Quick Decisions: E.J. Manuel Making Progress

Seminole starting quarterback Christian Ponder has been so reliable and such a steady decision maker the past two years that many fans have forgotten how terrifying third and long had been through most of the last decade at Florida State. Third and long gives the defense "leverage," since there is little threat of the offense running the football.

This allows the defensive linemen to pin their ears back and rush the passer while the secondary has more leeway to mask its coverages and try to fool the quarterback into making a mistake.

Jimbo Fisher's offense requires quite a bit from the quarterback position; few offenses in the country give the quarterback the same level of responsibility both before and after the snap. With Ponder moving on to the professional ranks after this year, FSU's offensive success will depend in large measure upon his successor, redshirt sophomore E.J. Manuel's ability to make the same kinds of quality decisions Ponder has consistently made the past two years.

Fortunately for the ‘Noles, Manuel has already gained quite a bit of big-game experience, having started at Florida and in the Gator Bowl last year and against an elite Clemson defense and then in the ACC Championship Game this year, giving coaches and fans a good look at the the future of the program. And early returns look very promising, with Manuel making huge strides adjusting to the speed of the game and making quick decisions under pressure. This was especially evident against Virginia Tech in the ACCCG, where Manuel played extraordinarily well against a Bud Foster defense that threw quite a bit at him, knowing the FSU offensive line and running backs were banged up.

Perhaps the most impressive sequence of the game came immediately after a Virginia Tech defensive back intercepted a deflected Manuel pass and returned it for a touchdown. When the ESPN cameras cut to Manuel, it was striking was how thoroughly unaffected he seemed by the sequence. His expression didn't change, and there was absolutely no panic or even frustration visible on his face. This sort of unflappable demeanor has served great QBs well for many years, being a trademark of such diversely styled quarterbacks as Charlie Ward (whose expressions Manuel most remind me of) and Joe Montana.

But the real telltale is not just whether the QB maintains his cool demeanor but whether he goes back out and makes good decisions. For the purposes of showing just how impressive this sequence was for a young quarterback, we'll focus on a single play on the drive immediately following the pick-six. After a solid kick return by Greg Reid, the ‘Noles attempted two running plays but were stuffed for short gains, leading to a dangerous third-and-medium/long that would reveal whether Manuel had indeed moved on from the interception and would make good decisions under pressure.

To make matters worse, Virginia Tech disguised their coverage, trying to bait Manuel into a critical mistake to blow the game wide open.

E.J. Manuel pre-snap 1
Geoff Vogt, Scout.com

As you can see from the above screenshot, no Virginia Tech player followed Easterling in motion across the formation—usually signaling/suggesting a zone coverage. Two safeties and one corner are deep, suggesting a possible cover-three look, though it could certainly rotate into a cover-two. In this situation, one possible response to either coverage might be to throw the quick slant to the top of the screen, just inside of the corner, who would be responsible for the flat zone, and the linebacker, who would have the curl zone.

E.J at snap
Geoff Vogt, Scout.com

Here is a look at Manuel at the snap from the endzone.

E.J. at snap from behind
Geoff Vogt, Scout.com

On the snap, the look hasn't changed much, with the corner at the top appearing to have outside leverage, making that slant look very attractive. But look what happens immediately after the snap:

E.J. Trap 2
Geoff Vogt, Scout.com

The same play a moment later.

E.J. Trap 3
E.J. trap 3, Scout.com

This was in fact a "trap" coverage, designed to fool the quarterback into throwing into a corner (with deep help) who jumps inside to cover that outside slant that looked attractive in the presnap. Christian Ponder in fact threw a pick-six against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg as a sophomore against a similar "trap" coverage. Manuel, however, was obviously prepared for this look, going through his proper progression by checking the safeties and then the linebackers, immediately picking on the inside man coverage and hitting Easterling for a first down underneath the TE clearing out.

E.J. Trap 4
Geoff Vogt, Scout.com

A look at the play from behind.

E.J. Trap Behind 2
Geoff Vogt, Scout.com

Had Manuel thrown the outside slant, it would have been a near-certain pick-six with the momentum getting out of control and the Hokies rolling. Instead, this short first down showed just how on top of the decision making process Manuel is—and how well Fisher's quarterbacks are prepared for potentially sticky down-and-distance setups—with this first down leading to a touchdown on this drive, cutting into the Hokies' lead. (This is also a well-designed play for third-and-medium yardage situation, with the clear out route from the TE opening the middle of the field against any man underneath look while the slants on the outside should be open against a standard zone look.) Manuel backed his unflappable demeanor with quick, solid decisions The future is indeed bright at the quarterback position at Florida State.

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