Jameis Winston battling for Florida State amid growing hype
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jameis Winston cannot blend into the background. Even as he tried Sunday to stick to the generally accepted script of a quarterback competing for a starting job -- just trying to help the team, whoever is best will play, blah, blah, blah -- the Florida State redshirt freshman couldn't help himself. His personality simply couldn't be squeezed inside a meeting room in one corner of Doak Campbell Stadium. Even as he tried to stay on message, Winston drew every eye in the room. Because, as usual, he was rolling.
"The worst thing is a rainy day with no laughs," Winston said. "People laugh on sunny days. When it's a sunny day, everybody's smiling. But on a rainy day, people want to be dull. There's no reason for that."
Winston offered that mission statement to explain why, at random, he might yell out the word "yogurt" or some nonsensical phrase to break the tension in the Seminoles' huddle. Later, this also will explain Winston's WWE-style promo as alter-ego Jaboo, or his step-perfect MC Hammer impression. He explained that Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher sometimes has to force him to sound serious. Winston couldn't be boring if he wanted to, and that's why he has become the face of a program for which he hasn't even taken a snap. He's a 6-foot-4, 227-pound two-sport star who can throw and run, and we know how the folks at Florida State feel about two-sport star quarterbacks who can throw and run. He's a walking sound byte tailor made for the Twitter and Instagram video age. Heck, Winston hasn't even been named the starter, and he already might be the most interesting player in the ACC.
And that's where things get tricky.
At the moment, Winston is locked in a competition with redshirt sophomore Jacob Coker. If trades were allowed in college football, dozens of coaches would try to trade for the quarterback who loses. Winston has looked that good. Coker, a 6-5, 235-pounder who was limited by a foot injury in the spring, has looked that good since returning to health. The smart money is on Winston, but Fisher has insisted the competition between the two remains open. (Clint Trickett competed with the two in the spring, but Trickett, who already holds a bachelor's degree, has transferred to West Virginia and might win the starting job in Morgantown.) But the media and public have already anointed Winston, whose spring game theatrics, right-field laser beams and 90 mph-plus fastball have made for some easy comparisons to Charlie Ward, who led Florida State to the 1993 national title as a quarterback and played his way into the NBA as the Seminoles' point guard. These comparisons get hammered home when one of the people praising Winston is Ward himself.
That's how Winston ended up on preseason magazine covers without even throwing a pass in a game. "It's a blessing, all that publicity," Winston said. "But at the end of the day, we're looking at the big picture. We have so many good players that allow me to be the face of the program. Anybody could be the face of the program." On that last point, Winston is correct. Receiver Rashad Greene or guard Cam Erving or linebacker Christian Jones or cornerback Lamarcus Joyner all have the on-field résumés to carry a banner for the Seminoles, and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and tailbacks James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman might not be far behind if they tap into their potential in 2013. Then Winston made another point. "There's no quarterback right now," he said.
Fisher hasn't declared a drop-dead date to choose a starter. Most likely, the identity of the starter won't be revealed to the public until either Winston or Coker takes the field on Sept. 2 at Pittsburgh. So Coker and Winston will continue to labor as if one hasn't already become the football version of one of those indie films all the critics see at a film festival and won't stop raving about. "I've worked hard since I've gotten here," Coker said. "I don't know if I could have done anything more. Just because he's on magazine covers and all that stuff hasn't changed how I work. I go at it the same way every day. I pull for him, and he pulls for me."
Neither Winston nor Coker seems to be manufacturing affection. The quarterbacks seem to genuinely like one another. Winston, from Hueytown, Ala., and Coker, who succeeded AJ McCarron as the starter at St. Paul's Episcopal in Mobile, Ala., enjoy ganging up in the quarterback meeting room on Yankee invader Sean Maguire, a redshirt freshman from Sparta, N.J. "We're 'Bama boys for life," Winston said. But the differences in their personalities have left Coker with a public relations battle that he refuses to fight. Winston craves attention. Coker does not. That doesn't mean Coker is a complete introvert. "Jake is very to himself, but he's a funny individual," Winston said. "If you talk about hunting, he'll start talking to you."
Fisher was answering a question about how Winston's massive personality fits in the scope of a team game, but he may as well have been talking about Coker's ability to be a quieter leader when he said this: "Being yourself is the key thing. I'll never take that away from any quarterback. There's not a cookie-cutter quarterback to me. But I think with leadership, especially, if they're trying to be somebody else, no one follows. You can't do it."
So the competition will continue. "If I didn't think I could play, then this isn't the right spot for me," Coker said. "I'm confident I can win it." Even though Winston has created a fairly large shadow. "There's no shadows on that practice field," Winston said.
Still, unless Coker completely overwhelms Winston in the next week, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Winston won't be leading the Seminoles against the Panthers. Fisher swears he won't try to rein in Winston's plus-size personality, and Winston has no plans to change. "I try to make everybody smile, laugh," Winston said. "Every day is going to be a good day at Florida State."
It's easy to believe him.