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FSU QB Winston embraces Heisman chase

TALLAHASSEE — Jameis Winston’s freshman season at Florida State was the stuff of legend: Unbeaten, 14-0 record. Conference and national championships. NCAA record-number of points scored in a season.

And the coveted Heisman Trophy.

He also found himself ensnared in a variety of alleged legal offenses that dogged him all season, ranging from property damage to sexual assault. He wasn’t as fortunate, meanwhile, when he was cited for misdemeanor shoplifting over $30 crab legs from a North Florida grocery store during the offseason this summer.

With maturity questions swirling, Winston discussing becoming a multisport star and expectations rising with FSU’s ranking, the redshirt sophomore vows not to buckle.

“I’m going to continue to be myself,” Winston said in his only media availability granted by FSU in August. “I did have to learn I had to be more guarded. But I’m always going to continue to be myself, man. That’s never going to change. As long as my teammates see that, people can have their opinions about me.

“But it’s a new year, man. A new beginning. Got to stay hungry.”

With 4,057 yards passing, 40 TDs and an offense that made college football history with 723 total points scored, Winston ate well last year.

Just 19, the former No. 1 high school recruit in the nation from Hueytown, Ala., drew comparisons to Manning and Rodgers, and most expect him to only grow as he gains a firm grasp of the offense.

Now, all eyes are on him to see if he can do it again. And Winston is confident he won’t disappoint.

“I’m going to be great. Better than I was last year,” he said. “But I haven’t set any individual goals. Just team goals. And the first goal is winning the national championship.”

Winston should once again have the tools around him to do that, too. FSU returns 15 starters, most notably nearly all of its offensive line — and that means plenty of time once again for Jameis to be Jameis.

“People say, after the season he had, how could he get better?” Senior wideout Christian Green said. “Well, the answer is, ‘A lot of ways’ — and he has.”

Oddsmakers like Winston’s chances to repeat as well, installing him as the early 4-to-1 favorite to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy over second-favorite Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota (8-to-1), followed by UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley (13-to-2).

Mariota is already being trumpeted as the No. 1 overall NFL prospect by NFLDraftScout.com - Winston is No. 6 - and was the All-American quarterback pick of multiple national outlets.

But that doesn’t seem to bother the ever-confident Winston. He realizes that last year is just that — and the race to this season’s Heisman is once again officially wide open.

“You’ve got to get better every day,” Winston said. “Can’t live in the past.”

Other candidates for the 2014 Heisman Trophy race include:

RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

Don’t be surprised if the junior from Athens is holding the trophy in New York by the end of the season. Gurley is arguably the best running back in college football, and with the Bulldogs breaking in a new quarterback, look for UGA to feature Gurley heavily. His injury-plagued 2013 season still resulted in 989 yards rushing and 441 receiving and 16 total TDs. Georgia’s only Heisman winner in history, RB Herschel Walker (1982), gushed about Gurley recently, saying: “He’s a very, very good ball player. The guy has got so much talent.”

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

Tigers backup QB Jeremy Johnson has already publicly predicted that Marshall will win the Heisman this year. A show of support by a fellow teammate doesn’t make you a preseason Heisman favorite, but leading your team to within 13 seconds of the national championship — and returning scores of the players who helped get you there — does. Marshall’s dual-threat numbers in 2013 were just off the charts: 1,068 rushing yards, 1,976 passing yards and 26 total TDs — and that’s after he arrived at Auburn as a JUCO transfer with just a few months to learn the Tigers’ complicated offense. He’s had more than a year to master it now — and that’s a scary thought.