Even when he redshirted as a freshman in 2008, quarterback E.J. Manuel always practiced as if he were the starter. "I was the fourth-string guy," says the junior. "In my mind I was three plays away from playing." Manuel waited behind Christian Ponder for three seasons. In '09, when Ponder separated his throwing shoulder, Manuel started both the season-ending loss to Florida and the Gator Bowl win over West Virginia. When Ponder was sidelined with a sore elbow last year, Manuel started the ACC title game loss to Virginia Tech and played most of the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina. Now he is poised to lead Florida State back to national prominence. "There's no better time to come on as the starter than now," Manuel says. "We have so much talent."
When coach Jimbo Fisher arrived in Tallahassee as offensive coordinator in '07, he also took over the recruiting operation. Manuel, a 6'4" 223-pounder from Bayside High in Virginia Beach, was Fisher's first coup. In the three years since, Fisher has reeled in blue-chippers at nearly every position. Running backs Chris Thompson, Jermaine Thomas and Ty Jones, who combined to rush for 1,862 yards and 6.1 yards a carry last fall, will be joined by James Wilder Jr., a 219-pound freshman bruiser whose knack for tackle-breaking at Plant High in Tampa made him a YouTube sensation. Florida State lost wideout Taiwan Easterling (551 receiving yards, five TDs in 2010) to professional baseball, but still has Bert Reed, Willie Haulstead and Rodney Smith, who together caught 127 passes for 1,649 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Manuel can also find two freshman targets in 6'6", 242-pound receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Nick O'Leary, a punishing blocker and excellent route runner (and the grandson of Jack Nicklaus).
Manuel loves the competitiveness of the freshman class, and cites epic off-season seven-on-seven sessions against the Seminoles' secondary as evidence that the personnel upgrade has made a difference. "It was like a Super Bowl every day," he says. But can he lift those kids into national title contention? "He has the it factor," Fisher says. "When he's in the room, they know he's in charge."
10 Charleston Southern
24 at Clemson
8 at Wake Forest
15 at Duke
29 North Carolina State
3 at Boston College
26 at Florida
A blind-side protector since 2008, he had off-season left-shoulder surgery and missed the spring.
The dangerous return man has the skills to become one of the ACC's top cover corners.
The lone returning LB starter, the 6'3" 240-pounder led the team in tackles in 2009 and '10.
Coach Jimbo Fisher (2nd year)
2010 Record 10--4 (6--2 in ACC)
Final AP Rank 17
Returning Starters 16
Offense 8, Defense 8
GRAY QUETTI/CAL SPORT MEDIA (MANUEL)
Manuel has spent three years in Tallahassee as a backup, but in part-time duty last season he had a passer rating of 153.3.
BILL FRAKES (THOMPSON)
The speedy Thompson, who led the Seminoles in rushing last year with 845 yards, is just one option in a deep and talented stable of running backs.
GRAY QUETTI/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BRADHAM)