Unless you suffer from allergies, Tallahassee is a beautiful place to be in the springtime. And as Florida State football kicks off its spring practice on March 19, so do we begin our FSU spring preview at Tomahawk Nation. FSU is coming off a 9-4 season. That the team won 9 games and the year was considered a disappointment says a lot about expectations and how far the program has come since the 'Lost Decade™'. Not that those expectations are unjustified. FSU has won more games in the last two years than all but 12 major conference teams, but it should have been a win or two better in 2011. That it wasn't was a disappointment.
And one of the most disappointing players of the season was quarterback EJ Manuel. Manuel came into 2012 with high expectations based on his prior performance as a backup to Christian Ponder. But a shoulder injury, mental struggles and an inconsistent offensive line conspired to prevent him from reaching his potential. Manuel went 203-311 (65%), 2,666 yards and an efficiency rating of 151. To that, he added 150 rushing yards, which doesn't really tell us a lot since the NCAA foolishly adds sack yardage into rushing totals.
There are a lot of questions about Manuel heading into his final year at Florida State. The first, for spring, is how much he will participate. Manuel suffered a fractured fibula in the bowl win against Notre Dame. (Few noticed this, but our resident MD, 'True Cubbie' did, as he texted me during the game and said that something was wrong with Manuel's leg and to notice that all the snaps in the second half had come from the shotgun.)
It should be noted before I delve into this analysis that people do consider Manuel to be physically tough. The injuries he suffered have not been of the nature that tougher players would have played through them (separated shoulder, finger injury where the bone sticks out of the skin, etc.) It's difficult (for everyone, coaches included) to determine the extent that his injuries affected his play. You can say it was his non-throwing shoulder, but it clearly had an effect on his throwing motion. I imagine the pain didn't help his decision making, either.
To Manuel's credit, he did a lot of things well and is a decent quarterback. That I am focusing on specific (some would say minor) issues is actually a testament to his overall game. They are some of the issues he needs to fix to become a great college quarterback and go to the next level.
One of the best things he did was avoiding picks, slicing his interception percentage in half compared to his first two seasons. He also continued to create big plays in the passing game. I happen to believe these are related, as deep passes in one-on-one coverage are not often intercepted, provided that the receiver plays defensive back on a really bad throw.
Oh, and Manuel continues to be excellent with play action fakes. If FSU had a better running game (see running back and offensive line previews yet to come), these would be more effective as opposed to just pretty.
Also, remember that FSU's offense was neither good nor terrible. Sure, compared the the excellent attacks in '09 (4th) and '10 (7th) it may have seemed terrible, but it really wasn't. All told, FSU finished with the 32nd best offensive season (adjusted for opponent quality, field position, defensive scoring, etc.). But it wasn't what a program like Florida State should expect, either, and it needs to get back up to the level of '09 and '10.
Let's get into these issues...
I wonder if the expansion of the offense was too much for Manuel to handle. Coach Fisher has said that Manuel had the entire playbook at his disposal when he filled in for Ponder in 2009-10. That was lip service. I'm not sure that Manuel grasped the entire offense, and I'm not sure that he'll be able to this year, either.
And for a coach who just finished coaching one of the sharpest college QBs in a while, that had to be an adjustment. Given all of the other distractions going on last spring, it's easy to say that adjustment did not go well.
I think Fisher and his offensive staff will take a step back and try to make sure that Manuel both understands the play being called, and is comfortable with it and the adjustments that the play entails. Too many free, easy yards were left on the field because of missed checks by the quarterback. Too many plays (including runs) were doomed because of a poor pre-snap read or the lack of a pre-snap adjustment. It made everything look worse, and it was really obvious after losing someone who was so adept at doing so.
So, yeah. Building blocks. Making sure the captain of the offense understands what is going on before adding more wrinkles. If the player cannot handle a lot, and a coach loads up his plate, then sometimes even the simplest of plays become difficult because he is thinking too much.
I also think Fisher has to do a better job of adapting his coaching style to fit his star QB. Some people say they want to play for a tough coach who demands perfection and rides them constantly. But sometimes a player says one thing without realizing the style of coaching that would be the best fit for him.
And really, what else could he say? "I want a coach who treats me like a friend and calmly explains to me what I did wrong, in private, etc." makes the kid sound like a gigantic you know what. Even if it is true, you don't want your quarterback to say it. Instead, you want your coach to realize it and subtly change his approach as to not embarrass the QB.
I'm not alone in believing that to be the case here. If a player shuts down when a coach rides him, and that player is the best option, and the coach believes in the player, then it is up to the coach to change his style to get the most out of his player. If the player shrinks down mentally when being publicly criticized in practice, he's unlikely to absorb the detailed instruction that follows the verbal correction. Fisher gets paid millions to get the best out of his players. I'd bet on him getting it fixed.
And the tools are definitely still there. People expect the shoulder will not be a problem, and it is encouraging that it is his non-throwing arm. And in the first few games of 2011, Manuel threw the ball with great velocity, as he also did last spring. It was a marked departure from what FSU fans saw in '09 and '10, when Manuel's motion and various injuries conspired to make his throws less than stellar.
