TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When Florida State quarterback Drew Weatherford dropped back to pass for the first time in his college career against Miami last season, he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
For weeks, Weatherford had studied film of the Hurricanes' menacing defense and expected them to defend the Seminoles with Cover 2 zone coverage, like Miami had primarily played in seven of the 10 previous games in one of college football's biggest rivalries. But when Weatherford dropped back to pass on third down during Florida State's first possession on the night of Labor Day 2005, he saw Miami's defensive backs playing aggressive, man-to-man coverage.
A freshman making his first college start, Weatherford didn't know how to react, and his uncertainty made for a very long night in Doak Campbell Stadium.
"It was kind of a changeup," Weatherford recalled. "It was difficult for me to adjust in the game. I never really figured it out and really didn't know what was going on, to be honest. I think I figured it out the next day when I was watching film of the game."
The Seminoles beat the Hurricanes 10-7 last season, despite Weatherford's shaky performance. He completed only 7 of 24 passes for 67 yards with one interception. He was briefly pulled early in the fourth quarter, but went back into the game after fellow freshman Xavier Lee was just as ineffective.
"We had a lot of new plays and I didn't know how to run them against a man-to-man defense," Weatherford said. "That's why we ran a lot of screens. I made a lot of audibles, but I wasn't right very often.
"The coaches communicated with me, but they didn't want to shove too much down my throat. I was already thinking so much, they didn't want me to have information overload. They just told me to play the game and protect the ball. I'm sure they could have changed some things, but they didn't think I could handle it."
Weatherford seemed to handle things more and more throughout the Seminoles' 8-5 campaign in 2005, a season in which they beat Virginia Tech 27-22 in the inaugural ACC championship game and lost to Penn State 26-23 in three overtimes in the Orange Bowl.
In six games, Weatherford completed at least 60 percent of his passes and threw for 250 yards or more in seven games. Weatherford's 18 touchdown passes and 3,208 passing yards broke ACC freshman records and were the most among freshman quarterbacks last season.
But Weatherford was also plagued by poor decisions -- he threw 18 interceptions, tied for third-most among Division I-A quarterbacks -- and was sacked 26 times behind Florida State's offensive line, which was decimated by injuries. During the Seminoles' three-game losing streak (North Carolina State, Clemson and Florida) in November, Weatherford threw seven interceptions and was sacked 11 times.
"After the Florida game, it finally started clicking in my head," Weatherford said. "Defenses were rushing three [linemen] and dropping eight [players into pass coverage], and I was still trying to throw the ball down the field. I finally figured out it was OK to punt the ball away, put our defense out there and go back at it."
Weatherford's maturation from a freshman who couldn't read defenses to a sophomore quarterback who is now comfortable dissecting opponents and studying film is one of the primary reasons the No. 11 Seminoles could be poised to win their 13th ACC championship in 15 seasons in the league. Florida State could take a big step in repeating as conference champions by beating No. 12 Miami in the Orange Bowl on Monday night (ESPN Full Circle, 8 p.m. ET).
"There is an entirely different feeling going into this season with Drew having 12 games under his belt and playing the teams we have played -- the defensive teams we have played, such as Miami, Virginia Tech, Florida, NC State and against some other doggone good defenses," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "He survived it and ended up being the most prolific freshman quarterback in the country as far as stats are concerned. I feel good going in. It is nearly like he is a senior but he is not, he is only a sophomore. I feel real good about him. I feel very confident about him -- but he is still only a sophomore."
Weatherford is still a year ahead of schedule, as far as Bowden is concerned. Historically, Florida State quarterbacks have waited at least two seasons before starting under center. Charlie Ward, the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner, waited three seasons before taking over. Casey Weldon, the runner-up in voting for the 1991 Heisman Trophy, wasn't the full-time starter until his senior season.
In fact, before Chris Rix became a four-year starting quarterback at FSU from 2001-04, the Seminoles had only one other three-year starter: 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, who was a 26-year-old sophomore after playing minor league baseball for six years.
"You were always a redshirt junior before you started, even Charlie Ward, as great as he was," Bowden said.
"There is an entirely different feeling going into this season with Drew having 12 games under his belt and playing the teams we have played. ... He survived it and ended up being the most prolific freshman quarterback in the country as far as stats are concerned."
-- Florida State coach Bobby Bowden
The Seminoles had that luxury because they usually stockpiled quarterbacks to ensure there was always an experienced passer waiting in line. But because of attrition and injuries, FSU didn't have an experienced choice last season. After Weinke graduated, the Seminoles lost a handful of quarterbacks. Jared Jones was dismissed from the team in 2001. Highly regarded recruit Joe Mauer, the country's top quarterback prospect in 2000 from St. Paul, Minn., signed to play football for the Seminoles. But Mauer was the No. 1 pick by the Minnesota Twins in the 2001 baseball draft and was an All-Star catcher for them this season.
More recently, Adrian McPherson, who started several games for FSU in 2002, was kicked off the team that season after he was arrested on gambling, theft and forgery charges. Last season, junior Wyatt Sexton was supposed to assume the starting job from Rix. But Sexton, the son of FSU assistant head coach Billy Sexton, was diagnosed with Lyme disease following a bizarre incident in which police found him lying in the street and claiming to be God. He redshirted last season and then quit the team.
So Bowden hopes Weatherford's growing pains of a year ago benefit the Seminoles this season.
"He probably had the best freshman year of anybody that we have had," Bowden said. "He is a natural born leader. You don't have to be a senior to lead. We expect it out of our seniors, but Drew is one of those guys that just can't help it. Our kids believe in him, they have a lot of faith in him."
FSU receiver De'Cody Fagg said Weatherford looked more comfortable during preseason camp.
"This time a year ago, he was staring down his receivers," Fagg said. "In two-a-days, he was looking off his receivers more and releasing the ball a lot quicker. He's a different quarterback than a year ago."
Facing the Hurricanes, who led Division I-A in pass defense (152.2 yards per game) and were second in scoring defense (14.2 points), figures to be a tough test. All-American safety Brandon Meriweather leads a hard-hitting secondary that will have two new starting cornerbacks: Glenn Sharpe and Randy Phillips. Having inexperienced cornerbacks will probably prevent Hurricanes defensive coordinator Randy Shannon from being as aggressive as he usually is. But Miami will try to confuse Weatheford nonetheless.
The Florida State quarterback said he is up to the challenge.
"It's just different," Weatherford said. "There are a lot of things going through my head now, but there are a lot of things I think I can control. Not only do I have a grasp of our offense, but I've got a grasp of the defense, too. I just feel comfortable. Last year, I felt comfortable, but I hadn't proved anything. I never doubted myself. I knew I could do it, but I hadn't proved it to myself, my teammates and my coaches.
"I'll be a lot more confident and have a different demeanor when I run through that tunnel now."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.