TALLAHASSEE — When Auden Tate began seeing himself as the next Kelvin Benjamin, the Wharton High four-star receiver wasn't envisioning Benjamin's two so-so seasons at Florida State. Tate was fixated on the third year, when Benjamin finally turned untapped potential into unstoppable productivity during the Seminoles' 2013 national title run.
So as Tate enters his third fall at FSU, of course the 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior is striving for his own Benjamin-like breakout for a team with championship expectations.
"It's always in the back of my mind ..." Tate said.
Whether Tate can make it happen will help determine whether his Seminoles live up to their top-five billing and preseason College Football Playoff projections.
A week into preseason camp, Tate's position group remains one of FSU's biggest question marks, beyond the fact that the 'Noles lost all four players who caught at least 30 balls last season.
With Da'Vante Phillips indefinitely suspended after being charged with five felonies last week, FSU has only six receivers on scholarship (excluding cornerback Malique Jackson, who began practicing with receivers last week). Of those six, three have never caught a college pass, and a fourth (East Lake High product George Campbell) has caught only three.
"This is as thin as it's been since I've been here," said receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey, who joined the 'Noles from USF after the 2006 season. "It's going to be a challenge."
And that's why Tate is one of FSU's most vital players, just below quarterback Deondre Francois and do-it-all safety Derwin James. He and junior Nyqwan Murray are the team's only somewhat proven commodities, and Tate's larger frame (6 inches taller, 49 pounds heavier) gives him a higher ceiling, especially at a program that traditionally has one of the nation's top red-zone offenses.
"He is a special player, man," sophomore receiver Keith Gavin said.
Tate began to show that at the end of his sophomore season. After catching only nine passes through the first eight games, he caught 16 over the final five.
Through two years, Tate's statistics compare favorably to Benjamin, the Panthers' 2014 first-round pick. But Benjamin didn't explode until the second half of his third and final season, when he scored touchdowns in each of the last six games, steamrolled the Gators for 212 yards and caught the winner in the BCS title game.
Tate might not be far behind.
"He's getting very close," Dawsey said. "KB was a little more bigger, more physical part of it, but ball-catching skills, running routes — Auden Tate's right there with him."
For FSU to be successful, he has to be, which is why Tate spent all offseason preparing for that extra responsibility.
Tate's weight is about the same, but he has replaced fat with muscle. His knowledge of the offense has increased; instead of only knowing his routes, he understands how his routes and roles fit into the rest of each play. His timing has improved through more repetition with Francois, and coaches have praised his consistency since the spring.
Two years into his FSU career, Tate said he has matured past the star-eyed dream of becoming FSU's next Kelvin Benjamin by focusing on himself alone. But Tate does want to make the same third-year leap that Benjamin made — the one that captivated him as a high school star in Tampa.
"I would love the jump that he had …" Tate said.
If he can make it, FSU will be poised for its own jump, back into the national championship conversation.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.