Sometimes, it takes two Maryland football players to simulate an opposing quarterback in practice, so this week both Perry Hills and Shane Cockerille have assumed the unenviable task of imitating Jameis Winston, Florida State’s standout redshirt freshman. Cockerille, a southpaw freshman from Baltimore, was a dual-threat quarterback at Gilman High School, so his versatility can mirror Winston’s improvisational style. As for Hills? Well, Hills is a brick.
“He’s a great athlete, to get him down, I think you’re going to have to tackle him low,” Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said Wednesday of Winston. “I think he ducks, or he’s too big to tackle him high, I think you have to tackle him like a big Ben Roethlisberger guy.”
Stewart’s comments came one day after Maryland Coach Randy Edsall compared Winston to former Florida State and current Buffalo Bills signal-caller E.J. Manuel. Both pro quarterbacks are stable in the pocket, nearly impossible to bring down and tough as nails, just like Hills.
The No. 25 Terps are preparing for Saturday’s game against the No. 8 Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium, where Stewart has never been except for working out prospects as an NFL coach. His schematic capabilities will be tested against Winston, his arboretum of tree-like receivers and all the accompanying hype that they’ll bring to the stadium.
“He’s a big kid. He’s 6-4, every bit of 230 and he can move,” Maryland linebacker Cole Farrand said of Winston. “He’s definitely athletic, which always brings in a new factor when you’re facing a new quarterback like that, but we’re confident we’ll be able to do well against him.”
But Stewart knows that Winston isn’t Florida State’s only playmaker. The Seminoles have quietly – if that’s at all possible in Tallahassee – averaged 239.5 rushing yards per game, a number almost perfectly balanced with its 293.2 passing yards per game. Devonta Freeman has averaged 8.7 yards on his team-best 37 carries. Karlos Williams has averaged 9.3 yards on 23 carries and James Wilder Jr. averages 5.8 on 30. Winston has scrambled 29 times for 111 yards.
With its hurry-up principles and bounty of playmakers, Florida State stuns opponents with back-breaking runs. The Seminoles have two offensive plays of at least 60 yards this season: Freeman and Williams, both on the ground. So if you ask Stewart how he plans to limit the Seminoles, even after he heaped praise onto Winston’s passing abilities, he gives the only logical answer.
“Our basic defensive philosophy is stop the run, then make the team one-dimensional and play from there,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do: Load the box, stop the run, then try to be one-dimensional. The score of the game also helps that. Then we’ll be able to play the pass game from there.”
How might that go? Cornerbacks Will Likely (listed at 5 feet 7) and Isaac Goins (5-11) can’t out-jump Florida State’s receivers, so will Stewart trust them enough to strand them on an island in one-on-one coverage? Or will Maryland try to impose its will by staying true to its principles, going heavy on nickel and dime coverages and furious edge blitzing?
“Watching us play, West Virginia we didn’t play a man coverage at all,” Stewart said of the Terrapins’ 37-0 win on Sept. 21. “We were able to cover the routes, be where we’re supposed to be. Every game presents a different challenge. We just go through the flow of the game. As we prepare for them, I’ve got confidence in all the DBs from [safety] Sean Davis and Will Likely, that we can handle it if we want to play some man, we can do that at a high level.”
Florida State’s tallest receiver, 6-5 sophomore Kelvin Benjamin, attended Glades Central High School down in the Florida muck with Likely, Maryland’s shortest defensive back. Likely eschewed an offer from the Seminoles, instead moving north to College Park, but will face a sizable height disadvantage. He hasn’t had any problems thus far, and excels in nickel and dime blitzes off the edge anyway.
“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 we can attack him also.”
But how do you scheme, knowing this particular disadvantage won’t change?
“All hands on deck as far as that’s concerned,” Stewart said. “The flow of the game really dictates the rotation and who’s going to come in, come out. I can’t really answer that, to be perfectly honest with you. I think he’s one of our better defensive backs, so I think he’ll be on the field.”