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Can Florida State’s receivers be better than good?

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Florida State’s receivers were OK in 2015. They just didn’t scare anyone.

North Carolina State v Florida State Photo by Jeff Gammons/Getty Images

"They didn’t have anybody that scared us last year at wideout—they were just good college receivers," an opposing coach told Sports Illustrated about Florida State’s receivers.

Teams stacked the box to stop Dalvin Cook because they could do so without fear that Florida State’s receivers would hurt them. It was smart.

If that holds true again in 2016, Florida State is not winning the ACC.

So much good

Florida State returns every receiver who caught a pass in 2015. That’s a good thing. Florida State’s passing offenses have closely reflected the experience level of the receivers. 46 percent of receiving yards in 2015 came from draft-eligible players, the second-lowest mark in Jimbo Fisher’s tenure as head coach.

The best of the bunch is Travis Rudolph, a 6’1, 192-pound junior who hauled in 59 catches for 916 yards. He was good, but not great, and anything but consistent. Rudolph had games of 201, 191 and his next best was 86 yards. He failed to best 55 yards in 9 of his 13 games. That sort of inconsistency won’t get it done, though some of that was absolutely on the quarterback play in 2015. Rudolph will probably be Florida State’s No. 1 again in 2016, though the best part of his game is likely his balance of attributes — good size, decent speed, decent hands, routes, etc. He’s not an elite athlete or top-tier NFL prospect, and his performance so far does not suggest that opposing teams will be forced to double team him.

Bobo Wilson is a dependable receiver who is almost always in the right spot and runs good routes. The senior has decent speed but is just 5’10, 184 and is more of a No. 2 or a No. 3 type. The drops issues he had in 2014 improved in 2015.

Kermit Whitfield showed a lot of improvement with his work ethic and dedication after a bit of a lost 2014. Whitfield had a very high catch rate, although almost all of his receptions come very close to the line of scrimmage. Whitfield is just 5’8, and Florida State is not a spread offense, so the Seminoles don’t always do a great job of using his world-class speed in space. Perhaps he’ll be used more in the run and screen game in 2016.

It’s worth noting here that the trio is almost certain to see its combined production decrease despite the assumption of better QB play. The reason? Nyqwan Murray, a true sophomore who caught six passes for 65 yards in 2015. Every year we hear of players who are dominating summer workouts and player-organized team activities. Usually the hype fades once the pads come on (Kelvin Benjamin was awesome in the summer of 2012 and nothing special in the 2012 season). But Murray’s summer hype has carried through to fall camp, and he is a legitimate breakout candidate even at 5’11, 179. Murray has some good moves after the catch and he attacks the football as well. He has been pushing Wilson and Whitfield all fall.

Rudolph, Wilson, and Whitfield are decent to good college receivers. They are dependable and typically in the right spots, and if Florida State had a veteran QB with just a decent arm and great accuracy who was very quick to read defenses and throw with great anticipation, they’d likely be even more valuable.

But Florida State does not have that.

It has a young QB in Deondre Francois with a huge arm who in high school and in the spring game did a lot of what many young quarterbacks do: wait to see if the route is open before throwing it. He is willing to stick the ball into tight coverage and can sometimes be a bit erratic with his accuracy. This is not to say that Francois will never throw with great anticipation, but that is a skill that comes more with comfort and time in the system.

