Winston brings big-play mindset to FSU

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- On defense, Boston College hardly resembles the unit that coughed up an average of 455 yards per game and allowed Florida State to hang 51 points on it a year ago.

Jameis Winston has studied the tape, evaluated the tendencies. Under first-year defensive coordinator Don Brown, this new Boston College defense likes to be aggressive, Winston said, and that's got the FSU quarterback excited.

"In Coach Fisher's offense, we like the opportunities to make big plays when people blitz us," Winston said.

Indeed, the numbers underscore Winston's eagerness to face a blitz-happy defense.

Through three games this season, Winston has been nearly flawless in the face of an aggressive pass rush. When a defense brings five or more rushers, he's completed 19-of-23 passes (83 percent), averaged 12 yards per attempt and thrown six touchdown passes without an interception.

In other words, Winston relishes the opportunity to beat defenses at their own game.

"Me, personally, I love when they blitz because I have a veteran offensive line," Winston said. "They know when something's coming."

But the big plays haven't been limited to blitz situations this year. Winston is always looking for a home run, and that's been a bit of a culture change for the offense thus far.

Earlier this week, Jimbo Fisher was asked about the lack of passes thrown to running backs in the early going. He responded with humorous contempt. For years, Fisher said, media and fans lambasted his conservative take. Now, Florida State's offense was aiming high, and he was being asked about the lack of checkdowns.

The question was a pertinent one though. Last season, 22 percent of Florida State's receptions were made by running backs or fullbacks. So far this season, that number has been cut in half.

The reasons are many for the change in style.

Personnel is one culprit. Lonnie Pryor and Chris Thompson, who accounted for 34 of FSU's 64 receptions by running backs in 2012, are gone. Thompson played in just nine games, but still finished with more receptions than anyone else in FSU's backfield last year.

The defenses Florida State has faced have provided another explanation. Pittsburgh, Nevada and Bethune-Cookman don't exactly present the same challenges that Alabama might, and Fisher said the big-play opportunities have been open more often.

"Right now those throws are there," Fisher said. "In practice we [checkdown]. Our quarterbacks are staying in the progressions. But when we're getting in the progressions [on game day] those guys are open and we're getting vertical down the field."

But even that can't explain all of it. Compare Florida State's first three games of this year to the first three it played in 2012 -- against two FCS teams and a woeful Wake Forest defense -- when the Seminoles outscored opponents by a combined 176-3. Even then, the checkdowns by last season's quarterback, EJ Manuel, were far more prevalent, with nearly 17 percent of completions going to running backs.

The biggest difference might just be Winston, who has made it clear he likes to look downfield first and foremost -- even if his coach has other ideas.

"When he says I'm getting too aggressive, that means I'm making decisions off emotions and not off of business," Winston said by way of explaining his touchdown throw to Kelvin Benjamin last week following a botched read. "When you start making decisions off wanting the big touchdown instead of getting that crumb, get that first down, drive the ball downfield, that's when mistakes start to happen."

But there's not much of a case to be made against Winston's philosophy thus far. When he's thrown long, he's found success.

Here are the numbers for Manuel's first three games of 2012 vs. Winston's success in his first three games of 2013, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info.

Manuel was clearly more conservative, with 66 percent of his throws going 10 yards or fewer and just 49 percent of his passing yards coming from throws beyond 10 yards. Winston, on the other hand, has looked for bigger plays on 44 percent of his throws, and those have accounted for 66 percent of his passing yards. His lone interception did come on a deep ball -- a throw he admits he never should have made -- but six of his eight TD passes have been on throws of 11 yards or longer.

The numbers aren't so much an indictment of Manuel, who went on to be the first quarterback taken in the NFL, but a glimpse at the mind-set Winston brings to the offense.

Whether it continues as the games get bigger and the defenses get tougher is still an open debate, but it's clear he's more than happy to take his shots whenever he can.

"I would always rather say 'Whoa,' than 'Giddy up,'" Fisher said. "I like the aggression, the going at it."