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August 8, 2013

Mind, mentality have QB Winston ready for 2013

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HUEYTOWN, Ala. - The superlatives and attention thrown his son's way are hardly new for Antonor Winston.

For two years, the best college head coaches in the country got on planes to sit on his couch and flatter the boy. By the time Jameis Winston, a five-star prospect, was a senior in high school, he had this third cell phone number and so many autograph requests coming to his home - five to six a day at its peak - that Ant made color prints to keep up with demand.

So attention? Not new. An offseason of Black Jesus proportions? That's a little bit new.

"I've heard in Tallahassee they're calling Jaboo 'Black Jesus,'" Ant said. He cocked his head with suspicion while fighting off a fatherly grin. "I ain't lying. I haven't seen anything like that before. But I've heard that."

Propelled by his stellar work in April's spring game, Jameis, known officially as 'Jaboo' among a bevy of nicknames accrued already, is reaching hero status. No. 5 jerseys plaster the walls of local bookstores. The quarterback battle, which officially began on Tuesday, has become a formality despite coach Jimbo Fisher's hesitation to name a starter. Former FSU coach Bobby Bowden said Winston reminds him of RG3. Former NFL QB Trent Dilfer said he's a future No. 1 overall draft pick. Longtime ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit mentioned Winston as a darkhorse for the Heisman Trophy this fall.

Even his biggest fan is unsure about all of that.

"Oh the Heisman, they start talking about the Heisman, you know now I don't believe that now," Ant said with a laugh. "Those jokers, I don't believe that, you know what I'm saying. And I think the kid is pretty good. But not no Heisman. Not the first year.

"Not saying it can't happen, I would love for that to happen. But let's be real in this thing."

What's very real: Winston has zero college experience and one undisputed title - the most talked about player without an official down in FSU history.

With fall camp underway, hype starts to mesh with reality. And when it seems like the right time for concern about the multiplying expectations, the people closest to Winston are free from any doubt. They don't talk arm or speed. In hours of interviews, no one among Winston's family, former coaches and friends once brandished a football stat.

They lay out the formula for why he can get it done at FSU: His smarts, an uncanny ability to learn and apply and a harmonious mental balance - part cartoon-watching goof, part over-the-top competitor - that helps him handle it all.

"I've never seen anything like that guy. I'm not even talking about his talent," former Hueytown High coach Matt Scott said. "There's a lot of people that can throw the ball. What people don't understand is the difference with him. His football IQ is through the roof. If they had some kind of scientific study for it they'd have to do a special on CNN. It's unbelievable."

The mind of Winston

To Ant, the first sign of smarts was at age 3, when Jameis could sit on the floor, spread out a pile of spare change and count it. Jameis started football at 4 because his mother Loretta "thought he would look cute in pads," and by 6, he was asking his dad about making audibles.

But parents can embellish, and Ant knows this, so he looks all over for a red 70-page spiral notebook. It's his favorite piece of proof.

He checks the car and the attic and eventually finds it, and the thing has weathered the rigors of academia. The pages, blanketed in unsharpened pencil and gripping to perforation, offer a glimpse into the mind of a young Jameis Winston.

Each sheet in the notebook presents a defensive look - Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4, man. The coverage is diagrammed. He lists the defense's intentions and step-by-step directions to make the read pre-snap. Under that, a bulleted list of the best routes to beat the coverage followed by notes on what body part he should aim for on the receiver's body given the defender's assignment.

Page 5 is signed Jameis Winston, Hueytown Middle School.

It is incredible detail for a 13-year-old and a tangible look at the working mind behind Winston the QB. A year later, as a 150-pound freshman at Hueytown, he was juggling honors classes with varsity starting quarterback duties. He started four years, he became the top quarterback in the country, he graduated with a GPA north of 4.0.

"He was so smart that he didn't need the coach to tell him what's going on, he can see it for himself," said best friend and former Hueytown teammate Ricky Rabb. "(Playing defense) you can never say 'Oh Jameis is going to do this again, I know what you're fixing to do now.' You could never do that to him. If he made any errors in his previous series he was going to be smart enough to correct those errors the next time. That's the big thing about him, he's smart on the field."

