BY Doug Farrar 08:04AM 01/27/2011

Ponder could be the gateway to the West

Florida State’s QB is an intruiging option for West Coast offense teams

Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder could be a Seahawks target / Courtland Richards, Senior Bowl

Now that the Seattle Seahawks have replaced former offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates with former Minnesota Vikings coordinator Darrell Bevell, Seattle’s offensive intentions will take a trip back to the future. While Bates espoused the virtues of the vertical offense (often at the expense of other key factors), Bevell brings a version of the West Coast offense that won’t look all that different than what Seahawks observers remember from the Mike Holmgren era.

In re-defining that offense for this franchise, the first two challenges for Bevell and the team’s personnel staff are clear – find or re-sign a veteran presence at the quarterback position, and find the ideal young quarterback to take the reins. The problem may solve itself on the former concern, given Matt Hasselbeck’s natural feel for that offensive system, but finding the right kind of young quarterback to run that system is a bit of a treasure hunt.

With spread offenses becoming more and more prevalent in the college game, coaches, scouts and personnel evaluators must project their more advanced offensive systems on the basic skill sets of quarterbacks who may never have done what they will do from a schematic perspective. Florida State’s Christian Ponder could be such a quarterback; the senior’s on-field acumen and understanding of route complexity could put him on the right path to one of any number of teams that need a field general with more going on in his head than the notion of firing pure smoke from his arm.

At the Senior Bowl practice week, Ponder was challenged like all the other quarterbacks by the fact that he’s never thrown to the receivers he was now flinging the ball to in round-robin fashion. Ponder told me that quarterbacks and receivers will communicate as much as possible in this compressed time frame to make sure that everyone’s on the same page. “We try to do some walkthroughs together,” Ponder said on Tuesday afternoon. “We’re still getting used to each other, and it’s tough to throw to new guys, but that will only get better as the week goes on.”

For Ponder, it did. Working in a rotation with Alabama’s Greg McElroy and TCU’s Andy Dalton, he showed himself to be perhaps the most comfortable with the requirements of the quarterback position as played in the NFL. His intermediate passes has a nice zip on them, which allowed him to avoid having his passes sail on him when the wind picked up. He exhibited good timing on short throws, a skill that’s not as easy as it seems. And on Tuesday’s afternoon practice for the South team, he threw a perfect 45-yard rainbow down the right sideline to South Alabama’s Courtney Smith – which Smith promptly dropped.

If it sounds as if Ponder is the ready-made guy … well, that’s where things get complicated. His injury history gives teams pause. He suffered a Grade 3 separation of his (right) throwing shoulder in 2009 and underwent two elbow surgeries in 2010. Those injuries affected his accuracy, and he tried to play through them, but the questions will persists, even when he checks out medically, as he did before Senior Bowl week even started.

“The biggest thing for me is that everyone questions my health – all the injuries – so it’s really important for me to get in front of these coaches and scouts and show that I’m healthy. That’s why it’s a great opportunity for me. I don’t think I’m injury-prone; it’s just been a couple of bad-luck things. You just hope that this week can change an opinion, and I guess we’ll see.”

Despite losing his pre-2010 status as perhaps the nation’s top draft prospect at his position and working through those injuries, Ponder actually enjoyed his most productive season in 2010, throwing 20 touchdowns after just 14 in each of the prior two seasons. His yards-per-attempt did go down (from 8.23 in 2009 to 6.84 in 2010), and he took more sacks in 2010. But the fact that he never let these factors dissuade him should prove impressive to teams looking at personal resolve as a skill.

Ponder has showed no ill effects through practice so far – though he’s not facing specific quarterback pressure, he’s been zipping the ball around without hesitation. Ponder has good mobility, a high throwing motion, and a quick release that puts him on the path to overcoming a lot of the anxiety that naturally comes with advancement to the NFL at his position. As opposed to the read-and-run of the spread offense, the system set up by former Florida State offensive coordinator and current Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher was the key for Ponder.

“I had a little bit (of the multiple-read offense) in high school, but coach Fisher did a really great job with that,” Ponder said. “He really taught the quarterback position well – to make your reads. The great thing was that he taught me how to eliminate things in my head, pre-snap, which makes things a lot quicker and easier. There were a ton of reads and different formations, which kind of helps me prepare for the next level. “

Asked about the West Coast systems being set up in San Francisco and Seattle, Ponder didn’t seem to find the prospect daunting at all. “A lot of people say that I’d fit best in a West Coast system – the short to intermediate routes. We’ll see; I wouldn’t mind going to San Francisco or wherever – whoever picks me, I’ll be their number-one fan (laughs).

Ponder did want to address the issue of his deep passing ability – he thinks it’s underrated, and after a rough 2010 season, he now knows why. “I think it is (underrated). Going back and looking at film this year, I didn’t throw it well and I was dropping my elbow on every throw. That caused the ball to flutter, and the quarterbacks coach finally picked it up on the last week of practice for the bowl game. Things went back to normal, and I was throwing the ball well. So I think it is kind of underrated right now. Hopefully, this week will change that opinion.”

When asked his greatest strength as a quarterback, Ponder didn’t hesitate. “I think it’s my intelligence,” he said. “We only have a week to learn this offense, and I think I pick things up pretty quickly. Hopefully I can set myself up as the best quarterback out here.”

He hasn’t quite done that yet; the kids of the North squad (especially Washington’s Jake Locker and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick) have established themselves as well. But if the Seahawks and other teams are looking for a draft-eligible quarterback specifically tailored to a West Coast system, without two years of technical and schematic fixes, Christian Ponder may very be their man.