Speak Easy Hesiman Watch Update… A look at the Dark-horse Candidates for the Hesiman Trophy.
A Look at EJ Manuel, Florida State QB, curtesy of EPSN insider columnist Ryan McGee.
CALL THEM EJ MANUEL EPIPHANIES, those moments when Bunyanesque stories of strength, speed and social graces materialize before your eyes.
Mark Zeigler’s EJ epiphany occurred in July 2008. The Florida State communications professor had wrapped up another edition of the athletic department’s freshman summer orientation. His address opens with the historical highs — two national titles, two Heisman winners, Neon Deion — before hitting on the recent lows. He recounts stories of “criminoles” who traded garnet and gold for prison orange, and he rails against the 61 flunkies who committed academic fraud in 2006 and ’07, forcing FSU to erase two seasons’ worth of wins. Every year he wonders whether any of the cocky 18-year-olds in the room has listened.
That July afternoon three years ago, as he backed out of his parking spot, Zeigler was startled by a rap at his window. He stopped. In front of him stood a tall, thin kid with a determined stare. “Mr. Zeigler, I’m EJ Manuel,” he said. “And I will never let you or the faculty down.”
Four years later, the redshirt junior has stayed true to his word. While others from the famed high school QB class of 2008 — Blaine Gabbert, Landry Jones, Andrew Luck and Terrelle Pryor — have seized the spotlight, Manuel has waited on the second rung of FSU’s depth chart, befriending upperclassmen (including Christian Ponder, the man who kept him on the bench), camping out in the film room and pressing his professors as hard as his coaches. Zeigler remembers a standing classroom ovation the QB received for a speech on rhetoric of didactic literature. Teammate Bert Reed says Manuel has “even persuaded the sports-hating nerds in his classes to start coming to games.”
Now it’s Manuel’s time to show them what he can do. His first full season as a starter corresponds with FSU’s own rise: Last year, in coach Jimbo Fisher’s debut season, the Seminoles reached 10 wins for the first time since 2003, and they enter this year ranked sixth in the AP Top 25. Their third game, a Sept. 17 visit from Oklahoma, presents an opportunity not only to avenge last year’s 47-17 road loss but show the nation that FSU once again is a national powerhouse and that Manuel is a star. “A lot of people have been waiting for a game where they can finally say FSU is back,” Manuel says, “and they keep pointing to this year’s Oklahoma game.”
The QB is not unfamiliar with the big stage. Manuel is 4-2 as a starter, including Bobby Bowden’s last bowl victory (a 33-21 win over West Virginia in 2010) and Fisher’s first (a 26-17 win over South Carolina last December). Fans love Manuel’s dual-threat capability and stat junkies his 153.3 pass-efficiency rating in 2010.
Fisher loves his wisdom. His EJ epiphany took place on Dec. 4, 2010, on the sideline of the cold, wet Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Manuel started the ACC title game vs. Virginia Tech, pressed into service because of Ponder’s injured throwing elbow. The second play of Manuel’s second drive resulted in a pick six. Fisher greeted Manuel on the sideline, ready with a speech to salvage his player’s confidence. Instead, Manuel wanted to talk about the Hokies. Despite his mistake, he had already identified the D’s weaknesses and was pulling ideas from deep within the playbook to exploit them. “Sometimes guys just play the game without actually seeing it,” Fisher says. “But EJ was slowing it down.” Two of the next three drives ended in touchdowns in the 44-33 loss. “He knew what was going on everywhere on the field,” Fisher says.
That level of football IQ doesn’t surprise anyone who knows him, especially the FSU elders Manuel has tapped for advice. In 2007, during a recruiting visit, he tracked down safety Myron Rolle and immediately adopted the future Rhodes Scholar as a mentor. After committing to FSU, Manuel called Rolle daily, seeking advice on balancing schoolwork and field work. “Myron always says life is about maintaining priorities,” Manuel says. “Keep them in check and you’ll be fine.” His two ACC All-Academic selections attest that he’s taken that advice to heart.
Manuel struggled a bit during his freshman year as a backup, shedding tears in his dorm room. One day, he saw Charlie Ward on the sideline and sought him out. Soon Ward was encouraging him to smile at practice even if he didn’t feel like it. Ward has served as Manuel’s moral compass, reminding him that grades and gridiron should take precedence over girls and gin. “Charlie and my father [Erik Sr.] are my rocks,” Manuel says. “If I’m ever in doubt about something, they are as far as I have to look.”
Manuel’s teammates say the same about him. He fills the locker room now with talk of “cutting out cancers” and has zero tolerance for “knuckleheads.” Says defensive end Brandon Jenkins: “Freshmen aren’t going to be cutting any classes, and neither am I. Why? Because EJ isn’t cutting class. He puts pressure on everyone to do better.”
Manuel is working to ensure his influence reaches into FSU’s future. Jameis Winston, ESPNU’s top-rated high school quarterback, had his EJ epiphany in July at the Elite 11 quarterbacks camp in Malibu. He’d arrived unprepared and woefully behind, too occupied with summer baseball to complete his precamp prep work. But at 1:12 a.m. that first night, Winston was discovered after bed check buried in playbooks. No one asked him which camp counselor had pulled him aside; no one had to. In the days ahead, Manuel ran around bragging that Winston was now wearing the coveted red jersey, awarded to the camp’s top man in film study. Two weeks later, Winston announced he was spurning his home state schools in Alabama and signing with FSU. Manuel has already preached the same “God, family, books and football” philosophy that Rolle and Ward taught him. “I like that term, EJ epiphany,” Ward says. “Anyone who comes in contact with him knows exactly what you’re talking about.”
Then the living FSU legend pauses and adds, “There are a lot of people hoping Oklahoma has one of those epiphanies on Sept. 17.”