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Insider

Johnny Football's Heisman path, future

12/7/2012

NEW YORK -- By Saturday night, a freshman will in all likelihood have won the Heisman Trophy. It might not even be close. It might be something close to Cam Newton's 2010 blowout, in fact.

Texas A&M's Johnny "Football" Manziel went from a midsummer quarterback battle to college football's best player by Christmastime.

When I ran into Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin here earlier in the week, I asked him if that narrative was as crazy to him as it is me. His eyes got wide and he nodded. Sumlin expected Manziel to play well in his first season.
But the Heisman?

"Never doubt Johnny Football," Sumlin said, beginning to laugh. "Johnny Football ..."

Here are a few vignettes from Manziel's rapid rise to the Heisman stage, and a look at what the future holds for him.

• I was told this week that Sumlin considered preventing Manziel from talking until the Heisman ceremony itself.

Someone close to the program told me that Sumlin, often playful, thought it would be funny if Manziel stepped to the stage, unfolded some notes, looked at Sumlin, back at his notes, cleared his throat, said "Thank you" and walked off stage. A Spanish-language version was also prepared, since no one had really ever heard Manziel speak.

Just imagine the stunned audience.

Ultimately, the SEC and Heisman folks encouraged Sumlin to make his quarterback available to reporters. On top of that, the university's PR staff recognized it would be a way to create Manziel Mania among national outlets in the week preceding Heisman Week.

It worked like a charm. The unintentional PR move of holding his tongue had created more interest for an intentional PR move.

Fans -- and voters, more importantly -- found themselves being impressed by Johnny Football off the field in addition to what they already knew about his on-field performance.

• When the staff was still at Houston, Kliff Kingsbury, the Aggies' 33-year-old up-and-coming offensive coordinator, used to come into meeting rooms talking breathlessly about Manziel. It was due to what you've seen, the inert playmaking knack, that had Kingsbury compelled about the Kerrville-area high school legend.

And it had Kingsbury confounded. At the Conference USA school, he thought he had no shot at Manziel. Actually he was sure of it. The staff figured Manziel would go to Oregon, where he had initially made a verbal commitment. Manziel would run Chip Kelly's powerful offense.

But, in a fortunate twist for Sumlin and Kingsbury, an assistant at A&M talked then-head coach Mike Sherman into offering Manziel.

Once Sherman was fired and Sumlin was hired, sure there was natural eagerness for the move to a BCS-level school -- and one headed to the SEC, at that. But there was also Manziel.

"Kliff was as excited about coaching Johnny as anything," one staffer told me.

• I visited with Sumlin in the spring -- he hadn't even unpacked or set up his office -- and he said he had seen positive elements in the games of both Manziel and Jameill Showers. The two young guys were having both good and bad moments in spring scrimmages; there was little separation, each of them making some plays and some mistakes.

Showers, I was told this week, has a rocket launcher for an arm. It's much stronger than that of Manziel, who has to get his whole body into a downfield throw. (That said, Manziel still gets some zip on passes and he's accurate, at 68.3 percent.)

The problem for Showers was grasping Sumlin's quick-paced offense, making the proper reads. Showers struggled to get a handle, while Manziel began to improve during the course of preseason camp to the point that he was named the starter. His relative comfort level with the offense is what allowed him to eventually take the job.

Despite Sumlin publicly saying that the QB battle was deadlocked -- and he said it a whole bunch in the spring and summer -- he knew that Kingsbury believed and wanted it to be Manziel all along. Eventually, Manziel gave the OC and staff enough to go in that direction.

• In talking here this week to coaches who faced Manziel and watched his season, they noted his obvious improvement from the Florida game to the November stretch in which A&M was arguably the hottest team in the country.

The scrambling ability was always there; it was the passing game that progressed most with Manziel. When he broke Archie Manning's single-game total yardage record, going for 557 yards against Arkansas, 453 were passing yards. It was his first career 300-yard game, and he had three more after that.

By the way, someone from the SEC told me this week that many thought Manning's record was one that wouldn't be touched. It was one of those Holy Grail records in the league. After all, Newton didn't even push it. And Manziel broke it twice. As a freshman. In the program's first year in the league.

• The A&M coaching staff heard about outstanding LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery's comments on Manziel. They thought it was both hilarious and a pure show of respect. "That guy chased Johnny around for three hours with a smile on his face," Sumlin told me. "They were out there playing football, having a hell of a time. When it was over, they were sort of in awe of each other."

What was the first thing Montgomery thought of when he heard Alabama had lost to A&M?

"Johnny Football," he said.

And then he elaborated.

"Johnny Football is nothing to play with," he told reporters. "My hat's off to Johnny Football. If there's anybody that should win the Heisman ... Sam Montgomery's vote would be in for Johnny Football.

"He makes people have to sit back. You wonder why we didn't have any pass rush that game? Johnny Football makes you not pass rush. ... That kid's unbelievable. I just don't know how to stop him."

And, to think, Montgomery saw one of Manziel's more pedestrian outings. He barely eclipsed 300 total yards and accounted for no touchdowns and three interceptions, although two came on passes tipped by receivers, in the loss to the Tigers.

After that three-pick day, Manziel only threw two more interceptions in 154 attempts in the final five games.

• When Manziel was finally made available for interviews last week, a crush of reporters crammed into a room to hear and see him.

With cameras aimed at him and bright lights in his eyes, an A&M official asked him if he was OK with this. It would be a pretty intimidating scene for an individual of any age and experience, let alone a 19-year-old from small-town Texas.

"Johnny never flinched," someone in that room told me. "It seriously wasn't a big deal to him."

Extending that to the field, he had the same reaction to playing on the road in the supposedly imposing SEC. That was never more evident than his play at Alabama in the 29-24 upset.

Manziel worked the then-No. 1 Tide with his legs in the first half and his arm in the second. Whenever the Aggies were forced to adjust, they did, and Manziel was able.

It was a gamelong Heisman moment, really.

• Expectations would be heightened in an unprecedented way for a freshman Heisman winner. In many ways, Manziel would be set up for future failure based on the bar being set so very high.
Manziel's startling level of confidence, however, is why those close to him and the program think he'll be able to rise above Heisman fatigue.

As I mentioned to someone here who presumed his impending doom, the good news for Manziel from a motivation standpoint is there are plenty of team-oriented goals remaining. Texas A&M nearly got into a BCS bowl, but that remains a goal. And then the playoff will begin by Manziel's junior season.

Of course you'll hear a lot about Archie Griffin and two-time winners. Given Manziel's stature (he's stout, but 6 feet tall on a good day), he's no lock to leave college early for the NFL draft, so he might have three more seasons to chase Griffin.

Think of it this way: Would you rather win a Heisman early or not at all? It's not exactly a bad set of problems for Manziel moving forward if he receives the trophy Saturday night.