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Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Winston wows with physical play

By David M. Hale

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The fact that quarterbacks don’t get hit in practice has never quite felt right to Jameis Winston.

Back in high school, he got a feel for when his head coach, Matt Scott, might whistle a play dead to keep his quarterback from getting pummeled. So, just before the whistle blew, Winston would turn upfield, find a defender and deliver a hit of his own.

Jameis Winston
Jameis Winston's diving block on Kermit Whitfield's touchdown run was the latest example of Winston's sometimes ill-advised physical play.
“It’s just his will, his competitive nature,” Scott said.

Not much has changed at Florida State. Winston dons a green non-contact jersey during practice, and Jimbo Fisher doesn’t take any risks when it comes to halting a play before a big hit, but on game days, all bets are off.

Opponents bring the blitz, and Winston laughs. He’s made a habit of shedding defenders, escaping tackles and chucking the ball downfield for a big play.

Put a defender in his face, and Winston is brilliant. For the season, he’s completing nearly 74 percent of his passes (at 13.6 yards per attempt) when being hurried or hit, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Even when he hands off the football, there’s no guarantees Winston won’t find himself in the thick of the action, with his diving block of Syracuse defensive back Julian Whigham on a 74-yard touchdown run by Kermit Whitfield the latest example of his eagerness to mix it up downfield.

“That says a lot about his character and what type of player and person he is,” running back James Wilder Jr. said. “After a handoff, a toss, you can just chill back there, hold your hands up and say ‘touchdown.’ But it shows what type of determination and team player he is, 40 yards downfield making a block.”

Fisher understands the implicit message being sent, too, so it’s tough for him to be too upset when Winston puts himself in harm’s way for the good of the team.

“You’d like to say no and you’ve got to be smart about it, but when guys know you’re in the hunt with them and you’re in the fight with them, they’ll play really hard for you,” Fisher said. “That’s why they love him, because they know he’s full-board with them.”

The on-field scuffle between tackle Bobby Hart and Miami’s Anthony Chickillo a few weeks ago wasn’t any different. When the ruckus started, Winston was quick to jump to his teammate’s defense. Again, Fisher was less than thrilled to see his quarterback mixing it up, and again, Winston knew it wasn’t the wisest decision.

Still, it’s tough to keep those emotions at bay.

“Next time it happens, I might run full speed to the sideline and be like, ‘Coach Fisher, are you going to do something about this?’” Winston joked afterward. “It’s just in us to react when something like that happens.”

Of course, Winston's instincts kick in most often is in the pocket. Even that’s become a hot-button issue for the quarterback.

In the blowout win over Syracuse last week, Winston played just the first half, but he was still sacked three times. The problem, he said, was that he wasn’t playing physical enough.

“They brought a lot of pressure,” Winston said. “And on two instances I did hold the ball too long. But I’ve got to break those tackles.”

Winston has yet to chalk up a sack to poor blocking by his offensive line, but he’s actually been pretty good at keeping the pass rush at bay this year.

Winston has been sacked 17 times this season -- once every 18 drop-backs. That’s still a better rate than last year’s quarterback, EJ Manuel, experienced, and Winston has tallied 102 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats and Info, more than 70 percent of his rushing total for the year. Overall, Winston goes down on first contact less than 40 percent of the time.

Still, all those hits don’t exactly sit well with his coach.

“You’ve got to be safe now,” Fisher said. “We have to talk about that.”

In the end though, all those talks probably won’t amount to much, and Fisher shouldn’t be entirely surprised.

The physical approach to the game is in Winston’s DNA, and that’s a big reason Fisher wanted him in the first place.

“I think it’s about the guys Jimbo recruits. They always have that edge,” running back Karlos Williams said. “Jameis is one of those guys. If it came down to it, and everything was live in practice, we’d see Jameis laying a few licks on guys.”