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FSU's Winston takes center stage tonight

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Published:   |   Updated: January 6, 2014 at 12:13 AM

PASADENA, Calif. — Five months ago, it wasn't a sure thing. Florida State University's football team was in training camp, looking for a clear-cut answer at quarterback. Day after day went by with no resolution. Coaches had questions.

Jameis Winston, a redshirt freshman, or Jacob Coker, a redshirt sophomore?

“People don't believe us now, but it was a very, very competitive situation,'' FSU offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. “I remember going around the table and hearing all the opinions. I promise you, it was not a unanimous thing.''

The decision — Winston by a whisker — made the Seminoles into a national-championship contender. And it transformed the course of a season.

For Winston himself?

“Nothing has changed,'' he said. “My life hasn't changed at all because our goal as a team, it still isn't over yet. In the beginning, everybody was looking at us like, 'OK, they've got a freshman quarterback.' Nobody was paying any attention.''

They are now.

Winston, the second consecutive freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, will lead the Seminoles (13-0) against the Auburn Tigers (12-1) in tonight's BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl. It's Winston's 20th birthday.

He has become the most compelling — and perhaps, most polarizing — figure in college football.

Winston is the youngest Heisman winner in history. He's the first freshman in the ACC's 61-year history to win that league's player of the year. He leads the nation in pass efficiency and is within striking distance of the all-time record.

In the first half alone — with his playing time generally shortened by large leads — he passed for 2,579 yards and 26 touchdowns (more than 105 starting quarterbacks had in all snaps).

“Some of the things he has done are pretty astounding,'' FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.

In the season's final month, Winston faced the subject of national debate. He was accused of rape by an FSU student from an encounter Dec. 7, 2012. Winston's attorney said it was consensual sex. But the case, suppressed by the Tallahassee Police Department, according to the accuser's attorney, went to the State Attorney's office.

The nationally televised result?

Winston would not be charged.

Even against that pressurized backdrop, teammates said Winston never changed outwardly.

“I don't know if I've ever been around a guy like Jameis Winston, a redshirt freshman who is such a dynamic personality,'' ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “The upperclassmen are so accepting of that. I've never seen that in my entire life.

“He controls things, dictates things, everybody defers to him when he's talking. He's one of a kind. He affects the offense, the head coach, everything. Everybody feels that vibe and believes in what he has to offer.''

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And what does he have to offer?

Pocket presence. Arm strength. An uncanny elusiveness, almost a sixth sense. But mostly, it's the ability to perform like it's a kid's game.

That's easy.

Because Winston says he's nothing but a big kid.

In a rambling interview session Friday, Winston said he “got fat'' during the awards banquet circuit. On FSU's penchant for big victories, he said, “There's no NCAA rule that says you can't blow out everybody you play.''

He spoke about his baseball ability and long-term desire to become the next Bo Jackson, a two-sport professional. He mentioned his wish to “be the guy everyone talked about.''

“He kind of takes over any room he walks into,'' FSU junior running back James Wilder Jr. said. “That's why he's a leader. You're going to notice him. People are always going to gravitate toward him.''

In some pockets, though, Winston's reputation has taken a hit. He was investigated for an allegation of rape. Although no charges were filed, Fisher said the damage was done.

“When there are allegations and not charges, we blow them up into things that we assume,'' Fisher said. “I think the media needs to take a step back sometime when there are not charges and be very diligent about how you report and say things.

“I think there's a responsibility … because you can taint someone without even charges being made. I think that is very critical and wrong at times.''

According to public-relations professionals, Winston is just the latest athlete who must undergo some image rehabilitation, regardless of guilt or innocence.

“Being involved in a rape allegation played out on the national stage taps into some very deep and divisive social layers that can linger,'' said Michael Bilello, president and CEO of Tampa-based Centurion Strategies, a public relations, marketing and crisis management firm. “Conspiracy theorists will use the fact that there was no trial as the platform to advance elaborate narratives. … This will continue to feed the anonymous public on social media that is against him, so it will always be there.

“While this is the minority, they still have a voice, and it can easily be resurrected at any time in the future. Therefore, Jameis Winston will have to be cognizant of this new media element and work to actively manage his personal brand. … He's young and talented, so I have little doubt he will move beyond this.''

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In the parlance of public-relations professionals, Winston must write his own narrative.

On the football field, he has done just that.

And it is barely believable.

In his first start, a 41-13 victory at Pittsburgh, Winston completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns.

His first start!

“We knew pretty early that this guy was going to be different,'' Seminoles junior tight end Nick O'Leary said.

He never flinched on the football field. If Winston produces the perfect ending to his script tonight — a national championship — he will rest briefly.

Then he will join FSU's nationally ranked baseball program.

“I really think being involved with the baseball team, being in an organized sport, that's going to be a healthy and good thing for him after everything that has happened the past few months,'' Herbstreit said. “As much as he seems to be in his element Saturday afternoons in college football, he has the same kind of passion for baseball.

“He's going to try and become the closer. Florida State's program has the ambition and talent for the College World Series. Can you imagine, they're in Omaha, here's Jameis coming in for the ninth inning, trying to nail it down. That's just historic stuff.''

If nothing else, Winston has proven to be the type of athlete who produces historic moments.

With a victory tonight, he will cap arguably the greatest freshman season ever seen in college football.

At some point, though, there will be another realization.

He just turned 20.

We've seen plenty in just one season. What might be ahead?

Archie Griffin, the only two-time Heisman winner, is officially on notice.

“He has tremendous confidence without arrogance,'' Fisher said. “He loves what he's doing. He plays to win. He doesn't play for individual accolades.

“He has an infectious attitude that affects our team — everybody on our team. When he hits these big moments, he truly believes that's where he belongs so they don't overwhelm him.''

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO

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