There's smarts, and there's parlaying that with the ability to process information quickly. It changed the game for Scott, who came to Hueytown, tossed out the Wing-T that Winston ran in 9th grade and handed over a more complex spread attack.

"I could stand there and tell him one time and he can do it," Scott said. "And he could turn and tell other people how to do it. I'd tell him. Not show him, just tell him one time."

The ability to absorb information relayed to all facets of his game. After his ninth grade season, coaches at University of Alabama were intrigued with Winston already, then cooled some after Winston ran 4.95 in the 40-yard dash at their summer camp.

"Nick Saban said, 'Listen now, you got a slow-ass son,'" Ant said, chuckling at his own rephrasing. "So (Saban) said if you get that time down we've got you."

Brimming with motivation, Winston went to work with trainer Otis Leverette, a former star defensive end at UAB who played six seasons in the NFL. The work didn't take long.

"I remember when I first taught him the 40-yard dash stance and how to come out of the blocks. Literally, you're talking about something with kids that they need a year to really, really get it all the way," Leverette said. "Two sessions, man, this kid could have taught a class on 40-yard dash starts. That's what blew my mind about it. Talent is all over the place, but when you can see talent that can apply? That's when you run into something very special."

Winston goes back to Alabama camp the next offseason and runs again. 4.6 flat.

"The coaches said there's no way. There's no way you did this here," Ant said. "They made him go back and run it again - not wait in line - get back in front. There's no way you could knock it down like that. They made him go back and run it again. Another 4.6 flat."

The mentality

Scott saw what he had with Winston at Hueytown in 2009. During his first practice as head coach, before Jameis' sophomore year, he planned to get acquainted with his roster before instilling any discipline.

His quarterback didn't wait, and when a senior receiver dropped a pass in the very first drill, Winston stopped the practice, ran over, grabbed him by the shirt and unleashed. The rest of team watched.

"(Jameis) says 'Hey, you mind catching the ball?' Scott recalled. "He had zero tolerance for anybody that wasn't cutting the mustard."

It's that fire that translated to the field immediately, giving Scott a spirited leader and a perfect complement to his own high-energy coaching style.

Scott would see his quarterback hand the ball off, then cut up the middle of the offensive line and make the final block on a long touchdown run. Winston would never ask to pad stats. He played cornerback for a game when his team needed it.

The same fire that aided team success and a burning will to win could overflow, making him, as Scott puts it, "good for a 15-yard penalty every game." For all that's right about his game, Winston has let his anger show since his youth football days. Most times he picked up penalties by being too aggressive or retaliating for what he felt were late hits.

"He's the meanest sun of a gun on Friday nights I have ever seen. That guy, when he's raised, he's money. He's money period. I've never seen anything like it," said Scott, who parlayed the success with Winston and Hueytown into a new job at the bigger Gadsden City (Ala.) High in January.

"But he played with such an intensity and sometimes it'd spill over. There were times when I'd have to tell him, 'Hey man if you don't calm down I'll take you out.'"

Patience could get away from him, but it didn't affect his output; Winston's game led to plenty wins for Hueytown, which lacked any winning tradition prior to Winston and Scott's arrival. The Gophers made the playoffs in each of Winston's last three seasons.

But the attitude, which made the intense Scott and Winston an effective pair, wasn't ingratiating to the community. As the program was getting its first taste of publicity, it didn't help the reputation of Winston, who never struggled to beat the wrap as a selfish player reveling in stardom. National attention poured in, but Winston never felt embraced by Hueytown because he couldn't beat the perception.

"The thing in our community, they tried to make it out that Jameis was the best player on the team and he was intense, they wanted to make it seem like he thought he could do whatever he wants," Rabb said. "They would see that as being cocky.

