The next installment of our Florida State football spring questions programming is a position with stability at the top. Nick O’Leary is the unquestioned #1 Tight End for the Seminoles, and the competition is for the #2 spot. ACC Recruiter of the Year Tim Brewster’s position experienced no losses to graduation or the draft following the National Championship run, but questions remain.
Jimbo Fisher’s 2013 offense relied heavily on 11 personnel, where his 3 WR’s, 1 TE, and 1 RB were the best combination of five skill players he could put on the field. With the departures of wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, and running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr, the composition of the best five skill players will change in 2014. Will a more explosive backfield and a less experienced receiver corps mean more two tight end sets?
If the position group is to capitalize on its opportunity to feature more in the attack, can a second, reliable tight end emerge that can threaten in the passing game and block on the edge?
Will FSU run more multiple tight end sets?
During 2013 spring practices, the Seminoles looked poised to feature more multiple tight end sets in the fall. They returned their top two players in Nick O’Leary and Kevin Haplea, and talented freshman Christo Kourtzidis was entering his second year with adequate size for the position. Freshman Jeremy Kerr offered the prospect of a jumbo, Caz Piurowski blocking type body for heavy packages. The ability of Nick O’Leary to play an H-Back type role for the offense as a downfield threat would complement Haplea and Kourtzidis’ size and ability to work the underneath and flat routes. Combined with the unknown of fullback Chad Abram and the previous inconsistency of receiver Kelvin Benjamin, two tight end sets appeared to be on the horizon.
The Seminoles appeared to have talent, depth, and a proven track record of position group success with Brewster. They appeared ready to run two tight end sets that could strike Belicheckian fear into the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators.
Then the spring ended.
Nick O’Leary narrowly avoided grave injury in a collision with a Lexus in May. Kevin Haplea then tore his ACL in June and would miss the entire 2013 season. Christo Kourtzidis transferred from Florida State in July, a combination of three position coaches in one offseason and distance from home in California. Jeremy Kerr was sidelined for the year early on. The casualties forced the August position switch of defensive end Giorgio Newberry, who was used occasionally in two tight end jumbo sets.
Fortunately for the Seminoles, O'Leary was able to remain healthy the entire season. He recorded 33 catches on the year for 557 yards and 7 touchdowns, including a spectacular 3 touchdown performance on the Monday night opener at Pittsburgh. O'Leary's production and talent made the position a key piece of the dominant aerial attack of Jameis Winston's Seminoles. In addition to his pass catching capabilities, O'Leary added bulk in the offseason and became a very effective blocker on the edge. While he will likely never be a dominant blocker due to his relatively small size, O'Leary's increased blocking ability enhanced a strong rushing attack.
There are only three near locks to be among the best five skill players Jimbo Fisher will want to feature in his 2014 offense: O'Leary, Rashad Greene, and Karlos Williams. With the inexperience at wide receiver, will this fall feature more two tight end sets? Or will the combination of Shotgun-favoring Winston, a veteran offensive line who has repped stretch runs together for four years, and explosive running backs instead favor a renaissance of two-back shotgun "Pony" sets?
Who backs up Nick O'Leary?
Circumstance prevented Florida State from including multiple, dynamic two tight end sets in their record setting 2013 offense. Will the return of fifth year senior Haplea be enough to supplant second year tight end Giorgio Newberry?
Kevin Haplea was a decent blocker in limited reps in 2012. In the 2013 spring game, he showed he can be effective as a pass catcher. Haplea was successful with curls and flat routes, which are extremely common in the pass concepts of Jimbo Fisher's offense. He also did well run blocking, though it's hard to project much from that performance, given the lack of a run threat. While Haplea isn't quite the downfield threat O'Leary is, he can make contributions in the passing game. He projects to return to his #2 role, as his versatility offers more than his competition.
Giorgio Newberry's meaningful time as a tight end was limited primarily to jumbo two tight end short yardage sets. Primarily used as a blocker, he was nonexistent in the catching game, recording no receptions and not impressing in his limited route running. While he may see time in pure blocking situations due to his size, Newberry is not likely to contribute over Haplea. Newberry did not stand out as a blocker in his 2013 reps.
Jeremy Kerr missed his freshman year with a knee injury, and returns for his redshirt freshman year. Larger than both Haplea and O'Leary, he was a savage run blocker in high school and projects to do the same on the college level. Kerr's ceiling is a dominant run-blocking jumbo tight end with limited upside as a pass catcher. His recovery will determine if he can take the jumbo blocking tight end job away from Newberry.
Haplea's ability to be effective both as a blocker and a pass catcher likely cements his role as the second tight end on the depth chart. His role in the passing game working the flats and underneath areas of the field complements O'Leary's downfield abilities. Will Haplea recover effectively and be featured as part of a dynamic, multiple tight end offensive attack?