Florida State's Spring Quarterback Battle

With Seminole basketball doing so well, you might not have realized that Spring practice is right around the corner.  The players are currently surviving Mat Drills and will begin practicing on March 2nd.  This spring, the 'Noles offense will have a lot of questions to answer. Of the 29 guys listed in the 2008 two-deep, 21 will return.  Let's take a look at the position battles we're likely to see hear about, since Jimbo doesn't allow people to watch practice.

Senior leader Drew Weatherford departs, which isn't considered a football loss by most following the 'Noles.  Ultra-talented head case D'Vontrey Richardson will play baseball this spring and I don't believe we'll see him play football again for the 'Noles, as he is expected to be a top pick in baseball's amateur draft.  D'Vo has said he will move to safety and play in the fall, but in any case he won't be playing this spring and won't be playing quarterback again. 

This leaves Florida State with only two scholarship quarterbacks for the spring.  The incumbent, Redshirt Junior Christian Ponder struggled at times last year but still was a catalyst for the 'Noles resurgent top ranked ACC offense. 

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Passing Rushing Sacks
G Rating Comp Att Pct Yds Y/A TD INT Rush Yds Avg TD Sack YdsL
2008 - Christian Ponder 8 106.1 120 212 55.7 1252 5.9 6 10 91 299 3.29 4 - -

Those numbers are for ACC play only (8 games), in an attempt to filter out most of the noise.

On their face, those numbers aren't impressive at all.  To understand what Ponder meant to this offense, you need to understand how the running game went from three consecutive years ranked 78th or worse nationally to a top twenty ground attack.  More importantly, Ponder moved the offense and took the necessary risks that his predecessor did not.  Ponder's greatest assets were his intelligence, his understanding of the offense, and his legs.  The above numbers include sacks (of which Ponder did a great job to avoid behind highly suspect pass protection from the youngest offensive line in college football).  They don't show you that Ponder rushed for more than 40 first downs in conference play.  Ponder was the master of keeping drives alive.  A punt is a failed drive except in the rairest of circumstances and it is here that Ponder's value was really measured.

Punts= Failed Drives # of  Punts Overall # of Punts ACC
2007 (Weatherford/ Lee) 76 53
2008 (Ponder/ D'Vo) 41 25

Typically I do not like using team metrics to gauge individual performance.  With Ponder, however, the effects were profound.  Ponder led the 'Noles to the #1 rated offense in 2008  Teams had to respect his pre-snap read ability and his legs, a combination that worked to produce favorable rushing conditions through much of 2008.

If you want a really substantive look at how the offense improved in 2008, please see Did the Florida State Seminoles improve in 2008?

Despite being a significant improvement over the options FSU had for much of the past decade, Ponder still has some major flaws.  He often made poor reads; a surprising outcome for someone who usually made a pre-snap diagnosis with relative ease.  He would lock in on one target for far too long and didn't use his eyes to look off members of the opposing secondary.  Annoyingly, he developed happy feet.  There have been debates raging here for days over the origins of his pocket demeanor, with some arguing that he never learned to trust a line that was very shaky in the early season but improved later in the year, and others arguing that quarterbacks either "have it" or do not.  Ponder also had problems with forgetting to slide and staying healthy; two areas he will need to work on through conditioning and decision making.

It is important to remember throughout these discussions that the ACC is an extremely defensive conference, putting more defensive players into the NFL than any other and having 8 of 12 head coaches who are decidedly defensive minded.  Offense does not flourish in the NFL ACC like it does in the Big 12, a conference that produces no defensive players for the league.  

Ponder's goal for the spring has to be trust.  Ponder must trust his reads as he drops back.  He must trust in his ability, which though not likely to land him in the professional ranks, is more than enough to be an excellent quarterback.  He must trust his experience, his instincts and his coaches.  Most importantly, however, he must trust that his offensive line can give him protection against a standard pass rush.

But if Christian Ponder continues to be a nervous wreck in the pocket, crouching like a ninja while he stares down his primary read, he might find himself watching the action from the bench.  

 

Policy Note:  Tomahawk Nation encourages open position battles at all times.

 

Nipping at his heels is highly touted redshirt freshman E.J. Manuel, a top-five recruit from 2008.  Manuel is very impressive at 6' 5" and 225lbs. 

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Manuel is probably around 215 in that photo and he could stand to add another 10lbs to reach 235.  Manuel can run, for sure, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that he's a running quarterback because he is black.  Manuel is considered a pro-style passer.  Ponder is the better runner of this group.  He has an excellent arm and decidedly better mechanics than Ponder.  Some believe that his mechanics are so fundamental that they are almost too "highschool-ish."  Manuel does a nice job of driving the ball and he has an extremely high release point.  Manuel will not have any problems with balls being batted down.  At 6'5" and a release point way above his ear, the ball practically shoots down from the clouds. 

Here's a small writeup on Manuel.

Many quarterback coaches now believe that it is wrong to overhaul a quarterbacks delivery.  Instead, they try to focus on footwork.  I don't have any idea about how Manuel's footwork is progressing, but I doubt it's much worse than Ponder's.  Will Jimbo tinker with Manuel's delivery, which is currently too over the top?  Manuel is often erratic and I do think Jimbo will tinker with his motion slightly, bringing him down to a less cartoonish motion that is still over the top.

My basic read on Manuel is that he is a hard worker and a great person.  He has a stronger arm than Ponder and a higher upside as well.  He needs to master all of the little things that Ponder already does well, namely the pre-snap reads.  Jimbo Fisher routinely calls two or even three plays in one sequence and then asks his quarterback to get his team into the correct play, based on what he sees from the defense.  Ponder was great at this and Fisher raved about it all year.  Can Manuel do it?  It remains to be seen.

I'll also be interested in how well he performs in the run game.  With a depleted receiving corps, getting ground production from whoever plays quarterback will be crucial for the 'Noles.

Finally, will Manuel continue to be too nonchalant in the pocket?  Calm, cool, and collected is good.  Sleepwalking is not.

So, who will win?  

I don't know.  I think Ponder will win because he does a great job running the offense, has valuable experience, and is the better athlete.  My guess is that he'll do just enough to hold off Manuel, who will have a good spring as well.  Both quarterbacks will be counted on to contribute heavily in what will be an extremely tough schedule.

One thing we do know:  it will be an open competition, and that's a good thing.

Tomorrow:  the offensive line.

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