July 3, 2011

Winston faces tough choice

HUEYTOWN | Consider the recruitment of Jameis Winston a perfect curveball. Right now, it's headed directly toward the plate, Winston poised to accept one of among dozens of scholarship offers to play college football when he announces his decision sometime this month.

But sooner or later the spin changes the trajectory of the ball. It veers wildly off course, leaving the hitter baffled -- or in this case, if Winston gets drafted early in the 2012 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, accepts the large paycheck that comes with that and leaves one college football program and its fan base incredibly frustrated.

Such is the recruitment and the dilemma facing colleges in pursuit of Winston, the No. 1-ranked player in Alabama's Most Wanted, The Tuscaloosa News' rankings of the state's top 50 players.

Winston, a rising senior quarterback, center fielder, short stop and pitcher at Hueytown High School, is the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2012 class as ranked by Rivals.com. He's the No. 3 overall quarterback and the 52nd-overall player regardless of position.

This week the 6-foot-4, 200-pound phenom was named one of 24 finalists for the 2011 Elite 11 quarterback skills competition, where he will compete in Malibu, Calif., on July 18-22. The competition will be showcased on ESPN in August with two one-hour specials. He has already accepted a bid to play in the Under Armour All-American Game in Orlando in January, 2012.

On the flip side, Winston is the No. 85 amateur prospect eligible for the 2012 MLB Draft, according to Perfect Game USA, a baseball scouting service. Winston, a switch hitter who throws right-handed, just recently returned from the Perfect Game National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla. There, he threw a ball from center field to home plate that clocked at 93 mph. His fastball topped out at 92.

To say the least, he's a busy 17-year-old, balancing all the stresses that come with weighing a college decision and, potentially, a career decision that could change his and his family's lives. And all the while, he has mostly well-meaning fans, friends, family and strangers in his ear about what he should do.
"I hear that stuff every day," Winston said. "Actually Hueytown is an Auburn town, so I hear a lot of 'War Eagle' and all that stuff. I really don't care. I just look at them and say, 'All right.' I won't say 'War Eagle,' but I'll say 'War Cam Eagle' because I like Cam Newton. And I'll say 'Roll Tide' occasionally, especially since that commercial came out on ESPN where everybody was like, 'Roll Tide.'"

His suitors come from all across the country, although most seem to acknowledge that the chances of signing the two-sport star aren't realistic. It's been clear for most of the spring that the University of Alabama and Florida State are the leaders for his services. with LSU, Stanford and UCLA also under consideration.

He said he's enjoyed the process for the most part, save one exception. "They don't ever get my name right. They call me Jamie, James, Ja-May-is. It's Jame-is."

He's met with all of his finalists and expressed in no uncertain terms a desire to play both football and baseball in college. He and his dad, Antonor Winston, have made it clear that playing both sports is non-negotiable. The Winstons say Alabama presented a plan that allows Winston to play both.

It's not hard to make concessions when you consider Winston's production.

He threw for 2,342 yards and 18 touchdowns, connecting on 65 percent of his attempts while throwing only four interceptions his junior season. He added 870 more yards and 11 touchdowns rushing on his way to being selected to the ASWA Class 5A first-team All-State squad. In baseball, he hit .424 with seven home runs and 15 doubles, and went 8-3 with 92 strikeouts as a pitcher.

The pressure is on for Winston to choose one of the two in-state powers, but he said Auburn hasn't made him a priority like other schools.

"The schools recruiting me the hardest have to be Alabama and Florida State and LSU," he said. "They really want me. Since Auburn has Zeke Pike, they've kind of backed off.

"With Alabama, well, you know, it's just home. It's home. Coach (Jim) McElwain is a great coach. Coach (Nick) Saban, he's known for his system. You're going to run his system, a great pro-style offense, and you're going to win some national championships."

Winston's football coach, Matt Scott, has been at the center of his recruitment. Hueytown became such a college recruiter's destination this spring that there were days when Scott and his assistants couldn't do their work until the evening. As many as 50 colleges dropped by the Birmingham suburb to get a look at Winston and teammates Cameron Broadnax and Chris Raab. Mainly they were there to talk about Winston.

"One day we had Princeton, Oklahoma and Oregon in here at the same time just talking ball," Scott said. "You could see that Jameis had the tools in between his freshman and sophomore year. The scary part is he can still get better. One thing he has to work on, he's so long that sometimes he'll really get spread out. It's amazing. Sometimes you'll see him throw a ball and it's a laser and his feet are so far apart. He's really trying to shorten things up in his drops and keep his feet under him a little bit more.

"He's a great leader. He has no patience for anybody that he don't think is putting out and doing their best."

It will get interesting next summer. As incoming freshmen are reporting to their college programs, Winston could get drafted in the MLB draft. The 2011 MLB draft began on June 6. Alabama freshmen football players reported at the end of May.

The Tuscaloosa News spoke with two scouts who said that Winston will face a tough decision.

"The kid's got something special in him," one scout said. "In my opinion, he's a natural. He has all the physical attributes we look for. He's big, strong, has a great arm. He's not as polished as some others, but he has all the tools. Plus, he's got the intangibles we're looking for. He doesn't walk around like a prima donna, like some big-named football and baseball prospects we've seen before. He'll be a top-flight follow for me. He'll be scouted by every team."

Another scout said he will evaluate Winston "maybe seven times before next summer."

"There will be a lot of interest in taking him extremely high in the draft," the scout said. "It's 11 months out, but I'm expecting a lot of conversations about him early in the draft. I know he's a priority guy for me to evaluate. He'll have some big decisions to make next year."

Former Alabama football player Justin Woodall is an example of a two-sport athlete who turned down the big money baseball threw at him out of high school. Woodall was drafted by the New York Mets in the 2006 draft and offered a reported $1.6 million signing bonus, but opted to play football at Alabama and started at safety on the Crimson Tide's 2009 national championship team. He was subsequently drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 26th round of the 2010 draft.

Another factor Winston must weigh is the set of changes in store for next year's MLB draft.

Hard-slotting with be one of the issues on the table as MLB and the MLB Players Association negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (the current CBA expires this year). Hard-slotting would assign a dollar amount to each pick.

"Well it's going to be a big situation with the money," Winston said. "Me, I'm just taking it slow because that's next year. Some people thought I was getting drafted this year. I'm just going to take it slow. If that opportunity comes and it's a good opportunity for me and my family, we're going to sit down and talk about it. That could be big, but I'm 17 years old. I'm trying to spend some time with my girlfriend. I'm just trying to live my senior year the way it should be and not worry about the recruiting and all the other stuff.

"I never looked at myself as being the top recruit. I just knew I was always on a mission. That was one of my goals to be one of the top players in the country. But like I said, I ain't finished yet. So I always try to keep my head level. All this ranking stuff really don't matter to me."

No one knows for certain what Winston will decide if he's picked early. Not even Winston. But those close to him won't be shocked to see him playing on Saturdays.

"People say you can't turn down three or four million," Scott said. "Don't be shocked if he does. He's wired different. There is no question that he wants to go play college football and college baseball."

Reach Aaron Suttles at [email protected] or at 205-722-0229.

...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now!