Florida State quarterback Xavier Lee sat through nearly two hours of interviews Sunday morning with tape recorders and television cameras thrust in his face. A year ago, nobody wanted to talk to him during the Seminoles' annual media day.
"Last year, I couldn't get a camera in my face for nothing," Lee said. "The only camera in my face was my mom's camera."
But things changed drastically for Lee and another Florida State quarterback, Drew Weatherford, over the summer. Junior Wyatt Sexton, who was supposed to assume the starting quarterback job he won from Chris Rix last season, had Lyme disease diagnosed after police found him lying in the street claiming to be God. With Sexton undergoing aggressive treatment that will sideline him for the 2005 season, the Seminoles will start either Lee or Weatherford in their Sept. 5 opener against Miami at Doak Campbell Stadium.
It is quite a change for the Seminoles, who have historically started upperclassmen at quarterback during Coach Bobby Bowden's three decades at the school. Charlie Ward, the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner, had to wait three seasons before he became the team's starting quarterback as a junior. Casey Weldon, the runner-up in voting for the 1991 Heisman Trophy, wasn't a full-time starter until his senior season. In fact, until Rix became a four-year starter last season, there had been only one other three-year starting quarterback under Bowden -- 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, who was a 26-year-old sophomore after playing minor league baseball for six years.
"We've always started redshirt juniors," Bowden said. "You were always a redshirt junior before you started, even Charlie Ward, as great as he was."
Bowden usually stockpiled quarterbacks to ensure his team would have an experienced passer waiting in line. But once Weinke graduated after the 2000 season, the Seminoles' plans unraveled. Jared Jones, a highly regarded passer from Washington, was dismissed from the team in January 2001 for multiple violations of team rules. Joe Mauer, the nation's top quarterback prospect from St. Paul, Minn., could have been a senior at Florida State this season, but he was the No. 1 pick by the Minnesota Twins in the 2001 baseball draft. And Adrian McPherson, who started several games for the Seminoles as a sophomore in 2002, was kicked off the team for gambling, theft and forgery charges.
So when Rix left after a largely mediocre career, Sexton was the only experienced quarterback left in the program. The son of Seminoles assistant head coach Billy Sexton, he was supposed to hold the job until the more talented Lee and Weatherford were ready to start. But Sexton was suspended from the team during the summer for an unspecified violation of team rules and then was hospitalized following his bizarre behavior, leaving the Seminoles with only two freshman quarterbacks.
"I've got one quarterback that played -- he got one play," Bowden said. "He's the veteran of the group. But there could be a lot worse news to that. Worse news is that you ain't got nobody to take his place. Worse news is that you've got two quarterbacks that don't have any talent. These guys have talent."
Lee, who broke most of Florida's high school passing records during his career at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, has never taken a snap in a college game after redshirting last season. Weatherford played in only one game last season and sprained his right ankle on the first play against North Carolina. He underwent surgery for a torn tendon in his right ankle after spring practice.
Neither quarterback did enough to separate himself during the Seminoles' first five days of preseason camp. Most observers expect Lee to start against the Hurricanes because he's more athletic and has a stronger arm. When Lee was asked Sunday whether he had really thrown a football 70 yards while kneeling on one knee, he said, "Yeah, that's true." Last season, he tore a hole in cornerback Antonio Cromartie's new gloves while warming up on the sideline.
"He's calmed down a lot since he got here," Seminoles tailback Leon Washington said. "When he first got here, everything he threw was [a rocket]. I told him he didn't have to throw everything so hard."
Weatherford, from Land O' Lakes, Fla., admits he isn't as athletic as Lee but is confident he can win the job. "I can make any throw he can make, and vice versa," Weatherford said.
Lee and Weatherford insist they have remained good friends during the competition. They go to movies together and play against each other in video games. In one game, EA Sports' NCAA Football 2006, Lee plays against Miami while using his likeness at quarterback. The game even has his long braids hanging out the back of a gold helmet.
"The first time I played Miami, they beat the snot out of me," Lee said of his video gaming experience. "But after that, when I got some experience, I was pretty good."
Three weeks from now, in front of a sellout crowd of more than 82,000 and a national television audience on Labor Day night, Lee won't get a second chance against the Hurricanes. "One of us is going to get the job done," Lee said. "I can promise you that."