NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — He is the best player on the top-ranked team in college football.
But there is so much more to the Jameis Winston story, which will unveil its next chapter Monday night in the BCS national championship game between Florida State and Auburn.
Winston, FSU’s redshirt freshman who turns 20 Monday, began his collegiate career in September at Pittsburgh with a dazzling 25-of-27 passing effort and finished a Heisman Trophy-winning campaign with a four-touchdown, 389-yard performance against Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. Winston passed and ran for more than 4,000 yards in offense for the unbeaten Seminoles.
All good, bordering on great.
But there is another interpretation of the 6-foot-4-inch, 228-pound player’s portrait. This one is less flattering, prompted by sexual assault allegations over a year ago by a Florida State student when Winston was merely a name on the FSU depth chart, rather than an All-America QB.
Making the picture even murkier was the timeline: an incident in December 2012, accusations a month later, and the public revelation of the case this past November, when Winston’s notoriety was peaking.
In what turned into an instance of “he said, she said,” Tallahassee law enforcement officials said they did not feel comfortable enough with the evidence they had to file formal charges.
Fast-forward to the hoopla and hysteria surrounding the BCS title game, and Winston was again being asked to recall more than touchdown tidbits.
His reaction this week has been part dismissive, part defensive.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,’’ said Winston.
Winston then said that he is not concerned about his off-the-field image.
“What people think outside of this and what people are trying to do, I can’t control,’’ said Winston. “The football field is my sanctuary.’’
It has been a safe haven for the kid who grew up in Alabama as an Oklahoma fan, even though he also had a passion for Texas.
“Texas was my favorite,’’ said Winston, who considered Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama before choosing Florida State because the Seminoles allowed him an opportunity to also play baseball. “Through the whole recruiting process, I said to my coach, ‘We’ve got to get Texas on the phone.’ When I was young, I looked up to Vince Young. I always wanted to go to Texas, but the funny thing was I was an Oklahoma Sooners fan. So when Oklahoma came, I was like, ‘I’m an Oklahoma fan, but I really want to go to Texas.’ ”
Texas never called, but FSU coach Jimbo Fisher did.
“Jameis looks like he did right back when we were getting ready to play Pitt,’’ said Fisher. “He’s excited, but you see a guy whose grind and work affects his teammates extremely well.
“It’s hard for old guys to be consistent, let alone young guys, and he’s eliminated the clutter as far as controlling what he can control in the moment and that’s a very hard thing to do for a young guy.’’
Winston made it clear that he was capable of doing more than just taking snaps as early as spring practice. He talked about what he thought FSU could be. He had not played a down of college football, yet he was taking on a leadership role which seemed to come naturally to him.
“I told them [his teammates], ‘Guys, why can’t we blow out the other teams?’ ’’ said Winston.
For every game, FSU has done just that (with the exception of a 14-point win over Boston College).
Now the final hurdle is No. 2-ranked Auburn, a team which has shown enough lapses defensively to make it prone to a Winston-led charge, but enough toughness to fight back.
“The good thing is that we have faced some very good quarterbacks in our league,’’ said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. “Obviously he’s the Heisman Trophy winner. He can throw it, he can run it. But our big challenge is going to be keeping him off balance.’’
Winston says he is ready to close this season. So are his teammates. He says that he will look back on it — the football part, at least — with a sense of awe and wonder.
“It means a lot to me just because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’’ said Winston, who won’t be eligible to enter the NFL draft until after next season. “Obviously being in a national championship [game] in beautiful California, it’s an amazing experience.’’
As for the non-football issues, Winston says he sees the positives in those as well.
“Of course you know that adversity might come,” he said. “But adversity brought our team closer together and helped us get back on the train tracks, chugging some more. It helped me to keep going through that situation. It helped bring us closer together and get where we are now.’’