COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As college football's first freshman Heisman Trophy winner, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has navigated uncharted territory since accepting the sport's most prestigious individual award in December.
His new position coach, Jake Spavital, is also breaking ground.
Texas A&M's co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach is facing first-time challenges, and has been handed the task of tutoring a sophomore Heisman winner while also being one of three new additions to the staff of a likely preseason top-10 team.
Fortunately for the Aggies, the man who will guide Johnny Football in year two might be as prepared as anybody could be for the challenge.
There are a few things working in Spavital's favor as he settles into his new role in Aggieland. He has a strong friendship with Manziel's previous tutor, the Aggies' former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Kliff Kingsbury. Spavital has his own strong coaching pedigree, coming from a family of football coaches that combines for several decades of football coaching experience. He has a great understanding of the quarterback position because he played it in college. And the list of quarterbacks Spavital has already worked with is impressive.
All of that has played a role in the 27-year-old's rise up the coaching ladder, which has put him in this unique position.
A former college quarterback at Missouri State, Spavital had no doubt he wanted to coach football. His grandfather, the late Jim Spavital, was an All-American at Oklahoma A&M [which is now Oklahoma State] and coached at multiple levels, including collegiately and professionally in the NFL, CFL and the World League. Jake's father, Steve Spavital, is a longtime high school coach who currently heads the program at Broken Arrow (Okla.) High School. His brother Zac is the defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Houston.
Steve remembers young Jake idolizing his grandfather and scripting his own plays in grade school.
"He would draw and create plays and do all kinds of things," Steve Spavital said. "He had his own playbook. ... He would just sit there for hours and draw plays. He has a good mind for the game. He really understands it."
After his time was done at Missouri State, Spavital returned to his hometown and landed a graduate assistant job at Tulsa, working alongside then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn on an offense that ranked No. 1 in the country in 2008. But it was his next gig that proved critical in his ascent.
In 2009 he joined the Houston staff as a GA under Kevin Sumlin and then-Cougars offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. That's also where he met Kingsbury, who was at the time a quality control assistant for UH. But the pairing with Holgorsen was significant. When Holgorsen left Houston to take the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator job, Spavital went with him.
Though his title was the same as it had been at Tulsa and Houston, his responsibilities were greater.
"He needed a GA to help him and that was my opportunity," Spavital said. "When I got to Oklahoma State, I got to work hands-on with everybody. It was just me and Dana because we were the only ones who knew the system. That helped me out a lot and I furthered my career that way."
The next break came when Holgorsen moved to West Virginia. Again he brought Spavital, making him a full-time assistant coaching the quarterbacks. After two seasons working with accomplished veterans Case Keenum at Houston and Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State, Spavital earned the chance to get up close and personal with West Virginia's Geno Smith. In 2012, Smith became a Heisman front-runner at one point before the Mountaineers hit a midseason skid.
After Kingsbury left Texas A&M to accept the head coaching job at Texas Tech, Sumlin moved running backs coach Clarence McKinney to offensive coordinator and tabbed Spavital as the next quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator.
"He did a great job at Oklahoma State and did a great job, obviously, at West Virginia," Sumlin said. "Just his ability, [being] from a coaching family, and just being able to communicate and really work mechanically [with quarterbacks] ... I think you can see how he's been able to help develop quarterbacks all over the country."
Spavital's age is a positive in several ways. The ability to connect and relate with Manziel -- who is dealing with more than just the challenges football brings -- is important and something Kingsbury, 33, was able to do successfully.
"It's been good [with] Coach Spav being there," Manziel said. "We've tried to bond and get a really good relationship between me and him. That's big for us because that's what I had with Coach Kingsbury. He's come in, he's really easy to get along with and he's a brilliant mind. To have him and Coach McKinney both at the helm of the offense, it'll be really good."
During his early years as a coach, Spavital spent countless hours on his own learning the game at every offensive position, not just quarterback, to ensure he could talk with conviction to his players who might have raised an eyebrow at such a young coach handing out instruction.
"These kids aren't idiots," Jake Spavital said. "They know if you're sitting there and bull-------- with them. They'll look at you sideways."
"I'd be in there with the [offensive linemen] and they're looking at me, a scrawny, 180-pound guy, like 'You've never played O-line before.' I had to grow as a coach and relate with them in different ways. Each position is different. You coach the quarterbacks way differently than you coach the O-line and the running backs."
Spavital's relationship with Kingsbury has been invaluable. They traded game film in recent years and talk on the phone regularly to this day. That gave Spavital a head start when it came to familiarizing himself with Manziel's game.
"Kliff's one of my best friends," Spavital said. "I talk to him every single day because he's going through [a transition too]. ... Kliff and I have traded tape for the past three years. When I was at Oklahoma State and West Virginia, we would trade every single week. He would look at my tape and I would look at his tape and maybe I'd take some ideas off of him and he would be like 'Hey, from a different perspective, what do you think of Johnny?' "
He also leans on his brother Zac, whom he calls his "best friend." The elder Spavital can provide a different perspective when it comes to scheme since he's a defensive coach. Zac said Jake's age doesn't tell the whole story.
"He's got a maturity level that's a lot different than a 27-year-old," Zac said. "I think what sets him apart is that he thinks before he speaks. He's got that mature side to him that usually takes awhile to get in this profession. That's why if you're around him in a room you wouldn't know he's a 27-year-old."