High expectations for Winston's encore

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
2:00
PM ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- From the time he left the stadium in Pittsburgh until Florida State's team bus reached the plane that would shuttle the Seminoles back home, Jameis Winston's phone was glued to his ear. Everyone wanted a piece of him in the aftermath of his remarkable debut performance, and Winston soaked up the attention.

But if there was any doubt that the sudden burst of national fame was going to change Winston, a brief moment of eavesdropping on his conversations would've alleviated any concerns.

"He was joking around," Kenny Shaw said. "He's still the same."

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsFSU QB Jameis Winston might have done the impossible -- exceeded the already great expectations.
And yet, so much surrounding Winston has changed.

It was Lamarcus Joyner who likely summed up Winston's debut best. For months, the hype surrounding Winston grew with exponential force, and when the moment of truth finally arrived, the redshirt freshman quarterback delivered a near flawless performance. It was, as Joyner said, a prophecy fulfilled.

Winston is no longer the redshirt freshman who has never thrown a pass. But if all the expectations were met, and the hype was all proven valid after just one game, what comes next?

"It's a long season," Joyner said, "and he's got to keep on fulfilling the prophecy."

That's a tall order for anyone, given Winston's remarkable debut.

Winston threw 11 straight completions to start the game, and only one of his 27 pass attempts hit the ground. He threw four touchdown passes and ran for another. He turned broken plays into big plays, adjusted on the fly like a savvy veteran. Even after breaking down the film days after the postgame hysteria had faded, Jimbo Fisher couldn't find a significant chink in Winston's armor.

"There are some things to adjust and tweak," Fisher said, "but nothing that was critical."

So that's the standard for Winston as he heads into his second career start, Florida State's home opener against Nevada on Saturday. In Week 1, he was just short of perfect. In Week 2, anything less would feel like a disappointment.

Given the way Fisher worked to temper expectations throughout the offseason, it might seem reasonable he'd be the first to eject the highlight film of Winston's debut and call for a fresh start Saturday.

And yet, if Fisher is supposed to be the voice of reason, he's not offering much of an argument on the side of reserved judgement. Even Fisher admits Winston might just be a special case.

"Everybody's going to stumble," Fisher began to explain after a practice last week. Then he caught himself, pivoted, and suggested the possibility every Florida State fan has been eager to proclaim since Winston's sterling debut.

"You think people are going to stumble, but maybe not," he said. "Maybe they play well all the time, keep things in perspective, remember why they're doing things and stay true to the process."

In fact, Fisher said he has urged Winston not to put the Pittsburgh game behind him, but rather to study it and relive it. The circumstances on the field may change, he said, but the preparation that precedes a game like that shouldn't.

Of course, that's also where potential stumbling blocks are so easy to find. In the wake of his coming-out party on national television, Winston became an instant star -- not just around Tallahassee, but throughout the college football landscape. Suddenly he wasn't just a dark-horse Heisman candidate, but a legitimate contender. Suddenly he wasn't simply a rising star in the college ranks, but as ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. wrote last week, Winston already seemed a safe bet as a future first-round NFL draft pick. And after all that attention, reliving the same routine, locking in on "the process," as Fisher said, becomes increasingly tough.

Except, again, Winston might be that unique case, a player impervious to the spotlight.

"He's been getting attention all his life -- since high school, maybe little league," Joyner said. "Some guys try to be politically correct, try to change things, do too much. Jameis is Jameis. He understands that's what comes with it. The way he's handled it, I'm very impressed."

Winston's QBR against Pittsburgh ranked higher than any other debut against an AQ team in 10 years, but of the next three players on that list, two went on to become first-round NFL picks. Only three other quarterbacks in the past decade had a QBR better than Winston's, regardless of the competition. One of those, Sam Bradford, won a Heisman and was drafted first overall in 2010. Another, Marcus Mariota, is a leading candidate for the Heisman this year. It's an elite group, and yet none of them managed a follow-up performance that approached their impressive debuts.

But maybe, just maybe, Winston is different.

"He's going to do even better than he did against Nevada this week," said tight end Nick O'Leary. "Hopefully he throws no incompletions this game."

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Andrea Adelson sits down with Florida State tight end and John Mackey Award winner Nick O'Leary to discuss his success this season and his thoughts on facing Oregon in the Rose Bowl game presented by Northwestern Mutual.
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