- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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The dry-erase board cost a few dollars at WalMart, but EJ Manuel believes it's priceless.
After five years at Florida State -- three with Jimbo Fisher -- the offense comes second nature, but that's not good enough.
So Manuel purchased the white board this offseason, and he began drawing up plays. On flights, during car rides, alone on the couch, Manuel would scratch out plays from memory.
"It's like you're studying for a test," Manuel said. "If you write it down, you remember it better."
It's an apt analogy for Manuel, but this season isn't simply any test. It's a final exam.
This is Manuel's last chance -- and without question, his best chance -- to leave Florida State with an ACC championship.
Manuel's expectations are set even higher. He speaks of the future in the grandest tones, but his present is defined by the details.
It's a formula that makes sense to him. It's written out in Xs and Os on a dry-erase board each day: Be perfect today, celebrate a national championship in January.
"If you're missing small things as the quarterback, you can't allow that to happen," Manuel said.
Pointing to his own miss
There's a play that lingers in Manuel's mind, one he's quick to shine a spotlight on again and again.
Keep in mind, the 2011 season was filled with obstacles for Manuel. His offensive line was a disaster, and Florida State allowed more sacks than anyone in the ACC. Manuel missed the bulk of two games with a shoulder injury, and the pain lingered far longer. His top receiver missed four games with an injury, and his ground game finished 104th in the nation in rushing yards.
If Manuel was looking for excuses for the unfulfilled promise of 2011, his options are virtually limitless. Instead, he points to a play for which he assumed all the blame.
It was third-and-11 at Virginia's 30-yard line late in the fourth quarter. The Seminoles trailed by a point, but were within field-goal range. Virginia came with the blitz, and Manuel didn't recognize it. The offensive line provided little more than a speed bump, and the play ended with Manuel on his back, the recipient of a sack that cost Florida State 14 yards and a shot at a go-ahead field goal.
"You can't miss that," Manuel said. "I missed it, and it took us out of field-goal position, and we didn't win the game."
Never mind that it was another sack in the first quarter that caused a fumble to set up Virginia's first touchdown. And forget that Manuel led FSU back into field-goal range on the final drive of the game, only to see Dustin Hopkins miss the kick. And it doesn't matter that Manuel recovered to beat in-state rival Florida the next week or lead FSU to a bowl win over Notre Dame to close out the season.
Manuel knows the impact of one small detail, and he's relished that moment. It drives him.
"I know I'm not perfect, but I've tried to make a huge effort this offseason to make sure that doesn't happen," Manuel said.
One of many strong ACC QBs
Manuel's place among the conference's elite is a given, a product of his experience and his potential, but the ACC may be the best quarterback conference in the nation this season, with 11 teams returning starters from last season.
Growing up, Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas heard plenty about the big kid with the huge arm from Virginia Beach who was defecting from his home state and heading to FSU.
"A couple guys from my family are big Florida State fans," Thomas said. "So I had to hear about him every time we had a family function."
Now Thomas and Manuel are the archetypes for ACC quarterbacks -- cannon arms, built like linebackers, immensely talented.
Thomas comes with a bit more hype, already poised atop the draft boards of numerous NFL teams drooling over his pro potential, but he thinks Manuel might be even better.
"We both do a lot of the same things, but he's a little more shifty than I am," Thomas said. "We both throw the ball well, but he's a little more accurate to this point."
And yet, there is something missing from Manuel's game.
From his role as Christian Ponder's understudy to the target on his chest behind last year's sieve of an offensive line, Manuel has rarely enjoyed consistency around him. So he's spent this offseason trying to create it.
"It's not a matter of not knowing what to do, it's just refining what to do," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "He has a lot of little things he has to refine, too, which I think comes with experience."
Fisher freely absolves Manuel of responsibility for last year's struggles, but both coach and quarterback won't accept the excuses of an inept line or stunted running game this time around. Too much is at stake.
"I'm not Superman, Batman, Spider-man," Manuel said. "I'm not him. But the best way to combat that is to work hard."
And so that's what this offseason has been about.
"He wants to get better," fellow senior Brandon Jenkins said. "He's never complacent. He's always watching film. He was on the dry-erase board, studying. What quarterback really does that?"
Working toward hallmark game
It's hard to pinpoint a signature moment in Manuel's development, although there have been many strong performances.
He threw for four touchdowns against Charleston Southern last season, but he's never tossed more than two against an FBS opponent. He racked up 321 passing yards against N.C. State in 2011, but that remains his lone 300-yard passing game against top-level competition.
So perhaps it's that sack in the fourth quarter of a loss to Virginia will prove to be the turning point.
After all, it's not success that defines Manuel, despite his ambition for the 2012 season. It's the journey, the work, the hours spent drawing on a cheap dry-erase board that make the man.
"Consistency," Manuel said. "That's a word that's stuck in my mind. Not just for myself, but force that from my teammates, too. In order for us to be a national champion, you have to be consistent."