It seems almost blasphemous to talk about now, but just over three months ago, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher was having trouble deciding who to name as the starting quarterback for his football team.
Lets just say he made the right choice.
The week prior to the Labor Day season-opener against Pittsburgh, the decision was made. I guess you could say history was made, as Jameis Winston was named starter for the Seminoles, and is now expected to bring the Heisman trophy back to Tallahassee in a landslide victory.
What if Jimbo Fisher had named Jacob Coker as the Seminoles' starter?
But before we get there, let's revert back to 2012 when Jameis Winston first stepped on campus. EJ Manuel, who had earned his right as starting quarterback after sitting behind Christian Ponder, was in no danger of losing his job, especially to the redshirted Winston. But I'm not so sure Winston wasn't the most talented quarterback on the team then. Winston obviously had much to learn -- and still does -- but it was hard not to recognize the abilities he possessed, both tangible and intangible. He was a leader and the players were drawn to him, even the veterans.
EJ Manuel took Winston under his wing, helping the youngster on and off the field, teaching him how to handle the pressure and how to be a leader. Winston has since expressed how they are practically brothers, and how important that relationship is to him. EJ knew. Everybody knew. Hell, Trent Dilfer said that Winston would be a future no.1 overall pick in the NFL draft before the kid even stepped foot on campus. And Bud and I knew it, too.
Winston not only traveled to away games, but the redshirted true freshman was thrown in the mix. He'd be on Fisher's shoulder as the head coach consulted Manuel on the sidelines. Fisher wanted Winston to be there for everything, the good and the bad. He wanted Winston to experience the pressure that comes along with being the starter and wanted him to see what kind of leader EJ Manuel was in any circumstance. He wanted Winston to learn how to keep his game face on no matter what.
Once the spring rolled around bringing baseball and spring football practice, Winston had a perfect opportunity to show all of his teammates the level of dedication, determination and competitiveness he carries on his shoulders by juggling responsibilities with both teams. Baseball brought a chance for fans to catch a glimpse of this kid that they had only heard of at that point. It brought standing ovations and mind-boggling inning-ending throws from right field. It left broadcasters giggling as they said, "that's Florida State's next quarterback," and inspiring speeches when the team was at its lowest. It brought back the excitement and wonder that comes along with a special talent, and it left fans anxious to find out whether or not Winston was going to be that guy for the football team, too. But even with all of that, it wasn't nearly enough to name him the starting quarterback.
Spring football practice began on March 20th and I still remember that first day walking out to the old intramural fields next to the stadium, as the new practice facility was yet to be completed. While we(the media) knew what the quarterback depth chart was going to look like heading into spring, the anticipation could still be cut with a knife. Winston started the spring as the third-string quarterback behind Clint Trickett and Jacob Coker, but it didn't take long to realize that Winston had something extra, something special that the other guys didn't - something unexplainable.
Maybe, at least for me, it was the little things.
I always had a sneaking suspicion that Jimbo kept Winston as the third-string quarterback throughout spring -- although he outplayed everyone -- simply because the ones ran with the threes, therefore Jimbo would have his hands-on time with Winston. And Fisher absolutely took advantage of that, shaping his young quarterback into the type of player he wants at the helm. Maybe, at least for me, it was the fact that even after Clint Trickett would work with the starting offensive line, Winston was the first to embrace and congratulate the big guys - they seemed to be his guys.
Maybe it was the day that practice went terribly wrong and Fisher stormed off in his golf cart sending the players to the locker room much earlier than usual. And the way that one player: Jameis Winston, stood by the chain-linked gate slapping every single Florida State football player on the backside while chanting words of encouragement, stressing that they come out better the next day. A few things were clear - this kid was special, he was a natural leader and this team was destined to be his.
But there was the playing field, too, and the time that Winston rolled out of a Karlos Williams safety blitz, slipped a Christian Jones sack and found Rashad Greene down field for a 60-yard+ touchdown leaving everybody in awe. Or his uncanny ability to escape the pocket and pick up the first down with his legs. Maybe it was the way Jimbo Fisher would smile. And for a kid that I referred to as "Jimbo's boy" when I would talk to Bud or my buddies, he was clearly out of place as the third-string quarterback.
The football field seemed to be Jameis Winston's playground.
And while his reputation has obviously grown as a quarterback throughout 2013, the Garnet and Gold Spring Game was most certainly his coming out party. It's where Winston, on his first snap and up against the first team defense, threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to walk-on David Tyrrell to beat the All-American Lamarcus Joyner down the right sideline. He would go on to finish the day 12-for-15 for 205 yards and two touchdowns, all against the first team defense that currently tops the nation. And while he had yet to sweep the nation off their feet, the Florida State fan-base was officially smitten. Clint Trickett would soon transfer to West Virginia and Jameis Winston became the favorite to win the starting job.
It seemed that everything was playing out perfectly for the redshirt freshman as the 'Noles began fall camp, but that's when things supposedly got interesting. Now that Trickett had transferred, it was officially a two-man competition for the starting job as fall practice began. And it was a healthy competition for both Winston and Coker because they drove each other to get better.
Jacob Coker, who had been slowed by injury during spring camp, really came out strong during the fall. I'd say Coker had the best fall of any quarterback. But it was never enough to separate himself from Winston, only enough to catch up after spring. But when the time came for Fisher to make his decision, it appeared to be a difficult one. It's rumored that Fisher wasn't sure until the morning of and requested advice from friend the night before.
But my opinion never changed - I had seen enough,
I remember walking out with the media to speak with Fisher following that day's practice. I already had something along the lines of "Winston will be the starter" typed into my Twitter application before Fisher even walked up. And I suspect I wasn't the only one. But he addressed us with a tired look on his face, as if the decision had been one of stress, and announced that Winston would be starting against Pittsburgh.
So, what if Jacob Coker had been named the starting quarterback? Would Florida State still be sitting on an undefeated season? Would he be making his way to the Heisman ceremony? These are all hypothetical questions, of course, but interesting to consider. I was an advocate for the thought that there was only a one win/loss difference between Winston and Coker with the talent that the Noles have top to bottom. But man, what a difference one loss would make at this point. And the Heisman? I can confidently say that I can't imagine Coker being in the position to win the Heisman, especially in a landslide. And even though I picked Winston as a sleeper for the Heisman, I didn't actually EXPECT him to win it THIS year. (I often expressed my expectations for 2014.)
So, had Coker been named the starter, I still see a one loss Florida State team playing in a bowl, maybe a BCS bowl. I don't see them in the national championship, though. And I don't see a Heisman Trophy winner.
So I think it's safe to say Fisher made the right decision and can now sleep soundly. And he should buy that friend a delicious IPA, too.
If you bring in a player like Jameis Winston to not only play and win, but to help recruit others, you have to play him. The players want to play for him, and you can now see this every time the Seminoles take the field. They fight for him because they know they'll get the same. Winston WILL win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, and may do it in a fashion that's never been done before. It's not even close.
Winston was voted the ACC Player of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year by the coaches in the conference. He has thrown for 3,820 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2013. He has a completion percentage of 67.9 and an adjusted QBR of 90.9. Winston has not only set the record for most touchdown passes by a Florida State quarterback, but he has also set the ACC record for the most touchdown passes thrown in a single season, as well as the FBS record for most touchdowns thrown as a freshman. He has taken the college football landscape by storm, and I believe he'll finish the year in the same fashion as he tries to lead his Seminoles to the promised land looking to bring the crystal ball back to Tallahassee.
If that decision was as difficult as Fisher made it out to be, he can now look back and know he made the right choice.
Well done, sir.