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April 14, 2011
Although this represents Manuel's first season atop the Seminoles' depth chart, he actually ranks among the ACC's more experienced quarterbacks; he has made six career starts in place of an injured Christian Ponder the past two seasons.
But he does resemble a newcomer in at least one respect: Never before in his Florida State career has Manuel felt so comfortable throwing the ball.
"It's like night and day," he said. "I feel like I haven't thrown the ball like this since high school. In high school, the ball used to jump out of my hands."
Manuel has completed more than two-thirds of his career passes at Florida State, but he hasn't thrown with the same ease that he showed while accounting for 7,400 yards of total offense at Virginia Beach (Va.) Bayside.
Manuel started the last four games of the 2009 season while dealing with a shoulder injury that later was diagnosed as a partially torn rotator cuff. Manuel threw six interceptions with only two touchdown passes that season, though he closed the season by leading Florida State to a Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia in the final game of Bobby Bowden's coaching tenure.
"When your shoulder's hurting, it kind of weighs on you consciously or subconsciously," Manuel said. "You feel that pain when you release the ball. You grit your teeth and still try to make the plays. Now it doesn't hurt at all."
Manuel's aching shoulder prevented him from showing the potential that had made him the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback prospect
"I remember a coach recruiting him said that kid would win the Heisman one day," Bayside coach Darnell Moore said.
Manuel had surgery after the 2009 season but still didn't feel particularly comfortable in 2010. Even though his shoulder was feeling better, he wasn't throwing with the same zip that he possessed in high school. That's not a problem anymore.
Manuel knows the offense better, and the mechanics of his throwing motion have improved.
"The biggest thing is the way the ball comes out of my hands," he said. "It shoots out of my hands. There's no wasted movement. ... My shoulder doesn't hurt anymore. There's no reason to have a slow release or a funky release. I'm a quarterback now. The ball's shooting out of my hands, and I know I can make any throw on the field."
Manuel has spent the spring doing just that. He went 29-of-42 for 254 yards with three touchdown passes and no interceptions last week in Florida State's first spring scrimmage.
That performance represented a major step forward for Manuel, who's a bit of a rookie when it comes to spring practice. Manuel broke an index finger on the first day of Florida State's 2009 spring workouts and sat out last year's spring practice as he recovered from shoulder surgery.
"He made good decisions and just looked like he belonged and was in charge of everything," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said after that scrimmage. "He was in total control of everything
Manuel must maintain that same type of control this fall. Few quarterbacks across the country will face as much pressure as Manuel will encounter this season.
Florida State made 14 consecutive top-five finishes in The Associated Press poll from 1987-2000, but the Seminoles haven't closed a season in the top 10 since. The Seminoles are expected to end that drought this year and likely will head into the season favored to win their first ACC title since 2005.
Manuel won't have much time to ease into the job. While the Seminoles do open the season against patsies Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern, they have a Sept. 17 date with Oklahoma, the probable top-ranked team in each of the major preseason polls. Florida State travels to Clemson the following week for a game that could go a long way toward determining the ACC Atlantic Division champion.
Manuel is accustomed to playing in big games. Manuel's second career start came against Florida in Gainesville. He filled in for an injured Ponder in last season's ACC championship game loss to Virginia Tech, then came off the bench to play the majority of the Seminoles' Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina last season.
Manuel is the only ACC quarterback who has started in a conference championship game. And assuming N.C. State's Russell Wilson bypasses his final season to play pro baseball, Maryland sophomore Danny O'Brien is the only other quarterback in the conference who has started in a bowl victory.
"It definitely helps," Manuel said. "I know what to expect. I'm not going to be out there like a deer caught in the headlights."
Manuel's experience has helped him develop into a team leader. Even though this marks Manuel's first season as a starter, he won the respect of his teammates long ago with his patience and work ethic. Now those teammates are seeing a different side of him.
"He's stepped up more as a leader, especially in the huddle," Florida State fullback Lonnie Pryor said. "When we need a first down or something needs to happen, he'll say, 'Hey, we need to get this.' He's doing an excellent job, and he's going to keep it up."
Manuel isn't alone in believing he has rediscovered his old form. The guy who watched him most of all in high school also believes the best is yet to come.
"People got a glimpse of what he was or what he could be," Moore said. "But personally I believe they haven't seen anything like him yet, when the ball really just pops out of his hand."
Manuel has miles to go before he can live up to that bold prediction a college recruiter once made to Moore, but he already has come a long way.
Sure, he's unlikely to cap his first full season as a starter by posing with the Heisman in early December. But don't be surprised if he's clutching an ACC championship trophy instead.
(Andrew Skwara of Warchant.com contributed to this report).
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