Jan. 3, 2014
Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead talks at Friday’s BCS Championship Game press conference (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – He stands 6-foot4 and weighs 230 pounds. His deep voice, deep and distinctive, is instantly recognizable. Jameis Winston is center-stage in any room or on the football field. He’s a redshirt freshman and the Heisman Trophy winner. He has led No. 1 Florida State to a 13-0 record and a BCS Championship Game showdown with No. 2 Auburn on Monday at the Rose Bowl.
And he is target No. 1 for Auburn’s defense.
“What the key is going to be is can we get pressure,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Friday. “We need to get pressure with four. We need to get pressure with pressure. It's going to be a big factor.
“… They have tremendous skill out on the edges, but the pressure in the box is going to be one of the biggest keys to any defensive success that we have. There will be some other things in the game we can't control. The kicking game, offense, all are going to contribute. But as far as us performing defensively and giving our football team a chance to win, there's got to be pressure on the quarterback.”
No Auburn defender pressures better than senior All-Southeastern Conference defensive end Dee Ford, who leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks and 17 quarterback pressures. He’s been at his best in big moments in big games. And games don’t get any bigger than the last one of his college career.
“We definitely know what we have to do,” Ford said. “I think, pressure makes any quarterback average. We definitely want to put pressure on this quarterback, really affect his decisions. That's what we're working to do.”
Winston, who played at Hueytown High School, knows the pressure is coming. He’s been dealing with pressure all season – on the field and off the field in the wake of allegations of sexual assault. Through it all, he has persevered and emerged as the nation’s most decorated college football player. He has completed 237 of 349 passes for 3820 yards and 38 touchdowns. He has thrown 10 interceptions and has been sacked 23 times.
For Winston, who will turn 20 on Monday, there is no place he’d rather be, nothing he’d rather be doing.
“When you've got the opportunity to play in a national championship game and your team is the only team on television, and then this game on my birthday, we're not going out there just to play around,” Winston said. “We're not going out there to take anybody for granted. We're going out there to play a great game.
“We're going out there to do what we came here to do every single game, 13 games. It's not over yet. We've got a 14th one, and why not end this year with a victory?”
Senior Auburn defensive tackle Nosa Eguae knows what it’s like to celebrate a national championship. He was a starting defensive end as a redshirt freshman when Auburn beat Oregon 22-19 to win the 2010 national championship.
“It's all about affecting the quarterback,” Eguae said. “That's what it's all about. You know, up front, it’s our job is to go out there and make it hard for him. We're going to go out there and do that to the best of our ability. We've been working. Coach (Rodney) Garner has been working us day in, day out, focusing on the little things, focusing on the technique. We know that's our job, and we're going to go out there and get it done.”
A pass rush alone won’t be enough to contain Winston, who has led Florida State to 37 points or more in every game this season. Auburn’s secondary will feel the heat, too.
Robenson Therezie, who plays the hybrid star safety position, says Winston hasn’t seen anything in the Atlantic Coast Conference like he will see from Auburn’s defense.
“I don't think he's seen the front four he's about to face on January 6th,” Therezie said. “It's a completely different front four than he's ever faced. I don't think he's seen a secondary all year like our secondary. It's completely different from all the other leagues he's played in. We're just ready to play.”
Winston, Johnson says, will make plays. Auburn’s defense, he says, must limit those plays to have a chance at success.
“He can make any throw on the field,” Johnson said. “I think he's a tremendous leader for a young player. He's obviously, I think, handled things extremely well. The pressure of going undefeated if you've never done it before, it's different, and each game it mounts. Some people can't handle it. Recent weeks have shown that.”
Junior safety Jermaine Whitehead, who signed with Auburn a month after the 2010 national championship, says there is no denying Winton’s talent. But he says he and his teammates are prepared for the challenge.
“He brings a lot to the table for his team,” Whitehead said. “He offered them the leadership role, and the guys on his team believe in him. You know their goal is to make unbelievable plays for him. I think the goal of my teammates is to get him out of his comfort zone and have him rattled early. I think it's going to be a great day for us.”
Though he was not charged after a Florida State student alleged he had sexually assaulted her, Winston has heard continuing criticism. The victim’s lawyer continues to say Winston assaulted her client. The football field, he says, has been his sanctuary.
“I can’t control what other people’s motives are,” Winston said. “What I can control is what I do on the football field every single day and how I react around my teammates. That's what we really focus on, because it's not over yet. Obviously, we've got a great Auburn team that we've got to face, and it's an actual rivalry game for me because I'm playing the home state team.
“What people think outside of this and what people are trying to do, I can't control any of that. I just go out there and play football because I enjoy it and I love it and it's my passion. I've got these boys around me, and that's what we love to do, go out there and play Florida State football.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: