Nearly four years ago, I sat in the press box at Wake Forest to watch a ballyhooed redshirt freshman quarterback make his first start for Florida State.
EJ Manuel did not have a fancy nickname, nor did he have the national spotlight on him. But he did have elite prep credentials as one of the top quarterback prospects in the class of 2008.
He did not disappoint in that first start, showing poise, promise and confidence filling in for an injured Christian Ponder, running the Noles offense to near perfection in a 41-28 victory.
After the game, somebody joked to Ponder, "You finally got a real quarterback."
"Finally!" Ponder replied. "That was obviously a big difference."
I was reminded of that moment last week, when I watched Jameis Winston make his first career start for Florida State. Manuel impressed me on that game day in November; Winston blew me away with his performance against Pitt, leaving me shaking my head at times over some of the plays he made in his very first game.
Manuel, on the other hand, had played mop-up duty before making his first career start. While it is a stretch to say Manuel had extensive playing experience, he at least did have a few snaps under him before he started his first game. He had nearly an entire season as the backup to Ponder before making his first start, too.
Winston had more hype surrounding him, more pressure on him, and a national television audience watching his first collegiate snaps on a Monday night. And yet, Winston was better, going 25-of-27 for 356 yards with five total touchdowns. Compare that to Manuel, excellent in his own right against Wake: 15-of-20 for 220 yards with two total touchdowns and one interception.
Florida State scored 41 points in both victories, by the way. Unlike Manuel, however, Winston has turned into a national sensation in just one game. The two, however, are more alike in one key area: their ability to elevate Florida State.
When I watched Manuel, I believed he could take Florida State to the next level. At that time, the next level meant making the Seminoles ACC champions again. When Manuel stepped in for Ponder, Florida State was 4-5. Bobby Bowden was on the way out. And the program was in disarray.
But Manuel went 3-1 to close out the season, and was selected MVP of the Gator Bowl, sending Bowden out with a win in the final game of his career.
Florida State was a mess. But in a few years' time, the Noles became ACC champions again and got back to a BCS game -- with Manuel leading the way. While it is true Manuel took his fair share of criticism for coming up small in the biggest games, he did take the program further than any Florida State quarterback in the last 10 years.
He also became a first-round pick in Buffalo and an NFL starter as a rookie, nearly engineering an upset of New England in Week 1 -- going 18-of-27 for 150 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Manuel deserves heaps of credit. Because now, Florida State has what it takes to elevate itself to the next level and become a national contender again.
Anybody who watched his debut realizes the Noles have a special player running the offense. As Bowden told colleague Mark Schlabach, "A great quarterback can overcome your weaknesses and deficiencies, but an average quarterback can't."
It appears Florida State has a great quarterback, already earning Heisman consideration after one game and comparisons to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who won the award as a redshirt freshman. Winston seems to be the total package, with the physical talent and necessary intangibles star quarterbacks possess.
He has a long way to go, but the reasons for optimism are understandable. Manuel got Florida State to the point where someone like Winston can put them over the top.