As Florida State gets set to open camp for the 2012 season, perhaps no player has more pressure on his shoulders than senior quarterback EJ Manuel. It's a role former FSU quarterback and current ESPN analyst Danny Kanell knows well.
Kanell upped his touchdown total from 17 to 32 from his junior to senior seasons with the Seminoles, and he says Manuel will need to make a similar leap forward this season if Florida State is to meet preseason expectations.
Here's more of Kanell's analysis of Manuel's progress and Florida State's potential.
Q. You've gotten to see Manuel play a good bit during the last few years. What do you think is the key for him this season to take that next step?
A. I really like EJ a lot. The one thing about EJ that you can't coach is that he's got the intangibles. He's got the leadership qualities, the toughness, the mental IQ to run an offense successfully. Those are some of the things I really like about him. He's got the size, the physical capabilities to make all the throws. He can run, he's athletic. I think the one area where EJ's going to need to step up, and where if Florida State has national title aspirations this year, which they do, they're going to have to see EJ step up as a pure passer.
That's something they worked on in the spring game. I got to cover the spring game and he threw it 51 times. It was obviously something they were working at, was his pocket-passing ability. If he improves that just a little bit -- it's just the finer details. You're talking about a guy with a 65 percent completion rate and pretty good touchdown-to-interception numbers. But if he wants to take the next step, he's got to have a season where he throws about 30 touchdowns vs. single-digit interceptions to be considered a true premier quarterback in the whole country.
Q. How much do you think his progress in becoming a better pocket passer last season was hindered by the problems on the offensive line?
A. I think there were two things that greatly affected his play last year. One was the play of his offensive line. Two was the fact that he was battling injury all year. He's one of the toughest quarterbacks in the entire country. For him to bounce back as quick as he did, only missing one-and-a-half games with the shoulder injury and playing through a tremendous amount of pain, showed you his toughness. But the offensive line has got to do a better job of protecting him so that he can sit in the pocket and go through his progressions and get to that second, third, fourth option in his reads.
Q. How much more important is it for him to develop in the pocket when Florida State has such a deep corps of receivers who can make plays with the football?
A. It kind of goes back to the days of old when you had so many weapons to work with, back when Charlie (Ward) was there, myself, Chris Weinke. You really just had to be a distributor. You had to get the ball to the right guy, whatever the defensive would give you.
That's going to be a similar situation to what EJ's going to be in this year. If he just goes out there and makes good decisions -- that's all you have to do is be a good decision maker and get the ball in the right hands and let those guys do the rest.
The thing EJ's got going for him is that he's a better runner than all of us except for maybe Charlie. If you combine that with the weapons they've got and you can have a little bit of a running game -- last year they finished 104th in running. I'm sure they'd love to have a top-20 running game, but even if you're just top-50 where it's respectable, this offense could be extremely difficult to stop.
Q. How difficult is it for a quarterback to stay in the pocket that extra half-second when he's used to using his legs to escape trouble and has the athletic ability to make plays as a runner?
A. I think because you know you can do it so much on your own, but that's where you get into trouble is when you try to do too much on your own. I think even Christian Ponder did that because he was such an outstanding runner. It's an art form of knowing when to do what, knowing when to stay in the pocket and wait for that receiver to come open, and when to tuck it and run.
You're seeing the quarterback position evolve in college football and in the NFL to guys who can do both. And if you can do both, you're almost unstoppable for a defensive coordinator to try to defend you. If they have to account for you as a legitimate passer and as a legitimate run threat, it's almost unstoppable.
Q. You alluded to the national-title aspirations. How justified do you think all the preseason hype is this year?
A. I think Florida State fans should be extremely excited. I think you're seeing the fruits of Jimbo's labor on the recruiting trail. His guys are starting to play. But I'm a Seminole fan. It's hard for me to take off that hat and be objective. But I'll say this: I'd rather be talking about Florida State in December and January as a top-five team rather than in August. That's the way it's been around there for the last two or three years. It's great to start high in the polls, but they've got to prove -- not only to Seminole fans but to the rest of the country. I hear it a lot from a lot of other analysts: Well, here we go again. It's a lot of hype and they don't fulfill it on the field. But I think this team is ready for that challenge, and I think they're ready to step up and really take advantage of a great opportunity this season.
Their schedule is very favorable and it looks like the cards are set on the table. Now the biggest question mark, for me, is the offensive line. Can those young guys step up? Can Coach (Rick) Trickett get them ready to play? And can EJ take the next step? I think those are the two biggest question marks, in that order.
All across the board there are weapons, and the defense is going to be a top-three defense if they do anything like they did last season. But what I'd like to see from EJ is to have one of those signature games. He's had some very solid games, but what I'd like to see is him go out and light somebody up for 400 yards and impress people and just show that he can do it. He can. He's got it in him. He's had big games before -- but to do it on a big stage against a big opponent.