I'd also be remiss to not mention the offensive line as a major factor for Manuel's problems. It was, and it's something we will address in a few days. On the other hand, I believe it gets far too much blame for the offensive underperformance in 2011, and Manuel too little. Those burying their heads in the sand and believing that a healthy, improved offensive line alone will fix Manuel are fooling themselves. Both were major issues.
Still, Manuel needs to be able to have an expectation of protection. It's something he did not have last year. No quarterback can be extremely effective without it. This really is a big issue, and one we'll touch on in the offensive line preview. Can't really say much more about it right now, and instead will try to focus on ways Manuel can improve independent of the offensive line.
Manuel's pocket awareness and presence were baffling at times. He and Clint Trickett combined to take 41 sacks. The spin move fooled few defenders, and he often spun into big hits. Manuel must figure out a way to avoid the rush without using a predictable spin move which takes his eyes away from the field. Part of this is setting the offensive line up for success with pre-snap reads and adjustments. Many notable instances of instant pass rush pressure were not the fault of the offensive line, but of Manuel not setting the correct adjustment.
Another issue is attempting to keep plays alive. Far too often, Manuel would actually evade the initial pressure, but then run himself back into it! And he would hold the ball for way too long. Was this a function of his injury adjustments? Perhaps. But in 2012, he needs to get out and pick up 5-6 yards on a scramble rather than take those huge sacks.
Also, he must do a better job of protecting the football when in the pocket. 9 fumbles is far too many. This is a criticism I've had of Jimbo since 2008. I don't think he does a good job of getting his quarterbacks to avoid fumbling the football when in the pocket. Last year Manuel had a crucial fumble against Virginia (really just an awful game for a quarterback), and a few others as well. Better pocket awareness and more emphasis on in-pocket ball security should help with this some. As would abandoning the half-dive/half-jump move that Manuel seems to favor. Three of his nine fumbles actually came on that move with which he elects to finish runs. It really serves no purpose and is perhaps dangerous as well.
Another aspect of Manuel's game that needs to be worked on, but which I am not sure will be addressed much in spring (see leg injury) is the running game. Manuel cannot be a great college quarterback without his legs. He's simply not sharp enough or accurate enough to make a living solely on his arm. He's a running quarterback and needs to run.
One aspect of the run game that he does extremely well is the traditional option. Manuel has an uncanny knack for feeling the defender and knowing exactly when to pitch. His ability to wait until the last moment really is special. And though it does expose him to hits, that's the risk you have to take, because the reward in Manuel is his dual-threat capability.
Another option, however, that is much safer for the quarterback are the read plays. The veer, zone read, inverted veer, etc. Why are these plays safer? Because the quarterback only keeps the ball if the defender responsible for the player to which the QB would have otherwise given the football elects to follow that player, vacating an area into which the QB will scamper.
For as good as Manuel is at the option play, he is equally as terrible at the zone read. This confounds me to no end. The zone read is a simple, simple play run at the Pop Warner level. The inability of Manuel to run the play, the offensive staff to teach the play, or both, are ridiculous. This has to be fixed, because it is the perfect mesh of utilizing Manuel's legs while still giving him an opportunity to gain yards without a significant chance of taking a big hit. This is something that can be repped over and over again in practice. It also fits Florida State's offensive personnel quite well. Not working on this would be a head scratcher.
Manuel has the potential to be an excellent college quarterback, and he's already a good one, but he and the offensive staff have a lot to work on in order for him to maximize his strengths. His last chance to realize his potential begins in a week.
Spring is not just an important time for Manuel. Florida State's backup quarterback situation is also up in the air. Last year, the clear backup was red-shirt freshman Clint Trickett. Trickett, a skinny kid from Tallahassee, was pressed into action against Oklahoma after Manuel's injury, started the Clemson game, and started (but did not finish) the Wake Forest game. He also had mop-pup duty against Louisiana Monroe and Charleston Southern. The results were mixed. Trickett was 44-72 for 675 yards (61.1%), 7 TDs and 4 interceptions. That's a great rating of 160.83. It's also a scary high interception rate (6.3%) against FBS teams. Trickett was not as good as some believed him to be (the OU pass to Greene was luck and really skews the numbers). But he still played admirably for a freshman.
Diagnosed with celiac disease, Trickett has changed his diet to avoid gluten and does look to be more stout. He was listed at 180 last year, but was probably 170. If he can continue to bulk up, he'll have a chance to hold on to the backup job.
Trickett's competition is Jacob Coker, a big (6'5" 235) pound kid who redshirted last season. But don't let his size fool you. Coker is a very good athlete relative to his build. He was raw coming in last season, but did impress in practice with his physical tools. People see this as a battle for the 2013 starting job, but the more pressing decision is one of backup quarterback for the 2012 year.
Freshmen Enrolling Over Summer And Thus Not In This Spring Preview: Jameis Winston and Sean Maguire.