Here’s the scenario:
A quarterback with the initials C.P. almost single-handedly leads a struggling, wayward, traditional power back onto the national scene. Meanwhile, said quarterback finally fills his considerable potential as a senior after overcoming a shoulder injury and coaching changes. An inconsistent career filled with flashes of brilliance culminates in a dominant, Heisman Trophy-winning campaign, a BCS bowl and a resurgent program.
Of course, the scenario above describes USC and Carson Palmer in 2002, but it could also turn out to be the storyline for Florida State and Christian Ponder in 2010.
That’s what FSU hopes as, for the first time in its history, it is pushing a player for the Heisman. [Check out Ponder’s new website]
That player is Ponder, a 6-3, 228-pound senior, born in Tampa and raised in Dallas, who grew up the son of a ‘Nole and often envisioned being in the very spot he is in right now.
“As a little kid, you always dream about trying to win the Heisman,” said Ponder, who threw for 2,717 yards in 2009 before being sidelined for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury. “I remember following the Heisman growing up. Those guys were prolific game changers…guys like Weinke and Ward. So it’s crazy to think this is happening. It’s surreal.”
But his talent is very real. And Ponder’s 301-yard-per-game passing average, his 68.8% accuracy and superb mobility (318 gross rushing yards) last season convinced FSU that the time had finally come for a Heisman campaign.
“During the spring we started talking about it,” said Ponder, who might be the most gifted Seminole quarterback since Charlie Ward. “They asked me if I was comfortable with it and I am. Then Coach Fisher approved it and so they put together the web site. I see it as a great opportunity, since in high school, I got very little attention, both in recruiting and in the media.”
Ponder prepped at Colleyville Heritage High in Dallas, where he passed for 2,214 yards and rushed for 911 while totaling 32 touchdowns as a 2005 senior. He received scholarship offers from Baylor, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, North Carolina and Texas Christian, but there was little doubt where he was going to end up.
“I was always an FSU fan,” said Ponder, whose father, David, played defensive line for the Seminoles from 1980 to 1983. “I grew up on it. I remember my dad telling me about going to play all those crazy road games in the early 1980s…they called it ‘Octoberfest’. They played at Ohio State, at LSU, at Notre Dame and at Pittsburgh all in a row. It’s what put them on the map. They played anyone, anywhere.”
For a while, Florida State dominated that map. The last decade hasn’t been so kind, however. Ponder knows he will be key in turning things around but, like a good quarterback, he’s not feeling the pressure.
“We’ve underachieved these last 10 years,” said Ponder. “We have the opportunity to change that. I don’t feel the pressure–I’m lucky to have this opportunity.”
Change is the operative word for the entire FSU program, which feels revitalized under new head coach Jimbo Fisher. As much as players loved former coach Bobby Bowden, it was clearly time to head in a different direction, to bring in some new energy.
“It’s very different under Coach Fisher,” said Ponder. “He brought in a nutritionist and we are eating healthier. There are new strength coaches. We are being more disciplined in the classroom and on the field. Our whole focus is on discipline. These are good changes.
“However, I grew up a Bobby Bowden fan and I will always treasure getting the chance to play for him.”
It was under Bowden that Ponder took over the starting job as a 2008 sophomore and struggled at times. Then he went on a passing tear as a junior before getting hurt. Now he’s ready to put it all together as a senior.
“I expected to play well last year,” said Ponder, whose career game involved torching North Carolina’s NFL-laden defense for 395 yards and three touchdowns. “We had a lot of offensive weapons. I didn’t play well as a sophomore, so I really worked hard at it and watched a lot of film.
“Coach Fisher has been a big help and he’s very knowledgeable. His playbook is huge–it’s a two-inch binder and we’ve probably only learned three-quarters of it. He’s always adding plays, depending on the opponent. I had a good handle on it last year, but I feel even more confident this year.”
It helps that Ponder has past FSU quarterbacking greats like Charlie Ward, Chris Weinke, Casey Weldon and Brad Johnson around to remind him what it takes to follow in their footsteps.
“They just tell me to stay humble and to not forget what got me here,” said Ponder.
If Ponder plays as well as those guys, Heisman voters won’t forget. In fact, they’ll remember FSU’s storied tradition and reward Ponder for bringing it back.
That reward could be a trip to New York…or maybe more.
“That would be fun,” said Ponder. “It’d be an unbelievable dream, to go to New York. This whole process is just amazing and hasn’t sunk in yet.”
For those who say the Heisman Trophy doesn’t matter, consider this: In a sport where perception is everything, the Heisman is usually the best indicator of a program’s status on the national stage. If a school isn’t consistently producing players who are in the Heisman conversation, it probably isn’t a national power.
True to form, the last time Florida State played for the BCS title (2000-2001), it had a Heisman winner at its helm. Since then, no BCS title berths and no Heisman candidates.
So if we’re still talking about Christian Ponder and the Heisman in November, you can also bet that the big, bad ‘Noles of yore will finally be back, too.