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FSU’s O’Leary making name for himself

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Published:   |   Updated: January 4, 2014 at 01:10 AM

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — After football season, Florida State University junior tight end Nick O’Leary plays three rounds of golf every week. He’s about a 3-handicap. But one of his most prideful moments was three years ago, when he finally out-drove his grandfather.

“That was great,” O’Leary said, smiling.

His grandfather is Jack Nicklaus, the venerable Golden Bear himself, arguably the best golfer who ever lived.

And if you must know, Nick O’Leary’s full name isn’t Nicholas.

It’s Nicklaus.

But the stories kind of stop there. O’Leary isn’t a name-dropper, particularly when it comes to his famous grandfather.

“(My teammates) know, but I’m not going to be like, ‘Yeah, my grandpa is Jack Nicklaus,’ ” O’Leary said. “I don’t let (other people) know if they don’t know.

“He takes a lot of pride in what I’ve done. He would rather me make my name for myself than just use his name.”

O’Leary, a 6-foot-3, 248-pounder, has done just that. The Seminoles (13-0) will be relying on his skills in Monday night’s BCS Championship Game against the Auburn Tigers (12-1) at the Rose Bowl.

“We have a lot of weapons on our offense,” said FSU freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner. “But the one who never gets enough credit is Nick O’Leary.”

O’Leary, from Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer High, has 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns. His 16.1-yard average leads all tight ends. He has Velcro-like hands, and his blocking, according to teammates, virtually makes him an honorary offensive lineman.

The money stat: 27 of O’Leary’s 33 catches have gone for a touchdown or first down.

And it has been achieved with a notable lack of glamour.

“He comes out there, duct tapes his ankle, no tape on his wrist, no gloves,” FSU center Bryan Stork said. “He’s a football player. He’s a throwback, old-school football player. It’s good to have him in the mix.”

O’Leary had three touchdown receptions in the opening victory at Pittsburgh, where Nicklaus was in attendance. Keeping up with his 22 grandchildren is almost like a full-time job — many are athletes — but O’Leary has always been a cut above.

He was a natural at golf, shooting 77 in his first round. He was exceptional at lacrosse, drawing inquiries from the likes of Maryland and Cornell.

But football?

That was his love.

“I like hitting people,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary’s rough-and-tumble style was on display during FSU’s 51-14 victory at Clemson, when he took a swing pass from Winston and encountered 190-pound defensive back/would-be tackler Travis Banks, who was knocked on his backside. O’Leary was nonplussed by the event, never changing expression.

Then again, even the most dramatic collisions don’t get him worked up.

Last summer, while riding his motorcycle in Tallahassee, O’Leary went over a hill and straight into the path of a car that suddenly pulled into view. There was no reaction time. He jumped off the bike and his leg hit a trailing van, which caused him to spin five times. He rolled about 50 feet.

Then, with bystanders recoiled in horror, he got up and walked to the side of the road.

O’Leary’s summation: “I didn’t die.”

And: “I’m not scared of bikes. I got a dirt bike.”

O’Leary’s not scared of too much, and he’s certainly not nervous about Monday’s game against Auburn.

He has his grandfather’s cool demeanor under pressure. But he also has a toughness that could make him an intriguing target for the NFL, perhaps as early as this May’s draft.

“We knew he had the skills to do it, but the plays he made not only catching the football, but also becoming a better blocker, that made our whole offense better,” said FSU passing game coordinator Lawrence Dawsey, the former Bucs receiver. “He has some of the best hands on the team, but when we’re running the ball, we can keep him in there to block.”

If O’Leary makes it to the NFL, undoubtedly the “grandson of Jack Nicklaus” angle will gain more traction. Don’t expect him to contribute, though.

“It’s just like anybody else,” O’Leary said. “I mean, he played golf for a living. I mean, it’s just like anybody else’s granddad.”

Um, not really.

But in O’Leary’s young life, he has been accustomed to treating extraordinary moments as routine accomplishments.

“Don’t let him fool you,” Winston said. “That guy is pretty special. Everybody on our team knows it. He’s a big reason why we’re here.”

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO

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