I imagine that many of you who have been following Florida State football for any period of time are just as frustrated as I am with the lack of down-field involvement of the tight end in FSU’s passing offense over the years.
In years past we have watched in agony as our opponents would often shred our defenses by completing passes to their tight ends, many times at a critical point in the game. All too often I’ve been left wondering why our tight end was not being used against our opponents in the same manner in which they were being used against us.
The common perception, both inside and outside of the program, is that FSU has always used the tight end as an additional offensive lineman to help with the running game and to assist in the pass protection, instead of as a down-field receiving threat.
Today we will take a look at FSU's history with the tight end and their involvement in the passing game, and try to determine if this perception is an accurate one. Then we will discuss how this new breed of bigger, stronger and faster prospects the coaching staff have been targeting for this position starting with the 2010 class, could transform the Seminoles TE's into a more respected group. A group who will provide improved blocking, run better and correct routes, consistently catch the ball, and get the YAC's necessary to turn a decent gain into a game changing play.
In the Tight Ends Meeting Room at the Moore Athletic Center there hangs a picture of former FSU player Pat Carter. Carter is one of, if not the best tight end in FSU history.
In 2000, just before FSU played Oklahoma for the National Championship in the Orange Bowl, former walk-on and by then the starting tight end, Ryan Sprague, was quoted as saying: "One day somebody asked Coach [John] Lilly [former tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator], `Who is that?' as they pointed to Carter's photo on the wall. It only shows that if you want to be an unknown at Florida State, tight end is a good position. They talk about using the tight end every year, but it never seemed to happen. This time it did."
What Sprague was referring to with the last part of that quote "This time it did," was that he was happy because he managed to snag 12 passes, and the tight ends combined for 16 catches that season. While being an incredibly low number, it was still 5 more than all the FSU tight ends caught during the 1999 National Championship season and the 1998 season, COMBINED.
"We didn't know if Sprague could catch it because we hadn't thrown it to him before," quarterback Chris Weinke said. "It was what defenses were giving us at times, so we took it."
Even the coaches didn't try to disprove the perception about the FSU tight ends. "I showed them a tape of Carter before the season," Lilly said, "but I wanted them to see what a great blocker he was. For the most part, Florida State's tight ends haven't been known as receivers."
Not much has changed since then.
Two years ago, I wrote and asked the question "Is The Tight End At FSU Considered An Eligible Receiver?" To confirm my suspicions, I analyzed the number of receptions by the FSU TE’s for the previous decade, and as you can imagine those numbers were mind boggling.
I found that the 2005 and 2006 seasons were the first time the tight ends registered back-to-back seasons with 30 or more catches since the 1990 and 1991 seasons. There have only been three tight ends in FSU's history to ever receive any kind of All-American recognition, and only one to receive freshman All-American honors (Brandon Warren-2006). These were the highlights of my research.
Before we revisit those and the prior years numbers, let's first take a look at what, if anything, has changed with the FSU tight end's and their involvement in the passing attack since I first wrote that story in June of 2009.
During the summer before the start of the 2009 season, HCIW Jimbo Fisher, filling in for Bobby Bowden at booster functions around the state, stated on several occasions that one of his goals for the upcoming season was to get the tight end more involved in the vertical passing game. He also acknowledged that the primary reason the tight ends were a non-factor in the passing game during the 2008 season was due to the offensive lines inexperience.
When speaking about Piurowski, Fisher's face lit up."Caz really came through for us last year," Fisher said. "He was really a big key for us. People talked about how well we ran the football last year and a lot of that was Caz. He was dominant on the line of scrimmage."
One of the reasons Piurowski didn't catch a lot of passes is FSU's coaches decided to keep him on the line to help block.
"Last year, since we had a young offensive line and needed help, we used him primarily as a blocker," Fisher said. "That's not because he couldn't catch or we couldn't use him more, but because we needed that extra big body up front to help out our tackles."Despite averaging less than a catch a game, his numbers were not a reflection of what Fisher and his fellow assistants think of Piurowski's pass-catching abilities.
"He has good hands and can run and can get downfield vertically and can really go," Fisher said. "Hopefully we can use him in the passing game this year."
So with the Seminoles' offensive line expected to be a strength, Piurowski likely will see more balls thrown his way.
"There's no secrets, yes, as those tackles have grown up they won't need as much help," Fisher said. "Then we can kick it to Caz. He has such great hands. We can use him two ways."
It appeared Fisher would keep the promise he made before the start of the season. After the first three games it did appear the FSU tight ends would indeed become an integral part of the offensive passing scheme.
As a matter of fact, the first touchdown of the 2009 season was scored on a 10-yard reception by Caz Piurowski from Christian Ponder in the opener against Miami. Caz (3) and Beau (1) finished the game with 4 receptions for 37 yards.
Five days later, in the come from behind win against Jacksonville State, Caz caught 2 passes for 78 yards, including a career high 53 yard reception. It seemed like Jimbo was truly making a concentrated effort to make the opposing defenses respect our tight ends by throwing them the ball.
Next up BYU, and the FSU TE’s accounted for 7 receptions (Caz-5, Reliford-1, Little-1) and one touchdown (Caz). After years of basically ignoring the tight end as a receiving option, had the FSU coaches finally realized that the tight end could be another receiving option now that the offensive line was more experienced?
During the next two weeks however, the tight ends once again became a non-factor with losses to USF (Caz-1 for 13 yds), and at BC (Caz-2 for 20 yards, one was a diving catch on a 2 point conversion pass from Bert Reed to tie the score in the fourth quarter).
Any hopes of continuing to make the tight end a bigger part of the passing game than in years past were shattered the following week on the opening drive in the loss to Georgia Tech, when Piurowski tore both his ACL and MCL. With Caz out for the rest of the year, any chance of turning the FSU TE into an offensive threat went down with him. After starting the season with 16 receptions in the first 5 games, FSU’s offense reverted back to old habits, as Reliford would only catch 9 more passes during the next 8 games. So despite a promising start, during the 2009 campaign FSU’s tight ends accounted for only 25 receptions for 287 yards (11.5 average) and 4 touchdowns. However, this was the still the 3rd highest total receptions by tight ends in the previous 12 years, so maybe we were finally headed in the right direction after all.
Then at the start of the 2010 season, these 7 players were listed as tight ends on the opening day roster: Beau Reliford (Jr), Ja’Baris Little (Jr), Tank Sessions (Fr-was redshirted), Will Tye (Fr-was redshirted), Jonathan Johnson (So-R), Anthony Porterfield (Fr-R), and Jonathan Wallace (Fr-R).
2010 saw the return of a virtually non-existent TE involvement in the passing game as Jimbo Fisher’s pledge from the previous year, of including the tight end in the passing game, was short lived. You really can't blame Fisher for not wanting to throw to the tight ends, since the trust and the talent level were not there. Reliford (17) and Little (1) only accounted for 18 receptions for 203 yards for an 11.3 yard average and one touchdown. Some of the reasons tossed around for this miserable 1.3 average reception per game by the tight ends include the injuries and lack of depth on the offensive line, which resulted in the constant shuffling of the OL players and the need to keep the TE in as an extra blocker, the lack of trust of the TE's by the QB's, and the TE's lack of ability to run the correct route and get open.
Whatever the reasons for the disappointing numbers from the tight ends, regular readers of Tomahawk Nation should not have been surprised. Here are some excerpts from Bud’s Season Preview 2010: Tight Ends.
-Reliford is a player that, because of his lack of experience at any level, should continue to improve each year. That said, he is not a special player. He can eventually be good but as of now Reliford is an average tight end. He hasn't made any special grabs yet and will have to show that he will make fewer mental mistakes. And it's unknown whether he will ever become a natural pass catcher.
-[Re. Little] Similar to Reliford, he needs to work on both the mental and physical parts of his game. At this point, he realistically could be an average player for FSU this year, which would be fine for this offense given his limited role. I don't expect much out of Little and he is one of roughly 13 guys who are fighting for a spot on the 2011 roster.
