The Daily Nole

Sunday Centerpiece: The Underappreciated FSU Legacy of E.J. Manuel

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As one of only three programs with three different Heisman Trophy winners at the position over the last 30 years, Florida State has a rich tradition when it comes to quarterback play.

The legacies of Charlie Ward, Chris Weinke and Jameis Winston will forever live in FSU lore, but some names may slip through the cracks of the Seminoles’ illustrious football history. Arguably one of those is the recently retired E.J. Manuel.

“E.J. was one of those key guys in getting Florida State back to where it needed to go,” said Bert Reed, a receiver for the Seminoles from 2007 to 2011. “I think him and Jameis’ relationship was part of why Jameis was so good. The way (Manuel) did things, his leadership and his records speak for themselves.”

A 5-star prospect out of Virginia Beach, Manuel arrived in Tallahassee knowing he would redshirt early on. When all was said and done, Manuel finished his FSU career with a 25-6 record as a starter, including three bowl victories and the school record for career completion rate at nearly 67 percent.

“He was always a competitor and he really loved the game,” said Lonnie Pryor, a fullback for FSU from 2009-12. “He was real quiet, but definitely a leader on the sidelines. I had two great quarterbacks at FSU with him and Christian Ponder.”

Sitting behind eventual first-round pick Christian Ponder, Manuel was forced into action as a redshirt freshman late in the 2009 season. Ponder suffered a season-ending shoulder injury late in a 40-24 loss at Clemson in November 2009. FSU had not had a losing season since 1976 and had made 27 straight bowl games, but at 4-5, needed to win two of its final three games to have a chance to keep those streaks alive.

“We didn’t want to be the team that broke the bowl streak,” Reed said. “Our backs were up against the wall. We knew E.J. could step up and get the job done.”

Manuel shined in his first start against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, going 15-for-20 passing with 220 yards, a touchdown pass, an interception and a touchdown rush in a 41-28 victory for the Seminoles. For Manuel, his second start would not be as successful.

Against 2-9 Maryland on Senior Day, Manuel struggled with three interceptions in what would be the final home game in the legendary careers of head coach Bobby Bowden and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. With time ticking away and FSU on the short end of a 26-22 score, a 48-yard punt return from Greg Reid set the Seminoles up in Maryland territory with less than 90 seconds to play and in need of a touchdown.

“I remember that drive and how he just took over,” Reed said. “I look back on that as the moment he became a leader. He was always good enough to get it done.”

Manuel started the drives with runs of 15 and 20 yards before finding tight end Caz Piurowski over the middle to put the Seminoles inside the Maryland 5-yard-line. With 32 seconds to play, Pryor was able to punch it in from three yards out to give FSU a 29-26 victory and preserve the bowl streak.

After losing to Florida in the regular season finale, a 6-6 FSU team made its way to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl. In what would be Bowden’s final game as head coach against his former school in No. 18 West Virginia, the Seminoles fell behind 14-3. From there, it became the E.J. Manuel show.

Manuel finished the game with 189 yards passing and 70 more rushing to go with a touchdown. FSU would rally to win 33-21 and finish with a winning record for the 33rd straight season.

“What I remember about E.J. was his competitive nature,” Reed said. “He had one of those mature drives in him. He was on a mission. College was more than just fun and games to him. He got better each year because of that.”

As Ponder returned for a senior year in 2010 under first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher, Manuel went back to his role as a the team’s backup. That year, the Seminoles would win 10 games for the first time since 2003 while beating both rivals Miami and Florida. The win over the Gators was the first since 2003 as FSU won the ACC’s Atlantic division for the first time since 2005. Although Ponder made 12 starts, Manuel’s role was not insignificant.

With Ponder nursing an elbow injury and a late scratch against Clemson in November 2010, the Seminoles were forced to turn to Manuel with the Atlantic division on the line. FSU trailed 10-3 at halftime before taking its first lead on a Manuel touchdown run in the fourth quarter. But a short field goal for the Tigers with less than a minute to go evened the game at 13 before the Seminoles took over at their own 29.

“E.J. was just always ready to go when we needed him,” Reed said. “I think that’s why he was such a successful backup in the NFL.”

In a must-win game following consecutive losses, Manuel was a surgeon on the game’s final drive against Clemson. Manuel went 3-for-4 with his final pass of the night — an 18-yard strike over the middle to Rodney Smith — putting FSU in field goal range for Dustin Hopkins. As time expired, Hopkins connected on a 55-yard field goal to lift FSU to a dramatic 16-13 victory.

With Ponder’s elbow flaring, Manuel earned the start in the ACC Championship against Virginia Tech in Charlotte. Although the Seminoles fell 44-33, Manuel passed for 288 yards and a score. Needing a win over South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to get to 10 wins, Ponder left early with concussion symptoms and the Seminoles again turned to Manuel.

E.J. Manuel rushed for 46 yards and threw a touchdown in place of an injured Christian Ponder in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl (FSU athletics)

With FSU’s lead cut to 19-17 with less than 12 minutes to play, Manuel helped cement the game by leading a 13-play, 63-yard drive that melted nearly six and a half minutes off the clock. Manuel went 6-for-6 on the march, capping it with a 7-yard touchdown toss to Taiwan Easterling to seal a 26-17 victory and Florida State’s first 10-win season since 2003.

