After a freshman campaign in 2008-09 where Scott Winston finished the season ranked 12th in his weight class and won a match at the national tournament, the question was not if he could be an All-American, but how quickly.
But for a teenager to have the weight of a program thirsty for success on his shoulders — no matter how broad they may be — the pressure can deteriorate the dual meaning of being a student-athlete.
So while supporters of the Rutgers wrestling team eagerly awaited Winston's encore last season, the coaching staff and the grappling phenom from Jackson, N.J., made a taxing decision: Do not wrestle.
"It was something that took getting used to from a life standpoint, not having to compete everyday, not having to compete every week," said Winston, who led the nation in victories his freshman year with 39, but redshirted the following season.
The decision to redshirt not only paid off on the mat for Winston, but the year off also sorted out his life — something he admits was anything but smooth sailing.
"My first semester was a little bit rocky, academically. I kind of screwed up," said the wrestler who went 137-0 during his career at Jackson Memorial High School. "Second semester, I learned my lesson and it taught me how to make a better schedule for myself to help me succeed. The main thing off the mat was just getting my schedule down and sticking by it. [Redshirting] definitely helped me a lot."
Wrapped up in all the hype and expectations that come with being the No. 2 recruit in the nation coming out of high school is the fact that for student-athletes, just like any other college-bound kid, the freedoms of college can take their toll.
After getting a year to figure that out, a different Winston is back in a Scarlet Knights' singlet.
"Forget the wrestling part of it. It's the preparation part and his daily lifestyle — that has been the difference for Scott Winston," said head coach Scott Goodale, who also coached Winston at Jackson. "If he has his lifestyle in order then Winston is going to be very hard to beat."
Not only did Winston make a complete adjustment in his personal life during his time out of the starting lineup, but he also bulked up from his freshman weight class of 157 pounds to 165. The extra poundage is no problem for Winston, who ran the gauntlet of veteran-tested talent in his inaugural season on the Banks.
"You're not going to find a harder weight than my freshman year," Winston said. "Three national champions were in there, a couple of All-Americans and a couple of national finalists, so I don't think I'm going to face a weight class in the rest of my college career quite like that one."
Fellow Knights believe that with a new weight class and a full year of nothing but training under his belt, Winston could become the first All-American since Tom Tanis in 2002.
"I would be shocked if he was not an All-American," said senior heavyweight DJ Russo. "Something would have to go wrong for him not to be an All-American."
Nine wrestlers on the squad have experience at the NCAA Tournament, but everyone can take a page out of Winston's book on how to compete in the circle, according to Goodale.
"He's unbelievably explosive," Goodale said. "He's constantly thinking about scoring points and that's why he's fun to watch. We've got to get all of our guys thinking that same way."
A knack for scoring points, coupled with all of the national recognition from his high school and freshman days, and Winston is much more than just a cog in Rutgers' well-oiled machine.
"He's the face of our program," Russo said. "I mean he went undefeated in high school. He had a disappointing freshman year, but the fact that making it to nationals and winning a match is disappointing just shows you how talented he is."
The talent has always been there. Now with his collegiate life in check, Winston's shoulders can bear the load.