By Gray Gardner.
The Florida State Seminoles were recently named the preseason favorites to win the ACC title in 2011. Hinging on the team’s ability to actually do so will be the performance of starting quarterback E.J. Manuel.
Manuel, a redshirt junior from Virginia Beach, Virginia, has seen considerable playing time the past two seasons behind former star Christian Ponder. Ponder is now graduated, and Manuel has been given the reigns of the Seminoles’ offense. But the pressure of becoming the team’s starter hasn’t changed Manuel’s preparation for the season – he’s been preparing for three years as if he was the starter all along.
“I used to practice like I was going to start, because I knew Ponder was going to go out there and give it his all every single play, so he could go down any time,” Manuel said.
Ponder did go down… a lot.
In 2009, Manuel took over for an injured Ponder and started 4 games. In 2010, another Ponder injury allowed Manuel to start 2 games and play in all but 4. One of those two starts in 2010 came against Clemson, where Manuel led his team to a come from behind victory late in the game.
Manuel said the experience was “awesome,” and that it boosted his confidence for the remainder of the season.
“It was fun. I enjoyed every single minute of it,” he said. “I had a pretty good game running and even throwing the ball a little bit too, so just knowing I played and stepped into such a big magnitude game for us went a long way for me and gave me a lot of confidence.”
Manuel said that the confidence he gained in taking over for Ponder the past two seasons will undoubtedly carry over into the 2011 season.
“It just showed that I could do it, just for myself,” he said. “Knowing that you can get out on that playing field at that level and still have success. It’s just like I said – taking every practice serious and getting reps and not wasting time. So now, having those same good habits…it makes the transition that much easier.”
The 6’5”, 250 lb. signal caller knows his team will be tested early in 2011, most notably against nationally ranked Oklahoma. But Manuel said that the preseason focus isn’t solely on the game against the Sooners.
“The Oklahoma game is going to be huge,” he said, “but we have two big games before that, then we play Clemson at Clemson. That’s four very important games in September. The first four weeks will be vital for us to stay focused both mentally and physically.”
Focus will certainly be key to the Seminoles’ success in the first month of the season, coming as a result of strong leadership, which Manuel says the team has.
“We have great leadership at young ages,” he said. “I think that goes a long way for your team, and I think we have a mature team – a lot more mature team than we had last year. I think that’s going to be a reason why we’re so successful this year.”
But having a consistent starter at quarterback – something the Seminoles haven’t had in the past two seasons due to injury – is crucial to focus and success.
The real question for the Seminoles in 2011 isn’t whether or not the team will be focused. Instead, it’s whether or not E.J. Manuel will get beat up like Christian Ponder.
Manuel laughed when confronted with the question.
“Will I get beat up as much as Ponder did? I don’t think so.”