TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Despite returning its starting quarterback for the first time in three seasons, the Florida State football team will have a new-look passing game this fall.
The Seminoles’ top four receiving targets from a year ago – Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield, Dalvin Cook and Jesus Wilson – are all gone, and along with them 61.5 percent of FSU’s receiving yardage in 2016.
But don’t think that the Seminoles are too worried about it.
That’s thanks in large part to a pair of juniors, Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray, who came on strong toward the end of last season and finished near the top of the team leaderboard with six and five receiving touchdowns, respectively.
“We’re not really inexperienced (at receiver),” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “You have two main guys (Tate and Murray) coming in, and that’s about as good as anybody has, when you go back and look at it. Big games, big moments, big plays.”
He’s not kidding. Murray didn’t singlehandedly win the Orange Bowl – Dalvin Cook had something to say about it, too – but he came close.
Not only did Murray grab the game-winning touchdown pass with 36 seconds to play, but he also caught a 92-yard touchdown pass earlier in the game that was the longest in Orange Bowl history.
And the 6-foot-5 Tate established himself as quarterback Deondre Francois’ go-to target in the end zone, having caught a touchdown an average of once every 4.16 catches.
“The emergence of ‘Noonie’ and Auden Tate the last half of the year created some big plays for us,” Fisher said.
A year later, the Seminoles need Tate and Murray to not only expand their production, but also to serve as guiding forces to a talented but otherwise green receivers room.
Outside of those two, FSU’s other returning scholarship receivers – junior Da’Vante Phillips, redshirt sophomore George Campbell and sophomore Keith Gavin – have combined for 12 career catches.
FSU also welcomed two new freshmen, D.J. Matthews and Tamorrion Terry, into the fold.
“It’s definitely different being a veteran,” Tate said. “I’m trying to get into that role. … The young guys ask me questions and I want to help them out more – not just worry about myself, worry about everybody else in the wide receiver room.”
That means showing the newcomers the ropes both on the practice fields and in the film room, and it also means helping make sure that they learn from any missteps Tate might have made when he was in their shoes.
Take, for instance, blocking. It’s something receivers are rarely counted on to do at the high-school level, but becoming a reliable blocker is a virtual requirement before a receiver can see the field at FSU.
As he enters his junior season, Tate understands why.
“I missed a lot of blocks that could’ve broken a lot of runs,” he said. “That was definitely the big thing for me.”
There’s still progress to be made, but there’s also still a long way to go before FSU opens its season against Alabama. And, like Fisher, Tate believes the Seminoles’ receiving corps will be in good shape.
Both Phillips and Campbell, who have been slowed by injuries at various points throughout their careers, are fully healthy and participating in practice. And Gavin is generating plenty of buzz after turning a nearly-botched kickoff return into a 66-yard scamper that set up Murray’s game-winning score at the Orange Bowl.
Matthews (5-10, 160) and Terry (6-4, 208), meanwhile, have different body types that could allow them to bring something unique to the table. Provided, of course, they can learn the ins and outs of Fisher’s offense.
“They’re just getting into the groove of things and learning everything,” Tate said, “but they looked real good, real solid today.”
Which could be really good news for the Seminoles as they look to transition from one era of receivers to the next.
“(Coach Lawrence) Dawsey always tells us we reload. We don’t rebuild,” Tate said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming in, stepping in and filling those roles.
“We’re going to be good.”