Friday, September 6, 2013
Despite attention, Aggies focused
By Sam Khan Jr.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In answering the final of several questions he received on Tuesday about his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, the negative attention said quarterback received after the game and what it's like to be in the middle of it all while shots are fired from critics across the nation, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin looked at a reporter with a knowing smile and gave the world a peek into what's really happening inside the Bright Football Complex.
Despite much of the attention centered on Johnny Manziel, the Aggies say it's not affecting them inside the locker room.
Sumlin's message was clear: You might think the national scrutiny is getting to us, but it isn't. In fact, it might be doing us a favor.
"Obviously, after last Saturday, people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now," Sumlin said as the smile slowly crept in. "And in a way, right now, for me as a coach, I'm not going to complain about it. Because it's kind of putting a wall up between us and everybody."
That wall became necessary because having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most talked-about athletes on the planet, Johnny Manziel, on its roster has created an easy target for that attention. Last season, much of it was positive as Manziel set records, led the Aggies to a takedown of No. 1 Alabama and he became the first freshman to win college football's most coveted individual award.
This year is different. After an offseason in which Manziel checked items off a bucket list that most sports fans can dream of, endured criticism for tweets, leaving the Manning Passing Academy early and becoming the focal point of an NCAA investigation, a lot of the attention became negative. The scrutiny got to the point that Manziel was vilified by some for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed against Rice and celebratory hand gestures that he -- as well as his teammates and other players across the country -- have done before.
Texas A&M senior associate athletic director for external affairs Jason Cook recently told TexAgs Radio, a show that airs on local radio station KZNE-1150 AM, that he received as many calls from celebrity gossip site TMZ as he did from traditional sports media outlets during the NCAA investigation into Manziel.
But the Aggies say they're letting none of this get to them.
"I believe with the off-the-field issues, we really don't bother ourselves with that," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "… When it comes to the off-the-field issues, Coach Sumlin and the staff upstairs will definitely handle that. But as for on the field, right now, I feel like we're playing well and we can only get better from this point forward."
The wall is more than a metaphor. While the coaches and players might be taking an "us against the world" approach in their newfound fame, a wall is also what Manziel and the school have put up -- for now -- when it comes to him speaking publicly.
The 20-year-old has not spoken to the media since SEC media days in mid-July. Texas A&M wisely did not make him available to the media during the NCAA investigation into allegations that he profited from autographs and the school stayed mostly silent on the matter as well.
As reporters wait with bated breath, Manziel remains away from the microphone. Sumlin said Tuesday that he felt this isn't the "right time," for Manziel to speak but that when the time comes, he will.
"I think it's important now, based on where he is, that his focus is to try to be our quarterback and a student-athlete," Sumlin said. "That's his biggest challenge right now. It's not his challenge to be here. That's me."
Does having to answer for Manziel frustrate his teammates?
"No, it doesn't," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It comes with it. You want to have a defending Heisman Trophy winner as your quarterback. That's not a bad thing."
Malena stressed what life inside the Aggies' locker room was really like.
"What's perceived from the outside world is, nine times out of 10, a complete  of how the team looks at it," Malena said. "So how you guys might single him out or anything like that doesn't hurt us as a team, because right now, we're just focusing on getting ready for Sam Houston."
So far, life inside the emerging walls appears to still be business as usual. Whether that changes remains to be seen and the Aggies' showdown on Sept. 14 against Alabama could certainly play a role in that. Sumlin is aiming to keep his team's focus with what's happening on the field, not all the noise off of it.
"The discussion we had Monday, both in here and on the field, I think our players understand that," Sumlin said. "And there's not much confusion on what goes on here in this program."