Manuel's accuracy has FSU offense thriving
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — EJ Manuel already has established himself as one of the top senior quarterbacks in the country. His career completion percentage of 66.6 percent is tops among Florida State quarterbacks, including a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke.
Manuel is 16-4 as a starter, including a bowl win over No. 18 West Virginia as a freshman in coach Bobby Bowden's last game and another in December when he had a broken fibula and led FSU past Notre Dame. He also won a third, the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl, when he relieved the injured Christian Ponder and helped FSU defeat South Carolina.
There have been plenty of memorable moments for the redshirt senior, but he's still chasing a signature win. Two of his four losses as a starter came in pinch-hit roles, with FSU losing at No. 1 Florida in 2009 and in the 2010 ACC championship game to No. 12 Virginia Tech. A third was against top-ranked Oklahoma last year, while the last was a one-point loss to Virginia in November behind an injury-depleted offensive line.
Manuel grew up in Virginia Beach and followed programs like Florida State and Miami more than Virginia and Virginia Tech. Games like Saturday's, when the No. 4 Seminoles play host to No. 10 Clemson, are the situations that he imagined he would one day be playing in.
"The fact that there is so much build-up going into the game is obviously something you grow up as a kid wanting to be part of," Manuel said. "We would watch the Florida States and the Miamis, and these are the types of games that they had. The 8 o'clock games. That's what you want to be a part of.
"They are coming in with a great team, undefeated. We are coming in with a good team and undefeated as well."
Whoever wins on Saturday won't lock up the ACC's Atlantic Division. But it will say a lot about who is the front-runner. And it will speak volumes about Manuel if he is able to guide FSU to victory.
Training for the future
George Whitfield remembers working with Manuel when the quarterback was a junior in high school. He recalls the "long, rangy, lanky kid" from years ago and came away impressed with Manuel.
Whitfield has become a quarterback guru the past few years, preparing the last two No. 1 overall picks, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. Manuel and Whitfield reconnected in May for six days when they worked out in California.
"My honest opinion: He's America's best kept secret," Whitfield said. "EJ plays at a national championship powerhouse. Every year they list national championship as a goal. He has the size, charisma, all of the intangibles."
Manuel is in an elite group of senior quarterbacks, along with Southern Cal's Matt Barkley and Oklahoma's Landry Jones.
He has thrown for 4,869 yards and 30 touchdowns and is among FSU's top 10 career passers in completions, attempts and passing yards.
But Manuel has often been criticized by FSU fans for making poor reads, and at times he has forced the ball into bad situations. But he did not throw an interception in the last five games of 2011, and his only interception this season came after wide receiver Kenny Shaw bobbled a pass and the ball went into the hands of a Murray State defensive back.
The most accurate FSU passer
He had experience as a fill-in to Christian Ponder, and then as a full-time starter in 2011. And no FSU quarterback has been as accurate as Manuel.
Manuel's completion percentage is 66.6 percent, significantly better than FSU's top four: Brad Johnson (64.7), Charlie Ward (62.3), Danny Kanell (62.2) and Ponder (61.8). Johnson won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ward a Heisman Trophy and national title before moving to the NBA, Kanell spent six years in the NFL and Ponder was a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2011.
And Manuel could finish among the top passers all-time in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He's just a fraction of a point shy of the league's career leader, Virginia's Matt Schaub (67.0).
When he watches Manuel, Whitfield sees similar traits compared to successful young NFL quarterbacks. He says Manuel has the same Type-A, take-charge personality as Luck. Whitfield also remembers that Manuel told him years ago his favorite quarterback at the time was Carson Palmer, which would be a curious choice for a guy like Manuel (a dual-threat QB in high school). Whitfield views Manuel as a "quintessential pocket passer."
FSU didn't open much of the playbook in the first few games of the season, routs of Murray State and Savannah State. But Fisher called for Manuel to run the option a few times early in the 52-0 win over Wake Forest. And Manuel ran it well, scoring on a 16-yard run in the first quarter.
"I don't dislike (the option), but I'm not going to say it's my favorite thing," Manuel said. "You don't want to take a hit on the chin. But that's our offense. It's another way to get yards, and I'm all about winning. I don't care necessarily what it takes — I just want to do it.
"It's just an added dimension that these guys have to focus on. Just the fact that we can have it in our arsenal."
Plenty of power in FSU offense
FSU has quite an arsenal on offense. The Seminoles are No. 2 in scoring offense and have scored 50 points in three straight games (the first time that has happened in program history).
While the load was squarely on the shoulders of Manuel and the receivers in 2011 after injuries to tailbacks Chris Thompson and Devonta Freeman, FSU has shown its balance this year. The Seminoles have rushed for 837 yards and 15 touchdowns, grinding out 7.6 yards per carry.
And they've done it behind an offensive line that has gained experience and has been aided by the addition of left tackle Cameron Erving (who moved over from defensive tackle) and right tackle Menelik Watson (an English-born former basketball player and boxer who has only been playing football for about a year). The line has allowed just three sacks in three games after giving up 41 in 2011.
Manuel didn't have to break much of a sweat in the first two wins over Football Championship Subdivision teams, but he had two touchdown passes in the win over Wake and is completing 71.2 percent of his passes this season.
The play of FSU's defense, which has allowed just three points so far, and the balance on offense has the Seminoles optimistic that the pieces are there for the program's first ACC title since 2005.
"He's capable of having the kind of impact with Florida State like you see all of these other stars have with their programs," Whitfield said. "He's as good as anybody in the country."