Player Pos. Ht, Wt Yr Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target Rate Yds/ Target %SD Success Rate IsoPPP
Travis Rudolph WR-X 6'1, 192 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 93 59 916 63.40% 23.40% 9.8 50.50% 50.50% 1.82
Jesus Wilson WR-Z 5'10, 184 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 86 58 629 67.40% 21.60% 7.3 55.80% 47.70% 1.38
Kermit Whitfield WR-Y 5'8, 182 Sr. 4 stars 70 57 791 81.40% 17.60% 11.3 48.60% 61.40% 1.78
Ermon Lane WR-Z 6'3, 209 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 19 6 50 31.60% 4.80% 2.6 52.60% 31.60% 0.77
Ja'Vonn Harrison WR-X 6'2, 196 Jr. 4 stars 9 6 129 66.70% 2.30% 14.3 22.20% 55.60% 2.42
Nyqwan Murray WR-Y 5'11, 179 So. 3 stars 7 6 65 85.70% 1.80% 9.3 85.70% 57.10% 1.49
George Campbell WR-X 6'4, 207 So. 5 stars (6.1) 7 3 42 42.90% 1.80% 6 71.40% 42.90% 1.49
Da'Vante Phillips WR-X 6'1, 206 So. 4 stars
Auden Tate WR-Z 6'5, 225 So. 4 stars
Keith Gavin WR 6'3, 225 Fr. 4 stars

Florida State needs a big receiver Francois can count on

Florida State needs a target for Deondre Francois who can present a large catch radius and make tough, contested catches and give the young quarterback some confidence that good things can happen when he throws it up into single coverage. 6’1, 5’10 and 5’8 isn’t that. 92 percent of all receiving yards by wide receivers cannot come from players under 6’2 again. Not if Florida State wants to have a strong record, win the ACC, or go to the College Football Playoff.

The returning trio of Rudolph, Whitfield, and Wilson is nice, but they alone cannot fill that role. Florida State has five receivers on the roster listed at 6’3 or taller. It desperately needs one of them to step up and be a big, physical target.

The top candidate is 6’5, 225-pound sophomore Auden Tate. Tate battled some injuries as a freshman, otherwise he would have played a bit more, but throughout his high-school career, Tate showed that he understood his game to be one of size and length, as opposed to trying to play like a smaller receiver — a trap some bigger young receivers sometimes fall into. Tate and Francois seem to have a good connection based on the spring game, and he could be a valuable go-to asset on third down and in the red zone, particularly on 5050 balls. Tate does not have great speed and may not be a threat to take the top off a defense. Jimbo Fisher mentioned route running as an area of focus for Tate.

Ermon Lane had a horrible 2015 with a catch rate of just 32 percent, but he has received a surprising number of reps with the first team offense this fall. The 6’3, 209-pounder was very good in high school and had some promise as a freshman. If he can become more loose in the hips and regain his confidence catching the ball, he could have a bounceback year as a junior.

Junior Ja’Vonn Harrison is a bit of a wildcard. The 6’2, 196-pounder is an explosive athlete who has battled injuries throughout his career, but hasn’t necessarily shown that he has mastered the offense. Harrison has to make a move before his career runs out.

Freshman Keith Gavin appears to be the most physically gifted receiver. As a true freshman, he looks like an NFL player. Florida State beat out Alabama, Georgia and a number of other national powers to land the 6’3.5, 225-pound four-star. True freshman receivers typically do not produce much in Florida State’s offense, but Gavin’s physical tools might be too special to keep him off the field, perhaps in a specialized role.

Florida State needs a deep threat

Can former five-star George Campbell be that deep threat in his sophomore season? Campbell is tall at 6’4, but he is not big, and there is a difference. His skills like body control, agility, and acceleration are those of a smaller player. Campbell has some of the best speed on the roster regardless of position, but isn’t a player with great physicality or hands. It will be interesting to see if Florida State uses Campbell more than it did during his injured true freshman season. At the very least his speed on the outside could make opponents respect the threat and open things up a bit more underneath.

Injured

Sophomore Da’Vante Phillips has battled groin injuries and now has a knee injury. He is expected to be out for the first part of the season and it’s yet to be seen if he is in the plans once he returns.

Phillips came back much faster than expected and has been making tough catches in practice and could crack the rotation meaningfully.

Prediction

Florida State’s receivers are going to improve. Returning the entire group is a big help and several talented players like Tate, Murray, and Campbell are no longer true freshmen. They will push the veterans and the bodies and skills in the receiving corps will be more diverse than 2015.