April 8, 2008
TALLAHASSEE To many Florida State football fans, his signing was viewed as little more than a courtesy, perhaps a nod to the fact that his father played linebacker for Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles from 1980-83.
Christian Ponder, a 6-2, 207-pound quarterback, may have arrived at FSU in January 2006 as a long-term insurance policy, but he will exit this year's spring practice as a viable candidate to direct coordinator Jimbo Fisher's offense.
In order to do that, Ponder must unseat rising senior Drew Weatherford, the starter in 33 of the Seminoles' last 38 games. Don't bet against it happening.
In fact, Ponder is a greater threat to unseat Weatherford than Xavier Lee ever was. And Lee actually started six games for the Seminoles before it became clear that he did not fit into Fisher's plans. Lee left school after the fall semester.
Lee, you may remember, was the nation's top-rated dual-threat quarterback when he signed with the Seminoles in 2004, as a member of the same class as Weatherford.
There are multiple reasons for Ponder's emergence as the Seminoles' potential starter and for why he's a more viable threat to Weatherford than Lee ever was. Here are a few:
Opportunity: Ponder has taken every snap with the first-team offense since Weatherford underwent surgery to repair torn lateral meniscus cartilage in his knee at the end of the first week of spring practice. Weatherford and Lee regularly split snaps with the first-team offense last season, as Fisher tried to sort out what hand he had to play in his first season running the show.
Athleticism: Though unassuming in physical stature, Ponder is one of the team's better athletes. He has run 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, is one of the quickest Seminoles in agility drills, and has superior arm strength to Weatherford.
Intelligence/intuitiveness: An honors student majoring in real estate/finance, Ponder is on track to graduate in three years, but his intelligence transcends the classroom. He has a solid grasp on Fisher's playbook, despite the fact that he's had limited time working with the offense over the past two years.
Ponder also displays an innate ability to feel and elude pressure, plus a toughness to stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball usually on target or take a hit after picking up yardage on the run.
Fisher repeatedly has praised Ponder for his decision-making this spring, and under the rising redshirt sophomore's direction, the offense has shown significant improvement executing in the red zone. That has been a trouble spot for the Seminoles over the past two seasons.
Ponder's rapid ascent belies his less-than-heralded pedigree. A Rivals three-star recruit from Colleyville (Texas) Heritage, he played in a system where he spent more plays running than throwing the football, though that changed some over time. As a high school senior, he rushed for 911 yards and 12 touchdowns and passed for 2,214 yards and 20 scores. He had only four interceptions, while completing 65 percent of his pass attempts.
Though he was voted the team's most improved quarterback prior to last season, Ponder has been putting his tools together with greater regularity as FSU's spring practice has progressed. His performance in an April 4 scrimmage undeniably thrust him forward as a serious contender for the starting job.
"I was really pleased with the way he played in the scrimmage," Fisher said. "Ponder's really staying very consistent, and making big plays. He gets it. The guy is playing really good football right now."
Fisher had every reason to be pleased with Ponder, whose only game experience came when Weatherford suffered a concussion at Virginia Tech last season and Lee failed to make the road trip while serving a two-game suspension.
Ponder's scrimmage numbers (16-of-27, 240 yards) were even more impressive after Fisher reviewed the film.
"He had four balls dropped, so that puts him at 20-of-27. He threw one ball a little high," Fisher said. "The rest of them were all from pressure he had to throw it away or balls got tipped."
When asked if Ponder was ready to fight for the starting job, Fisher did not hesitate with his response:
"He's battling anyway. He's pushing. He's pushing now. He's ready to play. The thing you don't realize is how athletic he is. That's even going to add another dimension to what he does. And D'Vo is the same way."
D'Vo is D'Vontrey Richardson, Ponder's classmate and currently the backup quarterback. Richardson also has left more than a few positive impressions this spring, despite playing behind a second-team offensive line that has not been able to keep the second-team defensive front in check.
"There's no doubt that it's helped him," Fisher said, of the additional exposure Ponder has received. "And I think it's shown him that he can play. (You never know) until you actually get out there and do it, and you're doing it against the ones,' making plays and reads."
Ponder's growing confidence is tangible in virtually every way.
"I'm definitely getting better and more comfortable with everything," Ponder said after the Seminoles' second full scrimmage. "(It) was probably my best day all spring and definitely my best scrimmage so far. There were a few mistakes, but it was pretty good."
Good enough to take the reins from Weatherford? FSU fans may have to wait until August to find that out, but it's clear that Ponder has Fisher's eye.
ANALYST FIRED FOR CRITICISMS
Former Florida State quarterback Peter Tom Willis, who has been serving as the Seminoles' radio color commentator alongside Gene Deckerhoff for six seasons, has been relieved of his duties by the Seminole ISP Sports Network.
Willis, one of the most distinguished passers in school history, apparently fell out of favor with FSU coach Bobby Bowden because of his candid and sometimes biting on-air commentary in recent seasons.
Not one to simply cheer his alma mater from his seat in the press box, Willis has been critical of the Seminoles' offense. That criticism often was aimed at former coordinator Jeff Bowden, which never sat well with the elder Bowden.
During a one-sided loss to Clemson two years ago, Willis said the Seminoles were running a "high school offense."
Bowden has never publicly shared his opinion of Willis' frankness, though the two met to discuss it on at least one occasion several years ago. It is a widely held opinion that Willis' close relationship with former athletic director Dave Hart enabled him to withstand previous entreaties by Bowden to have him removed from the booth.
With Hart out of the picture, the move came as no surprise.
"We thank P.T. for the fine work he has done and for his dedication to Florida State athletics," FSU associate athletic director Rob Wilson said in a university press release.
Willis isn't the only on-air personality that ISP, which replaced Host Communications in the summer of 2007 as the network carrying FSU sports, has been unhappy with. Local sports radio talk personality Jeff Cameron, whose popular program runs in the afternoon drive time on the network's flagship station, has come under fire as well.
Cameron, however, is an employee of the station and Clear Channel Communications, and thus is not subject to ISP or FSU approval. That, however, has not prevented the FSU broadcast rights-holders from voicing their displeasure over Cameron's sometimes-bombastic commentary regarding a variety of Seminole-related topics, including his criticism of coaches.