Heisman Dark Horse?

Heading into summer workouts, the Heisman buzz for the 2010 season has already started.  While everyone seems to have players like Mark Ingram, Ryan Mallett and Terrelle Pryor on their watch lists, one name  that you will not see is Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder.  Look for that to change early in the season.

Despite a great season in ’09, college football fans outside of Tallahassee don’t really know about Ponder for two major reasons.  The signal caller  injured his throwing shoulder against Clemson and missed the final four games, which included FSU’s bowl game.   The other reason was that as good as Ponder was, the Seminole defense was worse, making FSU a .500 football team.

Before his shoulder injury last season, Ponder led the ACC's second-ranked offense (google images)

1.  Stay Healthy:  Although the shoulder injury in last season’s rivalry game at Clemson was by far the most severe, the fact of the matter is that Ponder has played most of his FSU career with at least one or two nagging injuries, ranging from a knee sprain all the way to cracked ribs.  That toughness is a key component of why his team looks to him to lead them, but this season, he doesn’t have to prove it.  In fact, head coach Jimbo Fisher has lectured Ponder several times on sliding more instead of taking hits when he is out of the pocket.

Will it happen?  With all five returning starters on the offensive line that includes two 4-year starters and three, 3-year starters, Ponder will be protected by the best O-line in the ACC and one of the best in the country.  More depth at running back should also help keep the pressure off.  Also, Ponder will run if needed this season, but look for Coach Fisher to get the message across this year (i.e. if Ponder lowers his shoulder during a run in 2010, he will get more than an ear-full from his coaches).

2.  Wideouts must step up:  Ponder’s numbers were far superior to last year’s Heisman finalist Tim Tebow, but his statistics could have been much better if his receivers had brought their A-game. 

Junior WR Bert Reed was probably FSU's most consistent receiver last season (google images)

Other than Bert Reed, who returns as a junior this season, every FSU wideout had a severe case of the drops at one point in the season or another.  The Seminoles lost two senior WRs this season to graduation, but the core of the group is talented and diverse, ranging from Reed, who is known for his speed and quickness, to junior Jarmon Fortson, who has drawn comparison to former ‘Nole and current Baltimore Raven Anquan Boldin because of his size (6’3″ and 221 lbs) and athleticism.

Will it happen?  It should.  For the first time since Jimbo Fisher’s arrival, he has solid depth and a nice blend of size, speed and quickness.  If Fortson struggles early on with his consistency as he did last season and during the spring, sophomores Rodney Smith (6’6″ and 220 lbs.) and Willie Haulstead (6’3″ and 215 lbs.) could easily assume his role.  The most consistent players will play.  Look for true freshman De’Joshua Johnson to compliment Reed as another speed receiver who is dangerous in space.

3.  The FSU defense needs to at least be average:  Had the ‘Noles fielded just an average defense last season, they likely would have gone to the ACC title game and had a 9 or 10-win season.  FSU was equally bad against the run and the pass last year, ranking near the bottom in the FBS in each category.  If the defense can’t keep the opposition out of the end zone, Florida State’s record will suffer, and so will Ponder’s hopes for a Heisman Trophy.  Think records don’t matter for the Heisman?  Look at Jimmy Clausen’s numbers from last year.  Despite being on national television countless times and putting up huge numbers, Clausen did not even receive a plane ticket to the ceremony last December.

Will it happen?  After the worst season of his career, legendary defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews (who many credit as much or more than Bobby Bowden for FSU’s dominance in the 90’s) retired.  While Andrews’ resume demanded respect, the others on the defensive staff did not.  Immediately after being named head coach, Jimbo Fisher completely revamped the coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball, most notably hiring two defensive coordinators to turn things around.  Mark Stoops, known for his zone schemes that produced several NFL defensive backs from Miami is the ‘Noles new defensive coordinator.  And former ECU defensive coordinator Greg Hudson takes over as the coach for the linebackers.  While these changes probably will not result in a Top 20 defense next season, there is every reason to believe it will be improved this fall.

Final Analysis:  With an improved defense, one of the nation’s best offensive lines and a deep and talented receiving corps, all signs are positive for Christian Ponder’s race for the Heisman.  As usual, the Seminoles have a difficult schedule, playing non-conference games at Oklahoma and at home against BYU and Florida.  If Ponder can lead his team to an ACC Championship and a 9 or 10-win season, the sportswriters will be forced to take notice, and Ponder’s ability and leadership will be known outside of the Tallahassee and the ACC.

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