Manuel takes big step forward

Against Clemson, senior quarterback displays improved presence in the pocket

Updated: September 25, 2012, 10:45 AM ET
By David M. Hale | NoleNation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- EJ Manuel celebrated the biggest game of his life with pancakes.

It was nearly 1 a.m. when he finished soaking in the platitudes from the media after a 49-37 win over Clemson, a game in which he set career highs in passing and rushing yardage and pushed his way to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race. But there was no raucous celebration.

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesEJ Manuel did as much with his head as he did with his arm and legs against Clemson.
Manuel had earned the game ball, which he signed and gave to his father. Then the pair headed to IHOP for a late meal before turning in for the night.

"My dad stayed up until 6:30 trying to catch the 'College GameDay' stuff on TV," Manuel said, "but I went to sleep."

For the rest of the world, Saturday was Manuel's coming-of-age moment. For four years, he was a talented athlete without a signature moment, but now, under the national spotlight, he'd taken his team on his back and carried it to a win.

For Manuel, however, this week isn't much different than the last. He's still relaxed, confident, disinterested in anything outside the walls of his locker room or the lines on the field.

"My dad knows how I am," Manuel said. "He doesn't tell me about any of the newspaper clips or anything like that. It's gratifying, but we've got another game Saturday and I've got to go out and do the same thing."

Manuel might be immune to the buzz, but things are different, and it starts with the weapons he has around him.

The knock on Manuel for most of his career was that he excelled as an athlete, but as a pocket passer he was unrefined. The numbers offered ample evidence.

Since the start of the 2010 season, Manuel had completed 66.1 percent of his passes when in the pocket, but he averaged just 8.6 yards per attempt, with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Move him outside the pocket, and those numbers skyrocket, with Manuel completing 75 percent of his passes, averaging 10.5 yards per attempt and connecting on seven TDs without an interception, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

On Saturday, Manuel displayed plenty of that same athleticism -- rushing for 102 yards. But the bulk of the damage he inflicted was done with his arm, and that's a product of an improved line and veteran receivers.

"The guys around him are playing," Jimbo Fisher said. "The guys around him are protecting him. He's got trust."

Manuel was forced to run just five times against Clemson. One of those ended with a sack. Manuel turned the other four plays into 40 yards on the ground.

The added time in the pocket allowed Manuel to check down to third and fourth options in the passing game, and more often than not, those went for big gains, too, including a dump-off to Kelvin Benjamin that went for 64 yards.

"It allows you to play fast, and as you do, you gain confidence, and as you gain confidence, your natural abilities start to come out," Fisher said. "It's him being really focused and dialed in to handle big situations. He's grown immensely in that regard. But it's also a tribute to the guys around him."

But it's more than simply having the tools to play to his ability. Manuel has matured, making strides from game to game.

After Florida State's win against Wake Forest, Fisher quickly reeled off a handful of mistakes his quarterback had made. After the Clemson game, there was only praise.

"I don't know if he made a bad decision all night," Fisher said. "They were mixing looks up, blitzes, bringing them from everywhere, doing some things, and he made plays when he had to."

Benjamin's long run was due in part to a wise decision by Manuel and in part to the athleticism of the receiver. But the big plays are just as likely to be a product of Manuel's arm this season, too.

Last year, Manuel struggled with the deep ball, completing just 34.7 percent of passes of 20 yards or more. This season, he's completing deep balls at a 73 percent clip without an interception. Against Clemson, he hit both of his deep throws, tallying 57 yards and a touchdown.

"I've always felt like I was a good pocket passer, but the biggest thing is just giving those guys an opportunity to catch it," Manuel said. "The trust factor has gotten a lot better."

Manuel has grown, and his offense has improved, and Saturday's win was the result of it all finally clicking into place. It was Manuel as conductor of the symphony, and suddenly the rest of the country has seen what Fisher knew was possible all along.

Fisher called the Heisman race a popularity contest, one aimed at "show dogs."

"I'd rather have a hunting dog," he said.

But Fisher knows exactly what he has in Manuel. The quarterback has always been focused, driven, fixated on winning without the spotlight. It's the approach his parents engrained in him years ago.

What has changed is that Manuel has refined those rough edges, and that has made the whole package worthy of the big stage.

Hunting dog or show dog, Manuel is now in the spotlight whether or not he likes it. The perception has changed, even if his approach hasn't.

"When you get to coach him every day, and you get to look in his eyes and know how he works and what he does and how he thinks," Fisher said, "he's just a tremendous young man."