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A real throwback

For the first time in five years, coach Bobby Bowden believes he has a model of consistency in the pocket.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published September 1, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - You have to forgive Florida State coach Bobby Bowden if he feels as though the clock has been turned back.

For the past five seasons, inconsistency, inexperience, injury, illness or incomprehensible behavior plagued the most crucial position on the field; the position that historically had given the Seminoles a clear-cut advantage over most opponents.

For the past five seasons, Bowden had a quarterback issue.

But perhaps no longer.

Drew Weatherford, a third-year sophomore from Land O'Lakes High who started all 13 games last season, has Bowden more confident about his team's prospects than at any time since Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke's final season in 2000. That's the last season FSU played for a national title and finished in the top 5.

"We have the most stable quarterback situation since Weinke left," Bowden said.

But what coach doesn't sound optimistic about a returning starter at quarterback? Hasn't Bowden gushed about how experience will translate into improvement and wins?

Well, yeah. But there appears to be quite a difference between Weatherford and his recent predecessors.

"I see more consistency out of him," Bowden said. "To go out and want to do something, call it and then have it happen, that gives you a lot of confidence. But to go out there and call something and something else happens, boy, now you're shaking your head. You nearly feel like with Weatherford in there, that whatever you call, it will head in that direction; it's not likely he's fixing to do something else. So, I feel pretty good going in there with him this year."

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Weatherford won the position last summer over a fellow redshirt freshman, Xavier Lee, who had a sore throwing shoulder (and needed surgery in the offseason). He responded by throwing for 3,208 yards (the most by a freshman in Atlantic Coast Conference history) and 18 touchdowns.

Not bad.

He also threw 18 interceptions, 13 of which came in a six-game span. The Seminoles lost four of those games.

Not good.

But Weatherford, 21, showed a resiliency akin to Weinke by bouncing back with stellar performances in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech and the Orange Bowl against Penn State.

"I've learned a lot from the good things and the bad things I did last year and that has really helped my confidence," he said. "I feel like I'm more prepared for the season ahead."

Offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, who took on that role in 2001, has been criticized by many for how he used Chris Rix, Adrian McPherson, Fabian Walker and Wyatt Sexton and that hamstrung the offense. Others, however, wonder whether Bowden's development as a play-caller hasn't been stunted by inconsistency at quarterback.

That argument might be settled this season, but for his part, the younger Bowden exudes a seemingly genuine, unwavering certainty in Weatherford and his talented, but inexperienced backup, Lee.

"To me, it's just in the smoothness of the whole operation," he said of the refreshing stability that they bring. "I hate to say it opens the offense up, but it really does. It allows you do more and to be more flexible instead of having to be so structured. They can make decisions for us at the line of scrimmage that a quarterback needs to make; a quarterback has to be able to make."

And for whatever reason, hasn't happened with enough regularity.

"You coach what you got," Jeff Bowden said, diplomatically.

Although it's unfair, albeit tempting and easy, to blame Rix and company for FSU's struggles of late, what the Seminoles have lacked under center can't be underestimated.

Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, a college football commentator, said he can trace every one of his successful seasons to having a quarterback with brains and brawn, including Stan White and Patrick Nix.

"It was the most critical thing," he said. "When I had a stable, intelligent leader with solid talent there, I felt like I could win ballgames offensively."

"Being a coach now, it's all about trust," added Casey Weldon, who is a mentor to Weatherford and entering his first year coaching at North Florida Christian. "If you can trust that guy, man, you can loosen those reins up a little bit and you can do so much more and feel good about it. When you feel good about something, it seems to work a lot better."

* * n

Just as important, Weatherford has earned his station by his performance on and off the field. He shrugged off nagging injuries from the beatings he took behind an injury-riddled line and quietly continued to work tirelessly on the field and in the film room to spot and correct mistakes.

"The biggest thing is I put too much pressure on myself to try and make plays," he said. "I almost forgot I was a freshman last year at some point. We couldn't run the ball very well and I felt like our backs were up against the wall and that was a mistake. That was a really immature mistake on my part because we had too many weapons for me as a freshman to think I had to force balls on third down."

Nor did he point fingers or belittle anyone for a missed assignment or dropped pass. He assumed sole responsibility.

"He didn't go, 'Hey man. You've got to give me more time.' He never did that," tackle Mario Henderson said. "He pats you on the butt and says, "We'll get it next time.' . . . He makes you feel like it (your miscue) didn't even happen. He's there giving you confidence. That's unbelievable. That's great."

Then on the eve of the ACC title game, Weatherford did what few neophytes would or should do: He passionately, almost angrily, lashed out at anyone and everyone who thought the Seminoles had no chance. Even those wearing garnet and gold.

"I said some things I normally wouldn't say and really called myself out and our team out, in general," he said.

That it came from a freshman took players aback. But they realized they had to have this particular freshman's back and follow his lead. The next night and beyond.

"That was when we said, 'This guy is legit; this dude is for real,' " tailback Lorenzo Booker said. "There was no ego about it, it was just Drew. That was the night everybody saw Drew for what he was, that's a natural-born leader; a tough guy; a guy you could follow and know he'd put you in the best situation to make plays."

They had faith in and respect for their quarterback like they used to back in the day; you know, if you turned the clock back five, 10, 15 years when Weldon or Charlie Ward or Danny Kanell or Weinke were at quarterback.

"To even be compared to those guys is very humbling," said Weatherford, who sprints to every practice drill, a sign he wants to be first in everything. "I just hope I can continue to get better and hopefully one day be put in the same category."