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Florida State Insider: Winston’s Maturity Will Be Key

Friday, September 6, 2013 4:10pm

TALLAHASSEE – Is FSU worried about Winston’s level of maturity?

First, the question was whether Jameis Winston would be capable of handling a road game for his college start.

Then, it was whether he would be able to live up the hype, as word began to spread during the spring and summer that the Florida State football team might have a young phenom on their hands.

It didn’t take Winston long to answer both of those questions with a resounding yes. Not only did he lead the Seminoles to a 41-13 rout of host Pittsburgh in the season-opener for both teams, but he was nearly flawless in the effort. He completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards, and he accounted for five Seminole touchdowns (four passing, one rushing).

It was as impressive a debut as any Florida State quarterback has ever had. It likely would stack up favorably with any freshman debut in college football history.

But as good as Winston looked – throwing with accuracy, making all the right reads, buying time in the pocket – you get the sense that Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher is still proceeding with caution when it comes to managing his emerging star.

In his postgame press conference, Fisher repeatedly pointed out to reporters that this was “just one game.” He said it would be imperative for Winston to focus on the “process” of improving each week, and not get caught up in the success he already is enjoying.

While there’s nothing out of the ordinary about those comments – they would be sage advice for virtually any young player – they take on a greater meaning when placed in context with some of Fisher’s recent actions.

In the week leading up to the season-opener, Fisher did not allow Winston to speak with the media at all. Not during the weekly Monday afternoon press conference – which former starters EJ Manuel and Christian Ponder spoke at every week – and not during player interviews on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising. After all, the redshirt freshman was preparing for his first college game, and he had just been named the starting quarterback a few days earlier. So Fisher might have been trying to shield the 19-year-old from any possible distractions.

But after letting Winston speak to the media briefly following the Pitt game, Fisher put him off limits once again. In the days following Winston’s stellar debut performance, FSU’s sports information staff told reporters that he would not speak again before the Seminoles’ home opener against Nevada.

That decision makes one wonder if Fisher is more worried about what Winston might say than he is about potential distractions.

During Florida State’s annual Media Day, if you remember, Winston caused a stir when he answered a question about Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. With a wide smile, he said if he acted the way Manziel has during the offseason – flying around the country, attending high-profile events and parties and getting embroiled in an autograph scandal – that reporters should hit him upside the head.

The story received even greater attention because Winston repeated a phrase coined by a reporter – “Manziel disease” – which made it sound as if he was taking a major shot at the Heisman Trophy winner.

The dust has long since settled on that gaffe, but Fisher still is keeping a tight rein on his young signal-caller.

Is it because he’s worried that Winston will be baited into another controversial statement? Or is he simply concerned that the Alabama native doesn’t need to be baited at all?

People around the program say that Winston is supremely confident; he was that way long before he won the starting job. They also suggest that Winston’s quirky personality – he later performed an MC Hammer dance not long after making his “Manziel disease” comments – can border on immature.

While Fisher and teammates have praised Winston’s work ethic, they also admit that he is more apt to joke around during practices than either Ponder or Manuel, the Seminoles’ previous two quarterbacks, both of whom were first-round NFL draft picks. He also has raised eyebrows with some of his antics on social media, including at least one video laced with profanities.

When asked about Winston’s personality, Fisher has said repeatedly that he doesn’t plan to change him. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t concerned about it.

While there already are Winston-Manziel comparisons being made on the field – after just one game, oddsmakers are listing FSU’s redshirt freshman as a favorite to win this year’s Heisman – there is another similarity off of it.

Through the vast majority of the 2012 season, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin kept Manziel away from the media. The Aggies’ quarterback wasn’t allowed to speak publicly until November. And judging by Manziel’s behavior during the last several months, it’s obvious why Sumlin had such reservations. He wasn’t merely protecting his player from the media; he was shielding his program from potential embarrassment.

Which leads us back to Fisher and Winston. Is FSU’s head coach more worried about his young quarterback being swept away by distractions? Or is he afraid of how Winston will act under the bright lights?

It’s too early to know the answer. But in the end, that dynamic might have as much to do with how far Winston can take the Seminoles as his arm strength, pocket presence and mobility.

 Loading Up In 2014

After signing just 21 players this past February and only 19 the year before, Fisher and the Seminoles appear to be loading up for a monster haul in 2014.

With nearly five months remaining until signing day, FSU already has 23 verbal commitments. And the feeling is that the Seminoles aren’t close to finalizing their class.

With several players leaving the program in recent months – because of academics, injury or off-the-field problems – the Seminoles are believed to be about six or seven players below the NCAA’s 85-scholarship limit. They are expected to address that by signing 30 or more prospects this February.

If they get the right ones, there’s a chance Fisher could bring in the nation’s top recruiting class. His current crop is rated No. 2 in the nation by ESPN and No. 3 by Rivals.com, and there is a strong likelihood that the Seminoles will gain even more momentum with a big season by Winston.

FSU doesn’t have any five-star prospects in the fold just yet, but they are in the running for several, including California cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, Texas cornerback Tony Brown and Georgia defensive end Lorenzo Carter.