-[Young Guys] As I mentioned in the lead, FSU did bring in two tight ends who they like in this recruiting class. Young tight ends rarely make a big impact.
-[Bottom Line] This is a pretty average group of tight ends and it is not one of the better groups in the ACC. FSU is beginning to attract more tight end talent and is clearly focused on using the tight end more as it attempts to attract mega-recruit Nick O'Leary or Brandon Fulse to sign this season. In the coming years the tight end position should be in better shape, but this is not a year where the tight end will be considered a weapon. Last year FSU's tight ends caught 24 balls for 275 yards. If Reliford can snag 25 for 225 yards that would be a tremendous year for him. I expect better blocking from this unit as well.
I only went back 10 years while putting these numbers together, but I was surprised and shocked to see the number of passes our T.E.’s have caught during the past 10 season.
Last year (2008), Caz Piurowski (6'7") caught only 8 passes for 83 yds (10.4 avg) and 1 TD, Bo Reliford (6'7") caught one pass for 8 yards, and Josh Dobbie caught one pass for 14 yards. Combined that is a total of 10 passes, but with a very healthy average of 10.5 yards per catch.
HOWEVER, THAT IS ONLY A TOTAL OF 10 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN ALL OF 2008.
Some more recent history of our TE’s involvement in the passing attack.
Charlie Graham- 11 rec for 84 yds for 7.6 avg and 1 TD (dismissed or DNQ for 2008)
Caz- 7 rec. for 55 yds for 7.9 avg
Josh Dobbie- 0 rec (Walk-on who transferred from Army, mostly played special teams)
THAT IS ONLY A TOTAL OF 18 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN ALL OF 2007.
Brandon Warren- 28 rec for 301yds for 10.8 avg and 1 TD
Caz- 7 rec for 55 yds for 7.9 avg
Charlie Graham- 3 rec for 42 yds for 14.0 avg
THAT IS A TOTAL OF 38 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN 2006.
Matt Henshaw- 21rec for 177 yds for 8.4 avg
Donnie Carter- 6 rec for 35 yds for 5.8 avg
Matt Root- 3 rec for 27 yds for 9.0 avg
Charlie Graham- 0 rec
THAT IS A TOTAL OF 30 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN 2005.
Paul Irons- 8 rec for 89 yds for 11.1 avg
Matt Henshaw- 5 rec for 43 yds for 8.6 avg
Matt Root- 1 rec for 3 yds
THAT IS ONLY A TOTAL OF 14 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN ALL OF 2004.
Paul Irons- 6 rec for 79 yds for 13.2 avg
Matt Henshaw- 5 rec for 94 yds for 18.8 avg and 2 TD’s
Donnie Carter- 5 rec for 99 yds for 19.8 avg and 1 TD
THAT IS ONLY A TOTAL OF 16 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN ALL OF 2003.
Patrick Hughes- 5 rec for 50 yds for 10.0 avg
Paul Irons- 1 rec for 1 yds
THAT IS ONLY A TOTAL OF 6 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN ALL OF 2002.
Carver Donaldson- 3 rec for 26 yds for 8.7 avg
Patrick Hughes- 2 rec for 13 yds for 6.5 avg
Paul Irons- 1 rec for 5 yds and 1 TD
THAT IS ONLY A TOTAL OF 6 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN ALL OF 2001.
Carver Donaldson- 1 rec for 9 yds
Ryan Sprague- 12 rec for 212 yds for 17.7 avg
Nick Franklin- 3 rec for 40 yds for 13.3 avg
THAT IS ONLY A TOTAL OF 16 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN ALL OF 2000.
Even during our NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP YEAR OF 1999, we ignored the tight end.
Carver Donaldson- 1 rec for 19 yds
Ryan Sprague- 5 rec for 76 yds for 15.2 avg and 1 TD
Patrick Hughes- 1 rec for 13 yds
THAT IS ONLY A TOTAL OF 7 RECEPTIONS BY THE T.E.’S IN ALL OF 1999.
