Florida State's offense has many question marks heading into the 2012 campaign. Can it avoid being the most injured unit in the country? Will this be the year that EJ Manuel finally lives up to his potential that results in a Heisman-like season? Will Coach Trickett be able to bolster the offensive line, and devise a combination of starters in the trenches that can buy time for EJ and pave holes for the running backs? Are those same running backs healthy enough, and is there enough depth at running back to withstand the bangs and bruises of a 13-14 game season?
These are typically the first points raised when discussing the ineptitude of FSU's offense last year, and the changes that must take place this season to meet expectations. Yet there is another integral part of the offense that must rise to the occasion if FSU is to contend for a conference championship or higher. Often overlooked, the playmakers at wide receiver must step up this season if Florida State's offense expects to soar.
The receiving corps is often overlooked as a developing group on the roster, because unlike the offensive line or the backfield, the receivers have great depth, experience, and a multitude of different skill sets and body types to create mismatches against opponents. The four-lettered network even recently ranked FSU's deep receiving corps as 7th best in the nation. Include what is expected to be an increased inside presence from the versatile starting tight end Nick O'Leary, as well as newcomers Kevin Haplea and Christo Kourtzidis at tight end and physical beast Kelvin Benjamin and world-class speedster Marvin Bracy at wideout, and Florida State may indeed have an elite set of receiving options.
Yet what hasn't for sure been answered concerning Florida State's wide receiving corps is who will rise up to be the 'Noles' go-to guy in 2012, and who from this crowded receiving corps will emerge as consistent, game-breaking playmakers for the 'Noles' aerial attack. Inside, I examine the returning wide receivers on FSU's roster and provide an overall synopsis for each individual wide receiver, as well as an overall assessment of the receiving corps as the 'Noles enter the 2012 season.
Last season's most-productive receiver was true freshman Rashad Greene. A four-star prospect out of high school, the Aquinas product led the 'Noles with 38 catches for nearly 600 yards and 7 touchdowns. Greene lived up to his hype and put up Freshman All-American numbers, despite missing four games due to injury. He certainly has an elite skill set and may be the best receiver Florida State has had in a long time. He has great hands, amazing quickness, good body control and runs crisp routes. However, due to his performance last year, will opposing defenses heighten their awareness of Greene when he is on the field? And with his body frame and his tenacity, will he be able to grind through a full season injury-free, with added defensive attention?
For more on Rashad Greene, check out Rashad Greene in the countdown to kickoff.
Lone senior Rodney Smith was second on the team last season with 36 catches. Smith gained nearly 15 yards a catch, and his tall, lengthy build was often a mismatch for opposing secondaries. His route running was also much improved from 2010. Smith's productivity fell off as the year progressed however, and despite him continuing to grow into his frame, Smith's work ethic and effort has been questioned at times throughout his Seminole career. It is also no secret that Smith is known to shy away from contact and not finish routes. Smith should be a viable mismatch on the outside for the 'Noles, but time will tell if his productivity will last a full season. With his added weight (Smith is now listed at 219 pounds), his height, and his development and maturity, Smith is poised to have one final productive year in the garnet and gold, and should be counted on to make some big catches in 2012.
For more on Rodney Smith, check out Rodney Smith in the countdown to kickoff series.
One receiver who seems to have progressed greatly over the last eight months is Greg Dent. Dent, a former high school safety prospect and Miami commit, contributed the least of the receivers in 2011. Dent has only 12 receptions in his FSU career, and most of those came in garbage time. However, his development throughout the preseason has been noticed. Recently, Coach Fisher mentioned that Dent has had the best fall of all the receivers. As most know, Jimbo is prone to hyperbole. Still, Dent must be doing something right to garner that type of praise from the head coach. Dent has gained about 15 pounds of good weight since last season, but it is known that the 5'11 target cannot play in the slot (Fisher said so in 2011), and that is a substantial limitation. It will be interesting to see if he is able to grab some playing time behind Rodney Smith, and if Coach Fisher's comments will result in Dent truly emerging for the FSU passing attack in 2012.
