Wolfpack faces Jameis Winston, who leads FSU's return to college football's elite

jgiglio@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

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Normally, the comparison game is a losing proposition, especially when the names Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Charlie Ward are involved.

But normal doesn’t seem to apply to Jameis Winston, who just might be the Next Big Thing for not only Florida State and the ACC, but all of college football.

“Jaboo’s too good to be true,” longtime Seminoles baseball coach Mike Martin said.

Jaboo (pronounced Jay-boo) is the nickname Winston’s mom gave him growing up in Hueytown, Ala., which is the same Birmingham suburb that produced Jackson, the two-sport legend who won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn in 1985 and four years later was the MVP of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

Like Jackson, Winston plays football and baseball. As a redshirt freshman, he will lead the third-ranked Seminoles against N.C. State on Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla., in only his seventh college start.

He already has shown enough potential, in both sports, to be put in the same conversation as Jackson and Sanders.

Winston, who has thrown for 20 touchdowns in six games, has pushed the Seminoles back into the national title race after a decade hiatus for the dominant program of the 1990s.

Winston has the size (6-foot-4, 228 pounds) NFL teams covet at quarterback and an arm that tantalizes major-league baseball scouts.

Winston has also drawn parallels to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy last year.

It all seems to be too much hype for one player, but Winston defies hyperbole. You also have to consider who’s making the comparisons.

FSU legend Bobby Bowden, who coached Ward in 1993 when the quarterback won the Heisman and led the Seminoles to their first national title, said Winston has it all.

“The things he does is just amazing,” Bowden told the Orlando Sentinel this week. “And it doesn’t just amaze me, it amazes the nation.”

Doing it big at FSU

The numbers, even through six games, say enough about Winston, but there’s more to his phenomenal start.

ESPN showed an 18-second clip of Winston in the locker room last Saturday moments before he led FSU to 51-14 destruction of Clemson in what was one of the biggest game between two ACC teams in almost 20 years.

Winston, who describes himself as laid back and bit goofy, stood before his teammates with a red Powerade in one hand and his helmet in the other. This wasn’t the intensity of Mel Gibson in “Braveheart,” it was the coolness of Snoop Dogg in “Old School.”

“We ain’t leaving without a victory,” Winston told his team. “So, y’all, hey, my brothers, put a smile on your faces. OK, because Florida State, if we going to do it, then we do it big.”

Winston proceeded to throw for a season-best 444 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers. It was as if the stadium was empty and there was nothing at stake, let alone a spot in the national title race.

Martin, who coaches Winston, an outfielder and pitcher on the Seminoles’ baseball team, said that natural calmness and poise is Winston’s main attribute.

“He has a confidence about him,” Martin said. “It’s not cockiness, just a confidence.”

Winston said there’s no reason for him to feel any pressure because he has stepped into a situation on Jimbo Fisher’s football team where he’s the newcomer in a veteran group.

“There are guys that have been there and done that,” Winston said. “I’m out there, being myself.”

FSU returned four starters on the offensive line, two of the top three running backs and three of the top four receivers from last year’s team, which won 12 games and the ACC title. Fisher has plugged Winston into EJ Manuel’s spot at quarterback and turned him loose.

“People say that Jameis is young, well Jameis is different,” Fisher said.

One of a kind – in two sports

Martin knew Winston was different when he started to recruit him. Baseball America ranked Winston as one of the top 50 prospects in the 2012 draft class. Rivals had him pegged as the top quarterback and No. 10 player in the 2012 football rankings.

Winston did his homework during the recruiting process. He wanted to go somewhere with a strong football and baseball program.

In-state Alabama, the national champion in three of the past four years in football, was lagging on the baseball front.

Martin’s son, Mike Jr. – or Meat, as his dad calls him – and Fisher are good friends, which became a selling point for Winston. It also helped FSU.

Martin, who’s going into his 35th season at FSU, remembers the story of when they first recruited Winston.

“Meat called Jimbo to tell him he was going to watch (Winston) in a tournament in Pensacola,” Martin said. “Jimbo says, ‘That’s funny, I’m about to watch a tape of him.’”

Forty-five minutes later, Martin said, Fisher called back and said: “Don’t let that guy get away.”

Winston blew away the FSU coaches at the tournament.

“He was a switch-hitting pitcher who can throw 91 and play the outfield like a son of a gun,” Martin said. “And, by the way, he might best the quarterback in the South.”

Marching toward Heisman

Winston ultimately chose FSU over Alabama. He redshirted in football last season behind quarterback Manuel, who was a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in April.

In part-time duty for the baseball team, Winston hit .235 in 41 games and had a 3.00 earned run average in 17 appearances.

His performance in football has been incredible from his first start, a 41-13 win at Pittsburgh on primetime TV on Labor Day.

He completed his first 11 passes against the Panthers and finished 25-of-27 for 356 yards with four touchdowns. He also ran for touchdown.

His next big moment came on Sept. 28 at Boston College. The Noles actually trailed 17-3 in the second quarter before Winston produced one of those “Heisman” moments.

On the last play of the first half, he eluded two BC pass rushers, stepped up into a third defender and still delivered a strike 55 yards in the air for a touchdown to receiver Kenny Shaw for a 24-17 lead. FSU went on to win 48-34, Winston finished with 330 yards, four touchdowns and a season-high 67 rushing yards.

He pulled off another escape act in a 63-0 rout of Maryland on Oct. 5. In third quarter, he was wrapped up by a Maryland defender for an apparent sack. Instead, he shrugged off the tackle, ran away from two other defenders, and then hit tight end Nick O’Leary with a laser for a 12-yard touchdown. Winston finished the Maryland game with 393 yards and five touchdowns.

Through six games, Winston has completed 71.3 percent of his passes (112 of 157) for 1,885 yards and 20 touchdowns to only three interceptions.

Consider Winston only played a half in each of FSU’s wins over Nevada and Bethune-Cookman and he has more touchdown passes than either Manziel (18) or Heisman front-runner Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota (19), who have both already played seven games.

“One thing that my team knows, one thing that everyone knows, this is just the beginning,” Winston said. “I’m trying to get better every single day.”

Better? There’s a frightening prospect for the rest of the ACC and college football.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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