I could go on, but I think I will rely on my memory that this has been the pattern for many, many years.
With the exception of the 2006 and 2005 season, the number of receptions by our tight ends is pathetic. IMO, the 06 and 05 team totals is the number of receptions that our starting TE, in any given year, should be catching just by himself. Of course I am not blaming the players for this lack of production, this is not the TE’s fault. This falls squarely on the shoulders of our offensive coordinators, who have designed and called our offense for the past ____ (fill in your number here) years without regard to the tight end as a downfield receiver option.
Personally, I always hate when someone compares FSU to our hated rivals, the gators. Situations are always different and things are not always comparable. Therefore, I am going to contradict myself and I am going to compare our TE receiving history to last years gators NC (ugh) team for the sake of strengthening my argument.
In 2008 the Gator T.E. Aaron Hernandez was the teams 3rd leading receiver with 34 rec for 381 yds or 11.2 avg and 5 TD’s (2 of those coming against FSU on 4 recs for 61 yds, which brings me back to my original post about our lack of defensive coverage of the opposing T.E.’s, but I digress). They also had another T.E. Casey with 4 rec for 64 yds for a 16.0 avg.
THAT IS A TOTAL OF 38 RECEPTIONS BY THEIR T.E.’S LAST SEASON.
....FSU has had a fairly decent history of T.E.’s making it in the NFL, especially during our dominant years of the 80's and 90's. Here is a list of the FSU T.E.’s who have had successful careers in the NFL along with the year in which they were drafted.
Update: In January 2011, Caz Piurowski signed a 3 year deal with the Seattle Seahawks just before the lockout, but he will probably be moved to offensive tackle.
As you can see, the Noles have had their fair share of talented tight ends during our relatively short history of playing NCAA football, including some who blossomed in the NFL despite only having average careers at FSU.
Let's now take a look at a some more yearly numbers, by going further into the archives beyond what was posted above in the original story, for the FSU tight ends cumulative yearly reception totals during the modern (Bowden) era.
A couple of things that stood out to me as I researched these numbers:
A) While the perception that FSU's tight ends have not been legitimate receiving threats may be true, at least recently, previous history shows us that was not always the case. DID YOU SEE THE NUMBERS FOR TE RECEPTIONS FROM 1986 TO 1991? Take a look once again. When FSU had quality tight ends on the roster (i.e. TE’s who could run good crisp routes, find ways to get open, and most importantly make the catch when thrown to), our coaches were not afraid to throw them the ball. For the years listed above, when the FSU TE’s numbers were highest, those were usually the years we had NFL quality tight ends on the squad.
2) During Bobby Bowden’s earlier years when he was trying to establish FSU as a nationally relevant program, we passed to the tight end more often than we did during his later years. This may not necessarily be due to Bowden becoming more conservative with age, but it was possibly due to the high number of elite and talented receivers FSU started recruiting and signing at the wide receiver positions. With higher numbers of talented wide receivers on the roster, there were not enough passes to go around to the tight ends. As the quality and the roles of the receivers increased, the role of the tight ends diminished. Is it possible we could not recruit the higher ranked prospects to come play TE at FSU, because quite frankly, what high school player wants to go play TE at a program where he is going to be used as just another blocker? The better high school prospects want to go play for a program that has a reputation for throwing to the TE, so that they can have their moment in the sun when they score touchdowns, which will get them noticed by the NFL scouts and increase their chances to play on Sunday’s. Just something to consider.
D) As referenced in A), there was a point during the late 80's and the beginning of the 90's where the tight end was an important part of the passing offense. What happened?
