By: @BrandonMellor, Seminoles.com Managing Editor
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – His name and lineage, they knew before he ever stepped foot on Florida State’s campus in 2011. The true impact of his ability, they learned about in 2013.
The grandson of the greatest golfer to ever live, Nick O’Leary was – before last year’s national championship campaign – just a highly touted FSU prospect with a world of ability and a blood relation to Jack Nicklaus. His 21-catch 2012 season showcased that potential but it wasn’t until last year’s memorable title run that O’Leary became more than just “Jack’s grandson.”
In 2013, O’Leary became one of the best tight ends in college football.
“I always wanted to be great,” O’Leary said. “That’s how it was when I was in high school and that’s what my goal was – to be the best tight end ever in college football.”
Now a senior in 2014, O’Leary has a full season to continue the journey toward such a lofty goal. And while becoming the game’s best ever may ultimately prove to be an unattainable task, there’s already a strong argument in place that O’Leary is the greatest tight end to ever play at Florida State.
O’Leary’s junior season saw him break school records and nearly break Clemson’s Travis Blanks in half in Death Valley. That memorable bulldozing hit on the Tigers’ safety was one of many head-turning plays on a night in front of nation that officially put the ’Noles in the driver’s seat for a national championship.
When he blanked Blanks, O’Leary showed the raw power and strength he utilizes to effectively move the chains in the passing game and move defenders when he’s asked to block. His 33 catches for 557 yards and 11 touchdowns and a nation’s-best among tight ends 16.9 yards-per-catch in 14 games proved his worth as a receiver.
“To me, Nick is the best tight end in college football,” FSU quarterback Jameis Winston said. “He led the team in touchdowns for the first three games of the season. Teams realized that and started guarding him. Nick is unstoppable, it’s fun seeing how athletic he is, seeing what we can do with the ball with no gloves, no wristbands.
“Like an old-time player, he has nothing. He just goes out there and balls. He has so much heart.”
He enters 2014 with the chance to set every tight end statisticlal record in program history. His numbers could skyrocket as he becomes an even bigger focal point of a passing game that is now missing Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw.
“I need to catch more balls,” O’Leary said. “We still have Rashad [Greene], and hopefully the freshman and other guys that will be playing a lot can step up. But with those guys gone I will probably be a bigger target this year.”
There’s no denying part of O’Leary’s evolution coincides with Winston’s rise to superstardom.
O’Leary caught a combined 33 passes and three touchdowns in his first two seasons at FSU with EJ Manuel under center. In the first game he ever played with Winston, O’Leary matched his career total with three scores against Pittsburgh alone.
“It was a little frustrating,” O’Leary said about his first two seasons, “but I think once Jameis got here, and we had a good connection, that it all turned around from there.
With few holes in his game, O’Leary spent the off-season beefing up and perfecting his craft.
He hit the weight room hard to add muscle and mass while focusing on becoming more precise on the field.
“I got a lot stronger this year and improved my blocking,” he said. “I needed to clean up my route running a little bit and work on my speed.”
The difference is noticeable.
“He’s definitely bigger and stronger,” FSU linebacker Terrance Smith said. “He’s a beast.”
With Kevin Haplea back from a lost 2013 season, O’Leary won’t have to shoulder the burden of being the only veteran tight end on the roster this year. His increased size and strength and improve route-running, combined with his continued connection to Winston could pose serious problems for the defenses tasked with facing head coach Jimbo Fisher’s offense.
“We are going to run a lot more two tight end sets this year,” O’Leary said. “Hopefully he can get some balls too. With him being in there it will open up more windows for me, and open up more for him.”
If 2013 was a breakout season for O’Leary, 2014 could prove to be the one where he forges a lasting FSU legacy and cements himself as an early-round NFL draft prospect. The evolution of the tight end position and the emergence of playmakers such as New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and New England’s Rob Gronkowski has every professional team keeping a keen eye out for the next game-breaking player at that position.
“You look at the NFL and I think [the use of tight ends] is emerging,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I think it gets back to big, athletic mis-match guys. Linebackers who can’t run with them or safeties that are too little for them. And being able to play conventional, it plays into our hand because not many people are doing it.”