MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Keith Gavin entered the Capital One Orange Bowl having caught exactly zero passes during the 2016 season.
Make that zero touches of any kind.
But after a wild season that saw the Florida State football team navigate a myriad of dramatic twists and turns, perhaps it’s appropriate that Gavin, a freshman receiver from Crawfordville, Fla., made the play that saved the Orange Bowl for the Seminoles.
With 2:07 to go in the game and FSU trailing for the first time all night, Gavin fielded Michigan’s kickoff and returned it 66 yards up the middle to help set up the game-winning touchdown in the Seminoles’ 33-32 victory.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Because after catching the ball, Gavin suffered a freshman moment at the worst possible time: He hesitated. Gavin started to bring the ball out of the end zone, then stopped. Then, against senior Kermit Whitfield’s pleading, brought it out anyway.
It’s the type of play that happens often in college football. And, if the returner is lucky, he might make it back out to the 20 or 25-yard line. More often, though, he’s tackled inside the 10 and his team is saddled with poor field position.
Given the circumstances on Friday, that would have been disastrous for the Seminoles.
No matter. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Gavin simply barreled through Michigan’s coverage unit and was off and running. Had he not tweaked his hamstring near the end of the play, Gavin believes he would have scored.
“A guy hit me and I bounced off him,” Gavin said. “Then all I saw was green grass and I just took off.”
Gavin says he remembers Whitfield motioning at him, but he wasn’t sure if Whitfield was telling him to take a knee or take off running.
Hence the hesitation.
“I was like, ‘Oh man,’” junior linebacker Matthew Thomas said. “I was just watching, and I was like ‘What are you gonna do?’ Then he started running and he almost scored.
“That was really clutch. Without that, I don’t know if we would have pulled it off.”
Added Gavin, “I felt like I blacked out for a second. But I didn’t have time to think. After I broke the plane, there was no turning back. I had to go.”
And so he went, marking a late turning point in the Orange Bowl and maybe an early turning point in Gavin’s young career.
A former high-school All-American who had 1,131 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in his last year at Wakulla High, Gavin was one of the Seminoles’ top prizes in their 2016 signing class: an athletic, big-bodied receiver who grew up in their backyard. (Gavin’s hometown sits about 20 miles south of Doak Campbell Stadium.)
But with two seniors, a junior and two promising sophomores already on the roster, Gavin found himself looking up at a crowded receiver depth chart.
He played sparingly at receiver, and, even when he started lining up as a kick returner late in the season, it was seen more as way to provide a big blocker for Whitfield.
That, however, changed in a big way at the Orange Bowl.
“Keith is a guy who I think is going to be a really, really good player,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “This guy is a really talented guy. He’s a young freshman just coming along. Sometimes it takes something like that to get you over the hump.”
Whitfield and fellow senior Bobo Wilson are set to graduate, which means the Seminoles have two vacancies at receiver in 2017.
Although Travis Rudolph, Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate figure to play key roles in the offense, Gavin’s flash at the Orange Bowl showed that he can more than hold his own, too.
And with a fresh boost of confidence in his freshman finale, Gavin expects big things of himself in the future.
“I still have a lot of learning to do,” he said. “This offseason, I’m going to work extra hard and y’all are gonna see the old me again in my sophomore year.”