What happened was players like Charlie Ward, Tamarick Vanover, Kez McCorvey, Kevin Knox, Matt Frier, Warrick Dunn, 'Omar Ellison, and Andre Cooper all became part of the passing offense. The role of the TE, with the growing tradition that had been building for the previous 6 years with NFL quality TE's, was shelved for another type of offense, one that better suited the players on the roster. When FSU converted to "Fast Break Offense," the tight end became a non-factor in the passing game and became a glorified offensive lineman used primarily to block. This new role of the Nole TE translated into a lesser quality of receiving type tight ends who were willing to come to Florida State just to become blockers. Even though we did have some fine players at that position throughout the following years, the TE receiver position became dormant and was not a legitimate receiving threat with the exception of 1997, 2005 and 2006. It became so rare for the tight ends number to be called during the Charlie Ward "Fast Break Offense" era, that Lonnie Johnson contemplated asking for a red-shirt, and even considered transferring, because he knew he would not get too many opportunities to catch the ball in that type of offense.
Despite the numbers shown above not necessarily supporting this concept, common sense tells us that the more the tight end is thrown to, the bigger legitimate scoring threat he becomes, especially in the red zone.
So now that we have gotten this gloom and doom report out of the way, let's work our way towards what appears to be a much brighter future for the Seminoles' tight end role in stretching the defense. Regular TN readers have already read and know most of what is coming up, so I won't go into any in-depth analysis of the strengths and weakness of our returning TE’s and the new players, as that is something Bud will do after the summer drills are wrapped up and as the season nears. However, I will post some quick comments on each player and what I expect from them in 2011.
The incumbent, senior Beau Reliford, is still a question that no one seems to know the answer to. Has he gotten his grades in order and will he be academically eligible? If so, can he maintain his eligibility for the remainder of his FSU career? Can EJ Manuel trust Reliford to run the correct routes? If he is declared academically eligible, will he finally be motivated to be an every down tight end by becoming consistent and maintaining his focus for the entire game?
Reliford, while the most experienced TE on the roster in terms of snaps taken has now fallen behind due to missing the spring practices, and if reinstated he has some ground to make up. He has improved steadily every year and he has become a much better run blocker. He already had the physical tools to be an imposing tight end and he has reportedly gotten even bigger and stronger, but he must continue to improve his route running, show continued game-by-game improvement, and keep his head in the game and not take plays off, or he will be supplanted by one of the other players on the roster, that is if he is able to regain his academic eligibility.
Ja'Baris Little, also a senior, has not lived up to his hype as a recruit, at least not yet. If Reliford does not qualify, Little may be forced into a bigger role than he has had so far, that of an extra blocking tight end in short yardage and goal line situations, at least to start the season. While no one outside the program should assume any rumor to be true, Little is reportedly not the hardest worker on the team. If this is true, he should sleep with one eye open because the coaches have brought in players who will quickly move past him on the depth chart. However, just to be fair, Little did show some flashes of improvement during the spring, so maybe he has seen the light and has now realized that this is his last chance and his football career might be ending when the season is over. Or perhaps he does not want to ever hear Jimbo yell "where is my tight end" again.
Will Tye could very well get his fair share of receptions this season. Tye is the smaller, more athletic, receiving type, of the two red-shirt freshmen. When, not if, Tye gets on the field, I would not be surprised to see him play more of a H-Back role, a role for which he is better suited for physically. I see him lined up off the line of scrimmage, possibly even lining up in the backfield, and going in motion where he can use his athleticism to get down the middle of the field.
Tank Sessions, who had a setback when he injured his leg last year should be back to 100% by now, and despite persistent rumors that he was being moved to defensive end, he will probably continue as a tight end, for now. Unlike Tye, Sessions is more of the prototypical tight end, a big bruising blocker that with time will learn to run routes, and force a smaller linebacker into coverage and get open in the middle of the field.
Fortunately, both Tye and Sessions are redshirt freshmen who have time to learn the offense, learn how to run routes correctly, make the correct read and coverage adjustments, and they will only get bigger and stronger under the supervision of the S & C program.
I would be surprised if junior Jonathan Johnson (6'7" 255) sees any playing time this season, but he might be a good scout team player for the defense to practice against.
Two years ago, in the story about the Tight Ends, Tomahawk Nation member FSUjab posted this excellent comment and question:
I don’t disagree that we should throw to the TE more. I just think that aspect is dictated more by the talent and/or abilities available rather than a specific coaching mindset. If we want FSU to throw to the TE more, then maybe what we should be asking is: "why aren’t the coaches focused on recruiting at least one pass-catching TE"?
