I've spent a good amount of time around quarterback E.J. Manuel. He is one of the most polite and pleasant young men I've ever had a chance to meet, let alone cover. Handsome, smart, funny -- the kid is going to be a success in life whether he makes it in the NFL or puts his education to work out in the real world.
And most Florida State fans couldn't care a lick, as all they really want is for him to improve as a passer, win more games and get a two-time-national-champion program back to its rightful spot among the country's elite.
A casual glance at the stat sheet suggests that Manuel wasn't half bad under center this past season for the Seminoles, as he completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 2,666 yards with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions -- his passing efficiency of 151.2 was better than the likes of Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Clemson's Tajh Boyd.
However, there is more to playing the game's most important position than statistics, and once you look past the numbers that can be so easily manipulated to support any argument, Manuel's performance in 2011 left a lot to be desired.
Each and every Saturday, the 6-5, 238-pounder would make a handful of decisions that left the FSU faithful shaking its collective head. Whether he was forcing a throw into coverage, taking a huge loss on a sack that could've been avoided or subjecting himself to too many big hits whenever he decided to tuck it and run, Manuel proved time and again he's far from a finished product despite a three-year apprenticeship behind eventual first-round draft pick Christian Ponder.
Now comes the time in the column to highlight the fact that the Virginia Beach native does not deserve to have the blame for yet another four-loss campaign thrown at his feet, as this is a team game and the other 'Noles are just as culpable. The tailbacks never got into any rhythm in the running game, receivers and tight ends made their share of mistakes and everybody is in agreement that he was "protected" by what had to be the worst offensive line in Garnet and Gold history. Also, a defense that finished No. 4 in FBS in total yards allowed per game crumbled in the fourth quarter versus Oklahoma, got shredded all game long at Clemson and failed to get off the field on third down at Wake Forest -- that three-game losing streak eliminated any thought of a BCS bowl a few weeks before Halloween.
Yet it was the high-profile QB taking the lion's share of the punishment, even though Manuel injured his shoulder against the Sooners, missed the Tigers game entirely and was forced to relieve an ineffective Clint Trickett when the Demon Deacons exposed him for what he really was at the time: an undersized and inexperienced backup.
Still on the mend from the shoulder injury and a broken leg he suffered -- and played through -- in the Champs Sports Bowl triumph over Notre Dame, he didn't miss a single rep in spring practice and drove his offense right down the field on the opening possession of the Garnet and Gold Game for six impressive points. Nevertheless, the crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium saw the mercurial Manuel return to his hit-and-miss form, which included a pair of interceptions.
Around this time last summer, before he had ever been given the opportunity to play on a full-time basis, Manuel represented his school at the ACC Kickoff in Pinehurst, N.C., and was picked by media to be the league's preseason player of the year. But those same reporters returned from the same event in Greensboro this past week, and not only did POY recognition go to Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins for 2012, but Boyd was the quarterback selected for first-team All-ACC honors. Manuel actually finished third in the voting, behind Boyd and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas.
Saturday I visited training camp for the Chicago Bears, the team I used to cover for six years, and it was enjoyable to spend some time around the print, radio and television friends I'd made during my time on the beat for the Monsters of the Midway.
A few of them asked me about Florida State and how good I thought Jimbo Fisher and Co. could be this year, so I gave them the same answer I've been giving people all offseason long: If the Seminoles aren't a Bobby Bowden Era-like power again this time around, they never will be. This club is loaded with depth, rich with experience and fortunate to have a schedule that is quite negotiable.
But it was Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety now writing for the National Football Post and contributing to the Chicago Tribune, who wanted to know what I thought about Manuel specifically. Essentially, he was curious if the fifth-year senior was going to develop into a legitimate prospect at the next level, as Bowen spends a lot of his time breaking down tape of college players to prep for the draft. There are many talent evaluators out there convinced that Manuel is on the radar for Round 1, as he'll surely impress at the Scouting Combine with his size, speed and athleticism -- he's guaranteed to charm coaches and GMs throughout the interview process, too.
I must admit: I did not give No. 3 the most ringing of endorsements.
That doesn't mean Manuel can't turn out to be a sensational signal caller. If he ends up with a Heisman Trophy and a national title -- like Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke before him -- I'll be surprised, but not shocked. He's a hard worker and a born leader. And unlike most 21st-century athletes, he doesn't have a selfish bone in his body. But I still need to see for myself that Manuel can eliminate the silly throws, stop getting sacked and actually stay healthy from start to finish.
As a credentialed member of the Florida State media, I'm not supposed to root for him. I am, though. Just don't tell anybody, please.
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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