Winston in rare freshman company

There used to be an old adage in college football that you could look out on the field and count a loss for every freshman in the starting lineup.

The gridiron sage who coined it obviously never saw Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston play.

Granted, Winston is a redshirt freshman and has at least been through a spring practice (while also playing baseball), but the next time he looks like a freshman -- in any capacity -- will be the first.

Winston's brilliant performance last week in the Seminoles' 51-14 beatdown of Clemson only reinforced how talented, how poised and how remarkably beyond his years he really is.

Freshmen aren't supposed to go into a raucous environment like Death Valley and treat it like their own little playground. Winston made it look easy.

From the opening snap, he was in total control and torched the Tigers for 444 passing yards and three touchdowns, and also ran for a touchdown.

The No. 2 Seminoles are a talented bunch. Let's not kid ourselves. I had one scout tell me recently that they had the most impressive array of talent from top to bottom that he had seen this season in college football.

So while Winston's supporting cast is star-studded in its own right, he's the engine that's making this Seminole train go right now.

"When he's confident, it's a trickle-down effect," said Cameron Erving, Florida State's junior left tackle. "Everybody else feeds off of him. He's relaxed and confident about what's going to happen out there on the field. It's like, 'Hey, you don't have to be so tense. ... Relax, but don't be too relaxed.' "

It's a rarity that a freshman as hyped as Winston lives up to the hype. He's not only lived up to it. He's exceeded it, and never mind that he was replacing a first-round draft pick, EJ Manuel, who was an opening-day starter this season for the Buffalo Bills.

It's even rarer that a freshman quarterback has his team in national championship contention this late in the season.

Again, though, nothing seems to be too big for Winston, whose feel for the game and the way he's so profoundly affected his teammates have surpassed even his gaudy statistics. He's second nationally in passing efficiency and has thrown 20 touchdown passes and only three interceptions in his first six games.

He's the first player in the last 10 seasons to pass for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of his first four conference games, and he's completing 61.8 percent of his passes thrown 20 yards or longer, which leads all quarterbacks from automatic-qualifying conferences.

Good luck in trying to rattle him, too.

Winston is completing 71.2 percent of his passes when opponents send five or more pass-rushers and is second among quarterbacks from automatic-qualifying conferences with nine touchdown passes against the blitz.

Even the Florida State defensive players marvel at the way Winston has taken the reins of this team at such a young age.

"Everyone looks up to that guy," senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "We embrace that leadership. To have that belief in him, that helps us elevate the defense."

The gold standard in college football when it comes to a freshman putting a team on his back and carrying it to a national championship is Herschel Walker at Georgia in 1980.

Yes, it was a different position, but Walker ran his way into immortality that year on his way to 1,616 rushing yards, including three 200-yard-plus games in his last four regular-season contests, and then followed that up by playing through a separated shoulder and willing his way to 150 rushing yards in the Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame.

Walker is and always will be football royalty. It's unfair to compare anybody to him, and in Winston's case, he does play a different position.

But just as Walker was different, and you could sense it from the first time he stepped onto the field in 1980, Winston is also different.

It's almost like he's been here before.

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