"You can ask anyone who played on the Hueytown football team that Jameis was a hard worker and the things that he did on the field, he might get a 15-yard penalty but on the next drive he's going to throw an 80-yard touchdown. A lot of people just didn't get that about him. I've seen him every day. That's just Jameis. He's going to work hard and he's going to do what he wants to do. But you can guarantee he gets the W."

"There are times when that fire burns out of control," Scott said. "What they don't understand is, they want him to be that guy, but they don't realize that mentality is what makes him great. They want him to be that (nice) guy but they don't realize you almost don't have one without the other. "

'He probably doesn't have a serious bone in his body'

The yang to Jameis' competitiveness is a child-like goofiness. He's a college student who still watches Looney Tunes. He dances in the locker room before games. He would pull pranks on his teammates on the sideline in high school, tight score in the fourth quarter be darned.

"He never shows all his seriousness when he's around his friends," Rabb said. "Off the field, he's straight playing. He probably doesn't have a serious bone in his body."

Winston can't suppress that off-field persona at Florida State, either. While his fame is multiplying, he hams it up on social media, posting pictures of himself eating cheese balls and a slew of Vine videos of he and his teammates goofing off.

During a FSU football camp two weeks ago, Winston rode his bicycle with a teammate on the handlebars and weaved between campers on the Doak Campbell Stadium turf. Before Fisher could get to him, he retreated, pedaling back into the tunnel.

"Man, he's a great guy, a great personality," receiver Rashad Greene said. "There is not one time where you're going to be around Jameis where he's not going to make you laugh.That's what you get from Jameis, that's him being himself, and you don't get that from a lot of quarterbacks. They're serious type of people. But it just makes you want to be more connected to him."

Winston let the jokes continue on the first day of fall camp . He scampered from drill to drill, laughing with teammates and jumping out and intercepting passes that weren't for him.

"Sometimes when you are comfortable - I'm not going to take that joy away. ... I don't want that atmosphere," Fisher said Tuesday.

"It may appear (like he is playing around), I'm telling you, he's locked in. That's just his personality."

What's next?

With hype unlike anything seen around these parts, even the people who love Winston most seem too sure. They believe he has the work ethic and smarts to thrive and the attitude to insulate himself from outside distractions.

"It's easier to know not to really fall into that if you haven't really played before," Ant said. "It would have been a whole lot different if he had played before, and then people say 'Oh, man he's Black Jesus, he's going to get the Heisman,' stuff like that, he may be nervous. But he hasn't taken a snap before. He's probably thinking ya'll are crazy. I'm like Jaboo - 'Man, guys I haven't taken a snap.'"

It's not that Winston isn't hearing all about it, though.

"(Jameis) was telling me, 'Man, everybody is just hyped up about me.' Rabb said. "He said 'It just feels like high school.' He's like 'I got in high school, I'm getting it in college. The only difference is that more people are giving it to me.'"

Most of the talk has come from outside the locker room, but Winston is creating believers on the inside.

"The thing I like about him, one of the best things I like is that he's very talented, but he's not a guy who sits and relies on his athletic ability," Fisher said. "He studies the game. He's learned, and I think that's a process as a quarterback you really have to really learn to do. ... for a young guy coming in, I think he's done a great job of studying the game and the why's of it."

"He takes a lot of pride in what he's doing mentally, and I think it's a very key component."

"I've seen him on scout team when he was a (true) freshman make throws that I've been around Christian Ponder and EJ (Manuel), they are making in their third year," senior safety Lamarcus Joyner said.

"He's a vocal guy, the energy he brings - some guys, (they've) got to know your role sometimes. But you can tell that's Jameis, he's a vocal guy, he's a passionate guy, and to be a young guy and to speak something and to come in and make it happen? Why wouldn't you respect this guy? Why can't you believe in this guy? You see the signs."

Of course Ant, who has seen it all with Jaboo, sees signs too. He's confident that his son has what it takes to handle whatever - a starting job, media attention, another wild moniker - comes at him this fall.

Except the Heisman. At least not yet.

"I told you, the Heisman is next year," Ant said. "Everybody, next year."



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