The mark of a great player isn't how well he performs when things are going well, but the championship traits that he displays when he doesn't have his "A" game. While most focus on physical characteristics when evaluating players, it is the grit, determination and leadership skills that an elite player shows in critical moments that typically translates to success at the next level.
After watching Jameis Winston lead Florida State to the BCS national championship despite enduring one of the worst performances of his brief career, I believe the Heisman Trophy winner is not only the top player in college football, but he is destined to be a championship quarterback at the next level. Here's why:
Anytime a prospect plays multiple sports at the Division I level it speaks volumes about his athleticism. Winston is a standout baseball player (right fielder/pitcher) with pro potential at either position. While most would cite his impressive arm talent as a key factor in his athletic evaluation, I believe Winston displays better movement skills than most quarterbacks in college football. He is slippery and elusive on the perimeter; Winston displays enough strength and power to run through arm tackles. Those traits make him difficult to bring down in isolated situations in the pocket.
Although he was sacked four times during the game, Winston's 48 rushing yards featured a number of impromptu scrambles that kept the Seminoles' offense on schedule. I wouldn't put Winston in the same category as Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton as a runner, but he is certainly a credible running threat with the potential to extend plays on the perimeter. Given the need to avoid and elude rushers at the NFL level, Winston's athleticism will make him a desirable player in a system that features traditional drop backs and movement-based plays in the game plan.
Winston can make every throw in the book with zip and velocity. He has unlimited range on the deep ball, while also showing the ability to make tightrope tosses to the boundary from the opposite hash. Winston's superior arm strength allows him to use the entire field, forcing defenders to respect the deep ball at all times. From a touch and trajectory standpoint, Winston can shape his throws to fit balls into tight windows. He dropped a pinpoint pass to Kelvin Benjamin down the boundary on the second series of the second half that showcased his deft touch as a vertical thrower. I must point out that Winston was woefully inaccurate in the first half (6 of 15 for 62 yards). He missed throws high and wide, particularly on balls thrown outside the numbers to the right. While some of that could be attributed to big-game jitters, the fact that he sailed a few out of bounds is a bit of a concern for a guy with his level of talent.
The toughest part of the quarterback evaluation is assessing a prospect's feel in the pocket. The advent of the bubble screen and various pick-and-stick routes makes it easy for the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands before the pocket collapses. Florida State is one of the few teams on the college landscape that doesn't employ these quick-hit routes, so the BCS championship game provided plenty of opportunities to see Winston perform throws from the pocket against a defense with several NFL-caliber athletes along the frontline. Looking at Winston's footwork and fundamentals against Auburn, it was obvious that he was uncomfortable in the pocket for most of the night. He didn't consistently deliver throws from a balanced throwing platform, leading to inaccurate throws from the pocket.
Additionally, Winston appeared to look at the rush at various stages of the game, with Dee Ford and Co. wreaking havoc off the edges. Although sacks and consistent pressure rattle most quarterbacks, the elite players at the position are able to sense the pass rush, while also keeping their eyes down the field to identify open receivers. Winston struggled with that part of the game against Auburn. He repeatedly lost sight of available receivers between the hashes and outside the numbers with rushers in close proximity, resulting in sacks, pressures and incompletions against blitz pressure.
Winston also struggled fitting throws into small windows, especially over the middle. He refused to decisively unleash anticipatory throws between multiple defenders inside the numbers. By hesitating before releasing the ball on those throws, Winston allowed Auburn's linebackers and safeties to make plays on the ball at the moment of truth.
In the fourth quarter, however, Winston started to let the ball go on time. He whistled a slant past multiple defenders to hit Kelvin Benjamin on a critical pass that resulted in a key first down in the red zone. He followed that up with a timely swing pass to Chad Abram for a touchdown that closed the deficit to a point. Most important, Winston found his groove on the game's final drive, leading his team to a game-winning touchdown by flawlessly executing a two-minute drill. Winston's resiliency and determination allowed him to display exceptional poise with the game on the line despite an erratic performance during the first half.
Winston had been superb at identifying the defense's intentions in the pre-snap phase during the regular season. He was rarely fooled by exotic disguise in the secondary; he routinely made the proper read in the passing game. This is certainly unusual for a first-time starter, but his rapid development is one of the reasons Winston emerged as the Heisman Trophy winner this season. Against Auburn, Winston appeared confused by the relentless press-man and blitz tactics employed by the Tigers. Winston hesitated before pulling the trigger on timing routes, leading to sacks and furious scrambles from the pocket. Moreover, the confusing tactics disrupted his rhythm as a playmaker. To his credit, Winston appeared to settle in near the end of the third quarter. He connected on a few timing throws and found his secondary receiver when his initial read was covered. This was critical on the drive that pulled the Seminoles to within a point in the fourth quarter. Most important, it was essential to his success on the game-winning drive that helped Florida State secure the crystal ball.
NFL scouts covet quarterbacks with the ability to win games in the fourth quarter. Franchise quarterbacks thrive in those conditions, resulting in impressive wins on their career resumes. Winston had the ball in his hands with the game on the line with a 1:11 on clock in the fourth quarter and two timeouts at his disposal. He quickly fired off a quick hitch to Rashad Greene for a momentum builder and followed it with a dart on a quick slant to take the ball down to the 23-yard line. Winston then calmly collected his thoughts and tossed a screen pass to Devonta Freeman to put the ball inside the 18-yard line. He delivered an accurate toss to Danny Shaw on a short crosser for a first down with a little more than 30 seconds on the clock.
After an incompletion to Greene, he tossed a flare to Freeman to put the ball at the 5-yard line. A delay of game penalty pushed the ball back to 10-yard line, creating a third-and-8 with a little more than 20 ticks on the clock. After a pass interference penalty placed the ball at the 2-yard line, Winston perfectly executed a play fake in the backfield before delivering a dart to Kelvin Benjamin for the game-winning score. The ball was placed high and away from the defender, making it impossible to defend. Overall, Winston drove the Seminoles 80 yards on 6 of 7 passing for 77 yards to cement his standing as one of the ultimate clutch players in college football.
Winston will undoubtedly enter next fall as the top quarterback prospect in the 2015 class. He has exhibited franchise quarterback qualities as a first-time starter, including big-game moxie. Watching Winston perform in the BCS championship game, I believe he definitely has room to grow as a player, but there is no doubt in my mind that he has the "it" factor that coaches and scouts look for in franchise quarterbacks. He bounced back from a disappointing first half to rally his team back from an 18-point deficit. Sure, it wasn't always pretty, but it was the kind of gutty performance that will endear Winston to his current and future teammates. With coaches and scouts known to place added emphasis on big-game performance and clutch playmaking, Winston will be hard to supplant as the top quarterback prospect in next year's class.