September 23, 2012 should have been one of the best, most elating days of EJ Manuel’s young life.
As a senior quarterback of a championship-contending Division I FBS team, Manuel played the best game of his life against an in-conference foe to set the team up to go on a championship run and have a chance to be cemented in college football history.
Still, there endured a lurking void of uneasiness and hopelessness in Manuel’s life. His mother, Jackie Manuel, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before the 2012 season.
For Manuel, this season has prepared him for anything the NFL could possibly throw at him.
Despite his devastating circumstances, Manuel knew that the world was not going to stop to allow him to grieve. He had to continue on, finding ways to numb the stress and anguish along the way.
Because quite frankly, no one was going to care, as Manuel predicted:
"I knew nobody else was going to care, to be honest with you. People will say, sorry, and this and that, but you've still got to go out and play. I understood that."
Manuel knew he had no choice but to suffer in silence:
"That's why I never really said anything publicly about it, because Florida State fans may say sorry, but when you're not winning games, they're still going to have things to say negatively or just be upset."
Somehow, Manuel was able to channel his thoughts on football when his team needed him, as Florida State went on to win the ACC Championship, and Manuel secured his position as one of the top quarterback prospects to enter the 2013 draft.
Just like in college football, Manuel will not find any kind of forgiveness for the inability to perform in the NFL.
Andy Reid was fired just months after losing his son in August.
Having to cope with witnessing a suicide did not excuse Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel for the Chiefs’ 2-14 record. No one shed a tear while Rex Ryan coached his 6-10 Jets while his father battled cancer.
What Manuel endured last season does not just prepare him for other traumatic events that occur in life: it gives him a unique sense of perspective that few people his age have. As Manuel told ESPN:
"That's why I told my teammates, 'don't take anything for granted, don't wait. If you can go ahead and do something now, if you can go study and watch film now, go do it. Don't try to say I'll put it off until tomorrow because you don't know what will come tomorrow."
Yes, Manuel is blessed with NFL talent (which is described below), but his ability to focus his energies on football while maintaining proper perspective on the game is what separates him from any other player in this draft class and would be a tremendous asset to any NFL team.
On the Field
We know Manuel has the mental makeup to survive the tremendous ups-and-downs in the NFL, but he is also a tremendously talented player in his own right and has the right tools to succeed in the NFL.
One of Manuel's best attributes is his arm strength, as it allows him to get out of trouble as much as it helps him make plays.
This play is a fake screen pass that takes some time to develop, and Manuel's pass is almost intercepted by a roaming linebacker near his own goal line.
However, even without stepping into the throw, Manuel gets enough juice on the pass to get the completion and the first down.
Obviously, these are not the kind of throws Manuel should be making in the NFL, but this play is a perfect example of how Manuel's arm strength allows him to get away with throws other quarterbacks cannot.
Even when watching him making routine throws on shorter routes, the ball comes out with a ton of velocity that make it very hard for defenders to get a chance to make a play on it.
His arm strength is also evident in how he rarely has to take a big step into his throw in order to fit it into a tight window.
Manuel is not going to thread needles in short-to-intermediate routes with incredible consistency, but he does have the ability to throw a tremendous deep ball, especially when given a clean pocket.
In what was one of the best (and most clutch) throws of Manuel's 2012 season, he drops a ball right into the hands of Rodney Smith for the go-ahead touchdown.
Notice how Manuel had enough arm strength so that he did not have to step into the ball. He put just enough touch on the pass so that it went over the defender's head but had enough velocity to meet Smith in the corner of the end zone.
While he is not quite Russel Wilson or Robert Griffin III, Manuel has enough mobility to keep defenses on their heels. He can make plays from broken situations as well as run the option.
This play is a designed option, which Manuel elects to keep. He has enough speed and agility to score from 16 yards out.
Here is another play where he is able to break tackles and elude defenders to extend the play and hit a wide open receiver for a touchdown:
At 240 pounds, Manuel will be able to withstand much more contact in the NFL. His build is much larger than players like Michael Vick and RGIII, who have been unable to stay healthy while maximizing their potential as mobile quarterbacks.
Manuel's athleticism is better compared to that of Andrew Luck. Luck is not going to outrun defensive backs, but he will take yards when they are available and has enough bulk to withstand hits from linebackers.
Where does he have to improve?
Manuel has all of the physical tools to succeed in the NFL, but he just needs to tie everything together to become a more finished product.
Manuel is a bit rough when it comes to mechanics and being a fluid passer. He is a bit awkward in his stance and delivery, but that is one of the few areas of quarterbacking that can be (relatively) easily coached in the professional ranks.
While he does have experience working under center, the offense he ran at Florida State was rather elementary, requiring just one or two reads on every dropback.
However, recent history shows that quarterbacks in relatively simple college offenses can make the mental transition to the NFL, as long as they are willing to work at it. Cam Newton ran an offense at Auburn that was run with cards on the sideline, and RGIII ran a relatively simple spread system at Baylor.
When you factor in Manuel's mental makeup, you would be hard-pressed to bet against his willingness to learn a pro offense and improve in his ability to make faster reads.
Unlike last year, the 2013 quarterback draft class has no can't-miss prospect, and Manuel is no exception. He flashed outstanding arm strength and deep accuracy and has the mobility to run the pistol read-option offenses that are slowly taking over the NFL.
Most of his weaknesses as a player lie in the more minute aspects of the game—mechanics, progressions and ball placement.
Where Manuel will ultimately go in this year's draft is still very much up in the air, as he can go anywhere between the first and fourth rounds, depending on how the draft process shakes out.
No matter where Manuel will ultimately go, what he has been able to overcome this season will give him a unique weapon few players his age have developed: an unmatched sense of perspective and the ability to channel one's energy into the things that matter most to Manuel—family and football.
It may take some time for Manuel to develop into a professional, winning quarterback, but the tools and the mental makeup to do the job are there.
When paired with NFL-level ability, that kind of mindset and mental makeup alone has the potential to change the fortunes of a franchise.