CLEMSON — The first time Tajh Boyd was asked about Jameis Winston the quarterback, Boyd couldn’t help but gush over Winston the pitcher.
“I’ve seen him throw the ball from the outfield to home plate,” Boyd said at ACC Media Days in Greensboro, N.C. “Unbelievable. I’m kind of terrible at baseball.”
Boyd’s a little better with an oblong-shaped ball in his right hand. Winston’s pretty good, too. The day after Winston captured the nation’s attention in Florida State’s 41-13 win at Pitt (25 for 27, 356 yards, 4 touchdowns in his college debut), Boyd was asked again about the phenom.
“Impressive. Impressive guy. To come out and play that composed as a freshman, it’s impressive,” Boyd said on Sept. 3. “So it was exciting to watch him. There was a lot of hype coming out of spring, and I thought he came out and played outstanding.”
But let’s not forget about Boyd’s accomplishments. On the same day Winston made his debut at Pitt, Boyd led Clemson to a season-opening victory over Georgia and launched Clemson up the rankings, where it now resides at No. 3 in the country.
So Clemson’s got what No. 5 Florida State craves: a seat riding shotgun in the BCS national championship race car currently co-driven by Alabama and Oregon.
Boyd and Winston, concurrently, are on the short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. Boyd’s the classic veteran who’s the clear best player on one of the best teams. Winston’s doppelganger is Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, who took home the Heisman last year as a redshirt freshman aided by a marquee road victory at Alabama.
If Winston guides his team to victory Saturday night, the Manziel comparison would grow even more eerily similar. But he’ll have to outshine Boyd, who Winston admires despite never having met him.
“I have to have the utmost respect for him, because he’s led his team to winning seasons every year he’s played there,” Winston said. “Obviously he has a great effect on the players around him, because they follow him … when you’re a great player and you get people to follow you, that’s when people know you’re the real deal and scouts know you can lead a team.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in college football right now.”
Both players redshirted: Boyd in 2009, Winston in 2012. Although Boyd’s career numbers dwarf Winston’s for obvious reasons, they’re each among the top passers in the country, which is why all eyes will be on them when FSU and Clemson duel for ACC supremacy Saturday night.
“He manages the game well. He’s an older guy, so he’s been there, done that,” Winston said. “He does a lot of things phenomenal. There’s things I can pick up from his game and add to mine.”
Here’s a look at the specific skills each player possesses:
Gotta respect a guy who’s hitting the target 73.2 percent of the time, third in the country in completion percentage. The only three passers over 70 percent with fewer than three picks are Winston, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Baylor’s Bryce Petty. No other freshman is above 66 percent, and by the way, Boyd’s 2013 mark is 66.5 (career: 63.1.)
Winston fumbled once in the opener against Pitt, the Seminoles got it back and he has not dropped the ball since. He’s only gotten picked off twice this year, same as Boyd. But Boyd has two interceptions and three fumbles (none lost) in the last three games. He led the Tigers in fumbles in 2012.
Well, actually, the boyish part is strangely similar to Boyd. They both seem like big kids in a candy store around the media. But Winston was pretty much in a “bring it on” mood when talking about Death Valley. Despite Clemson fans scoffing on message boards and Twitter, what do you expect he’ll say? “I’m scared, I’m dreading this, please don’t pick on me”? He’ll need that naïve courage Saturday night.
In short-yardage situations on third or fourth down, Boyd has been successful running the ball 10 of 14 times. And that’s usually when everybody in the stadium knows he’s calling his own number. Plus, everyone has seen the shots he’s taken from bigger linebackers and faster defensive backs, but he keeps getting back up and rarely misses snaps.
Boyd was impressed with Winston’s arm strength on a diamond. But Winston’s longest passing gain so far is 56 yards. Boyd has five pickups eclipsing 60 yards on the year. Whereas all of Winston’s 17 touchdown tosses have been concentrated to five receivers, the Tigers have shattered a school record with touchdown receptions by 11 different players.
Give Winston credit for shining on Labor Day night at Pitt, and eviscerating Maryland 63-0. But he’s yet to slay a dragon. Boyd was at the controls for wins over No. 9 LSU (Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31) and No. 5 Georgia on Aug. 31, making Clemson the first non-SEC team to defeat two top-10 SEC members in consecutive games. Throw in his other triumphs over ranked teams — Auburn twice, Virginia Tech twice, and Florida State — and Boyd’s a proven big-game winner.