Welcome to our Florida State postseason series reviewing the Seminoles’ tumultuous 2018 campaign, in which we’ll work through each position group, taking a look back at what was as well as glancing forward to what the future may hold. Up first: the tight ends.
Florida State’s tight end group entered the season as one of the most inexperienced units for the Seminoles. With Ryan Izzo leaving early for the NFL Draft and Mavin Saunders opting to transfer to Kansas, the depth chart would feature six players with a combined 11 career catches, and most of those catches came form Jonathan Vickers and Gabe Nabers playing the fullback position.
Taggart’s offense eliminated traditional fullbacks, so Vickers and Nabers would be converted to tight end, leaving sophomore Tre’ McKitty as the only natural tight end with a reception for the ’Noles.
Also in the mix was Camren McDonald and Alex Marshall. McDonald is one of Willie Taggart’s first recruits at Florida State and one of a few West Coast talents Taggart landed in Tallahassee. The former four star out of California was a prolific pass-catcher in high school, but he didn’t enroll until June, and carving out a role in the offense while adding size and strength to compete at a high level is tough.
Marshall came into the season in a similar situation to McDonald. He has been on campus for a year, but medically redshirted the 2017 season. With the arrival of Taggart, he was also tasked with learning a new system. (So was everyone else, but it can be harder for a young guy, especially one returning from injury and trying to strengthen his 6’8 237-pound frame.)
Heading into the season, McKitty was the favorite to step into a starting role. He would earn the nod and be featured throughout the year, recording 26 catches on 45 targets for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
After that, there was a drastic drop off in receiving production among tight ends. Naseir Upshur and Nabers were the only other pass-catchers within the group, and they finished with a combined seven receptions on nine total targets. The drop isn’t a shock, as McKitty got the lion’s share of opportunities, and in defense of Upshur and Nabers, they were effective when targeted, averaging 13.3 and 15.3 yards per catch, respectively.
Nabers even had a gadget play designed around him against Florida, another double pass play that broke FSU fans’ hearts this year as Nabers found himself in space but tripped just before the ball found him. So, there was definitely an attempt to get other tight ends involved in the offense.
Vickers saw snaps primarily on special teams, where he recorded four tackles.
The same goes for the freshman McDonald, who played on special teams and recorded three tackles. McDonald played in all but one game, so he isn’t eligible to use this year as a redshirt year.
Marshall didn’t see any playing time this year and used his redshirt last year when he didn’t play in any games due to a hand injury.
As we look to the future, the only player who will definitely be departing the unit is Vickers, whose eligibility has expired.
Upshur and Nabers are both eligible to declare for the NFL draft, but with little on tape it’s likely that both would go undrafted and be lucky just to land in camp somewhere. It is possible, however, for them to transfer, but there are no indications of that at this time. As of right now, the ’Noles expect to have both back next year, providing good depth behind clear-cut starter McKitty.
McDonald and Marshall remain wildcards, but an offseason in the weight room and more time in Taggart’s system will do both some good.
McDonald can be a legitimate receiving threat and would do well to follow in the footsteps of McKitty, as they share similar play styles. The staff obviously sees something in him because they trusted him on special teams in every game besides the opener against Virginia Tech. He just needs to prove he can be valuable on offense as well.
As for Marshall, his tape shows that he is a willing blocker, which FSU desperately needs. It will come down to whether or not he can be strong enough to take on defensive linemen at a collegiate level. If he can develop strength and physicality, his 6’8 frame could also see him utilized as a red zone target. I don’t care who you are, it’s hard to cover 6’8.
On the recruiting front, FSU has extended offers to a handful of tight ends, but, for the most part, all of them are currently hard commits elsewhere. The exception is Sam Snyder, a three star recruit out of Fleming Island High School. Florida State has extended an offer and Snyder recently decommitted from Louisville. While his recruitment is heating up, FSU’s offer comes late in the cycle and they’ll need to work to land him.
Tight end is low on the list of position needs for the upcoming season with a stable up players the staff is confident in. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see FSU bring in another this recruiting cycle, but it is far from the end of the world if they don’t.
Coming into the season, the tight end group was young, with a lot to prove, but not short on potential. They performed about as expected in 2018: not exceedingly well, but one of the more promising positions for the Seminoles looking ahead.
As many predicted, McKitty seized the starting role and will likely continue to be the guy in 2019. As effective as he was this year when given the opportunity, it’s even reasonable to say he was under-utilized.
There are some procedural things that need work, but that goes for every position group on the roster. McKitty was flagged multiple times this season for being an ineligible receiver downfield, but that also falls on coaching and making sure others are aligned properly not to cover him up at the line of scrimmage.
All in all, in a disappointing season, the unit showed flashes of what it can be. McKitty proved that he is an essential piece to the offense and expectations remain high for those competing below him on the depth chart.