- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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The image is now part of Florida State lore, etched into the history books for all time. Jameis Winston lofts a pass into the end zone in the final minute of the national championship game. As he’d done so often in 2013, Kelvin Benjamin -- all 6-foot-5, 240 pounds of him -- overwhelmed his defender and hauled it in for the score.
The touchdown was the capper in the Seminoles’ third national title, but it was also the finale to Benjamin’s career in Tallahassee. He’s off to the NFL, where he’s projected as a potential first-round selection.
Now, Florida State is left to find a replacement, and Jimbo Fisher has a sense of humor about the difficulty of the task, joking with reporters he’d simply stack two of his current receivers atop each other.
At least Fisher can laugh about it, but the truth is, Florida State simply doesn’t have an obvious replacement because, well, players like Benjamin don’t come around very often.
Benjamin wasn’t always the most refined route runner or sure-handed receiver, but his raw physical ability was unparalleled. He was a mismatch every time he was on the field. While Florida State retains its best receiver in Rashad Greene, has some developing talent in Kermit Whitfield, Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones, and has three prized prospects arriving this summer, none provide the same physically imposing target that Benjamin did last season.
So, who picks up the slack for the 89 targets Benjamin received from Winston last season (not to mention the 74 for Kenny Shaw or the 38 for FSU’s departed backs)?
Fisher’s answer is probably somewhat accurate. The young receivers will all play their part, but none are likely to replace Benjamin’s production on their own. It will have to be a combined effort, and the new arrivals will need some time to adjust to the college game.
Of the receivers that remain, Jones is the tallest at 6-4, but he’s 50 pounds lighter than Benjamin and perhaps the least refined of the Seminoles’ current receiving corps. No other receiver on the roster -- including the incoming freshmen -- measures taller than 6-2. And size does matter. Since Fisher took over as playcaller in 2007, FSU has always had at least one receiver 6-5 or taller catch at least 30 passes for at least 450 yards. That won’t happen in 2014.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Florida State will be without a physical mismatch in the passing game. It’s just likely that mismatch will come from its tight end.
Last season, Nick O'Leary blossomed to the tune of 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns. It was a breakthrough campaign for the junior tight end widely considered among the best in the nation coming out of high school.
O’Leary’s big season was a necessity, too. Florida State had no other options at the position after Christo Kourtzidis transferred and Kevin Haplea went down with a knee injury. Giorgio Newberry was moved from defensive end to tight end, but he was targeted just twice all year, once resulting in an ugly interception when Winston attempted to force the ball to his makeshift tight end against Wake Forest.
Now, there is some depth. Haplea is healthy. So, too, is redshirt freshman Jeremy Kerr. Two more tight ends arrive this summer. None possess O’Leary’s skill set as a receiver, but all could fit as blockers should FSU decide to run a two-tight end set with any regularity.
But O’Leary (6-3, 245 pounds) again will be crucial this season. He was targeted 42 times last season. Aside from Greene, all other returning receivers were targeted a combined 18 times by Winston last year. Winston routinely referred to O’Leary as his favorite target. That O'Leary caught eight of nine passes thrown his way on third down and had five grabs in the end zone only reinforced Winston's faith in him.
Still, three of O’Leary’s red-zone catches came in Week 1. After hauling in five catches for 161 yards against Clemson, O’Leary didn’t have more than three catches or 55 yards in any game the remainder of the year. He scored just once in FSU’s last seven contests. He was shut out in the national title game.
So why did O’Leary disappear as the year went on? It was likely as much because of FSU’s needs for him to be a blocker and Benjamin’s emergence as the physically dominant downfield target as it was any regression by O’Leary. Neither will be an issue in 2014, and Fisher said he’d like to see O’Leary’s receptions reach the 45 to 50 range by year’s end.
“You can do a lot of different things with Nick,” Fisher said. “He’s grown into this offense. I think he will be critical."
No, Florida State won’t have another Kelvin Benjamin this season. The Seminoles would be lucky to get another receiver with that skill set and body type again this decade. But there is talent at the position, as Fisher has made clear, and there is still a player who can provide some brute force in the passing game. It’s just a matter of opening things up for O’Leary and seeing if he can take the next step in an already promising career.
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