FSU's Ponder arrives ahead of schedule

TALLAHASSEE — Florida State redshirt sophomore quarterback Christian Ponder always has had something of a timetable for when he would attain his goals.

"When I came in here in the spring (of 2006), they told me that Drew (Weatherford) and Xavier (Lee) were here and I'd have to sit back and wait my turn," he said. "I really thought I wouldn't be able to play until Drew and Xavier left."

That would be next year.

But this guy has made a career of arriving ahead of schedule.

Ponder, who earned his finance degree with a 3.73 GPA more than a year earlier than most of his peers on campus, was named the Seminoles' starter for Saturday's season opener against Western Carolina despite his dearth of experience. Consider that he not only beat out Weatherford, a fifth-year senior and three-year starter, but the dazzlingly gifted D'Vontrey Richardson.

"I think (Ponder) is the definitive guy," said FSU offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jimbo Fisher, who made the call with the blessing of coach Bobby Bowden. "And he's the guy right now."

Call it running on Ponder time.

Ponder, 20, wasn't the most celebrated of prospects when he committed early (what did you expect?) in the recruiting process — the summer before his senior year — to play at the same school and for the same coach as his father, David, had in the early 1980s.

But then he didn't have eye-popping stats in his first season as the starter at Colleyville (Texas) Heritage High.

"The offense we ran his junior year was more of a turn-and-handoff, toss the ball," said Chris Cunningham, then the coach at Heritage. "Our backs had been a strength of ours; our O-line had been a strength. The offense really didn't emphasize Christian's talents."

But just before Ponder's final prep season in 2005, Cunningham went to the spread offense.

"Sometimes it takes a year or two, especially for the quarterback, to take it and go," he said.

Not Ponder. He threw for more than 2,200 yards and 20 touchdowns, up markedly from about 1,500 yards and seven scores from the year before, and added 911 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.

"He was a stud," Cunningham said.

Ponder grew up an FSU fan. His dad was a Seminole defensive lineman and alumnus. His mother Christine is a FSU alumna; in fact she and David met there. After his father spent a couple years in Dallas with the Cowboys, he and the family spent some time living in Tampa where they could visit Tallahassee.

"FSU (memorabilia) is all over the place at home," Ponder said with a laugh. "As soon as they offered me, I knew I was going to come here."

After Ponder's his first season, Bowden re-made his offensive staff, bringing in Fisher. From the first practice of spring, Fisher was impressed by the low-key, level-headed kid with a wry sense of humor. (He and teammate Myron Rolle sang the national anthem at the August graduation ceremonies and Ponder admits he can't sing but deadpanned that, "They did play the music loud.") He nonetheless ended up on the scout team.

"I couldn't let that discourage me," he said. "I had to keep working hard until I got my chance."

His long-awaited chance came in the second quarter at No. 11 Virginia Tech Nov. 10. Weatherford went out with a concussion, Lee was back home suspended and Ponder suddenly had to play.

Although he committed a few turnovers, including two costly ones late in a 40-21 loss, he showed big-play potential; he hit receiver Greg Carr with a bullet on the left sideline for 23 yards. He also had a 22-yard run on a scoring drive, finishing with 51 yards rushing on five carries to go with 105 yards passing and a touchdown.

"That game gave me a lot of confidence," said Ponder, who remembers the miscues more readily than he does the positives. "I wasn't as highly recruited as a lot of guys who come to Florida State. … Once I got out there and made some plays, I realized I had the ability to make plays and be on that field."

He carried that over into the offseason, working harder to master Fisher's offense, studying more film and working out more in the weight room. The 6-foot-2 Ponder bulked up from 207 pounds to 220 and easily bench pressed 375 pounds. He also has maintained his 4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash, quickness that figures to serve him well as he operates behind a relatively inexperienced offensive line.

With Weatherford out (knee surgery) during most of the spring, Ponder and Richardson improved significantly and created a true three-way battle for the starting job. Even a sore shoulder for a few days in August didn't prevent Ponder from winning that competition.

"I've always said I think Christian is a big-time player," Fisher said. "I think the others are (too), but over the long period of time he was the most consistent with the most big plays."

Upon hearing the news Wednesday morning, Ponder didn't telephone his dad right away. He went to his business law class; he's working on his MBA. Heck. He hadn't even talked to his dad by noon on Thursday.

"I bet he's watching film," David Ponder said excitedly.

"It's a dream come true for me," Christian Ponder said. "I can't wait 'til Saturday."

Call it Ponder time.

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

FSU's Ponder arrives ahead of schedule 09/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 3:57pm]

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