November 6, 2007
TALLAHASEE For the better part of the last two seasons Florida State has been a house-divided when it comes to a quarterback of choice.
Though redshirt juniors Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee have done their best to defuse the kind of controversy that often splits a team by remaining close friends, fans, coaches and even some teammates have often taken sides in the quarterback derby.
On one side, you had the Lee camp those enamored with his legendary strong arm and the ability to use his feet to make positive plays. The Weatherford camp clearly of a much smaller number would tout his ability to make good decisions.
Well, that derby has officially become a one-horse race and will likely remain that way through the remainder of the season. Since wrestling back the starting job from Lee following FSU's home loss to Miami, Weatherford has looked like a different player than the one who started the first four games of the season.
Playing with confidence, Weatherford turned in an eye-popping, two-game stat line in wins over Duke at home and No. 2 Boston College on the road that reads: 64-of-92 for 693 yards and three touchdowns. Equally important, he did not throw an interception in either game.
Conversely, the Seminoles turned the ball over nine times in losses to Wake Forest and Miami, eight of which Lee had a hand in. The mistakes prompted first-year offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher to turn back to Weatherford, who has thrown one interception in 192 pass attempts. He's also connected for seven touchdowns.
Weatherford and the Seminoles were at their best in the Boston College game.
"We showed the whole country that we believe in what we're doing and the direction we're heading," said Weatherford, who outdueled and likely ended the Heisman Trophy hopes of BC quarterback Matt Ryan.
Weatherford was noticeably at ease in the first half, as the Seminoles one of the ACC's worst teams when it comes to converting third down moved the chains on 7 of 12 third-down plays. That not only kept Ryan and the Eagles off the field, but it seemed to build confidence throughout the team.
Of course, Weatherford had every reason to play with ease. Lee did not make the trip to Chestnut Hill nor will he when the Seminoles travel to Virginia Tech. He was issued a two-game suspension for too many missed classes.
Though the decision to turn back to Weatherford was established a week before Lee's suspension was announced, in hindsight it was the right thing to do. Players had not viewed the mercurial Lee in the same light since he bounced three consecutive passes into the ground on FSU's last real chance to beat Miami.
While Fisher has publicly maintained that Lee must be prepared for FSU's stretch run "We'll need him before the season is over," he said it seems to be a reach to think Lee will legitimately have a chance to get back on the field for meaningful repetitions.
Lee's suspension leaves the FSU staff in a difficult position on several fronts. For starters, it left only redshirt freshmen D'Vontrey Richardson and Christian Ponder neither of whom have seen measurable playing time as the lone capable replacements.
More to the point, after reviewing FSU's policy for dealing with skipped classes, Lee appears to be a very strong candidate for academic ineligibility at the end of the regular season.
Given the dynamics at hand with FSU playing well behind Weatherford and Lee sitting out any move back to the strong-armed Lee could backfire.
Coach Bobby Bowden may have a rebuilt offensive staff, but everyone else around the program remembers Chris Rix being in a similar boat back in 2002. That's when he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl date with Georgia for missing a final exam, leaving the Seminoles to send injured Fabian Walker out to start against the Bulldogs.
If there's one message the FSU staff has successfully sent, it's that they will depend on their most dependable players. No matter how far Lee can throw a football, or how easily he can avoid the pass rush, the Seminoles are in no shape to count on Lee for the stretch.
That Weatherford is getting the job done merely reinforces that position to everyone associated with the program.
BASKETBALL IS THINKING BIG
A quartet of returning backcourt veterans will be the focal point of Leonard Hamilton's sixth Florida State basketball program, which has one goal: Get to the NCAA Tournament.
Seniors Isaiah Swann, Jason Rich and Ralph Mims and junior Toney Douglas have grown weary of answering questions about the drought and whether the Seminoles can replace departed All-ACC forward Al Thornton. They hope the answers to those questions will be obvious to everyone.
The thinking is that the arrival of freshmen big men Solomon Alabi and Julian Vaughn, and the soaring confidence of junior Uche Echefu and sophomore Ryan Reid, will lift the Seminoles to new heights in Hamilton's sixth season.
"I like this team, and I like our chances," Hamilton said after FSU dusted off West Florida by 21 in the exhibition opener. "I feel like we have some pieces that will make us a much better basketball team."
It may take a while for the front court group to get up to ACC operating speed, compared to their backcourt veterans, but the early signs have been promising.
With the 7-foot-1 Alabi still on the mend following a stress fracture in his right leg, the Seminoles still managed to command attention up front against the Division II Argonauts.
Echefu, absorbing some of the minutes and space reserved for Thornton a year ago, parlayed an assertive approach into a team-high 16 points. Reid, a stop-gap post presence as a freshman last season, converted all three of his field goal attempts in an expanded role.
But the real surprise of the incoming class could well be Vaughn, who is still learning to maximize his 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame. Despite looking a bit unpolished at the offensive end, the former Oak Hill (Va.) Academy managed nine points and a team-high eight rebounds in his debut.
"Julian showed flashes of what he is capable of doing," Hamilton said.
Though Vaughn's hands have yet to catch up with his feet, he repeatedly kept loose balls alive and didn't seem to mind mixing things up in the paint. Those are necessities for an FSU team that ranked as one of the ACC's least effective on the glass and around the basket at the offensive end. If Echefu can come close to doubling his 6.9 ppg average of a year ago, the Seminoles may not be forced to settle for a third consecutive NIT berth.
"I've been working on my inside game all summer," Echefu said. "I feel more comfortable playing now. I have been here three years, and I feel good playing. This was just an exhibition game, but I saw some positive things and some things to work on when we get to practice."
For the first time since he arrived to replace Steve Robinson, Hamilton will have enough quality big men on the practice floor and at his disposal come game time. That will clearly be the case when Alabi gets the green light from the team's medical staff to begin practice in earnest. With a little luck, the Nigerian national could be ready for limited duty during the Nov. 9 opener.
"[Alabi] had an X-ray the other day, and it was positive," Hamilton said. "He has continued to improve. He hasn't had a setback. I think that it is important that we allow him to heal completely. ... We are going to proceed with caution, because we want to make sure that when we get him back, we can count on having him for the remainder of the year."
Moving freely up and down the floor, FSU's big men can fill the lane at both ends of the floor.
That's a luxury that may hold the key to the season.