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FSU announced that Christian Ponder will make his 1st career start for the Florida State Seminoles. Ponder gained national notoriety for graduating from college in just two years. He is a redshirt sophomore and a native of Colleyville, TX. He was rated as a three star prospect by rivals.com. Ponder had a brief stint in last year's Virginia Tech game, a 40-21 Loss. Ponder played great in leading the 'Noles back after Weatherford was knocked out of the game, but also threw a crippling interception, and had another that was picked off by a defensive lineman who hurdled the Florida State offensive lineman who fell down on the play.
Ponder has consistently wowed coaches with his grasp of the offense, his surprising mobility, and his very impressive strength (375+ LB Bench). He boasts a very good arm and was consistently mentioned as the team leader during spring and summer drills. There are very few, if any, throws that Ponder cannot make. His ability to understand defenses is excellent and his promotion is a welcome relief to those who believed that our playbook was limited by our quarterback's ability. FSU is instantly tougher to defend and to plan for. Teams can no longer sit in two or three vanilla schemes and play the percentages. They will have to break down Ponder's tape and find out his weaknesses. They now have to worry about the quarterback running out of the pocket and making plays with his feet, and with his arm while on the run.
This move probably would not have happened if not for Weatherford's knee injury in the spring. Ponder seized the opportunity to show his skills and did not disappoint. Fisher glowed when he spoke of CP7 (Ponder wears #7).
Ponder also suffered an injury that delayed this call. In a recent practice, he injured his shoulder after throwing some water-logged balls. I wondered if the guy who many speculated was Jimbo's number one choice all along would be too injured to start for FSU. It seems that the coaches wanted to allow as much time as possible for him to heal up (the injury was muscular only; not structural) before naming him the starter.
This is undoubtedly the best decision for the program. It represents a step forward. It represents a realization that we aren't in contention for a MNC, but that with some breaks, continued excellent recruiting, and developing a capable quarterback, we could be sooner than people think (2010). I've often speculated that Bobby Bowden would step in and insist that the safe option start at quarterback, despite promises that head coach in waiting and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher was in change of the offense. This move shows us that Bobby trusts Jimbo. This is promising because it indicates that Bobby knows Jimbo is in the best position to make the most informed choice. Fueled by comments this summer that seemed to forcefully remind fans that he was still in charge, many had worried that Bowden would try to trump Jimbo. I think the winningest coach in college football history will be rewarded for his acquiescence; FSU will win more games with Ponder than they would have with Weatherford. Penn State will likely win more games than FSU this year. Bowden doesn't need 7-6, he needs 9-3. Ponder isn’t the familiar or safe choice, but he is the best choice; not only for the future of our program, but for this year as well.
This decision also represents hope. FSU fan's haven't had a lot to cheer about in the last three years. A losing record against Non-Duke ACC teams, Back to Back 7-6 seasons, and the looming cloud of possible NCAA sanctions stood to temper FSU's expectations. Opposing fans openly rooted for Weatherford to remain at the helm. Weatherford is a class guy who has always worked his butt off. He rarely if ever blamed his teammates. I profiled his shortcomings in The Weatherford Report and won't say much about that now. Ponder does, however, represent a major upgrade in terms of talent, and a minor upgrade in terms of knowledge of the playbook. He is a diligent worker who has incredible attention to detail. Jimbo commented that he grasps concepts quicker than any quarterback he had ever worked with; high praise for someone who nurtured numerous NFL qb's.
Ponder represents hope for the future as people see his present ability and can imagine what his future performance will be like. In addition to putting the best possible option on the field, we are now set up to have a talented, experienced quarterback playing in his 5th year in 2010, a year where FSU should have a lot of talent and a very manageable schedule. This decision also relieves some pressure from the shoulders of Future 'Nole signal caller E. J. Manuel, the highly touted five-star prospect from Virginia Beach, VA. If Ponder progresses as Jimbo likely believes he will, Manuel won't be pressed into action until 2011 at the earliest, barring injury. Choosing Weatherford would likely have cuased great uncertainty next offseason, as there would be three unknowns entering the season. A successful season from Ponder would put those fears to rest.
