By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The throw itself was impressive enough.
Taking a third-down snap midway through the fourth quarter, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston backpedaled to avoid a Notre Dame blitzer and, against his body’s momentum, delivered a perfect pass to receiver Travis Rudolph.
Rudolph picked up 16 yards and a first down that led to the game-winning score in FSU’s 31-27 victory over the Irish.
The throw was great. But the route is what really caught FSU coach Jimbo Fisher’s attention.
“Go look at the route by ’15,’” Fisher said. “The (defender) is inside of him, (Rudolph) presses outside, stick his foot in the ground and crosses his face.”
“Not only was that throw big-time, but that route was really big-time, too.”
“Fifteen” would be Rudolph, a true freshman who, over the last month, has developed a habit for making big-time plays.
Slowed by a foot injury at the start of the season, Rudolph has since torn through opposing defenses during FSU’s last four games.
He started had one catch for 40 yards at North Carolina State, and his production has steadily climbed since.
Rudolph added four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown against Wake Forest, six for 46 at Syracuse and, finally, a career-best six for 80 and a TD against Notre Dame.
Fisher said that Rudolph has a rare skillset that allows him to be both fast and sound in his route running. Lots of receivers can do one or the other; few can do both — especially as a freshman.
“He’s very strong and he’s also explosive as a runner,” Fisher said. “… And he can run the whole route tree.”
Rudolph, a West Palm Beach native, arrived in Tallahassee as the top receiver prospect in the nation. So teammates aren’t exactly surprised by his success.
But they’re plenty impressed.
“I didn’t know he was that fast,” cornerback Ronald Darby said. “He’s real good off the line and how fast he can pick up his acceleration. How quick he can change direction.”
Rudolph showed Notre Dame just how quick on Saturday night.
With the Seminoles trailing 7-0 late in the first quarter, Rudolph ran a quick route to his right, caught Winston’s pass then immediately halted and shifted back to his left.
The move sent pursuing safety Matthias Farley flying into the sideline and allowed Rudolph to waltz into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.
“That’s a natural thing,” senior receiver Rashad Greene said. “When you get the ball in your hands, you can’t coach that. That’s just something that comes out.”
Rudolph, for his efforts, has already drawn comparisons to FSU’s senior star.
The two are of similar build – Greene stands at 6-foot, 180; Rudolph 6-2, 184 – and each has shown a knack for making highlight-reel plays look effortless.
Greene, of course, is far more advanced in his career. But he welcomes the comparison.
“He reminds me of myself when I came in as a freshman,” Greene said. “Just wanting to prove yourself and wanting to show the coaches that you can play on this level.
“And I see it from him every day, the way he practices and takes it seriously. He wants to learn and it’s showing.”
Not since Greene’s freshman year, when he led the team in catches (38), yards (596) and receiving TDs (7), has a first-year receiver made such a significant impact at FSU.
The complexities of Fisher’s offense, along with a deep crop of receivers, have led most to wait their turns.
But teammates say that Rudolph’s devotion to the playbook, as well as his uncommon athleticism, makes him a unique case.
Fisher hasn’t seen it often.
“Rashad did some of those things,” Fisher said. “And I’ve been around some guys that have in the past at other schools, or even here at times.
“But it is rare for a guy to come in and be able to do all those things.”