The Jameis Winston era got underway with a bang on Monday night as the Florida State freshman quarterback’s highly anticipated debut put a resounding exclamation point on an exciting first week of college football.
Winston guided Florida State to a 41-13 victory over ACC newcomer Pittsburgh on a night in which Panther great Larry Fitzgerald had his jersey number retired. Winston’s numbers spoke for themselves as the freshman from Hueytown, Alabama finished 25-for-27 passing for 356 yards and four touchdowns in addition to one on the ground. While Winston’s numbers made Monday’s performance the best debut ever for a Florida State signal-caller, his poise, decision making and demeanor were well beyond his years.
Despite never taking a collegiate snap before Monday, Winston never forced anything. Even when the Seminoles were down early, Winston played within himself and the system. A dual-threat quarterback, Winston was far from eager to vacate the pocket before it was necessary, one of the major knocks on last season’s starting quarterback and the first quarterback taken in the most recent NFL Draft, E.J. Manuel.
Winston instead showcased awareness, poise and the ability to stand in the pocket. On his first of four touchdown passes on Monday, Winston made just a slight step to his left to buy the extra millisecond needed to hit tight end Nick O’Leary for a 24-yard score to cap the first of seven straight scoring drives for Winston and the Seminoles.
Winston’s early touchdown toss may have been the first display of the freshman’s poise and awareness, but it wouldn’t be his last. Later in the half, Winston was able to stand in and take a shot while hitting Rashad Greene for 20 yards on a 3rd-and-17 with FSU clinging to just a four-point lead early in the second quarter.
On the final drive of the first half for Florida State, Winston once again stood in against Pittsburgh penetration to find Greene for 36 yards after two penalties had put the Seminoles in a 1st-and-30 hole. The two would eventually hook up for a 23-yard score which put Florida State ahead 28-10 at the break.
On the few occasions in which Winston was forced to scramble, Winston was much more inclined to keep his vision downfield rather than take off even with open green in front of him. A 42-yard pass to Kenny Shaw on the first play of the second half comes to mind as Winston traded a sure scramble for a first down for an even bigger play to set up Florida State’s first field goal of the night.
On the night, Winston completed 20 of his first 21 passes and the only miscue still looked to be a catch when taking a second look on instant replay. Shaw made the grab near the Florida State sideline and appeared to drag a toe early in the second quarter, but the play was never reviewed.
Also standing out in Monday’s outstanding performance was the rapport that Winston seemed to have with Florida State’s veteran pass-catchers despite Winston having never taken a collegiate snap.
Winston and Rashad Greene not only connected deep for plays of 20, 23 and 36 yards, but how in sync the two were on timing routes made it seem as though they had been playing together for years. Greene finished the night with eight receptions for a team-high 126 yards. Winston also found Shaw, a senior, four times for 94 yards and connected with redshirt sophomore Kelvin Benjamin on five occasions for 73 yards. Winston complete four passes to O’Leary for only 47 yards, but three went for scores.
While Winston was better than anyone could have expected in Monday’s 41-13 victory over Pittsburgh, it is only one game. With so many playmakers at the skill positions however, the mystery of what to expect at quarterback for Florida State at the moment is a mystery no more. With the Seminoles’ most difficult games on the schedule being visits to Clemson and Florida along with a November home meeting with Miami, overwhelming experience at the quarterback position once looked to be major advantages for those schools as Clemson and Miami have senior quarterbacks in Tajh Boyd and Stephen Morris while Florida has a very experienced junior in Jeff Driskel.
Not only does experience at quarterback now look like less of an advantage for those teams, one has to wonder if the advantage at the position won’t in fact be in favor of the Seminoles.