Weatherford should still play an important role on this team. Expect him, and not D'Vontrey Richardson to be the backup and for D'vo to run several packages per game, comprising approximately 8-12 out of an average of 65-70 offensive plays. Weatherford makes sense as the backup here because he has a great grasp of the offense. His 33 starts make him the most experienced quarterback in the nation, and there isn't a situation he would be unprepared for. If Ponder were to go down Drew could likely step in and play at a somewhat similar level, especially early in the season since Christian wouldn't have had much game experience and probably wouldn't yet be playing at an elite level. There is no backup quarterback I would rather have than Drew Weatherford. I see him as a college Trent Dilfer, always at the ready and having enough ability to not cripple a team when inserterted in the middle of a game. Inserting D'Vo into the game when he has been prepping to run his specific packages (shotgun spread zone-read anybody??) at a high level and not to run the entire offense, wouldn't be as smart as using Drew. Weatherford's experience and knowledge of the game will continue to be a huge asset to the future 'Nole quarterbacks. He can be the extra set of eyes on the sideline that some, including us here at FSUncensored, have argued we lack. In fact, his presence on the sideline, in time, might even allow Jimbo to move back to the press box.
All hope is not lost for Richardson either. While the coaches have called him "the Lebron James of football", a "great, not good, great passer", and "the most athletic quarterback I've ever had", he does have some baggage. D'Vontrey struggled with academic eligibility issues last year and there rumblings about excessive off-the field celebrating. He is also an excellent baseball prospect and could stand to receive up to half a million dollars if he elects to enter next year's baseball draft. Combine the eligibility issues with the temptation of Major League Ba$eball, and it's easy to see why the coaches would be uneasy about committing to a guy who just now fully committed to football. I hope D'vontrey keeps his grades in order, forgets about baseball (for now), and continues to focus solely on football with the same intensity and determination he showed this spring. Few will question that his upside is higher than that of Christian, but it is easy to see how his uncertain future could be enough to sway the coaches to Ponder, a capable athlete with an incredible grasp of the offense. D'Vo will be expected to run his 8-12 plays per game and present a difficult change of pace for the defense. I hate to make a comparisons to establishes superstars, but his playing style reminds me a lot of Donovan McNabb when he was at Syracuse. If he continues to improve like he did this summer, keeps his grades high, and doesn't flirt with baseball, expect him to be right back in the mix of things in fall 2009.
What to look for from Ponder this year? First, don't look for any drop off when it comes to on-field composure. Ponder gained his first real game experience in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech and looked solid. Of the three quarterbacks, Ponder has the best grasp of the offense from a knowledge standpoint. I expect for Jimbo to eventually give him more checks and on-field audible power than he did with Weatherford, in part because of his ability to think on the fly, and in part because a greater number of options are now available for our offense as a result of Ponder's ability. I am truly amazed that a redshirt sophomore has a greater grasp of the offense than a redshirt senior. This is not a knock on Weatherford, but rather a testament to Ponder's ability. Temper your enthusiasm a bit though; we don't have Rainman under center; both QB's have been in Jimbo's offense for an equal amount of time.
Look for more sprint-stretch plays, and boots off of those plays. CP7 doesn't run 4.5 (D'Vo), but he represents a huge upgrade in terms of mobility. Teams must now respect not only his scrambling ability when the play breaks down, but also must guard against the threat of designed runs. While the reports on our young offensive line are very encouraging when it comes to run-blocking, they are less than encouraging when it comes to pass protection. Certainly that factored into Jimbo's decision as well. I would be shocked if we didn't see an immediate increase in the number of pass plays that involve a re-located pocket (sprint/ roll-outs); taking advantage of our offensive line's athleticism and minimizing their weaknesses (strength).
FSU opponents are also on notice that the area outside the hash marks, 10-20 yards deep is now in play. Ponder's cross-field throw over the short-set defender and in front of the jump-ball anticipating safety was a thing of beauty. The more options that a defense must consider, the less aggressive they can be. Ponder will make defenses defend the entire field. With our excellent receiving corps, easily the best in the ACC, and one of the best nationally, allowing them to run all areas of the field and having the defense reasonably believe that the ball will be delivered to them at any point is a very good thing for Seminole Nation and a very bad thing for opposing defenses. While some opposing fans mocked our quarterbacks via sarcastically rooting for them, I seriously doubt they will continue to do so.
There will be some growing pains along the way. While Drew's 33 start's were not enough to fend off the hard charging Ponder, experience is an asset that nobody can deny. Ponder does not yet have experience. Luckily, FSU faces some very bad teams early this season. In their first 5 games, FSU faces only 2-3 teams with a legitimate chance at a bowl. This should provide Ponder with game experience before facing the likes of Virginia Tech and Clemson.
In terms of talent, experience, and attitude (and what else is there), FSU's quarterback situation is easily the best we've had in the past 5 years. Starting Christian Ponder, insuring him with Drew Weatherford, Redshirting E.J. Manuel, while threatening defense with D'Vontrey Richardson as he continues to grow is the best possible move these coaches could have made; both for 2008 and the foreseeable future.