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Orange Bowl ends difficult season for FSU's Manuel

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Orange Bowl ends difficult season for FSU's Manuel

MIAMI (AP) When quarterback EJ Manuel takes the Orange Bowl field Tuesday for his final game at Florida State, his mother will be home in Virginia, recovering from her final round of chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.

The turn of the calendar marks the end of an emotional year for the family. Jackie Manuel was diagnosed shortly before the season, and for EJ, trying to win games became a welcome diversion rather than his primary concern.

More than ever, football also became something to celebrate. Many of EJ's relatives - his mom included - will gather at his grandmother's house in Virginia Beach to whoop it up as they watch the No. 13-ranked Seminoles play No. 16 Northern Illinois.

And for a few hours, at least, he'll try not to worry about his mother.

``I'll be locked in on my last game as a collegiate player,'' Manuel said. ``My mom wants that. This is what you work for. I'm not going to allow our team to fall short.''

The Seminoles (11-2) have followed Manuel's lead all season. He endured his worst game last month against Florida, committing four turnovers in a 37-26 loss. He reached the end zone only once in the Seminoles' other defeat, a 17-16 loss to North Carolina State. But in Florida State's victories, he threw 20 touchdown passes with only six interceptions.

The Florida game took place on Parents' Day in Tallahassee, and Jackie Manuel made the 12-hour drive to attend. Watching Mom and Dad walk onto the field before the game, EJ was overcome with emotion.

``For her to come down and support me for my last home game at Florida State meant the world to me,'' he said. ``That's why I couldn't really hold back. I was definitely tearing up. I was like, `EJ, stop crying.' But I couldn't hold it back.''

He declined to blame the heart-tugging occasion for the way he played, however.

``It just happened to be one of those days,'' he said.

Regardless, Manuel won admiration from his teammates and coaches for the way he has performed this season.

``It has been a tough year for him,'' offensive coordinator James Coley said. ``Whenever you see someone near and dear to you struggling with an illness, especially at a young age, it's tough. But he persevered through it.''

In more ways than one, this has not been the senior year Manuel anticipated. The Seminoles expected to wind up in Miami, but in the BCS championship game on Jan. 7, not in the Orange Bowl against a Northern Illinois team derided by some as an unworthy opponent.

However, Manuel said he's happy with his season. After all, he threw for 3,101 yards to lead an offense that averaged 7.01 yards per play, which tied for first in the nation. He helped the Seminoles earn their first BCS bowl berth in seven years.

``I wish we could have been here a week later for the national championship,'' Manuel said. ``But it didn't work out that way. We won our conference and had a great season, and I'm proud of the things I've accomplished here at Florida State.''

Northern Illinois defensive end Sean Progar, who has 8 1/2 sacks this season, said the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Manuel will challenge the Huskies like no other quarterback they've faced.

``He'll definitely be the best, just because of everything he can do, throwing and running,'' Progar said. ``He's a big guy. He's not going to go down lightly. He's going to look to throw first, but he will scramble, and he's good at it.''

Manuel has a chance to become only the second quarterback to go 4-0 in bowl games, joining West Virginia's Pat White. A year ago he led Florida State to an 18-14 victory in the Champs Bowl over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who haven't lost since. He ranks third among Seminoles QBs with 24 career victories.

``His legacy will be that he's a winner,'' Coley said. ``He's a competitor, he's a fighter, and his teammates love the guy. They'll run through a wall for him.''

They also respect the way he has coped with his mom's illness. Only recently did he begin to discuss the matter publicly, and he has done so with grace and candor.

``He's a guy you want to be like,'' receiver Rodney Smith said.

Manuel and his family are encouraged about the prognosis for his mother, who turned 49 Thursday. She has responded well to chemotherapy and will undergo surgery in about a month.

``Once something like this happens to somebody you're close to, it hits home,'' Manuel said. ``It opened my eyes to a lot of things. But she's doing well. That is the thing that has helped me out the most.''

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With Burakovsky out, is Chandler Stephenson the next man up?

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USA TODAY Sports

With Burakovsky out, is Chandler Stephenson the next man up?

With Andre Burakovsky out for the remainder of the first round at least, someone will have to replace him in the top six. Originally, it looked like Jakub Vrana was the man for the job. Based on Game 4, however, it now looks like Chandler Stephenson is the "next man up" for the Caps.

