CLEMSON — When it became evident to Jimbo Fisher that Florida State’s best option at quarterback this season was a redshirt freshman, the experience of the players around Jameis Winston gave him peace.
Five games into Winston’s career, it appears he has transcended the anticipated learning curve. In a program that produced two Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback, “Famous Jameis” bears the look of a third, and Saturday’s game against third-ranked Clemson in Death Valley could be the litmus test.
“I know he’s listed as a redshirt freshman, but he doesn’t look like a freshman,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He looks like a full-grown man to me.”
Pro scouts are eager to get their hands on him.
“I believe Florida State’s Jameis Winston is the future at the quarterback position,” wrote scout Bucky Brooks, talent analyst for NFL.com.
Winston’s inexperience should seem to make Clemson’s defensive strategy simple: squeeze his comfort zone.
From the pocket he has been lethal, probably better than E.J. Manuel — the only quarterback taken in the first round of this year’s NFL draft — was in an FSU uniform. And though he prefers to make plays with his arm, Winston can be a load on the run, near “(Cam) Newtonesque” at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds.
“He’s hard to bring down,” Clemson end Corey Crawford said. “If you’re going to tackle him, you’ve got to bring him down.”
In the pocket or on the move, he’s more Marcus Mariota than Aaron Murray, probably a bigger version of Tajh Boyd.
“He’s got strength. He’s got touch. He’s got accuracy, poise,” Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator, said. “Never too high, never too low. That’s not coach-speak. He’s exceptional.”
And much like Clemson with Boyd, FSU seems to be at its best with Winston as a triggerman with an array of weapons. Former Heisman winner Desmond Howard of ESPN said Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin might be the best set of receivers in the country. Yet Winston’s safety net has been tight end Nick O’Leary, with five touchdowns catches among his 11 receptions this season.
“Obviously, you want to disrupt their timing somehow, some way,” Venables said. “Whether its good, tight coverage, and you hope those people up front can beat people. I’d rather he be confused and harassed.”
Two years ago, Oklahoma limited FSU to a touchdown and 246 yards in Tallahassee. Venables was Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator. After Clemson beat him two weeks later, Fisher said the Tigers needed to get better at linebacker. Swinney hired Venables.
“We’ve made a lot of progress that way,” Venables said. “Our guys are playing well, playing aggressive. They’re making all the plays they’re supposed to make right now. I’ve been incredibly pleased with their progress.”
Last week, Clemson limited the nation’s most productive rusher to 70 yards by mixing the blitz with a predominantly four-man rush.
Occasionally, Clemson has given up some big plays. Of the 14 touchdowns surrendered, seven are from outside the red zone and five were of 50 yards or more.
“He hasn’t made any decisions that are glaring,” said Venables of Winston. “He makes good decisions, keeps them out of negative plays (and) makes a lot of special throws. He’s playing well beyond his years.”