After lengthy apprenticeship, E.J. Manuel finally at helm for 'Noles

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel has waited nearly four years for this. Despite becoming the first marquee recruit to commit to then-offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher way back in June 2007, despite having six career starts to his name and despite leading his team to consecutive bowl victories, Manuel is going through his first spring as the Seminoles' undisputed leader. In fact, due to injuries, this is the first spring in which Manuel has fully participated.

"I'm excited," the former Virginia Beach prep star said on a recent afternoon inside FSU's athletic complex. "My arm has been hurting me the past couple years I've been here. I don't think a lot of people knew that. I'm 100 percent injury free now. I feel a bigger responsibility now that I'm the full-time starter, but it's something I'm embracing. I set high expectations for myself."

Expectations for the 'Noles in general have fallen a bit in recent years, but that's about to change. More than a decade has passed since Bobby Bowden's historic run of 14 straight top four finishes from 1987-2000, and FSU is no longer mentioned in the same breath as programs like Alabama and Oklahoma. But after the 'Noles won 10 games and reached the ACC Championship Game in Fisher's first season as head coach, then inked the top-rated recruiting class in the country, followers both locally and nationally can't help thinking FSU is finally on the verge of returning to prominence.

Many of those followers have erroneously thought that before, of course. In many ways, Manuel's college career parallels the rollercoaster of tantalizing teases and humbling setbacks the FSU program has endured. Rated the nation's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2008, the 6-foot-4, 223-pounder arrived at the time soon-to-be mentor Fisher assumed the role of head coach in waiting. Just as Fisher spent two awkward years biding his time before Bowden's eventual forced resignation, Manuel waited, redshirting his first year, then spending the past two seasons primarily as the understudy to starter Christian Ponder.

Ponder excelled as a junior in 2009 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the ninth game of the year. Manuel replaced Ponder and performed admirably in winning three of his four starts, including an MVP performance in the Gator Bowl against West Virginia, Bowden's last game. Ponder returned in 2010 accompanied by a full-blown Heisman campaign, but those hopes went up in smoke during a humbling 47-17 loss at Oklahoma the second week of the season.

Manuel, who eventually relieved Ponder in that game, remembers being a bit awe-struck that afternoon in Norman.

"I was like, 'Man, this is Oklahoma,'" Manuel said. "I've been watching these guys since I was a little kid, and then you see the Sooner [Schooner] come out with the truck and the horses. It was neat."

The lopsided defeat also opened Manuel's eyes to how much ground Florida State had lost.

"That Oklahoma game was a huge wake-up call for this team and this school," Manuel said. "When you go up against a national powerhouse like Oklahoma, that's what we want to be. That's what Florida State used to be."

FSU rebounded to finish the regular season 9-3, including its first win in seven years over archrival Florida. With Ponder bothered by a recurring elbow injury, Manuel again got the call, throwing for 288 yards but also two interceptions against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game before completing 11 of 15 throws for 84 yards in a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over SEC East champion South Carolina. The win gave FSU its first 10-win season since 2003.

The bump from the bowl win is a big reason why Fisher's second team seems likely to begin this season ranked in the top 10. Voters also will undoubtedly glance at the depth chart and see eight returning starters on both sides of the ball, including a pair of potential All-Americans on defense in right end Brandon Jenkins (13.5 sacks last season) and cornerback/punt returner Greg Reid (17 passes defended), both juniors. Booming kicker Dustin Hopkins and punter Shawn Powell return as well.

But talking to Fisher and others around the program, it's clear much of the enthusiasm this spring surrounds some less established players. With as many as 10 expected starters out for most or all of spring, the youngsters are getting plenty of work. Juco offensive lineman Jacob Fahrenkrug has already proven capable of filling one of FSU's biggest voids at guard, where two-time All-American Rodney Hudson is gone and veteran David Spurlock is moving to center. And freshman enrollee tailback Devonta Freeman has impressed Fisher with his work ethic.

Meanwhile, with Reid and freshman All-American Xavier Rhodes locking down the two corner spots, last year's top-rated cornerback recruit LaMarcus Joyner has moved to safety. Throw in playmaking nickelback Mike Harris, and coordinator Mark Stoops -- who helped lift the 'Noles from 108th to 42nd nationally in total defense in his first season -- should now have enough dependable coverage guys to gamble more up front. Stoops had already mixed up the defense considerably by the end of last season, employing a 3-4 look in the bowl game.

"I think they can be a really good unit," Fisher said of the defense. "We got a little more multiple in the things we did [last season]. We've got good guys up front, good ends, and a bunch of secondary guys that can play well for us. I think they'll feed off each other."

On offense, Fisher feels confident in his running backs, led by junior Chris Thompson (845 yards, 6.3 yards per carry last season) and senior Ty Jones (527, 6.1). As has seemingly been the case for years, FSU is looking for an elite receiver to emerge. The candidates this year include seniors Bert Reed and Taiwan Easterling (who is with the baseball team this spring) and juniors Willie Haulstead (who is out with a shoulder injury) and Rodney Smith.

But Manuel sees improved chemistry on the practice field.

"These guys I'm playing with now are guys I came in with, in the class of '08, class of '09," Manuel said. "These are like my brothers."

Practicing pain-free for the first time in two years, Manuel was an impressive 29-of-42 for 254 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in FSU's first spring scrimmage. Statistics from the team's second scrimmage were not made public, but Fisher told media that Manuel continued to progress. Manuel missed the bulk of spring practice in 2009 after suffering a finger injury that required surgery and sat out last spring with a shoulder injury, but went on to complete 69.9 percent of his passes in 2010 for 861 yards, four touchdowns and four picks despite recurring inflammation in his shoulder, a result of throwing too much with his arm and not enough with his feet, he said.

"I've changed a lot of my mechanics so I can use my whole body and make my throws more powerful and more accurate," said Manuel. "I felt like I've done well when I've had opportunities to play, and considering I had injuries at the same time. Now that I'm 100 percent healthy, we'll be even more effective as an offense and a team."

Fisher is banking on it. "He has very natural leadership ability," Fisher said of Manuel. "He does it with confidence and with not a lot of cockiness. He's just a complete person, and a great role model and a great face of our organization."

For nearly four years, both coach and quarterback have been central to FSU fans' vision of the future. Bowden, whose statue stands just outside the athletic complex, set an almost unachievable standard for his eventual successor, but the dysfunction that reigned during his last few years may have afforded Fisher more leeway. "We got a little too happy with ourselves," said a longtime staffer. "Things move a lot faster around here now."

Some close to the program are starting to cautiously return the words "national championship" to their vocabulary, though that seems a bit premature. The 'Noles will find out quickly enough where they stand in the landscape when the Sooners -- their vanquishers last season, and the likely preseason No. 1 team -- come to Doak Campbell the third week of the season. A year after Manuel watched the Sooner Schooner celebrate one Oklahoma touchdown after another, he'd like to create a similarly daunting atmosphere.

"A lot of teams feel the same way when they come here," Manuel said. "We have to install that fear in them, get back to where we used to be at Florida State, but obviously at the same time, make your own name. Not be the Florida State of old, but make a new era at Florida State."

The new era will officially begin when Manuel finally takes the field as FSU's opening-day starter. Time will tell whether the wait was worth it.