FSU's O'Leary an appealing red-zone option

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
10:00
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It probably should've been so much worse. A car pulls into an intersection. A motorcycle driven by Florida State tight end Nick O'Leary slams into it. Plastic and glass and O'Leary scatter across the street.

The footage is gruesome, but the 6-foot-3, 250-pound O'Leary walked away with only minor injuries. Florida State's playera can laugh about it now.

"I'm just glad he didn't scrape his hands," Jameis Winston joked before the season.

[+] EnlargeNick O'Leary
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMIFSU tight end Nick O'Leary might be quiet off the field, but his play speak volumes about how hard he's worked to get better and better this season.
O'Leary's hands were just fine in the Seminoles' opener, and his burgeoning rapport with Winston became the centerpiece of FSU's red-zone attack. O'Leary hauled in three touchdowns in the win over Pittsburgh, the first multi-touchdown game by an FSU tight end in nearly 20 years.

It was a sterling performance, but O'Leary said it might also signal a real change of direction for the Florida State offense, which has rarely made tight end a focal point of the passing game.

"We always run those plays in practice a lot, but I didn't know [Jimbo Fisher] was going to call them that many times in the red zone," O'Leary said. "But I'm glad he did."

The three touchdowns marked a career best for O'Leary at any level, and it matched his total from all of 2012. His 47 receiving yards were the third-highest total of any single game since he's been at Florida State, and his four catches matched a career high.

Yards for tight ends increased in each of Fisher's first six years calling offensive plays for Florida State, from just 11 catches for 84 yards in 2007 to 25 grabs for 280 yards last year. The bulk of that 2012 total belonged to O'Leary (21 catches for 252 yards and three TDs), but it was still a pittance compared with what most fans have long expected from a player regarded as the best recruit Florida State has ever secured at the tight end position .

O'Leary's emergence in the opener was timed with Winston's debut, and that was no coincidence, he said.

"I knew I was going to be a lot more a part of the offense this year, being real good friends with Jameis," O'Leary said. "We had a real good relationship all camp, and he's a game-time player."

The combination worked brilliantly against Pittsburgh, and that could be a boon for Florida State in an area where the Seminoles weren't always at their best a year ago.

Against FBS competition in 2012, Florida State scored touchdowns on 65 percent of its trips inside the red zone. In 2011, it found the end zone just 56 percent of the time it drove inside the opposition's 20. O'Leary was the starting tight end both seasons, but he had managed just four career touchdowns before this year's opener.

Now, O'Leary believes he's turned a corner. The problem, however, is that other teams figure to take notice.

"They'll probably key on me a little more, probably have two guys on me," O'Leary said. "But I've got to do what I've got to do to get open, and it opens up other guys."

O'Leary won't get much support down the depth chart. Florida State doesn't have another healthy, established tight end on the roster. Giorgio Newberry is the current backup, having moved from defensive end at the start of fall camp.

But if O'Leary can develop into the player fans thought he would be when he arrived as one of the nation's top recruits in 2011, there won't be much need for Newberry. And if Winston continues to find O'Leary in the end zone, FSU's coaches may find it a lot easier to recruit talent at the tight end position moving forward.

"I'm ready to be one of the best tight ends to come out of Florida State," O'Leary said.

It's a short list, and it won't take many more games like the one he had in Pittsburgh to vault him to the top.

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