Christian Green is a receiver Seminoles fans have been waiting patiently to blossom. Related to former FSU standout receiver E.G. Green, Green was a five-star recruit when he landed on campus two years ago. Following a redshirt due to injury in 2010, Green was fourth on the team in receptions last year with 26 receptions. However, he went all season without reaching the end zone. His strength and physicality proved to be a difficult matchup for smaller opposing defensive backs, but the better defenses last year found ways to keep him unproductive. For all his physical tools, Green is still extremely raw, likely stemming from him playing QB in high school. There is no doubt Green has the physical toolkit to have a breakout year in 2012, but in order to do so he must continue to develop and learn. If he continues to do both, and at a quicker pace, Green could be a major force at receiver for FSU in 2012 and the distant future.
One of the easier receivers to forget on the roster is Jarred "Scooter" Haggins. Scooter broke his hand last year after a spectacular catch in the Oklahoma game, and would be sidelined for the remainder of the season. With only 12 career receptions, he may be easy to forget. However, Scooter has proven that he is tough, versatile and consistent. He has emerged as a preferred target out of the slot for EJ Manuel, and the current depth chart has him listed as Rashad Greene's backup. While he possesses a strong skill set, its Haggins' consistency that has set him apart from the rest of the crowded receiving corps. If he is able to continue his preseason form, that consistency may land Scooter a lot of playing time in the fall.
Kenny Shaw is another player who often can get lost in the shuffle at wide receiver. Shaw came to Tallahassee as a four-star recruit, after becoming the all-time receptions leader at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando. As a freshman, however, he could only muster 3 receptions. Last season, Shaw's productivity increased to 34 receptions, but his reputation as the toughest receiver on the roster grew even more. After being knocked out of the Oklahoma game following a helmet-to-helmet hit with two defenders, Shaw came back the following week to grab a touchdown reception against Clemson. This all despite being very thin physically. Shaw is quick, runs clean routes, understands the position well, and utilizes option routes effectively, often taking what the defense gives him. He has proved to be a reliable target for EJ Manuel, having caught four or more passes in four games last season, including the Champs Sports Bowl. He doesn't do well against press coverage because of his size, but his speed and quickness off the ball makes up for some of that. On most teams, Shaw would not be a third or fourth option receiver at slot. That speaks more to the depth of the Florida State receiving corps than it does to Shaw's abilities. While he is not as quick as Green or Haggins, he will battle them for playing time at the slot position. If he is able to repeat his consistent performances from last year, he should have a productive junior year for the 'Noles.
The one receiver fans seem to want to see more than anything is Kelvin Benjamin. Grossly overhyped during his first season that saw him take a redshirt, Benjamin finally seems primed to see some meaningful playing time. His work in the offseason was night and day from where it was when he arrived on campus, and Benjamin has some insane physical gifts at 6'6 and ~240 pounds with solid leaping ability. If he can master the nuances of the position, he'll be able to get on the field and won't be a liability during his RS-FR season.
Fore more, check out Kelvin Benjamin profiled in the countdown to Seminole kickoff series.
The biggest question at wide receiver belongs to Willie Haulstead. The physically tough receiver was a favorite target of then-quarterback Christian Ponder in 2010, especially across the middle. The reliable receiver grabbed 38 receptions and 6 touchdowns before a string of concussions forced him to redshirt the entire 2011 campaign. Unfortunately, Haulstead has had a difficult time recovering. Recently, Coach Fisher told reporters that Willie was overweight, out of shape, and a shell of his former self. He reiterated those statements by claiming that Haulstead will not be expected to contribute much in 2012. Haulstead's role with the team in the upcoming season is a huge question mark, and with Nick O'Leary expecting to have a larger presence in the middle of the field, the usefulness of Haulstead's abilities may diminish even more. If Haulstead is able to find his former self, he will have a place on the field. Unfortunately that day seems to be as far away today as it was a year ago.
There were some questions about Lawrence Dawsey's receiver coaching heading into the 2011 season. But his players turned in a strong performance despite an inconsistent lineup from week-to-week that resulted from injury. They stepped up to the challenge and the questions are no longer being asked.
This receiving corps is the most talented, most experienced and the deepest (the top group consisting of a SR, 4 JR, 2 SO and a RS-FR) since he's been at Florida State. And as such, we fully expect it will be the best. Florida State's own staff pointed to 2012 as a year that had the potential to be special, and this group of receivers is certainly a part of that.
Does Florida State need one or two receivers to separate himself from the group? That depends on the quarterback. Some only trust the open man. Others seem to be willing to throw it up to a player with whom they have a special relationship and trust that the player will come down with the catch. Manuel seems to be more of the latter, and it would not be a surprise to see the two starters catch a larger percentage of balls in 2012 than they have in previous years under other quarterbacks.