Just before trotting onto the field for the first meaningful playing time of his collegiate career, Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel exuded none of the tells of nerves or uncertainty.
He didn't stare glassy-eyed off into the distance, overwhelmed by the setting at Clemson's Death Valley. He didn't fumble with uh-huhs as he conferred with offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. Instead, he calmly and confidently said:
"Coach. I'm ready."
Although the heralded redshirt freshman did little in that late-game situation with the Seminoles down 40-24 with 3:22 left, he now has a far better chance to back up his sideline statement.
With star Christian Ponder out for the rest of the season with a shoulder separation that requires surgery, it falls on Manuel's youthful and inexperienced shoulders to help salvage the season for the Seminoles (4-5, 2-4 ACC).
His team — and ready or not, that's what it is now — needs to win two of its last three games, beginning Saturday at Wake Forest (4-6, 2-4), just to become bowl eligible for a 28th straight year.
"I'm excited for him. I am," Fisher said. "I wish it were in a different circumstance where he didn't have as much pressure on him, but nothing in this world ever seems to work out that way. I'm very anxious to see how he does. I think he'll handle it well."
"I think everybody gets nervous. If they say they didn't, they'd be lying," Manuel said. "I'm sure I'll be nervous Saturday morning, but after that first snap, I think I'll be fine."
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The first thing you notice about Manuel is his physical tools. He has uncommon speed (4.6 in the 40) and a graceful, effortless gait to go with the kind of size (6-4) to see over linemen and defensive players. And you can't miss his powerful arm.
"As a freshman, I felt he was going to be my guy," Bayside (Va.) High coach Darnell Moore said.
Manuel was all of 14 but had the skill, work ethic, attention to the smallest of details (at the risk of sounding like a "geek," he admitted he'd keep his pens and pencils neatly arranged in his binder) and passion to develop.
"EJ's a competitor and has a never-say-die attitude," his prep coach said. "He can really make things happen."
Big things, as he showed. He racked up eye-popping statistics on his way to numerous accolades. Rivals.com ranked him second behind Terrelle Pryor, now an Ohio State star, in the Class of 2008 among dual-threat quarterbacks.
Fisher, looking for a signature signee in his first full year at FSU, was more taken by Manuel's intangibles — the leadership, character, spiritual grounding, commitment to excellence on and off the field and toughness.
"He represents and embodies what you want in a student-athlete and the leader of your team," he said. "You look at that guy and you can picture him leading your football team in all the things he does."
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After sitting out the 2008 season, Manuel found himself No. 2 on the depth chart behind Ponder. But he fractured his right index finger on the first day of spring practice.
With the FSU defense struggling and Ponder dramatically improved, Manuel found little opportunity to play and to show that he had corrected a "little hitch" in his throwing motion. Before Saturday, he had appeared briefly against BYU and USF, completing 1 of 2 passes for 4 yards and running twice for 7 yards.
Naturally, it had been a bit frustrating.
"We've talked about it three or four times," Fisher said. "That's where his maturity (is evident). … He understood where he was and what we did. He has the same mentality as Christian does as far as team and what he has to do and sacrifice."
And now, it's his time.
"I really think he's going to do well," said Ponder, who will travel with the team so he can still room with Manuel and serve as a mentor. "The biggest thing for him is he has a great head on his shoulders. He really cares about this football team and has done a good job of preparing all year like he's going to play."
"I hate that Christian had to get hurt in order for it to happen, but it is what it is," Manuel said. "Now that it's here, I'm going to try to take advantage of it and run with it."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.