The play wasn't a game-changer or even particularly memorable. Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder, facing second and 15 from his own 36 late in the opening half of the Champs Sports Bowl against Wisconsin, faked a handoff and looked left for receiver Greg Carr, who was running a post pattern. But a cornerback was playing off, and a safety rolled over to help. "That made the post dead," Ponder said. He then glanced right for receiver Taiwan Easterling, who had lined up in the slot and was running a down-and-out toward the first-down marker. But Ponder realized the other corner was well-positioned to make a play. "That was dead, too," he said. What to do now? Well, he searched for his third option, receiver Bert Reed, who was running an underneath route toward the right sideline.
Ponder threw it to him for a modest 7-yard gain.
Not exactly a SportsCenter moment.
Not so fast.
That play demonstrated the all-important progress Ponder had made as a first-year starter in working through his "progressions," or the available and ordered choices on a play. Earlier in the season, he confessed he might have gone no further than the first one and "thrown the post and had it intercepted" or tucked the ball away and run. Instead, he showed a better understanding of the defense, greater self confidence and greater trust in his teammates.
All of those things produce the kind of plays worthy of highlight shows.
All of those things speak to the kind of plays the Seminoles expect him to make regularly and yes, more memorably, in 2009, beginning with the Labor Day opener against the visiting Miami Hurricanes.
"No doubt about it, he's seeing things a lot better," coach Bobby Bowden said.
"He knows what we're doing," offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher added. "He's got a great grasp of it, and he's making good decisions."
Ponder completed 177 of 318 passes (55.7 percent) for 2,006 yards, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season. He added 423 yards and four touchdowns on 119 rushes. Not bad numbers but not quite what the Seminoles needed to re-establish themselves, and a part of the problem was Ponder's lack of patience in the pocket.
"You could see glimpses of why Jimbo and the staff fell in love with him and what he can do," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "It's very, very natural to see a first-year quarterback with happy feet, not quite trusting his decisions or his eyes."
But if Ponder matures as a player, he will scroll through his progressions on a given play call and make a good decision with the ball. You could see that in the bowl game, a resounding 42-13 win.
"I'm more confident now about getting to those second and third guys," Ponder said, adding that he's starting to go through his progressions as he's dropping back instead of waiting until he's set as he did a year ago. "And with the offensive line we have, I know I'm going to have the time to do so."
He didn't feel that way a year ago when the Seminoles started three freshmen, a sophomore and a redshirt sophomore in front of him. Some had expected the line would be the worst in the ACC. A year older, it's now regarded as the league's best.
"He trusts our blocks a lot more," center Ryan McMahon said. "And we're trusting him more."
"The receivers have noticed the difference," Reed echoed. "We know to keep running our routes full speed because he's finding the open guy more. You can see him scanning the whole field."
If that continues, look out.
Said Herbstreit: "I expect him to have a much better year. … You're talking about a much better line for Florida State, and if (Jermaine) Thomas can give them some stability running the football, it's just going to take that much more pressure off of Ponder. If the receivers can step up, this has the makings of one of the better Florida State offenses that we've seen in a few years."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/seminoles.
FSU SEMINOLES PREVIEW
College football 2009 The St. Petersburg Times previews the college football season this week
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