- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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The news was hardly a surprise, but Florida State nevertheless could breathe an immense sigh of relief when Rashad Greene announced he’d be back for his senior season in 2014. There are more talented, more highly regarded players from the Seminoles’ national championship team departing for the NFL, but perhaps no one on the current FSU roster was more crucial in 2014 than Greene. He was practically irreplaceable.
The run-up to the start of the 2013 season was a disaster for Florida State’s receiver group. Greg Dent was expected to blossom into a consistent threat, but instead spent the year awaiting a trial for sexual assault. Willie Haulstead figured to return from more than two years saddled with the lingering effects of a concussion, but academics ended his season before it began. Jarred Haggins was poised for a far bigger role, but a knee injury relegated him to the sidelines.
What was left for Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense was essentially a three-man show: Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw. Of Winston’s 384 pass attempts in 2013, he targeted his big three receivers 279 times (73 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The tight rotation actually proved to be a benefit. Greene, Benjamin and Shaw all enjoyed breakout seasons, with the former two topping 1,000 yards for the season. But as Florida State looks to 2014, the lack of established depth at the position means a massive rebuilding project must begin, with Greene providing the foundation.
Shaw is graduating. Benjamin departed early for the NFL. Winston’s top three targets out of the backfield all moved on as well. Aside from Greene, the current Florida State roster accounts for just 44 of Winston’s completions, the bulk of those to tight end Nick O’Leary.
So as the enthusiasm builds for a repeat performance by the Seminoles’ high-flying offense thanks to the return of the Heisman Trophy winner and four-fifths of his offensive line, the obvious question is: Who will be catching all of those throws?
Greene’s 76 catches last season were the second-most in Florida State history. It seems likely that number will increase in 2014. Even with tempting options in Shaw, O’Leary and Benjamin, Winston targeted Greene on more than 30 percent of his throws last year.
Greene was fond of telling the story of Florida State’s receivers meeting last summer to discuss the new quarterback running the offense. It would be up to them, Greene said, to make Winston comfortable, to do their jobs so well it made his job easy. In 2014, Greene’s role will be similar, except he’ll now be mentoring a young group of receivers around him, too.
Kermit Whitfield is electric with the ball in his hands, one of college football’s fastest players. He figures to be a nice fit to replace Shaw as the team’s top slot receiver, but he caught just five passes in 2013 -- none from Winston.
Benjamin’s loss provides an even bigger hole. Receivers who are 6-foot-5, 235 pounds and can run and jump effortlessly are rare gems. Still, tall receivers have been a cornerstone of Florida State’s offense, from Greg Carr to Rodney Smith to Benjamin. The last time the Seminoles didn’t have a receiver taller than 6-4 record at least 30 catches and 400 yards was 2005. That role in 2014 figures to fall to 6-4 Isaiah Jones, who caught just two passes for 31 yards as a freshman last season. And while he offers height similar to Benjamin, he checks in almost 40 pounds lighter and is hardly the same matchup nightmare as his predecessor.
Teammates raved about Jesus Wilson’s work on the practice field in 2013, and he’ll get his share of reps, too. Christian Green will be back again, but after a solid freshman campaign in 2011, he’s all but disappeared in the past two seasons. Haggins returns from the knee injury, too, but since Oct. 13, 2012, his combined stat line looks like this: 1 catch, 1 yard.
All of that is simply to underscore the importance of Greene in FSU’s 2014 passing game. His fellow receivers have potential, but Greene is the established weapon. And while the losses of Shaw and Benjamin are big, it’s worth remembering that Winston’s favorite weapon remains.
On third down last season, Winston targeted Greene 27 times -- nearly twice as often as any other receiver on the team. His 18 third-down catches doubled the next closest receiver, and all 18 went for first downs. Winston’s other returning star, O’Leary, converted 8 of 9 third-down targets, too.
In the red zone in 2013, Greene was again Winston’s top target (14 throws) and receiver (eight catches), and he and O’Leary accounted for nearly half of Winston’s red-zone targets.
In short, few receivers made more catches when it mattered most. Fifty of Greene’s receptions went for a first down, tied for third among ACC receivers. And no player on Florida State’s offense has been as consistent. Greene has led the team in receiving in each of his first three seasons in Tallahassee. He needs 41 more catches and 1,133 more yards in 2014 to match FSU’s career receiving marks.
Of course, as good as Greene has been, the onus will still fall to his emerging teammates to draw the attention of safeties away from him and provide Winston with a wider variety of weapons at his disposal. That development remains a work in progress for the next seven months, but Greene’s ability to handle double coverage, to make the big plays when it matters most, to set the standard for game day on the practice field during the week -- that makes the jobs of everyone around him much easier.
For an offense that returns so many stars in 2014, Greene will again be the cornerstone.
The news was hardly a surprise, but Florida State nevertheless could breathe an immense sigh of relief when Rashad Greene announced he’d be back for his senior season in 2014.