NEW BRITAIN - Aaron Winchester stood quiet for a moment and then broke out a slight smile.
It’s been a crazy three months for Central Connecticut State’s fifth-year quarterback. There was the process of finishing up his degree at Georgia State, joining a new team, learning a new playbook, even learning a new state. And yet, he’s enjoyed the challenge.
“To be honest, I feel like CCSU chose me,” Winchester said ahead of his first start for the Blue Devils in their season opener at Fordham Saturday night.
In a way, both needed each other. CCSU needed a new quarterback with former starter Jacob Dolegala now in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals and three underclassmen on the roster. Winchester needed a place to showcase his ability after four seasons with the Panthers where he served mostly in a reserve role.
So after Winchester’s former director of operations at Georgia State reached out to CCSU head coach Ryan McCarthy, a number of conversations between coach and quarterback and a campus visit, the Lawrenceville, Georgia native traveled 968 miles to New Britain in the hopes of leading the Blue Devils to another Northeast Conference championship.
So far, Winchester has impressed not only his coaching staff, but his teammates as well. In the three months since he’s been part of the program, CCSU’s new quarterback has been named a team captain.
“That’s my dawg, man,” senior offensive lineman J'Von Brown said. “He’s different from Jake, but I like the way he plays. He’s a dual-threat quarterback. He can run anywhere up and down the field and can throw the ball. I can’t wait to see him get out there against another team. He just brings that dog mentality. His work ethic is unbelievable and makes us want to step up our game and be better.”
Winchester will certainly have some production to make up for. Dolegala finished his time at CCSU as the Blue Devils all-time leader in passing yards (8,129) and passing touchdowns (48) and helped lead the school to an NEC title in 2017 and the program’s first-ever FCS playoff berth. In 2018, CCSU averaged 33.8 points per game, good for first in the conference.
At Georgia State, Winchester started three games and appeared in 15 more. His career totals are 721 passing yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for 405 yards and three scores. It isn’t much, but the Blue Devils don’t have a lot of experience behind him on the depth chart either. Redshirt freshmen Romelo Williams and Kyle Zajack and true freshman Alex Hawkom round out the quarterback room. None of the three have thrown a collegiate pass.
“You’re never really sure what you’re going to get [when someone new comes in],” McCarthy said. “Tape can only tell you so much until you see them in person. I knew he had good mobility and was able to run the football, but the thing that’s really impressed me has been his accuracy. He’s really able to throw the ball from the pocket.”
That will be important for an offense that will once again try to be as balanced as possible in terms of run-pass ratio even with the Blue Devils losing their top three pass catchers from a year ago. Junior wide receiver Tyshaun James, who finished 2018 with 20 catches for 218 yards and four touchdowns, and All-NEC tight end Arthur Gilmore, who tallied 16 catches for 223 yards and four scores, will most likely be Winchester’s top targets. Juniors Antwann Anderson (8 catches, 115 yards) and Emmanuel Scott could also be factors in the passing game, while Aaron Dawson (896 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) returns to lead the backfield.
Still, Winchester is excited with the potential of the offense.
“A lot of those guys’ personalities are very like mine,” Winchester said. “Highly competitive. They want to win and know what it takes to win. That established that connection early and helped a lot. It’s been smooth to me.”
The signal caller has also been helped with the amount of time he’s put into learning the playbook away from the practice field. McCarthy remembers Winchester knocking on his office door at 6 a.m. right after Memorial Day to watch film. It’s been a constant ritual ever since.
“This guy is a leader,” the head coach said. “His teammates electing him captain after three months makes that obvious. He’s really taken the time to learning the playbook in a short amount of time. It’s as if he’s been here for three years.”
McCarthy knows the benefits of having a veteran quarterback. He often sites Dolegala as being an extra coach on the field, who had the ability to set the tone for the rest of the offense. Now, he’s looking for Winchester to do much of the same, just in his own different way.
And Winchester is more than up for the challenge. After all, he’s been in some tough situations before.
“I feel like I’m very poised,” Winchester said, smiling again. “Nothing really rattles me. I’ve been in a lot of situations where I’ve succeeded and failed. My first career start, I didn’t know I was starting until the day of. As a redshirt freshman I was like, ‘Oh man. Let’s go.’ Ever since then, I knew if I could handle that, I could handle anything.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org