Manziel looking for on-field progress

August, 18, 2013
8/18/13
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In the middle of the whirlwind at SEC media days, before all of the autograph allegations, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel said something that in retrospect seems prescient.

While making a stop in one of the seemingly dozens of interview rooms, a reporter surmised that Manziel was tired of talking about his offseason and was simply ready to return to the football field. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, cracked a smile and confirmed that assessment.

"Can't wait," he said. "No more talking off the field. All the talking's done on the field."

Interestingly, the mid-July media extravaganza in Hoover, Ala., is about the last day we've heard Manziel speak publicly, unless you count a handful posts to his Twitter account in the time between media day and the start of Texas A&M's preseason training camp on Aug. 5.

As the college football world has focused on Manziel's eventful offseason -- and most recently, news of an NCAA investigation into allegations that he profited from signing autographs -- Manziel has remained silent as he focuses on the 2013 season.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel, Jake Spavital
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNJohnny Manziel and Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital have worked on Manziel's pocket presence in the offseason.
What hasn't dominated the conversation when it comes to Manziel is what is in store for him on the field in his second season as the Aggies' starting quarterback. It was just more than a year ago that he was named the starter, winning a quarterback battle over Jameill Showers (now at UTEP), Matt Joeckel and Matt Davis.

So, how do you tell the Heisman Trophy winner to do better?

"All you have to do is watch video," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said.

What does the video reveal?

"You saw him progress as a quarterback as the year went on," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "Those first five games or so, he was just freelancing and doing his own thing."

Sumlin has noted several times in the past year that Manziel was a better quarterback in the second half of the season. His grasp of the offense and ability to throw downfield have improved.

The stats support that assessment. In the final six games, Manziel had a better completion percentage (73.4 percent, compared to 63.8 percent in the first seven), more yards per attempt (9.31 vs. 7.95), a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (12-to-3, compared with 14-to-6) and, as a result, a better passer rating (169.5 vs. 144.5 to 169.5).

The area in which he can make serious strides this year is his pocket presence.

"That's what we focused on throughout the spring because we know what Johnny can do when he's outside the pocket, running the ball," Spavital said. "I try not to let him scramble in practice and he gets frustrated at times and you'll see some pretty wild plays out there, but he's been staying in the pocket, going through his progressions, and I think it's making him a better pocket passer."

Sumlin said he has seen Manziel improve in several aspects of his game during the offseason.

"He continued to work at everything. In the classroom, understanding the whole picture, operational procedure, he's a lot better there," Sumlin said. "Mechanically, he's better. He understands some things. It's like playing golf. Once you understand the mechanics, you can kind of correct yourself when things aren't going right. I think he's worked very hard in the offseason to understand the mechanics and, really, the complete offense. I don't think there's one area that he has really concentrated on, I think he has worked on his total game."

The operational procedure that Sumlin speaks of, which simply is his ability to run the offense, is something Spavital noted that Manziel has down solid. Spavital said in the spring that Manziel is now able to get the play signal, operate and spend the rest of the time focusing on what the defense is showing.

In the first year of this Air Raid-style spread offense with its high pace of play, some of the basics were hardest to grasp early on. And that's not just for the quarterback, but all of the offensive players.

"I guarantee you Johnny vs. Florida -- I've never asked him about it -- I guarantee you he went out there and Kliff [Kingsbury] signaled in the play and he made sure the receivers knew what they were doing and made sure the back knew what he was doing and made sure the O-line knew what they were doing and then he just snapped the ball and ran the play," Spavital said. "Well, now, it's second nature to him and you signal the play to him and he just operates it and he can focus on the defense. He can change the play if he needs to and you don't get caught in as many bad plays because he's seen all the bad looks. He's learned his lessons from it. That's the way you get better in this offense; you learn from your mistakes."

Spavital has worked with several quarterbacks who have run this style of offense: Case Keenum at Houston, Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State and Geno Smith at West Virginia. The common thread in all of them, he said, is that the second year running this offense is the year that the quarterback makes a significant step forward because everyone grasps the scheme better.

"It's the year that they go off," Spavital said.

Back at SEC media days, Manziel himself said he wants to be smarter about when he chooses to break the pocket and run.

"There were times where I'd take off running and you've got a guy running down the field on a post that you knew on Monday of the week that that route was going to be open if this coverage was this, this and this. And yet, pressure comes up and you need to step up in the pocket, but then I decide to run," Manziel said. "Maybe the play turns out to be a success, maybe it doesn't, but just making it easier on myself is the bigger thing.

"You can sit there and take a nice easy step, do everything, have your fundamentals and make the throw and let them walk in for a touchdown, or whatever the situation may be. But just continue to get better downfield and seeing the vision [is the key]. All that will come with the more playing time and the more time you're out on the field. I know from the Florida game to Oklahoma, it's a crazy amount of difference."

One thing that the coaches don't want to do, Spavital said, is make Manziel robotic.

"Johnny wants to be a better pocket passer," Spavital said. "You can see him progress as the year went on and he's going to keep getting better at it. The main thing is you don't want to handcuff him and you want Johnny to be Johnny. His ability to scramble and make plays and get out of the pocket is the reason why he won the Heisman. You want to just keep working on the little things and get him to be a better passer, but at the same time you just want that kid to keep balling the way he is."

Sam Khan | email

Texas A&M/SEC reporter

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