After a frustrating junior season, Winston is in the fold on the Arkansas defensive line again.
FAYETTEVILLE - A year ago Ja'Michael Winston was a team captain. The dreadlocked defensive end was seen by many as perhaps the best lineman on the team defensively. He was steady, if unspectacular, the year before playing opposite Trey Flowers. Thinking was he would be again.
His 2015 didn't go as planned. He was out of his starting job midway through the year. Near the end, he was more or less only seeing snaps against running teams on running downs. Deatrich Wise Jr. had usurped the starting job with ability to get to the quarterback. Tevin Beanum and Jeremiah Ledbetter held down the fort competently on the other side. Winston's coaches have since termed the year "disappointing," a claim Winston used himself Wednesday.
Now he's back, seeking to put the discouraging year behind him. Winston's a senior now; his hair is short (not part of the personality/on-field makeover, he'll have you know), his son is about to turn 2, his focus is back. The starting job is currently not in the cards - not yet - and he's come to terms with that. This Ja'Michael Winston has grown up.
"That's why I cam out here this year with a positive mindset every day to just get better, no matter what anybody says about me, no matter what anybody thinks about," Winston said. "Everyday, I'm going to carry a smile. Don't matter if I'm mad, p----- off, what, I'm going to carry a smile around and I'm going to go full speed every day and never look back with no regrets."
Winston's personality was always affable with the media. He's good for honesty and avoiding some of the cliches that sometimes (often) creep into conversations. His Alabama accent is disarming and listening to him talk about his son is the same.
But a good quote only means so much. His tackle, tackle for-loss and batted-ball output all went down from his sophomore to junior seasons. Winston also, somewhat surprisingly, has never had a sack. Not in SEC games. Not in nonconference games.
That isn't his forte, to be fair. He's a run-stopping defensive end in a conference that sees more and more teams going to spread, pass-heavy offenses. Even if his forte comes against the rush, he's earning a glance from coach Bret Bielema and defensive coordinator Robb Smith for his solid fall camp. So much so, in fact, he figures on seeing more snaps than he did last year. The possibility remains, too, he could find himself a starter again this year, pending the development of McTelvin Agim, Karl Roesler and Randy Ramsey and how quickly Beanum regains his form after an almost completely missed spring and fall as he dealt with a personal issue.
"He'll certainly factor in on both sides," Smith said. "It depends as we get into the season a little bit on what we see and whether there's a tight end surface or whether there is or isn't. When we play some four wideout teams, we'll probably leave him in one spot. When there's a tight end on the field we'll have the ability to move him around."
Wise, Agim and Ledbetter draw the star-power eyes. Winston can be overlooked, accordingly. Difference is now, he lets it slide off his back."Whatever we put our mind to, we can accomplish this year," Winston said. "Everybody on the D-line being All-Americans, whatever it is, we put our mind to it, we can do it." Follow Eric on Twitter: @ericwbolin