and two seniors. The Seminoles’ starting receivers are in their third and fourth years in the system, which should not come as a surprise after seeing the data above.

Another reason why Florida State currently trots out the “midget package” at wide receiver stems from recruiting. No, not from the past couple of recruiting cycles but from recruiting that occurred four to five years ago.

Since we’ve already established that juniors and seniors are the players that mainly contribute at receiver, then the classes we have to look at are from 2012-2014.

In 2012, Florida State signed one receiver recruit: track star Marvin Bracy. After redshirting in ’12, Bracy left the program to focus on his track career. Bracy just recently competed in the Rio Olympics in track, so I don’t think anyone really has any fault with this move.

In 2013, Florida State signed three receivers: Isaiah Jones, Jesus “Bobo” Wilson, and Levonte “Kermit” Whitfield. Jones played sparingly in ’13, was academically ineligible in ’14 and left the team shortly afterwards. The careers of Wilson and Whitfield are well chronicled.

In 2014, Florida State signed three receivers: Travis Rudolph, Ermon Lane, and Ja’Vonn Harrison. Rudolph is currently a starter for them. Ermon Lane has not been able to crack the depth chart at receiver and recently moved to safety. Harrison played somewhat during his first two years on campus and is currently suspended from the team.

So what does this mean?

Well, the Isaiah Jones’ transfer and overall bad luck at the position are contributing factors as to why Florida State is rolling with the “midget package” for the time being. Assuming Jones had not transferred, he would be a 6-4 body in his fourth year on campus. We most certainly would not be having this conversation about “midget” receivers if 6-4 Isaiah Jones was contributing at the receiver position.

Bad luck with Lane and Harrison are also contributing factors. Lane was a five-star recruit, one of the most highly sought-after receiver recruits in the entire country. He had offers from Florida, Alabama, Clemson, LSU and USC coming out of high school. There was no way for Florida State to predict that he was going to be a bust. Meanwhile, Harrison was a talented, but raw, athlete coming out high school who is still learning to play the receiver position.

While it is unfortunate that Florida State is playing smaller receivers, especially with a freshman quarterback who would benefit from bigger targets, the good news is that this trend is unlikely to continue. In the same way that we need to go back three or four years to see why the Seminoles are playing smaller receivers now, these receivers will eventually graduate and move on. In the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes, Florida State signed receivers who are 6-3, 6-2, 6-5, 5-11 and 6-3. These players will eventually become your junior and senior starters at receiver.

I believe that many Florida State fans are upset at this “midget” receiver notion because the Seminoles were expected to contend for a national championship this year. While having smaller receivers on the field is in no way the sole reason that the Seminoles have underachieved on offense, it is a small part of the overall problem that this offense has at times.

So while the “midget package” might continue to exist for the rest of this year, Florida State fans can take solace in the fact that this trend will not continue in the near future. The ’15 and ’16 recruiting classes have already shown that the coaching staff is placing an emphasis on larger receivers. Once those players have a couple of seasons under their belt, that is when things could start to get fun.

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