NFL will watch Christian Ponder in Chick-fil-A Bowl

Christian Ponder’s NFL destiny won't exactly be at stake Friday night, but there will be some judgment passed on the Florida State quarterback in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome.

Is he damaged goods, or not?

Ponder, the Seminoles' starting quarterback, missed a regular-season game against Clemson and the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech with a soft-tissue injury to his right forearm. There was no structural damage, but it required surgery and he returned to practice just this week.

Before the season, there were expectations that he was a first-round draft pick. Now where does he fall in the draft pecking order?

The tape of Friday’s game against South Carolina will be dissected by NFL personnel. If Ponder, a fifth-year senior, happens to leave the game, even for a few snaps, eyebrows will be raised.

The quarterback, however, is not going to put himself in the middle of any of the angst.

“I’m just preparing myself to play like it’s another game,” Ponder said. “I don’t need to put any more pressure on myself. The object is to just go play my game and let the rest take care of itself.”

Ponder has had a terrific career -- he is among the top five at FSU in career passing yards (6,866), completions (595), and total offense (7,696) -- but the game against South Carolina sure seems like a reckoning. Will the ball flutter on the deep out? Can he uncork the deep throw, as one scout said, instead of trying to feather it down the field?

In a long line of successful FSU quarterbacks since the program came out of the darkness in the early 1980s under Bobby Bowden -- from Peter Tom Willis to Casey Weldon to Brad Johnson to Charlie Ward to Chris Weinke -- Ponder looks more NFL-ready than any of them.

The Seminoles have not had a quarterback drafted since Weinke in 2001, who went in the fourth round to Carolina and had a modest NFL career.

“I think he is a solid player that moves around well and has a good arm,” said Gil Brandt, a draft analyst for NFL.com and a former NFL executive. “He’s one of those guys you pick down near the end of the first round that you don’t have to play right away but, long range, is going to be an NFL quarterback.

“The thing is before they give a guy a $7 million or $8 million signing bonus they are going to have assurances from doctors that the arm will not be an issue.”

Ponder will have almost a month after the Chick-fil-A Bowl to get ready for the Senior Bowl and a closer examination from the NFL community.

Ponder’s arm is a big deal because even for a quarterback, he is considered off-the-charts savvy and smart. In the Wonderlic test administered by the NFL to rate intelligence, Ponder scored a 34. A score in the 30s, even for a quarterback, is considered above average.

Ponder earned an undergraduate degree from FSU in 2 1/2 years (he had credits before he enrolled by taking advanced-placement courses in high school) and had earned a master's degree in business administration before the start of the 2010 season.

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher appreciates Ponder’s IQ because he has a quarterback who can recognize and declare the middle linebacker as a pass rusher, or in the next instant, undeclare the middle linebacker and make another read for a better play.

“It allows you to call the game and be aggressive, throw deep balls, whatever you got to do, and if the shots are there you know you’ve got them,” Fisher said. “What Christian does is he either checks out and gets you in a better play, or will check it down if the shot’s not there”

Scouts who have studied Ponder have found a quarterback who can take snaps under center or in the shotgun formation, a quarterback who can bootleg and sprint out. Teams that run a West Coast offense are particularly enamored with Ponder because of his quick reads and release.

But can Ponder hum the ball with that arm?

The surgery in December required a 2 1/2-inch incision to remove scar tissue and sew the facia, the covering of the muscle, back down to the muscle. It alleviated swelling from a fluid build-up and allowed for a return of a full range of motion.

Ponder was asked if he ever considered shutting down and letting his arm heal so he could be ready for the NFL. He had a quick answer. “No.”

“It hasn’t been too difficult. Some people could get frustrated by it if they let it, but I was just wanting to play and compete,” Ponder said. “I spent a lot of time in the training room, but it’s football and everyone spends time in the training room.”