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Florida State quarterback working way toward top of class

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder wears the number seven for one reason -- it's the number Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway wore.

The fascination with Elway started at a young age, and Ponder wore the number as a way to show his appreciation for Elway.

"The way that he played the game and his overall competitiveness were the reasons why I admired him," Ponder said. "He made everyone else around him better, and I just loved watching him play."

Ponder's ability to improvise could help his draft stock. (Getty Images)  
Ponder's ability to improvise could help his draft stock. (Getty Images)  
The admiration sprouted during the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl years (1997 and '98). And, luckily for Florida State, Ponder didn't pay much attention to the path that Elway followed to the NFL.

Elway was a standout at Stanford and the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. But, while Elway created his legend at Stanford during the early 80's, another Ponder, Christian's father David, established a legacy at FSU as a defensive tackle for the Seminoles during the same period.

The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Ponder wasn't out of the football hotbed of Texas. He didn't receive scholarship offers from the major programs in the state -- Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech -- but Baylor and TCU did offer him, as did four other schools outside of Texas -- Georgia Tech, Iowa State, North Carolina and Florida State.

What would have happened if Elway's alma mater offered a scholarship?

"Stanford recruited me a little bit, and they tried to get me to go out there for a camp," he said. "I never really grew up a Stanford fan. I grew up a Florida State fan, because of my dad. Although, if Stanford showed more interest [at the time], I would have considered it, especially with their academics and since their football program is on the rise. But, Florida State is where I always wanted to be."

It took Ponder a couple of years to make an impact at Florida State. He redshirted during his first year on campus and was the backup to starter Drew Weatherford the next season. But entering his third year, Ponder replaced Weatherford as FSU's starting quarterback. Starting all 13 games in 2008, Ponder showed great promise, but he also displayed his inexperience, completing just 55.7 percent of his passes for 2,006 yards with 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Ponder made huge strides in 2009. He was on his way to a breakout year. Through the first eight games, he completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 2,453 yards, 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. In his ninth start of the season, Ponder, who entered the game with severely sore ribs, had his worst performance of the year throwing just one touchdown and four interceptions against Clemson. If that wasn't bad enough, Ponder suffered a season-ending (separated) right shoulder injury when he tackled safety DeAndre McDaniel following an interception late in the fourth quarter.

After a disappointing end to his junior campaign and an offseason full of rehab and self-improvement, Ponder said, "My arm feels great, the shoulder doesn't hurt anymore, and I'm not holding back during weight training; it's back to its normal strength."

Entering the 2010 season, Ponder is currently NFLDraftScout.com's No. 2-rated senior quarterback, and is projected to be a late-first or second-round prospect. The No. 1-rated quarterback by NFLDraftScout.com is Washington's Jake Locker, who is projected to be a first-round pick and has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft.

National Football Scouting, an organization utilized by at least half of the league's teams, many of which also assign a college scout to the service, and organizers of the annual NFL Scouting Combine ranked Ponder (No. 8 overall) ahead of Locker (No. 9) in their preseason rankings. Both were given a grade of 6.7 on a scale of 1.0-8.0.

"My biggest strength is my intelligence," Ponder said. "I really understand the game. I watch a lot of film, so that I'm fully prepared for the opponent. I'm able to pick up concepts really well and that's helped me with the playbook. I feel that I make good decisions, and I'm able to move around in the pocket. I'm also very accurate with the ball. If there's a small space, I feel like I have a strong enough arm to get the ball in there. As far as my timing, I will throw the ball before the receiver breaks. I have a good understanding of where the receiver will be on every down.

"I was never a real verbal guy," Ponder continued. "Growing up, I led more by example, but I'm starting to break that mold. As a quarterback, I understand that I have to be more vocal. Everybody looks at the quarterback as the leader of the team. I feel like I'm speaking up a lot more now and I still lead by example. I do what I have to do and let the guys know where they have to be on every play. I will be honest with guys if they're not doing what they're supposed to do. Overall, I have a good feel for the game, and I think that's what sets me apart."

Locker is the preseason favorite to be the top quarterback selected in the 2011 draft. There are scouts that prefer Ponder over Locker; those views are featured in Rob Rang's latest article comparing the passers. While Ponder is confident in his abilities and feels that he's the better prospect, he respects what Locker has done for the Washington program.

As the centerpiece of the Seminoles' 2010 ACC title hopes, Ponder will benefit from the offensive talent returning to Tallahassee this season; all but one starter, wide receiver Rod Owens, will be back. It's been five years since Florida State won the ACC, and for it to recapture the crown this season, Ponder will have to stay healthy and produce greater numbers than he has in the past.

"A lot of things are setting up for me to have a breakout year," he said. "It's my senior year and I would love to do well, lead my team to an ACC championship and get us back into the national spotlight. I'm going to build on what I did last year and get better, because there's always room for improvement. I watched a lot of film on myself and the other teams this offseason. I'm fortunate to have a lot of weapons returning to use at my disposal, and that will help me put up some really good numbers. It's going to be a great year."

Chris Steuber is a Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.
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