- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- According to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, there are seven people who are the most talked about, most recognized people in the state of Florida: the head coaches at Florida State, Florida and Miami, and the quarterbacks at Florida State, Florida and Miami.
And, of course, the governor.
“Those seven people,” Fisher said he tells his first-year starting quarterbacks, “that’s how you’re measured. You have to put into perspective how people are going to listen to you, see you. People are going to see you, know you, listen to everything you say, everything you do. So understand something: Nothing’s off the record, and there’s no time somebody’s not watching you.”
This year, almost everyone in the college football world will be watching 21-year-old EJ Manuel. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered student is on the fast track to graduate and also happens to be 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and facing the lofty expectations of leading the Seminoles to a national title in his first year as a full-time starter.
No, really. Manuel’s not feeling it. After all, they’re his expectations, too. He’s having a blast heading into spring practices Monday. And why shouldn’t he? He’s finally healthy and able to compete in spring ball for the first time in three seasons. And contrary to the fact this is his first season as a full-time starter, Manuel is no rookie. In fact, he might have been one of the most proven backup quarterbacks in the country. He’s got two bowl wins to prove it, including the 2009 Gator Bowl, when he was named the game’s MVP in former coach Bobby Bowden’s final game, and a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over SEC East champ South Carolina.
Been there, done that.
“It’s not a big difference to me, honestly,” he said. “I feel like the time I’ve had here at Florida State so far, I’ve been prepared by my coaches very well. Even when I haven’t been playing, I’ve still taken that time and initiative to still get better.”
Manuel's maturation this offseason will be critical to the Seminoles' chances of repeating as Atlantic Division champs. If Florida State can beat Oklahoma on Sept. 17, though, the Seminoles will become instant national title contenders.
“You just embrace it,” Manuel said. “A lot of people would probably want to be in the position that we are here at Florida State. A lot of people want to play quarterback here as well. I’ve been waiting and working hard to prepare for the time that’s finally here now. There have been times where I feel like I was working so hard it wasn’t even paying off, mainly because the learning curve, it takes awhile to understand and really grasp this offense. It’s kind of been a hard experience, but at the same time now it’s paying off and when I did have opportunities to play, I was ready.”
As in, MVP ready.
Manuel’s friends and family are still talking about his Gator Bowl performance -- 17-of-24 pass attempts for 189 yards and another 70 rushing yards on 14 carries -- because it came in such a historic win and gave him the kind of confidence a player can get only from experience.
“It let me know I can win in big games, and not be afraid of the moment -- seize the moment rather than be afraid of it,” Manuel said. “A lot of people crack under pressure. Around here, you’re always expected to perform at a high level and expected to perform under Fisher. Coach Fisher wants you to perform when the time comes. You always have to be ready for that. That kind of solidified that in my mind, helped me become mentally tough.”
More will be asked of Manuel this year, though, as expectations are soaring for the Seminoles in only the second season under Fisher. Last season, while Christian Ponder battled through injuries again, Manuel completed 70 percent of his passes for 861 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
“I definitely can do more,” Manuel said when specifically asked about the passing game. “I think it’s really up to Coach Fisher. He’s only going to call what he feels you’re comfortable with, so obviously this spring is going to be really big for me as far as showing him I can do it.”
His ability to move and run has overshadowed his passing game, but Manuel threw for almost 300 yards in the loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game.
“He’s very driven,” Fisher said. “He’s one of the few guys, sometimes you have to say, ‘Hey, take it easy on yourself.’ Very much like the last guy was. No. 7 was like that. A lot of your great players are. They hold themselves to a higher standard, and EJ really does that.”
Now, as one of the state’s seven most visible people, Manuel will be expected by many to continue to do that.
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