A primary reason Florida State lost at Georgia Tech last Saturday was its ineptitude to cash in on red-zone opportunities in Atlanta. The 'Noles scored just one touchdown in four possessions inside the GT 20 (25%). That red-zone TD-success rate dropped the Seminoles to 110th out of 128 FBS teams in the 2015 season (48%). Last year, FSU finished 73rd (59.32%)-- just a slight contrast to 2013, when Florida State scored a touchdown on a red-zone possession 79.45% of the time, good enough for third in the country and a national championship.
And while much has been made of this being a "reloading" year for the 'Noles, the present state of the red-zone offense seems to require a demolition and complete rebuild.
One of the reasons the Seminoles were so efficient in the championship season of 2013 was Kelvin Benjamin. The first-round NFL draft pick was quite adept at hauling in high throws in the end zone. Of course, being 6-5 helps immensely in doing so.
If only FSU had some big-body options out wide-- or maybe someone who could evade tackles.
Florida State boasts freshman wide receivers Auden Tate (6-5) and George Campbell (6-4), not to mention the smaller, though lightning-quick, Nyqwan Murray, who can certainly make defenders miss and may have the best hands of the first-year pass catchers. There's also De'Vante Phillips, who displayed great body control and physicality as a recruit. So, given the Seminoles' struggle to register sixes instead of threes deep in opponents' territory, why aren't they seeing the field?
To be fair, Tate did get a good look in the end zone against Miami, posting up just a bit too close on what was essentially a jump-ball touchdown attempt. The play call was simple-- and inches away from succeeding. Unfortunately for Tate, and the FSU red-zone attack, the former cracked a big toe and has been quite limited in practice of late. Still, other heretofore largely unseen options exist-- and it's not like the 'Noles didn't look to freshman WRs in big moments last year. Some of whom may have even regressed a bit, seemingly opening a door for some new blood to step in.
At this point last season (through seven games), then-freshman Ermon Lane had five catches for 107 yards. This year, he has five catches for 43 yards. Travis Rudolph (also a frosh last year), had 17 catches for 232 yards, and two touchdowns (one of which came in a top-five primetime win over Notre Dame). And Pigg Harrison had a catch for nine yards.
How does that compare to this season? Frankly, it doesn't. De'Vante Phillips has one catch for -3 yards. George Campbell has three catches for 42 yards. And neither Tate nor Murray has registered a reception. All told, FSU's talented group of freshman wideouts have combined for four catches and 39 yards, to date.
And despite having a year of experience under their belts, it's not like the current WR corps is playing flawlessly. Fisher admitted as much in his presser on Monday, speaking specifically of Rudolph's game against the Yellow Jackets:
The one on the goal line, the thing he's got to do with the goal line, he just used poor technique. He runs a great route. Everett throws a perfect ball, but when he caught it, he jumped. When you jump you go backwards and you have to set your feet and tip toe and work the sideline a little better. His technique could have been better. He ran great routes.
Fisher also thought that Rudolph could have helped give Roberto Aguayo a closer look on the field-goal attempt that decided the game-- for Tech: "Yeah, I wish he could have made that play. That would have been five extra yards right there coming right on that. We worked that. That's something we do religiously. We know what we're going to do, and how we're going to do it, and we work those situations."
So, with Florida State drastically underperforming in the red-zone, and incumbents leaving points on the filed, is it time to give some of these young prospective playmakers, especially those with formidable size, a shot? Fisher downplayed the availability of taller WRs in his presser on Monday:
Well, where you going to get them at? Well, if they were ready, don't you think they'd be playing? We tried to actually hit Auden Tate‐‐ Auden got a broken toe. He broke his toe in practice or something the week before. So you lost that and the other guys are all experienced guys. They're tight ends and all those things. I promise you those will be the guys. There is no magical dust or magical player or magical formula. It's what we've done. Last year we didn't have big guys. We were very good in the red zone. It's just about executing what we're doing.
Yes, FSU was without KB last year in its run to the first College Football Playoff. However, it still had Jameis Winston, and a ridiculously large catch radius isn't as important with a QB who's so accurate that he winds up being the first No. 1 overall draft pick in school history.
But to be fair, some of the freshmen inactivity can be attributed to unfortunate injury luck, as Fisher spoke to when I asked him why Rudolph and Lane, last year, were so far ahead of where this year's new receivers are presently:
Wait a minute. One had a broke toe, the other just had his finger split open and had six stitches in it and just now got healed up, and he's catching balls-- that's George, he's doing good. And Noonie [Murray] finally just got his hand, people forget, he just got over a broken hand. he had surgery. Took him about three weeks to get the strength back in his hand, he just had it off for about three weeks.
Fisher seemed to take exception to the question, as it seems like one that he's tired of addressing. However, for those wanting to see the new options out wide, he wrapped up his answer with some silver linings: "Noonie had a real good day today, and George caught some nice balls today. Auden can't practice-- and De'Vante made a few plays." Said Fisher of the group: "They're about ready to make plays."
If health has been the issue, and these highly touted recruits are now indeed ready to go, the question, moving forward, is simple: does Fisher show off his new toys against Syracuse, or reserve them as a perviously un-shown wrinkle against Clemson, the same way he withheld some things for Miami? If we don't have these answers on Saturday against the Orange, we'll certainly know next weekend vs. the Tigers.