Last fall, Florida State faithful and college football fans watched one of the most impressive debut seasons in college football history unfold right in front of them.
A previously unknown redshirt freshman quarterback named Jameis Winston became a household name in a matter of weeks. The supremely confident 6’4”, 228-pound signal-caller led the Seminoles to heights they hadn’t scaled in more than a decade.
Teaming with a talented offense, Winston threw for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, completing 66.9 percent of his passes. He had a quarterback rating of 184.8 and also added 219 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Winston became the youngest player (19 years, 342 days) to win the Heisman Trophy. A month later, he rallied the Seminoles from an 18-point deficit to defeat Auburn for the BCS National Championship.
Which begs the question: Can he do it again?
The departures of two of Winston’s top targets in redshirt sophomore Kelvin Benjamin (NFL draft) and speedy senior Kenny Shaw (graduation) raise a serious question: Have we seen the best of Jameis Winston as a collegiate player?
Winston and Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher don’t think so. They are working hard this spring to make sure the talented sophomore doesn’t rest on his laurels.
“You don’t want to relax,” Fisher said recently. “You can become complacent. This spring practice, we won’t be taking that mentality.”
Last fall, Florida State’s receiving corps was the envy of many a college quarterback. Junior Rashad Greene, who has excellent speed, quickness, hands and separation, caught 76 passes for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns.
The 6’5”, 240-pound Benjamin finally put it all together and became a nearly impossible matchup for opposing secondaries, catching 54 passes for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns. And Shaw was almost as impressive, rolling up 54 receptions for 933 yards and six touchdowns.
With Benjamin and Shaw gone, spring practice has revolved around finding the next great receivers to wear garnet and gold. Christian Green, a 6’2”, 200-pound rising senior, has speed and strength and is an option to replace Benjamin, as is 6’4”, 200-pound rising sophomore Isaiah Jones.
But both are unknown quantities.
Scooter Haggins, a 6’0”, 193-pound senior, along with the 5’7”, 178-pound sophomore Kermit Whitfield and Bobo Wilson (5’9”, 177 lbs) are battling to replace Shaw in the starting lineup.
Haggins is coming off a redshirt season after missing all of 2013 with a stress fracture in his knee. Whitfield has elite, game-breaking speed, as he displayed with a 100-yard kickoff return late in the fourth quarter against Auburn that gave the Seminoles their first lead of the game.
Florida State also has several high-profile receiver recruits arriving this fall in 5-star Ermon Lane (rated as the nation’s No. 24 overall recruit by 247Sports), 4-star Travis Rudolph (rated as the nation’s No. 6 wideout) and 4-star Javon Harrison (rated as the No. 16 athlete).
“It’s important that he learns a whole new group of receivers,” Fisher said. “We have to develop two or three more while also keeping a great bond with Rashad and (tight end) Nick (O’ Leary).”
For his part, Winston doesn’t appear worried about adjusting to a new group of targets, and he says all of his new receivers can “jump out of the gym.”
“I can spread the ball out to anybody,” he said. “That makes me smile. In our offense, it just gives us more weapons.”
Building trust, he said, is crucial.
“It’s very important for their confidence and our confidence,” he said. “We trust all the guys we go out there with. That’s why you come to Florida State, to win championships. We’ve got great players, and those guys are going to be great. It’s going to be a fast adjustment to work on timing with me and them, and we’re going to get this thing rolling.”
And you’d better believe that Fisher and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders pushed Winston on personal improvements this spring, too. Fisher said fundamentals are a key for Winston, and when “your mind plays fast, your arm plays fast.”
Fisher said his star has plenty to work on and added, “I think you’re always learning as a competitor in different situations.”
“It’s fundamental knowledge of our offense, the things we do and how you make decisions that create success,” he said. “You have to make reads against the coverage and blitz, press and blitz and recognize situations in the offense against a defense that will create big plays.
“Fundamentally, it’s the way he balances his body and moves in the pocket. Those are all areas where he’ll continue to grow and must continue to grow.”
Winston said Fisher is a “perfectionist,” and he and Sanders are always pushing him.
“There are things that Coach Sanders brings to my attention a lot,” he said. “He’s always on Coach Fisher about me. I’m always trying to get better. I’m not going to be the guy who sits back and lets things go. I’m going to get my hips up higher, get the ball up higher, and I’m going to start throwing rockets.”
The possibility for off-field distractions also exists. USA Today's Rachel Axon reported that Florida State was facing a federal civil rights investigation into its handling of rape charges against Winston. He was cleared of criminal charges in the case in December 2013.
Opposing defensive coordinators will have a year’s worth of film to study. His receivers almost certainly won’t be up to the caliber of 2013. But if Winston regresses in 2014, it’s hard to say that it’ll be due to lack of effort on his part.
Winston was pulled in the second half of many Florida State blowouts, which may have suppressed his numbers. Depending on the closeness of FSU's games this fall, it is entirely possible that he could match or build on his 2013 totals, despite the personnel around him.
It could be his last collegiate run: Winston has been projected as a top selection in the 2015 NFL draft, and former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo says he'd have been the top pick in the 2014 draft if he were eligible, via NFL.com's Mike Huguenin.
However, Winston said in February he'd like to play two more college seasons, per Huguenin.
None of that really matters right now, however. He's just focused on repeating last fall's success and building on it.
“I’m going to be relentless,” he said, “in trying to lead my team to another national championship.”
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace