Seminoles’ success hinges on Jameis Winston, talented vets

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Jimbo Fisher likes to say that quarterbacks get too much of the credit and too much of the blame. And he’s right.

Without throwing a pass in an official college game, the hype over redshirt freshman Jameis Winston is through the roof. Or over the roof of a Florida State fraternity house, whichever you choose.

Winston was already considered Scout.com’s top quarterback in the class of 2012. He chose Florida State because Fisher and baseball coach Mike Martin were willing to work together and develop a plan for Winston to play both sports.

Fans saw Winston’s abilities on the baseball field first this spring. He hit just .235 and scored 21 runs. But it was his arm that was impressive. He threw in the mid 90s and also threw frozen ropes to the plate from right field to get runners out.

Few saw him on the football field in 2012, his redshirt season. He used the fall to lead the scout team, making throws that, well, freshmen don’t normally make.

“Jameis is a rare kid, that natural ability to be a leader,” said Florida State senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. “I saw it last year on the scout team, just making throws that I’ve been here four years and seeing guys like Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel as seniors making. It was like, ‘This kid is going to be special.'”

On Monday night, Winston will make his debut at Pittsburgh. He will become just the third redshirt freshman to ever start a season opener at Florida State.

Chris Rix (2001) and Drew Weatherford (2005) both started as redshirt freshmen. They had varying success but both picked up wins in their first starts — Rix a 55-13 win at Duke and Weatherford a 10-7 win over Miami.

Over the course of a season, both Weatherford and Rix fared well as freshmen. Weatherford set a single-season record at Florida State with 276 completions and threw for 3,208 yards (the fourth-best season in school history) as the Seminoles won the ACC title. And Rix threw for 2,734 yards as Florida State went 8-4 in 2001.

Winston has not been allowed to do media interviews since Aug. 11. But at that point, even at FSU’s media day and well before Fisher named him the starter, Winston said he felt confident as a quarterback based on his supporting cast.

“Look at everyone around us,” Winston said. “We have a veteran offensive line, we have veteran wide receivers, we have great backs. So there is absolutely no pressure.”

Winston is right and wrong. College football is a pressure cooker. Part of being a college quarterback is earning credit — and blame — for a team’s successes or failures.

But he’s correct in pointing to the abundance of playmakers and experienced blockers on offense. They should be able to make Winston more comfortable leading the Seminoles into 2013.

Strengths

There is a wealth of talent on offense.

Florida State has a dynamic group of running backs, led by James Wilder Jr. (635 yards, 11 TDs) and Devonta Freeman (660 yards, eight TDs). Both juniors are tough runners and could be 1,000-yard rushers if they were playing elsewhere. But it’s also possible that coach Jimbo Fisher will give more carries to Wilder or Freeman and one could hit that mark.

Four starters return on the offensive line, led by center Bryan Stork and left tackle Cameron Erving. Florida State allowed just 26 sacks in 14 games last season. And the Seminoles ran for 2,882 yards in 2012, showing that the line can be dominant. The fact that this line can both pass block and run block is an indication that this offense could be very good.

Florida State has just four receivers with any college experience, but three of them on the field at the same time will be tough to stop: Rashad Greene (57 catches, 741 yards, 6 TDs), Kenny Shaw (33 catches, 532 yards, 3 TDs) and Kelvin Benjamin (30 catches, 495 yards, 4 TDs). The door could be open for Christian Green to emerge as a junior after catching just three passes in 2012.

The defense returns just a few starters, but two of them passed up the NFL to return for their senior seasons. Linebacker Christian Jones led the team with 95 tackles, including 10 in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. And Joyner slides over from safety to corner and is the defense’s leader and toughest hitter.

Weaknesses

Florida State is breaking in a new kicker and that’s always a little unsettling for Seminoles fans. The Seminoles are replacing Dustin Hopkins, the ACC’s all-time leading scorer, but Fisher feels that redshirt freshman Roberto Aguayo’s leg is equal to Hopkins’. Aguayo backed that up with a 58-yarder in the spring game.

The Seminoles are also breaking in four new starters on the defensive line. But projected starters like defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and defensive ends Mario Edwards Jr. and Dan Hicks have experience. Another defensive tackle, Eddie Goldman, was one of the top recruits from the 2012 class.

Depth is a concern at a few positions, notably offensive line, receiver and tight end. Florida State has spent August shoring up its backups on the line, and defensive end Giorgio Newberry has moved over to tight end (where he should do well as a blocker). At receiver, Florida State has three true freshmen in Jesus Wilson, Isaiah 

Jones and Levonte Whitfield. Two of them likely will have to play — and not play like freshmen.

Secrets to success

With a freshman quarterback, odds are there will be an increase in turnovers. And there could be struggles in the red zone, too.

It’s likely that the Seminoles will have to settle for field goals, but Aguayo could bail them out in a number of games.

For Winston, he doesn’t need to overdo it. Putting the ball in the hands of playmakers and limiting mistakes should be the two goals. If he can do that, wins will follow.

If the defense, now led by coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, is nearly as good as it has been the past few seasons, Florida State should do well in 2013.

Road to failure

There is no rhyme or reason to it, but Florida State tends to have a “trip-up game” in the ACC under Fisher. This has happened on the road and at home. And it’s happened in September, October and December.

Florida State has more talent than teams like Wake Forest and N.C. State, but those are programs that have beaten the Seminoles of late. It’s losses like these that diminish the accomplishments of Fisher and the players. 

Prediction

It’s entirely possible that Clemson and Florida State will be unbeaten when they face off on Oct. 19 at Clemson. That could be the game that decides the Atlantic Division but also the fate of both teams in the national spotlight.

There are questions about nearly every team in the ACC this season, but Florida State seems to have answers for many of those concerns. It appears that the Seminoles are the ACC’s most complete team, and they should again win 10 games in the regular season. 

Florida State has a tough task in Clemson, but if the Seminoles can limit the damage by Tajh Boyd and Co., they should make another appearance in the ACC championship game.