Aggies trust new QB 'Johnny Football'

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Johnny Manziel doesn't run from the big moments. He craves them.

Those expecting the redshirt freshman to be overcome by the gravity of the moment when he steps on the field for the first time as Texas A&M's starting quarterback as the Aggies host No. 24 Florida in their first Southeastern Conference game might be surprised.

Confidence, swagger -- whatever you call it -- Manziel has it, according to those around him.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Sam Khan Jr./ESPN.comRedshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel had a total of 75 touchdowns -- passing and rushing -- his senior year of high school.
"He has the feel of a kid that has always expected this moment," offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. "I think he’s just one of those kids that has that type of vibe about him that nothing’s too big for him."

As the Aggies prepare to make their SEC debut at 2:30 p.m. CT on Saturday at Kyle Field, there will be a lot of new: a new head coach (Kevin Sumlin) and coaching staff, a new offense, a new defense and even new uniforms. Add Manziel to that list; the Kerrville (Texas) Tivy product is the new starting quarterback for Texas A&M, winning a competition in fall training camp.

Listen to teammates, coaches and former coaches talk about Manziel, and the same words continue to pop up: competitor, confident, leader, winner.

"Probably one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around," said Mark Smith, his coach at Tivy who is now coaching at Converse (Texas) Judson. "I mean the boy wants to compete and he wants to excel and do well. And he made everybody else around him better. Those things have always stood out to me."

Manziel's leadership already has been seen during practices after Sumlin and Kingsbury named him the starting quarterback in August. Whether it's correcting mistakes or ensuring that everyone is on the same page, Manziel is getting it done.

"He's doing a real good job of stepping up and being real vocal," said Texas A&M senior center Patrick Lewis, one of the team's four captains. "Quarterbacks are normally in charge of the offense and he tells us what he wants and what he expects. For him to be so young and to demand that attention from us so early, it's really impressive to me.

"He'll come out there and give his little speech to the offense before we start practice and he demands perfection already. I'm proud of him; I'm happy for him. I can't wait to see what he can do once we start playing games."

At Tivy, Manziel -- sometimes called by his nickname, "Johnny Football" -- was a bona fide superstar. He was a Parade All-American and was named the Texas Class 4A Offensive Player of the Year by The Associated Press as a senior. He broke the San Antonio area's single-season record with 3,609 passing yards and tied an area record with 45 touchdown passes. Not only that, he ran for 1,674 yards and 30 touchdowns while leading the Antlers to a 10-2 record. As a junior, Manziel carried his team to the Class 4A Division II state semifinals.

Throughout his high school career, in which he threw for more than 12,000 yards, Manziel would cause jaws to drop by making plays with either his arm or his feet.

"I don't know if I can count them all," Smith said. "He found ways to do stuff. ... He made some throws sometimes that you just don't know how he made them. And he did it. Or he made a run that made you go 'Holy cow.'"



I'd take him in a heartbeat. I wouldn't even blink. I think he has all the tools that are necessary for him to be successful and to lead a football team.


-- Mark Smith, who coached Manziel at Kerrville (Texas) Tivy.


He originally committed to Oregon the summer before his senior season. The distance from home was a concern for Manziel, who wanted his family and friends to be able to see him play. When Texas A&M extended him an offer and he had an opportunity to see what the Aggies had to offer, he switched his commitment.

"When he sat down and made the decision to go to A&M, he came into my office on a Sunday night ... we came in and just sat down and talked and put down what's important," Smith said. "And family is important to him. Being close to his family so that his mom and dad are able to see him [was important], and when you got down to it, that was the underlying factor to him going to A&M."

Manziel isn't perfect. Kingsbury said that in the spring the 6-foot-1, 200-pound quarterback was "reckless with the football." Manziel operates with the confidence that he can make any throw or any play at any time. Kingsbury and Sumlin's high-powered, up-tempo offense, which is rooted in Air Raid principles, functions effectively only if the quarterback is taking care of the ball and distributing it to the playmakers around him.

When Manziel arrived for fall camp in August, the coaches could see significant improvement from him, particularly in that area.

"With Johnny, it's probably that he thinks he's the best player out there every time he steps out," Kingsbury said. "So he wants the ball in his hands and wants to do everything with it. He has a great cast around him, he's got to get it to those guys and let them make plays. Like I said, just reeling him back in from the spring, he showed up and was making the routine play and that's what we want from him."

Off the field, Manziel had a hiccup in the summer. He was arrested in the Northgate bar district and charged with disorderly conduct, failure to identify and possessing a false identification card, all misdemeanors.

Sumlin set forth parameters that Manziel had to meet to have a chance to remain part of the team. Sumlin said Manziel met all of them and got back in good graces. Not only that, he won the staff over enough that they felt comfortable tabbing him as the quarterback who will lead the Aggies in their first SEC season.

"No doubt, like everybody else, I was disappointed, because you expect more of him," Smith said. "And I think once you understand the whole story and get down to it, really he probably got caught at the wrong time, doing the wrong things. And he's just like any other 19-year-old kid on a college campus. We'd like these guys to be model citizens and do all the right things and they don't always do [that]. He made a decision, but he owned up and that's the first thing he said, 'I was wrong.' And I think that's the first mark of a man, to be able to hold yourself accountable and say 'I made a mistake.'

"For him to come back out and overcome the adversity he's had, shows his perseverance and his willingness to be committed to Texas A&M and make them a better program and make himself a better player."

Texas A&M senior receiver Ryan Swope took it upon himself to speak with Manziel over the summer to help him adapt to the college game and learn the ins and outs of what it takes to play at this level. They didn't just talk about football. They talked about life as well.

Swope said the team believes in Manziel.

"I've got trust in him," Swope said. "I feel like our whole team does, and that's important. As a senior coming back, I've talked to all the receivers, and a guy like Johnny, we have full trust in. We're very excited for him and we just can't get complacent, and that's what we tell him. He's got to work every day because we've got three guys [Jameill Showers, Matt Joeckel and Matt Davis] right behind him that are wanting that spot, so it's important that he goes out and works hard every single day."

Sumlin said he's relying on the veteran offensive players around Manziel to help ease the transition as he gains game experience.

"Until you’re in a game with game speed and the intensity level, that’s where your experience comes from," Sumlin said. "He’s an inexperienced player and because of that, our surrounding cast of our offensive line or our running backs or our skill people on the perimeter who have experience, have to play well and create a quarterback-friendly atmosphere for him. Fortunately we’ve got experienced players in those positions.”

Smith, who was one of the first people Manziel called when he was officially named the starter in August, has no doubt that "Johnny Football" will succeed.

"I'd take him in a heartbeat," Smith said. "I wouldn't even blink. I think he has all the tools that are necessary for him to be successful and to lead a football team."

Sam Khan | email

Texas A&M/SEC reporter

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