Nick O'Leary, the Florida State Seminoles' tight end, can truly change the complexion of the BCS National Championship Game. The under-the-radar junior is a weapon with good skills who, after teams load up in coverage to stop FSU's talented wide receiving group, is often left open in big spots.
Entering this game, the big story is how Florida State will stop Auburn's highly touted rushing attack. Folks are wondering if the Seminoles get enough bodies in the box to stop the Tigers' multifaceted run game. On the other side, quarterback Jameis Winston, the Heisman winner, presents a challenge to Auburn's struggling pass defense.
Barrett Sallee, B/R's SEC lead writer, hits on C.J. Uzomah as Auburn's X-factor, and the big, physical red-zone threat certainly presents a challenge. A look across the field shows a player with more production and a lot more comfort in the scheme. That comfort is going to cause problems for Auburn as it focuses its efforts on stopping receivers like Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw.
Head coach and play-caller Jimbo Fisher uses O'Leary in myriad ways to create opportunities and give Winston somewhere to go with the ball when he is in trouble. Here, against Pittsburgh to start the season, Winston targets O'Leary because he sees the coverage rolling away from the tight end and knows there will be space to make a play.
Auburn is no stranger to coverage issues. Here, against Georgia, Chris Davis is lined up over tight end Arthur Lynch and the Tigers are going to play man coverage with one-high safety in the back-end.
Davis bites on the play action and instead of doing his job on Lynch, flows toward the line of scrimmage, allowing the tight end to get a free run on the corner route.
The result is a touchdown for the Bulldogs.
Winston has a knack for finding O'Leary when he's in a bad spot. There's a reason the tight end had 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns this season: He is reliable. O'Leary finds space and makes himself a target better than any tight end the Tigers have seen in 2013. Here, against Maryland, he works the sideline, makes a sure-handed catch and scores one of his two touchdowns for the day.
In addition to focusing on stopping the three leading receivers, each above 900 yards for the season, Auburn will have to remember that O'Leary can be a problem. Robenson Therezie, Ryan Smith, Cassanova McKinzy, Kris Frost and Jake Holland will all find themselves with O'Leary in their area at some point during the game and will have to make plays.
Letting the Seminole tight end run free across the formation, as Alabama's O.J. Howard does here, is a recipe for an easy first down.
O'Leary is very much another arrow in Winston's quiver. If Auburn feeds Florida State mismatches at the tight end, Fisher and his offense will gobble them up. If Auburn sells out to stop the pass, expect heavy doses on the ground, another element where O'Leary, a physical football player, also comes into play. O'Leary will play a critical role in this ballgame and if he gets loose a few times, it will be bad news for Auburn.
Oh, and covering him is just a start. Auburn, a team that has missed tackles in spots, still has to get the bruiser down on the ground.