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Thursday, September 4, 2014
By the numbers: Winston's targets

By David M. Hale

In the wake of Florida State's opening-week struggles, there has been a rush to blame a lack of depth at receiver for some of the problems.

Quarterback Jameis Winston played perhaps the worst game of his career, and aside from senior Rashad Greene, the rest of the receiving corps appeared limited. As the Seminoles prepped for their Week 2 matchup against The Citadel, finding alternatives to Greene in the passing game -- particularly on the outside -- is a priority. That means a focus on sophomores Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield and freshman Travis Rudolph, in particular.

"[Defenses'] main focus is going to try and stop Rashad and Nick [O'Leary]," Winston said. "That is where those young guys are going to have to step up. It is a work in progress because we have to get those guys ready for the show."

Against Oklahoma State, Winston targeted Greene on 18 of his 40 pass attempts (45 percent). That is by far the most favoritism he has shown a single receiver in any of his 15 career starts, and the focus on Greene certainly underscores the need for a No. 2 receiver to emerge.

Though the Oklahoma State game did shine some light on the lack of established depth at the position, Winston’s focus on a single receiver has actually been something of a trend that began at the tail end of last season.

In Winston’s first 11 games last season, he distributed the ball rather well, with no single receiver earning more than 38 percent of his targets in any game. On average, Winston’s most targeted receiver each game during that stretch received about 31 percent of his throws.

In Winston’s past four games, however, that has changed. Against Florida, Kelvin Benjamin was targeted 13 times (42 percent of Winston’s throws). Against Duke, Greene saw 10 targets, then saw 14 more against Auburn (40 percent). And against Oklahoma State, that number went up again. In total, Winston’s top target in the past four games has averaged 40 percent of his throws.

Of course, the lack of diversity in the passing game at the end of 2013 certainly wasn’t a result of a lack of weapons at receiver. More likely, it was a factor of matchups (like Benjamin vs. Florida) and taking what the defense allows.

But the numbers also suggest that zeroing in on a top target isn’t good for Winston’s overall performance.

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In the four games in which Winston distributed the ball most evenly among his receivers, he completed a far better percentage of throws, averaged more yards per attempt and had a better touchdown to interception rate.

That is not to say the fix is simply to do a better job of distributing the ball. Winston is relying on the receivers he trusts, and he’s identifying the best matchups. Sometimes that means targeting three or four players routinely, sometimes it means zeroing in on Greene. And it might be that defenses are just getting a better read on how to attack Winston.

It’s worth noting, too, that despite the close score, FSU did generate 476 yards of offense (sixth most against a Power 5 team in Week 1), scored 37 points (also sixth nationally) and threw for 370 yards (third most vs. a Power 5 team), so the opener wasn’t exactly an ugly performance regardless.

Winston and the Seminoles would certainly benefit from developing their young receivers as quickly as possible, but any perceived struggles probably relate far more to a dormant running game and a surprisingly mediocre performance by the O line than anything else.