Well it seems that TE Coach/Recruiting Coordinator James Coley and Jimbo Fisher recognized that as a legitimate concern and responded by producing big results in the last 2 recruiting cycles, and hopefully in the next one as well. Together in their recruiting efforts, they were able to convince the nations top and most sought after tight end recruit Nick O'Leary, who by now should already be on campus, and recently committed Christo Kourtzidis, that Florida State is serious about the tight end becoming major weapon in the offensive game plan, and that this position will play a bigger role in future Seminole offenses.
While we want to be realistic and set reasonable expectations for the freshmen O'Leary, and while it would have benefited him to have enrolled early, one can't help but be excited to finally have an elite prospect who possess all the raw skills that will HOPEFULLY give defensive coordinators nightmares as they try to come up with match-ups for containing O'Leary. If he can learn the offense quickly, he can be set almost anywhere behind the line, put in motion, and even sent out wide. He has shown he can run clean routes, catch almost anything thrown his way, and steamroll through the defensive backfield for extra yards after making the catch.
Friend of Tomahawk Nation and regular contributor Adam Tolliver (truenole87) shares his thoughts on O'Leary, from here:
Nick O'Leary is a game changing talent at the tight end position that has the potential to change the perception of Florida State offenses and this position.
Nick O'Leary was regarded as the top tight end prospect in the nation by both 247 sports and Rivals. None of the four major recruiting services gave him a position ranking below #3 Tight End overall. He is a versatile and talented athlete with a reputation for an extremely intense competitive edge. Many describe him as a throwback tough guy type of football player, which is always welcome in a locker room and especially refreshing to see on the offensive side of the ball. What he could do for Florida State is help shake the perception that the Seminole offense does not utilize their tight ends. O'Leary is without question the most talented and polished tight end to sign with FSU since Brandon Warren in 2006. Unfortunately, things did not work out well for Warren and the Seminoles despite a promising start, but Nick O'Leary represents the same type of versatile and dynamic playmaker at the position.
Weight: 230 lbs.
40 time: 4.68
2011 Outlook: Could step in and contribute immediately, has the potential to challenge for a prominent amount of snaps and possible starting position.
Career Outlook: Potential star and prominent fixture in the FSU offense over the next several years.
O'Leary is one of few players that I feel confident predicting will have an immediate impact as a true freshman on offense. Aside from questions surrounding the eligibility of incumbent starter Beau Reliford, O'Leary's skill level is beyond that of any tight end recruited to FSU in quite some time and both will play a factor in how much he plays in year one. What sets him apart is the fact that he is a polished route runner and has the athleticism and flexibility to be moved outside or in on any given play. Nick O'Leary could also serve as a gift to the other receivers on the field for Florida State. When your tight end is a legitimate threat on passing downs he can take up the focus of linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field, opening up more possibilities for receivers on the outside and over the top.
If O'Leary is as productive in his first season as many people believe he can be, the ceiling on his potential at FSU is quite high. He has room to gain weight without losing speed and agility and will only grow more comfortable as he is acclimated to the college game. The heavy dose of playing time as a true freshman will cause him to gain a lot of experience early on and surely he'll encounter a few growing pains. Long term, this will be a good thing for both he and the program. Nick O'Leary's brash style and tough brand of play is the type that can set the tone and rub off on players around him.
If Fisher expects to be able to continue to get elite tight end recruits to commit to Florida State by preaching to them that they will be legitimate receiving targets, he will have to design plays, movement, and alignments that opens up the middle of the field and make the tight end the primary receiver, and demand the quarterback throw the ball their way, even if it means sometimes forcing throws to the tight end.
In conclusion, while other programs around the country continue to run the spread, which de-emphasizes the role of the tight end, Fisher and company, with the last 2 classes (and hopefully the next one with Christo), appears poised to start the transformation so that 2011 will finally be the year that Florida State's tight ends become a legitimate receiving threat.