Progress reports: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota ready for preseason debuts
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winners' preseason debuts are looming, and the top picks in the NFL draft are poised to show what they are learning at training camp.
Winston plays Saturday night when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit Minnesota, while Mariota and the Tennessee Titans head to Atlanta on Friday night. It's the first of four preseason games prepping the rookies for Sept. 13 when they square off for the first time as professionals in their teams' season openers on Winston's home field.
As long as they are playing, when you hear one name, you'll probably hear the other: Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. So with Winston and Mariota having gone through 11 training camp practices, here's a look at their progress:
Q. How are they mastering the passing game?
WINSTON: If there was a knock on him coming out of Florida State, it was his supreme confidence that he could get the ball anywhere leading to a penchant for interceptions. The Bucs don't want discourage him from being aggressive, but they've pressured him with blitzes so he can learn from mistakes. He's thrown plenty of interceptions in practice, yet shown steady improvement with his completion percentage rising since the start of camp. "He's got a short memory. We use the term snap-and-clear all the time," quarterback coach Mike Bajakian said. "Every snap is an independent event. No snap, whether good or bad, determines the outcome of the next snap. So he does a good job of putting the previous snap behind him and moving on."
MARIOTA: The former Duck came to Tennessee first needing to show he could simply run a huddle and take the snap under center after not doing either at Oregon. Mariota has had no issues with either with only one botched snap in camp. Fitting the ball into tight spots and away from defenders was another question, and Mariota has shown he can do just that. So far, Mariota has thrown 186 pass attempts at camp in seven-on-seven and team drills without being intercepted. "It's getting the combinations that we're using with the receiver and just getting used to those in the reads against the defense," Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "That's the biggest thing."
Q. How are they growing into their leadership roles?
WINSTON: Winston's light switch always is on with his electric smile and engaging personality. But teammates and coaches say he has shown he knows when to tone it down and just be one of the guys. "Every day I come in -- and I come in pretty early, between 6:30 and 7:00 -- he's already in the locker room, working on his abs, doing his core work with one of our strength coaches," three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "Then he gets to meetings early, does everything he's asked off the field as well as on the field." Winston's veteran teammates probably also appreciate the rookie rejecting the notion that he is the face of the franchise just because he was the No. 1 overall pick. "I don't believe it's my team. It's our team," he said. "It's my role to play quarterback."
MARIOTA: He seems to operate mostly on a dimmer switch, knowing when to turn it up. Teammates joke reporters might be lucky to get a two-word answer from Mariota inside the locker room. But veteran wide receiver Harry Douglas said Mariota leads by example. "Trust me, I haven't seen many like him in my life," Douglas said. "He may know it, but he doesn't act that way. He's humble, and God is going to always reward those who are humble. That's why he's had so much success in his life so far."
Q. How are they taking command of the huddle?
WINSTON: A change in quarterback was not a hard sell in Tampa. The Bucs were 2-14 a year ago, the team's worst finish in 28 seasons. Winston has immersed himself in the playbook, picks the brains of veterans and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and exudes confidence players say is contagious. He carries all of that into the huddle. "I think the best surprise is when you are not really surprised. You have a perception of what someone should be like, and with Jameis that's what it's been," coach Lovie Smith said. "I knew he would be a good teammate and they would really like him."
MARIOTA: Mastering the huddle was something Mariota simply didn't have to do at Oregon where the Ducks looked to the sideline for the play call. To make sure he can rattle off play calls that can be 13 words or longer, Mariota has practiced the night before to avoid any mistake in the huddle. Mariota also speaks up loud and clear, and the rookie looks like he's run a huddle for years. "Out here, it's a different story and a different Marcus," Titans wide receiver Kendall Wright said. "That's just his home out there, and that's how he treats it."
Q. What defensive teammates say makes them special?
WINSTON: The Bucs have thrown a variety of blitzes and coverages at Winston during practice, and there have been mixed results. Cornerback Alterraun Verner is impressed with how the rookie has handled everything. "He's a gunslinger," Verner said. "He's going to make rookie mistakes, but there's no sense of panicking if he throws a pick or has a bad read. ... I don't ever fell like he's rattled or shaken. I've seen him make bad play, bad play and then bomb, bomb."
MARIOTA: Coaches may not be eager to talk about Mariota's streak without an interception, but not turning the ball over is a quick way to impress veterans. Defenders credit the lack of interceptions at camp to Mariota throwing to spots that make it tough to put hands on his passes. Cornerback Jason McCourty said Mariota's quick decisions when throwing stands out the most. "He's doing a great job of making the right passes," McCourty said. "If nobody's there, throwing the ball away or even being able to tuck it and run. I think with that as a rookie quarterback being able to manage the offense, get the guys in and out of the huddle and make the right decisions will go a long way."