“Jimbo was a great coach and had great quarterback knowledge,” Pryor said. “E.J. was a great leader and a really smart guy and was perfect for his system.”

In 2011, Manuel finally took the reigns as the team’s starter, but an injury in a Week 3 loss to No. 1 Oklahoma forced the 6-foot-5 dual-threat to miss his next two starts as the Seminoles fell to 2-3 on the season. Manuel returned from a shoulder injury and proceeded to lead the Seminoles to seven wins in their final eight games, capped with an 18-14 comeback win over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl. Manuel threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to lead the rally.

Manuel returned for a redshirt senior season in 2012 and would lead the Seminoles to their best season in more than a decade. FSU would go on to tie a school-record with 12 victories, win its first ACC title since 2005 and its first major bowl victory since beating Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl for the 1999 national championship.

“The 2012 team got Florida State back on track,” Pryor said. “We helped build that culture. We had the right players and all bought into Jimbo Fisher’s game plan. Everyone is that locker room believed that team was special.”

Manuel’s biggest moment as a senior and perhaps his career came in arguably FSU’s biggest game. In late September, reigning ACC champion Clemson came to Doak Campbell Stadium for a top-10 match-up. After a Tigers’ touchdown early in the third quarter put Clemson up 28-14, Manuel put the team on his shoulders and they were happy he did.

Following the Clemson touchdown to go up two scores, Manuel led touchdown drives in each of FSU’s next four possessions and five of its next six. When his night was over, Manuel finished with 380 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns to go with 102 yards on the ground in a 49-37 victory for the Seminoles.

E.J. Manuel had a career-night against Clemson in a top-10 match-up in 2012. (Chris Holder Photography)

“That was such a big game,” Pryor said. “E.J. played great — threw the ball well, ran the ball well. He played his ass off that night and wowed the entire country.”

Throughout the course of his career, Manuel led four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. The final one came in Blacksburg on a Thursday night with the Seminoles needing to win to remain in control of their own destiny in the ACC.

After Virginia Tech took a 22-20 lead with 2:19 to play, Manuel marched FSU 68 yards in eight plays, capping the drive with a 39-yard touchdown strike to Rashad Greene with 40 seconds remaining. Manuel finished the evening with 326 yards passing and three touchdowns in a 28-22 win over the Hokies.

“When it came time to make plays later in his career, he came through,” Reed said. “He produced game-winning drives. When the game was on the line — even when E.J. didn’t play well for the game — he made plays when he had to.”

After a 21-15 win over Georgia Tech for FSU’s first ACC title in seven years, Manuel entered his final game as a Seminole with a heavy heart. Manuel’s mother, Jackie, had been diagnosed with breast cancer early in the season. Due to treatment, she was unable to attend his final collegiate game.

The Orange Bowl contest on Jan. 1, 2013 came against BCS buster Northern Illinois in Miami. On the line for FSU was its first major bowl win in 13 years, a top-10 finish and a school-record tying 12th victory.

“He was always playing for something bigger and that was his mom,” Pryor said of Manuel. “Usually, (linebacker) Telvin (Smith) did most of the talking before games. I’ll never forget (Manuel’s) speech before the Orange Bowl.”

Pryor stole the show with 134 yards rushing and two touchdowns on just five carries, but Manuel’s performance was nothing short of steady. In his final game as a Seminole, Manuel went 26-for-38 passing for 291 yards and a touchdown. He also racked up 26 yards rushing and a touchdown as FSU gained 534 yards in a 31-10 triumph over the Huskies.

E.J. Manuel accounted for a pair of touchdowns in FSU’s Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois on Jan. 1, 2013. (Mike Olivella/FSU athletics)

The ACC Championship and Orange Bowl victories would begin a streak of 29 straight wins for FSU. With redshirt freshman Jameis Winston at the helm, the Seminoles went 14-0 the following season, won the national championship and scored more points than any FBS team ever. FSU wouldn’t lose again until falling to Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015.

As for Manuel, he would go on to be selected 16th overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 2013 NFL Draft. Manuel would spend five years with the Bills and Oakland Raiders, appearing in 30 career games — 18 starts — and accounting for 24 total career touchdowns.

“The way the NFL works, you really have to find a team and system that fits,” Pryor said. “He was a great leader, better friend and definitely talented enough to play in the league. I wish him the best of luck.”

Looking back on his FSU career, Manuel did have his share of forgettable moments. More importantly, he helped preserve the bowl streak, came through in the clutch time and time again, ended several droughts and helped begin the longest winning streak in program history.

As a senior, Manuel finished as a second-team All-ACC selection as well as a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and a semifinalist for both the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Awards. He currently ranks as FSU’s all-time leader in career completion percentage, third in completions, fourth in passing yards and eighth in touchdown passes.

“With Jameis Winston winning the national championship the next year, I think E.J. does sometimes get overlooked,” Reed said. “He’s a laid-back guy with a steady, professional demeanor and I think that’s part of the reason he gets overlooked. He would be a great businessman. I can see him doing great with whatever he does next.”

Mike Ferguson is the editor of The Daily Nole. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson. Like The Daily Nole on Facebook. To pitch an idea, author a post or to learn more about The Daily Nole, email Mike Ferguson at

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