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September 5, 2013

Column: Can Winston handle the hype?

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Living up to huge expectations is a daunting task for any athlete. That's especially the case when those expectations are through the roof and the athlete is a redshirt freshman who gets thrown onto an enormous stage with zero experience. But that was the situation faced by FSU's Jameis Winston this past Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Despite the unprecedented preseason hype surrounding the gregarious 19-year old, he wasn't fazed by the attention and proceeded to turn in the best start of any freshman quarterback in school history. In fact, his performance, which included a school record 92.6 percent completion percentage (25-of-27), was arguably one of the best ever by any Seminole signal-caller.

After Monday's coming out party, head coach Jimbo Fisher tried to quell the enthusiasm for his young quarterback at the post-game press conference.

"It was just one ball game guys, that's it," warned Fisher. "As long as he keeps the process in mind and working with great habits, he will be fine."

Winston's debut special for details more than stats

With the first hurdle cleared with room to spare, Winston's next challenge could prove to be an even larger obstacle - learning to navigate around the media hype machine.

ESPN wasted little time dumping high-octane fuel on the Winston media fire. On Tuesday morning Sports Center led off by suggesting that FSU's rookie quarterback might be the best in school history. That history includes two Heisman Trophy winners - Chris Weinke and Charlie Ward - both of whom led the Seminoles to national championships.

Yahoo! Sports plastered Winston on its front page touting him as a Heisman contender. The lead story included quotes from FSU baseball coach Mike Martin that compared him to both Buster Posey, arguably the best baseball player in school history, and all-world cornerback and two-sport star athlete Deion Sanders.

It only took a half of football for NBA all-star Kevin Durant to jump on the Winston bandwagon.

While Winston will need to do his best to ignore the gushing praise and adulation from media and fans, his head coach is already doing his best to insulate him as much as possible.

During last month's FSU Media Day, Winston repeated a reporter's question about getting "Manziel disease". While fairly innocent in the context of repeating words from a loaded question, uttering the phrase "Manziel disease" created a minor controversy. Since that infamous quote Fisher has kept his young quarterback at a distance from the media.

His first meeting with the press since then took place nearly a month later at Monday's four-minute post-game press conference.

To Winston's credit he seemed to have learned his lesson following the minor misstep at Media Day. The young quarterback handled the press extremely well by crediting his teammates, displayed humility while also showing off his trademark humor and likability.

"I knew the reason I was having a good night was because the guys around me were having a better night than I was," explained a humble Winston in the post-game press conference. "I knew that we were going to come out there and devote ourselves and lay it on the line. We had a great night."

Whether Fisher will allow his star player to meet regularly with the media, as has been the case with past FSU starting QBs, or keep him off-limits in hopes of lessening the distractions remains to be seen. But if he can continue to handle himself like he did Monday, FSU's head coach shouldn't have anything to worry about.

"I can get better every single day," Winston said Monday. "I had two busts, I got sacked and I don't like getting sacked. There are so many things that are under the table that people don't see. ... As an athlete you have to get better every day if you want to be successful."

Fisher has coached his share of elite college quarterbacks including JaMarcus Russell and EJ Manuel, both first-round NFL selections. But he's never experienced the wave of publicity that is about to crash down on Florida State. For a coach obsessed with managing every aspect of his program, holding back the tide of hype that will come from fans and media will be well beyond his control.

Based on what transpired during the off-season and in his first game, defending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who was also 19 during most of his redshirt freshman season, hasn't responded well to the attention. As a result, he and the Texas A&M program have been the center of a lot of negative publicity the past couple months.

Fisher will certainly do his best to shield his quarterback from much of the hype but ultimately it will come down to whether Winston is mature enough to handle it. So far he has shown that he is and his teammates agree.

"I definitely do think he's got the personality," answered linebacker Telvin Smith when asked if Winston will be able to deal with the media attention. "He knows that everybody is going to come at him with this and he's been preparing himself for it. He knows the capability of his talent and he knows where he's going in life. He's just really a humble kid that is going to take it on one day at a time."

Mind, mentality have QB Winston ready for 2013

Stanford's head coach David Shaw would probably agree with that assessment of FSU's quarterback.

The Cardinal offered Winston a scholarship and he took and official visit to the campus in January of 2012. During his recruitment Shaw got to know Winston and his family well and it left a lasting impression.

"He's a great kid. He's smart. He knows football. He's got an unbelievable personality and whatever 'it' factor quarterbacks have, he's got it," said Shaw. "He's also very self-aware. He knows what he does right and he knows what he doesn't do right.

"He's a wonderful kid. I got to know his dad through the process. (He has a) great family. I said it at the time - I know he's going to be successful in and out of football. He's just one of those guys."

That unique personality could serve as an effective vaccination against Manziel disease.



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