WHEN/WHERE: 8 p.m./Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: ABC, Ch. 28 NEED TO KNOW: The Panthers make their long-awaited ACC debut on national television against longtime league power Florida State. ... The Seminoles are in the midst of a transition year themselves as redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston replaces the departed EJ Manuel. ... Florida State WR Rashad Greene ranked third in the country last season in punt return average (15.4), including two touchdowns. He can flip the field at any time, and Pittsburgh’s special teams are a question mark. ... Pittsburgh has won the last three meetings, though the most recent encounter came in 1983.
TALLAHASSEE — Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston makes his highly anticipated collegiate debut tonight when the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions visit Pittsburgh in the season opener for both teams.
Seminole fans have been eagerly awaiting the two-sport star's football debut from the day he signed a letter-of-intent to bring his widely chronicled athletic achievements to Florida State some 19 months ago.
They've already been teased by Winston's spectacular spring game showing and his feats on the baseball diamond — experiences Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher believes will translate to success for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound 19-year-old.
In “all team sports you have your individual responsibilities, but baseball a little more so,” Fisher said. “He's played in big games and played in the tournament.”
Winston was projected as a high pick in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft, but dropped to the 15th round before being chosen by the Texas Rangers, making his decision to pursue a college career a bit easier with any sizable baseball bonus not available.
Winston appears at ease with the attention although he's been mostly off-limits to media the last three weeks.
“It's a blessing that I'm getting all that publicity, but at the end of the day we're looking at that big picture,” he said. “I don't find anything embarrassing.”
Winston becomes just the third freshman to start a season opener in Florida State's football history. The other two, Chris Rix and Drew Weatherford, both got wins in their debuts.
“He'll be very anxious, I'm sure,” Fisher said during the weekly ACC media call when asked about what to expect when Winston takes over for EJ Manuel, the lone quarterback chosen in the first round of spring's NFL draft.
“Control what you can control,” Fisher said. “Understand you're part of something bigger than yourself. If you have to play a big part that day, play a big part.”
The affable Winston showed little, if any, anxiety before fans attending the spring game when he embarrassed Florida State's first-team defense, hitting 12 of 15 passes for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns in little more than a quarter.
“A lot of the guys rally around Jameis. That's pretty rare as a young guy,” said senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, who was burned by the freshman on a 58-yard touchdown pass on Winston's first play in the spring game. “This kid is going to be special.”
Fisher wasn't surprised Winston went after his most-experienced defensive back on the play.
“He likes to be challenged,” Fisher said.
Unranked Pitt will present a formidable obstacle for the rookie quarterback, returning the nucleus of a defense that was ranked 17th nationally a year ago.
Winston hopes to benefit from an experienced offensive line that has a combined 80 starts.
The Seminoles' top receiver, Rashad Greene, has nursed a finger injury through the latter part of the preseason drills but is expected to play tonight.
“We can go with the ball anywhere,” said Winston, the latest prominent two-sport athlete at Florida State in a group that includes Deion Sanders and former Heisman Trophy quarterback Charlie Ward.
Winston spent a week being coached by Ward a year ago in a high school All-Star game in Texas.
“One thing about Charlie Ward, you can see it in his eye, he has that it factor,” Winston said. “I saw what he did on the field, he was great.”
Winston finds himself often compared to Ward — arguably the school's most favorite athlete among its fan base.
Ward, the 1993 Heisman winner, began his career as a redshirt junior with mixed results before settling into one of the most storied careers in the college game.
“It's just a new chapter in Florida State history,” said junior left tackle Cam Erving, who will have a bulk of the responsibility of keeping the new quarterback safe. “He has created his own identity with this team.”
Winston deflects credit to those around him and describes himself as little more than a cog despite the almost impossible expectations.
“It's us, instead of me,” Winston likes to say. “If we can get that us factor, who's going to beat us?”
Winston didn't nail down the starting assignment until last week after besting redshirt sophomore Jacob Coker during August drills to claim the starting job for the nationally televised Labor Day opener in the Steel City.
“We definitely learn from each other,” Coker said, adding that “when you're playing quarterback at Florida State, you're inheriting a lot of pressure.”
Especially with the buildup that has surrounded Winston.