Winston's maturity key to FSU's success

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There were plenty of leaders who spoke up in the locker room before Florida State's resounding 51-14 win over Clemson on Saturday, but it was, unsurprisingly, Jameis Winston whom the cameras captured for posterity.

At this point, the Seminoles have come to expect Winston to hog a bit of the spotlight.

"They happened to show Jameis, but we love it," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "Put the camera on him and keep it going. If he can embrace it, we can, too."

It's a sign of the stature Winston has achieved inside Florida State's locker room. Six games ago, he was a redshirt freshman. Now, he's a savvy veteran who can command a locker room and gobble up the national spotlight without teammates batting an eye.

But Winston hasn't grabbed the leadership mantle by making pregame speeches. He's done it by proving he's a veteran on the field.

In the two weeks leading up to Saturday's showdown in Death Valley, Winston heard his share of talk about Clemson's vaunted defensive front. The Tigers led the nation in sacks per game, and Vic Beasley was going to be tough to block.

As usual, Winston wasn't worried.

"Everyone was saying how they lead the nation in sacks, but I always feel like if someone sacks me, it's my fault," Winston said. "My offensive line is tremendous."

That was Winston's message to his troops before the game, when the lone talking point was simple: Do your jobs, Winston told his linemen, and Clemson won't have a chance.

Sure enough, the Tigers brought the pressure, and Winston made them pay. For the game, he finished with 293 yards against the blitz, the most by any quarterback in the past three years, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Florida State responded again and again to Clemson's aggressive style by holding blocks just long enough for Winston to get off a quick pass to an open receiver, who then tacked on more yards after the catch.

The formula simply asked the line to block and the receivers to be in the right spot, and Winston took care of the rest.

"He's just a really smart guy," said left tackle Cameron Erving, who helped hold Beasley to just two tackles -- and no sacks -- in Saturday's win. "He's a film junky, a football junky. He knows what he's doing. He knows what's coming before they do it. He reads defenses as well as the veterans."

It has been Winston's calling card thus far, Jimbo Fisher said. When the defense makes its move, it can be a disaster or a celebration. Winston has routinely enjoyed the latter.

On the practice field and even in the huddle, Winston will goof around with teammates and crack jokes. But when he steps to the line and surveys a defense, he does it with such unique precision that even his veteran teammates are in awe.

"You know what's crazy? He knows football like a veteran. Sometimes he sees things I don't," fifth-year senior Bryan Stork said. "He's reading coverages, knows what's coming from the blitz, and I'm like, 'OK.' "

Even amid the deafening roar of the Clemson crowd, Winston was in complete control. He'd read the defense, communicate to his line, make sure his receivers knew the call, and almost without exception, the whole plan came together seamlessly.

For the season, Winston is completing 71 percent of his throws against the blitz, including nine touchdowns and just three sacks. In each of his last two games, he has completed eight first-down throws in the face of a blitz.

Put Winston in a position of pressure, and he thrives. On third downs this season, when the offense needs at least 10 yards to convert, Winston is a perfect 10-of-10 throwing. Nine of those throws have gone for first downs. No other quarterback in the country is converting more than half his throws in those situations.

On the high-pressure final drive of the half, Winston has been magical. He has completed 18-of-22 throws for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Florida State has scored on all six of the drives.

"His ability to process information is tremendous, and it allows us to get the ball out," Fisher said.

The numbers are astonishing, but Florida State's players aren't amazed. It's Winston doing his job, Erving said, and the rest of the team has followed suit.

"It shows his maturity," Smith said. "He just has total confidence in his line and himself, and he produces."

After Saturday, Winston's ability and maturity are no longer a question. He has proven he can handle the biggest stage.

Instead, a new challenge arises. Florida State is in position to make a run at a national title. Winston is a household name and a top contender for the Heisman. Through six games, he has been a master at turning chaos into precision, potential disaster into the sublime. Now that everything is going Florida State's way, he'll need to manage success just as flawlessly.

From what he has seen so far, Fisher isn't worried.

"He keeps a great head on his shoulders, keeps learning," Fisher said, "and he prioritizes extremely well."