Marcus Whitfield and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil face a troubling dilemma tomorrow. The two Terrapins football outside linebackers have become accustomed to blowing past offensive tackles and sprinting toward quarterbacks, but if they employ that tactic tomorrow, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston may use his speed to evade the pressure and run for a big gain.
Of course, the Terps’ pass-rushing duo could lay off Winston in an effort to keep him in the pocket. In that case, though, the redshirt freshman signal-caller might end up beating the Terps with his arm. Winston has proven capable of finding any one of his multiple play-making receivers when given time to throw.
“He’s tough to get down, tough to tackle. He’s extending plays, he’s out there playing like he’s a Heisman or something,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “We’re really going to have to do our job this week to contain him.”
The Terps defense has been good this year — it ranks sixth in the nation in total defense, giving up 263.8 yards per game — but it hasn’t faced an offense nearly as dynamic as Florida State’s. And quite frankly, the Terps won’t be able to rely on a base defense and pure talent to slow down Winston and the Seminoles.
To do that, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart is going to have to play a big role. The former head of the Houston defense, Stewart has developed a reputation as an aggressive play-caller who loves to blitz and concoct unique defensive looks.
Against a more talented team tomorrow, Stewart will be charged with finding various ways to pressure Winston while still keeping him contained. He’ll need to disguise coverages to make it difficult for Winston to find the open receiver. And he’ll need to think of ways to help the Terps generate some turnovers.
Conversely, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and offensive coordinator James Coley don’t need to conjure up any intricate schemes; they just need to help Winston — who has thrown for 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions — read Stewart’s defenses.
“They can mix you up different looks defensively, different packages,” Fisher said. “Three down, four down, blitzing from all different angles, create a lot of different problems in coverage, whether they blitz or they don’t blitz.”
Stewart could also play a part in taking some pressure off of the Terps’ cornerbacks.
Florida State’s top three wide receivers — Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin — all stand at least 6 feet tall, and Benjamin is 6-foot-5. The Terps, meanwhile, will send 5-foot-11 Issac Goins and 5-foot-7 Will Likely out to defend them.
The Terps coaching staff appears confident in the two cornerbacks, both of whom have been thrust into starting roles because of injuries but admit they’ll be at a physical disadvantage.
Not to mention Seminoles tight end Nick O’Leary, grandson of golfing great Jack Nicklaus, adds a potent target with a knack for finding seams in the defense to Florida State’s offensive arsenal.
“Nothing we can do with genetics at this point in time,” Stewart said. “But what we can do is make sure we have a plan, a plan in place if they want to do some jump balls and we’re able to attack [Winston] also.”
Winston has done a terrific job using all those skill players so far this season, and there’s no doubt he can make plays himself. If you saw Winston’s 55-yard touchdown pass at the end of the first half Saturday at Boston College, you don’t need to be reminded of his talents.
On that play, the 6-foot-4 Seminole broke two tackles and threw a strike 55 yards in the air to put the Seminoles up, 24-17, at the half.
With his raw skill, standout numbers and apparent composure, it’s easy to forget Winston is a freshman. But just because he’s been proficient four games into his college career doesn’t mean Winston isn’t prone to the typical mistakes first-year players make.
That’s why Stewart’s aggressive and diverse play-calling will be so important come Saturday. Winston has proven he can carve up defenses, but does he have the intelligence and experience to adjust to new looks?
Maybe he does. Maybe Winston makes the Terps pay for the blitzes yet still recognizes when the team drops back in coverage and Stewart’s plans are thwarted.
But being unpredictable gives the Terps a shot to slow him down. And at the very least, Stewart can take Whitfield and Cudjoe-Virgil out of their tricky situation and place Florida State’s phenomenal freshman in one.
“I think Winston’s doing a great job right now as a redshirt freshman as far as controlling the offense, getting the ball to the right guys, reading the coverages,” Stewart said. “He’s a special player. It’s a great challenge for us.”