|EJ Manuel becomes the man they are pointing to in Tallahassee. (US Presswire)|
PINEHURST, N.C. -- Michael Vick. Percy Harvin. Tyrod Taylor. Ronald Curry, Lawrence Taylor. What do they have in common? They are just a very small part of a big list of great football players who hail from the Tidewater area of Virginia.
And when you listen to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, you come away with this: By the time he is done, quarterback EJ Manuel could be better than all of them.
"The thing about EJ is that he wants to be great," said Fisher, set to begin his second season as the Seminoles' head coach. "But he also understands that in order to be great it takes time and it takes work. He has been willing to do that from the moment he got here."
Let's start with the name. EJ actually stands for "Erik Jr."
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"My dad is Erik, Sr., and so my grandmother started calling me EJ," said the junior from Virginia Beach. "It just kind of stuck."
Then let's talk about the size. For purposes of this week's ACC Kickoff meetings, EJ is listed at 6-foot-5, 234 pounds. That info is old, said Manuel.
"Actually, I've put on some good weight and I'm up to 245," he said. "But I don't think I've lost any speed. I ran a 4.51 40 the other day."
Here is what you really need to know about EJ Manuel. In 2007, when Jimbo Fisher agreed to leave LSU and become the offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting at Florida State, he told head coach Bobby Bowden that he was recruiting Manuel as his quarterback of the future. In Manuel he saw the best traits of two former pupils at LSU -- Rohan Davey and JaMarcus Russell -- but with more speed.
"But the best thing about EJ is that when I started recruiting him he was 18 going on 30," Fisher said. "When I would show him tape of Rohan and JaMarcus he didn't just watch. By the time we were done he had written two pages of notes. He soaks up information and asks the right questions. He is driven to succeed."
Manuel came to Florida State in 2008 after a brilliant career at Bayside High School. There was talk that Manuel would play immediately as Florida State continued to rebuild its offense under Fisher. But Fisher had a sophomore quarterback, Christian Ponder, who also looked like he would be special. Fisher convinced Manuel to redshirt as a true freshman.
"We had to have several talks on that and great players want to get on the field as soon as they can," Fisher said. "But I told him that it's not where you start, it's where you finish up. A player in his position is not waiting to play. He's preparing to play. And that is exactly what he did."
Ponder had a wonderful career at Florida State and that was substantiated when he was taken as the No. 12 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. But Ponder also took some time to prepare. He redshirted as a freshman in 2006 and played behind starter Drew Weatherford in 2007. But in 2008, when Ponder was a sophomore, he beat out Weatherford for the job.
Manuel was reminded that when Florida State was on that great 14-year run of top five finishes (1987-2000), almost always the quarterbacks did not start before their redshirt junior seasons. Charlie Ward, the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner, did not start until he was a redshirt junior. Chris Weinke, the 1999 Heisman winner, started as a sophomore but he was 26 years old.
"I'm like any other player. I want to help the team win. But Coach Fisher was right," Manuel said. "At quarterback you don't need to go out there before you are ready. So I decided to get ready."
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, Manuel was ready when Ponder suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the ninth game against Clemson. At that point Florida State was 4-5 and needed two wins down the stretch to keep its string of 27 straight bowl games alive. In his first start against Wake Forest Manuel completed 15 of 20 passes and Florida State won 41-28. The next week against Maryland he led the team on a last-minute drive to score a touchdown with 1:14 left to win 29-26 and make his team bowl eligible.
Manuel got this first negative experience on the field when No. 1 Florida beat up the Seminoles 37-10 two weeks later. But then Manuel came back and was named the MVP of Florida State’s 33-21 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.
Last season he got starts against Clemson (passed for a career-high 288 yards) and then in the ACC championship game loss to Virginia Tech. But then Manuel came back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and subbed for Ponder. He led the Seminoles to a 26-17 win over South Carolina, the SEC East champs.
"I've been able to play in big games and win them [4-2 as a starter] and I've always prepared for games as if I was going to be the starter," Manuel said. "So I don't think the transition is going to be that great."
And understand this. Manuel has made it clear that he wants to be an elite quarterback, not only a great athlete who plays quarterback. He was invited to attend the prestigious Manning Passing Academy, where most of the real learning that separates good from great is done on a white board, not a grass field.
"He got up there and started talking football with Archie and Peyton and Eli and those guys and he realized he belonged," Fisher said. "It was a huge boost for him."
So now it is indeed EJ Manuel's time. Florida State is going to be picked by the assembled media here to win the ACC championship. If the Seminoles make some magic and beat Oklahoma (which will be preseason No. 1 or No. 2 in just about every poll) in Tallahassee on Sept. 17, Florida State will get back into the discussion for the national championship for the first time in a decade. So there is a little bit of pressure here for Manuel to live up to his own confidence and that others have in him.
Manuel’s take? Bring it on.
"I came to Florida State because I believed in Coach Fisher and I believed we would win championships again," Manuel said. "Oh now he does not shy away from competition. He loves it," Fisher said. "Some guys look great in practice and then shy away once the game starts. Not this guy. The tougher it is, the more he likes it."
Where does that edge come from? It all goes back to Tidewater, Va.
"There are so many great athletes in the youth programs up there that if you're not competitive you will never get on the field. You'll sit the whole time," Manuel said. "I don't like to sit when there is a game to be played."
The 'Tony Barnhart Show' resumes on Aug. 30 on the CBS Sports Network.