The 2013 college football season's midway is approaching, and for the second year in a row, a redshirt freshman is electrifying crowds and finding his way into the Heisman race. Last year it was Johnny Manziel from Texas A&M, and this year Florida State's Jameis Winston is getting the job done.
Winston is just doing it in a fashion that is a little more advanced than how Manziel did it.
Manziel's 2012 season was epic. The quarterback helped Texas A&M light up the scoreboard, get to double-digit wins and shock Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The kid was scintillating, putting up 1,410 yards on the ground and another 3,706 in the air, en route to compiling 47 total touchdowns on the year.
For Manziel, the eye-popping numbers came thanks to his athleticism. It was head coach Kevin Sumlin's first year, and from spring through fall camp of 2012, a quarterback battle raged.
Manziel, upon taking over as the starting QB, was still relatively new to the offense. Throughout his triumphant 2012 season, Manziel had to call upon his athletic instincts to compensate for his unfamiliarity with Sumlin's system; it was these instincts that many times bailed him out of trouble and helped put the Aggies into the end zone.
Winston's situation was a bit different. The quarterback committed to Jimbo Fisher and Florida State, and stability was the name of the game. Winston sat out 2012, as EJ Manuel led the Seminoles to an Orange Bowl championship, but it was not a wasted year for Winston. Rather, it was a learning experience, sitting in meetings, understanding how the pieces fit together and hitting the ground running in the spring.
Where Manziel's starting campaign was a year when instinctive play set the tone, Winston's first year has been an exercise in quarterbacking. The two-sport athlete from Alabama has put on a show for the Garnet and Gold, displaying an understanding of the offense, quality ball placement and the physical style of play that helped make him a highly sought-after recruit.
That is Winston getting through a progression above. The kid starts out looking to his right, checks the second route to the middle before settling on the open receiver to his left. Winston allows the play to develop, looks at the coverage and finds where he has the opening. He is a young quarterback who does not decide where he is going with the ball pre-snap, something with which many signal-callers struggle.
On this touchdown to tight end Nick O'Leary, Winston again scans the field before making his decision, working off a play-action fake and looking left to right to find his targets. The quarterback comes upon O'Leary, delivering a strike to the junior.
Winston is not first read and take off, as many athletic quarterbacks are in the developmental stage. Instead, he is a clear pass-first, pass-second, pass-third type of player, looking to distribute the ball to his playmakers for big gains.
Another highlight of Winston's growth as a passer is the ball placement on his throws. Ball placement is a big deal for a number of reasons. Proper location gives receivers a chance to run after the catch. Ball placement can also protect pass-catchers from being annihilated by defenders. On sideline throws, it is the difference between a receiver being able to get his foot down in bounds or an incomplete pass.
That touchdown against Boston College is a prime example of a well-placed pass. Winston gives his receiver space to catch the football and get a foot down, creating the opportunity for the touchdown. More importantly, Winston keeps the ball away from the defender sitting on the receiver's hip. Putting the ball where only his receiver can catch it avoids a pass break-up and a possible interception.
Against Nevada, here's another great job with placement, this time in the middle of the field. He puts the ball on the money on a throw that goes underappreciated by many casual observers. This is a tough throw because the consequences for a pass with less-then-perfect location are dire.
A ball too far out in front, and defender No. 1 breaks up the pass by colliding with the receiver. Thrown too high, and No. 1 can break up the pass and defender No. 2 is in prime position to gather the tipped ball for an interception. If Winston places the ball too far behind the receiver, defenders No. 3 and 4 can break up or intercept the pass.
Winston is not perfect; he has to improve his footwork and consistently finish his throws to keep the ball from sailing. But the quarterback is playing fine football to start 2013. His understanding and execution are at a high level, and Winston has the physical tools to match the technical aspects.
At 6'4" and almost 230 pounds, Winston is a physically imposing specimen. With that size comes an impressive arm capable of getting the ball down the field in a hurry. The pass to Kenny Shaw against Boston College to end the first half has drawn plenty of accolades, including a spot in SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays, but that is not Winston's only big-arm moment.
Against Nevada, you can see the strength of Winston's arm here as the kid throws off his back foot with a defender in his face. The quarterback delivers a strike and does so without getting his whole body into the throw.
The long toss to Shaw against Boston College also highlighted another of Winston's tremendous physical talents: his ability to escape tacklers and shake off defenders. For Winston, this ability to buy time and break containment is more than just the kind of elusiveness associated with players like Manziel or former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
No, for Winston, his ability to escape is rooted in the sheer power that he brings to the position. He is tough to bring down with an arm tackle, and defenders had better get his legs wrapped up or he is going to pull away from their grasp and then go make a play, as he does here against Maryland.
This play epitomizes what he brings to the table—not just the ability to evade the rush, but rather the ability to shake off a defensive lineman, get his eyes back downfield and then deliver the ball accurately to a receiver. The throw to O'Leary is a big-time play, a ball thrown to where only O'Leary can catch it and get a foot down in bounds.
Manziel was America's best player a season ago, getting it done largely with terrific athletic instincts, the run-pass duality taxing defenses and creating game-changing plays. Winston won't make the same highlight-reel runs on a regular basis, but he is doing things offensively that Manziel could not do in year one as a starter.
Beating Alabama was Johnny Football's trump card in the Heisman race. As Winston piles up numbers in the air, he'll have to thrive against Clemson, Miami and Florida to prove he belongs in New York City for the Trophy presentation.