While Vrana may have top-six skill and a high ceiling, it was Stephenson who stepped into the second-line role on Thursday playing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Stephenson finished with two shots on goal in 17:28 of ice time. Vrana, meanwhile, played for only 6:40.

On Friday, Barry Trotz praised Stephenson's hockey IQ for allowing him to adjust to the top-six in a complementary role.

"[Stephenson's] an intelligent player," Trotz said. "He played with [Backstrom] a lot [Thursday]. If you talk with the real top-end guys, he has the ability to think like a top-end guy in terms of play with them. He’s a very intelligent player. He skates extremely well. He’s got some strength to his game. He can complement people. I think his ability to play those different roles and his hockey IQ when you play with those skill guys, he plays more of a give-and-go game than an individual game. When you play with those high skill guys, you’re able to compliment them very well."

Stephenson has spent the majority of the season on the fourth line. He was drafted as a natural center, but has played primarily wing since coming to the NHL. The ability to play both positions gives Stephenson more versatility than most forwards which Trotz credits for helping him see the game so well.

"The great thing about Chandler is he’s played multiple positions over the years. I think it’s allowed him to play a fourth-line role and with high-skill guys. At center-ice, you distribute the puck a little more.  He’s turning into a well-rounded player for us."

On the surface, having Stephenson on the fourth line over Vrana makes little sense. Vrana is highly skilled and has great speed, but he is also prone to giving up turnovers and his production can be inconsistent. Trotz has clearly put a premium on responsible play this postseason which gives Stephenson the edge.

But Game 4 was only one game. If you are going to get top-six minutes, Stephenson will be expected to produce offensively as well. Despite the limited ice time he has gotten, Vrana has shown he can have a major impact on games. In Game 1, he set up the team's only 5-on-5 goal and drew a penalty. In Game 3, he drew two penalties in less than two minutes, giving Washington a two-man advantage.

Stephenson had a fantastic game in Game 4 when he was given the chance to play in the top-six. The next step will be finding a way to have a bigger impact on the game.

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—All-Redskins mock, fast-fading interest in Dez

Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—All-Redskins mock, fast-fading interest in Dez

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, April 21, five days before the 2018 NFL draft.  

The Redskins week that was

A look at some of the most popular posts and hottest topics of the week on Real Redskins and NBC Sports Washington

Should the Redskins pursue Dez Bryant? This topic was one like a meteor, very hot for a short period of time before it quickly faded out. It started to heat up as soon as the Cowboys cut Dez (about a month too late) and when it was reported that he wanted to play against Dallas twice a year it really picked up steam. But then people started to actually think and figured out that signing Bryant didn’t make much sense for the Redskins. Add to that the reports that the Redskins had no interest and would not look into signing Dez in the future and the Redskins fans quickly lost enthusiasm for the topic.

Seven-round Redskins mock draft—I think that most Redskins fans would be happy with this mock. Well, I’ll say some Redskins fans, most is a pretty strong word in this case. 

Is the draft pool deep enough for the Redskins to trade back? There is plenty of talk about the Redskins trading down in the first round to recoup the third-round pick they gave up in the Alex Smith trade. But they need to be careful. Many consider the draft to be top heavy and they may lose their chance to pick up an impact player if they trade back too far. The question then becomes one of quality vs. quantity. 

Three questions as offseason workouts get underway—There will be plenty more questions that we can ask about this team. But we don’t really know what to ask before the draft, particularly when it comes to the defensive line and running back. One the personnel settle into place we will know what we don’t know. 

Tweet of the week

On Chris Cooley’s thought that the Redskins might try to trade back and get Da’Ron Payne in the draft and the use the assets obtained to move up to get Derrius Guice. 

This is related to the questions about trading back. On paper it looks like a good idea, assuming the Redskins want Payne. We’re pretty sure they would like to have Guice but we haven’t heard as much about the Alabama defensive lineman. 

I had many reply that Guice won’t be there in the second round. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, but you just don’t know. There was zero chance that Jonathan Allen would be there at No. 17 last year, right? 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS.

Timeline  

Days until:

—OTAs start (5/22) 31
—Training camp starts (7/26) 96
—2018 NFL season starts (9/9) 141

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