Will Manuel ever realize his full potential?
Instead of leaning on empty statistics and fancy numbers that can be slanted one way or another to prove just about any point, let's simply agree that E.J. Manuel was good this past season, but he sure wasn't great.
Yes, from a size-and-skills perspective, the 6-5, 238-pounder might be able to max out into a Cam Newton-like player one day because he's big, fast, strong and seems to be able to make all the throws required in coach Jimbo Fisher's system. Nevertheless, his first full season as a starter in 2011 also proved Manuel has a long way to go in terms of his decision-making, not to mention the fact that he's been injured more than he's been healthy thus far in his Florida State career.
There are plenty of excuses that can be made to explain Manuel's good-but-not-great performance, like the offensive line being among the worst in the country, the ground game never truly finding a rhythm and receivers periodically running improper routes in what has to be classified as a fairly complicated scheme at the collegiate level. The Virginia Beach native downplayed how much the early-season shoulder injury limited him, but anyone paying close attention could tell he was never 100 percent the rest of the way. There were also times when he was surrounded by true freshmen, including four of them along the O-line in the bowl victory over Notre Dame.
Regardless, even when he was playing well, Manuel would make a few throws each game that didn't make sense, plus all of his spin-o-rama sacks resulting in 12-yard losses were instant drive killers. In the Garnet and Gold Game this past spring, while he was nothing short of sensational on his opening drive, soon thereafter he had an interception returned for a touchdown on a ball that shouldn't have been thrown.
Fisher said on conference call fairly recently that he doesn't need Manuel to be an All-American or Heisman Trophy contender in order for his offense to succeed, but the fifth-year senior does need to improve.
Is the offensive line appreciably better?
The short answer: It can't be any worse.
Three seniors depart from last season's squad, and while it would have been nice for Andrew Datko to take that medical redshirt and come back, Zebrie Sanders had no business being first-team All-ACC and David Spurlock was too injured to make any sort of impact. Three of those four freshmen that started in the Champs Sports Bowl -- left guard Josue Matias, center Austin Barron and right guard Tre' Jackson -- will begin summer workouts atop the depth chart, bookended by veteran Bryan Stork at right tackle and former defensive lineman Cameron Erving at left tackle.
The law of averages suggests there's no way FSU deals with as many injuries up front as it did a year ago, and if Erving does indeed turn out to be the real deal protecting Manuel's blind side, he'll be an upgrade over either Datko or Sanders.
How do all of the wideouts stay happy?
While an argument is made quite frequently that you can never have too much talent at any one position, a snap with future superstar Rashad Greene on the sideline feels like a wasted snap.
Kelvin Benjamin is a mismatch waiting to happen coming off a redshirt. Greg Dent has proven to be a big-play artist in the past. Christian Green can be very dangerous after the catch. Jarred Haggins was that perfect fit in the slot before an injury-riddled sophomore campaign. Willie Haulstead might have been the top wideout on the team before being sidelined for all of 2011 with post-concussion issues. Kenny Shaw is the best route runner on the roster and also a fan favorite. Rodney Smith is a nightmare downfield for smallish DBs on deep post and fly routes. And then you have incoming freshman Marvin Bracy, who just could be the fastest football recruit in history.
All of them deserve considerable playing time. However, Greene is the primary target every quarterback needs. Fisher talked this past spring about potentially developing a No. 1 and not worrying about spreading the ball around so much. Greene showed once again in the Notre Dame game that he can be unstoppable when fully healthy. If he reels in 65-75 passes this season, even at the expense of a Dent or a Haulstead, that's a net positive for the 'Noles.
He can be the most explosive pass catcher in Tallahassee since Peter Warrick. Don't concern yourself with trying to play six or seven receivers regularly and instead make every effort to keep Greene involved as much as possible.
When do we see the tight ends emerge?
Originally, most everyone figured it would be Nick O'Leary racking up all those grabs fresh out of high school, not Greene.
The grandson of Jack Nicklaus did flash at times as a freshman, although Fisher does not like to be predictable based on the personnel he has on the field -- it was plain as day he planned to throw the ball when O'Leary entered the lineup. The Palm Beach Gardens product still isn't much of a difference maker as a blocking option.
Enter Dan Hicks, a defensive-end-turned-tight-end that looked like a dynamic blocker from the moment he made the switch during spring drills. As a result, O'Leary was less of a tight end and spent the majority of his snaps shifting from fullback to H-back to slot man in order to make it easier on him running routes.
Fisher ran a ton of two-tight formations in the spring and went out of his way to feed the ball to O'Leary in the early stages of the spring game, but with all those receivers at his disposal, he'll have to fight the urge to go with the pass-happy four-wide attack he relied upon so much a year ago.
Does Fisher simplify his scheme a bit?
Manuel has as much on his plate as any QB in the college game. James Wilder didn't see the huddle a lot as a freshman since he couldn't pick up blocking assignments. Beau Reliford, a senior, was blamed for a crucial INT in the loss to Oklahoma when he made the wrong decision on an option route.
In other words, Fisher's playbook reads less like "The Wheels on the Bus" and more like "The Sound and the Fury."
Way back in the glory days of the Bobby Bowden regime, the offensive and defensive systems revolved around basic plays being called for superior athletes. The birth of the "Fast Break" run by eventual Heisman winner Charlie Ward only featured a few route combinations for the receivers when originally devised.
You cannot do that these days, as enemy coaches spend too much time in the film room and opposing players are no longer so far behind physically. But while defensive coordinator Mark Stoops employed a fairly intricate scheme and got it to work for Florida State, Fisher's offense has failed to be week-to-week productive under Manuel's direction.
Ego could have something to do with it. Even after Fisher's version of the Wildcat -- tailback Chris Thompson lined up at "quarterback," even though he admitted later he can't throw the ball a lick -- was quickly snuffed out by Clemson, not only did he keep calling it against the Tigers, but he kept practicing it the next week prior to Wake Forest. It was almost as if Fisher was more interested in getting his Wildcat to work than coming up with the right game plan for the Demon Deacons.
Fisher has a skilled signal caller, a bunch of quality backs, a flood of talent at receiver, lots of upside at tight end and an offensive line that should at least be adequate, so perhaps it's time to just let his players play without having to think so much.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
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