EJ Manuel's durability leads to questions about the future of the QB position
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The man taking snaps for Maryland on Saturday will wear a No. 31 jersey, and on the Terrapins' team website, Shawn Petty is still listed as a linebacker. He is now the starting quarterback only after an absurd string of injuries robbed Maryland of its entire stock of more traditional options.
As opposed to Maryland's dire circumstances, Florida State has enjoyed the luxury of a healthy and productive EJ Manuel all season, with his backups seeing only a rare handful of snaps in the final moments of blowout wins. But Manuel's consistency has only served to cloak what might be a far more intriguing debate: Who will be his replacement when his Florida State career winds to a close in a mere seven weeks?
"I don't know," tailback Devonta Freeman said. "It's up for grabs."
The race to be Florida State's starting quarterback in 2013 includes a deep cast of candidates, and any predictions for the future are purely guesswork.
Clint Trickett is the veteran, he of two career starts. Jacob Coker is the talented hybrid, a redshirt freshman who combines size and arm strength in a manner similar to Manuel. Then there's highly touted freshman Jameis Winston, a top recruit who oozes potential.
Each quarterback has promise, but after a year of quiet consistency in which backups are on pace for the lowest number of passing attempts in any season since 2001, looking ahead to next season makes for an intriguing debate.
"I think Clint will obviously have a leg up on everybody else because he has experience and is a good quarterback," Manuel said. "But it'll be interesting to see."
Indeed, Trickett is the early favorite thanks to his tenure in the system and more extensive workload, which included an exceptional start against Clemson last season and a dismal performance a week later against Wake Forest.
This season, Trickett added bulk to his slender frame, refined his knowledge of the playbook, and has quietly monitored Manuel's mannerisms on and off the field -- right down to the artful dodge of a pointed question.
"Everyone asked me about the presidential race, and I just said, 'I just throw the football,' " said Trickett, comparing politics to the soon-to-be-wide open quarterback race. "It's not up to me. I just play football."
Of course, the future is still on his mind. When the day's practice is done and film study has ended, Trickett admits he lets his thoughts wander to what's in store this spring.
Too many months on the sideline provide ample time to ponder the future, and when the possibilities are as varied as they appear at the moment, it's easy to dream big and tough to accept defeat.
"It's never normal," Coker said. "You're not used to sitting the bench. I'm just trying to do everything I can to get back on the field."
In last week's win over Virginia Tech, Manuel was hit hard twice, lingering on the ground just long enough to pique the interest of the men occupying the remainder of the QB depth chart.
However, both times Manuel rose to his feet, gathered himself and rejoined the huddle on the next series.
"He needed to finish that game," Trickett said. "But it is hard because you want to play."
But for as much as Florida State's backup quarterbacks are eager to see action, there are remarkably few conversations about the battle for the job Manuel is about to vacate.
At practice, the quarterbacks all throw side by side. A good throw from Coker inspires Trickett to do better on his next toss. An ugly throw from Winston requires a sharp barb from his veteran teammates, just for fun.
Converted linebacker Shawn Petty is Maryland's fifth option at quarterback this season, a bold contrast to Florida State's consistency at the position, which is on pace for the fewest number of attempts for backups since 2001.
Pass attempts by FSU backup QBs by season. (* If Florida State backups don't throw another pass this season, it will be the lowest total since 1992.)
"I think it's good for quarterbacks, especially highly recruited ones, to go out there and understand they can be a team player," Fisher said. "When you go lead a team -- you can't always be a chief. There's a part you have to be an Indian, and they understand that. And then when you are the chief, [teammates] will follow you better."
Winston has proven an exceptional example.
After starring in high school, Winston has been relegated to redshirt status this season. He won't see a second of game action, but he's been a regular on road trips nevertheless. Fisher said Winston travels with the team so he can get a taste of hostile environments, but also because the freshman provides so much enthusiasm on the sideline. Winston celebrates a touchdown with as much vigor as anyone actually involved in the play on the field.
"He's a freshman, so he's still got to grow up," Freeman said. "But when he's on the sideline, he keeps the team motivated and hyped. He's into the game like he's playing. That's what I like about him. He knows it's not his time right now, but he's going to play his part and do the best at it."
In two months, all that changes. Three from Fisher's QB tribe will vie for the role of chief, and the calm consistency that has marked Florida State's 2012 season at quarterback will give way to the hottest spring storyline in years.
Coker, Winston and Trickett are as interested as anyone in the battle that's to come.
So what happens if it doesn't work out?
"It's my job not to let that happen," Trickett said. "So I don't even think like that."