As part of our 2012 season preview, we’re counting down the top 25 players in the ACC for this season, from 25 to one. Obviously these lists are always completely subjective, so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
Just like his high-profile team, FSU quarterback EJ Manuel has always seemingly carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. Rightfully or not, “good” is never good enough, and great is the only option. So, despite a 2011 season that saw nine wins, the conference’s second-highest pass efficiency rating and the fifth-most offensive yards per game, there were plenty (including your author) that were looking for more out of Manuel.
And this season, the same is true as his team once again comes in in the top 10, and he is once again expected to lead them. And while his top-notch defense will surely have his back, the offense remains a question mark beyond the quarterback position. Will there be a competent running game after they only averaged 112 rushing yards per game last year? And which receivers will step up for Manuel in crunch time? While last year’s passing attack managed 257 yards per game, there was never a consistent threat in any part of the field. This season, receivers need defined roles so Manuel can play around with preferred targets and routes.
On Manuel’s end, the hope is that he’s embraced his role in the offseason and found a common ground on some of his popular criticisms. He’s taken to task for being sacked too many times (33 times in 12 games last year), but lauded for throwing just eight picks. The obvious issue here is that by taking sacks, he’s avoiding costly turnovers, so is it really as bad as it’s made out to be? Even if he was sacked 15 times in the final four games, he managed three wins, zero turnovers and completed over 60 percent of his passes. No, not perfect by any means. But it’s worth bringing up nonetheless. If he is quicker to get rid of the ball out of bounds, that critique goes away.
Another easy way for Manuel to rid himself of the criticism is simply by delivering at the high level we know he’s capable of. He’s shown he can run when he has to, picking up four TDs on the ground last year en route to 22 overall. He may not be a “running quarterback,” but FSU’s play-calling should give him a bit more leeway to take off with it as necessary. By developing the fear of a dual-threat for defenses, I think you’ll see Manuel’s passing game become more effective, eclipsing the 3,000-yard mark along with over 20 TD passes. This team will go as far as he can take them. And right now, I’m unsure where what heights that ceiling can reach.