Johnny Manziel could have also been Johnny Baseball, maybe Johnny Golf. After all, his high school coach, Mark Smith, says “he could have been anything he wanted to be.”
Well, at the moment, the dynamic quarterback for No. 9 Texas A&M is the toast of college football after leading his team to a road upset of then-No. 1 Alabama, the defending national champion that many expected to make another trip to the BCS title game.
All Manziel has done this season is pass for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns and run for 1,014 yards and 15 more scores. His team is 8-2 in its first SEC season and, oh yes, Manziel is a freshman — just the second in Bowl Subdivision history with 1,000 yards rushing and 2,000 passing in a season, and he’s got that even before Saturday’s game against Sam Houston State.
It’s been quite a whirlwind few months for the 19-year-old Manziel, who had to compete for the job in camp and wasn’t named A&M’s starter until Aug. 15.
His work at A&M is reminiscent of his performance at Kerrville Tivy high school. As a senior there, he threw for 3,609 yards and 45 touchdowns, and added 30 more touchdowns on 1,674 yards rushing.
“It’s like watching him back in high school, to be quite honest with you,” Smith said, calling him a once-in-a-lifetime player. “The things he’s doing, they don’t amaze me. Maybe a little surprising it’s happening this fast against the SEC competition, but it’s some of the same things I’ve seen from him in his high school years.”
Smith and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin both say that one of the best things about Manziel is that he’s unflappable. A perfect example of his poise came in the first quarter Saturday against Alabama. Manziel nearly fumbled the ball at the line and the defense was all over him. He evaded the pressure and found Ryan Swope uncovered in the back of the end zone with a 10-yard touchdown pass.
“He’s always in control,” Smith said. “He doesn’t panic and he doesn’t get frustrated. He just continues to play.”
Sumlin recruited Manziel while he was the coach at Houston, sending current A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury out to watch him play. When Kingsbury, a former standout QB at Texas Tech, brought Sumlin the video of his game, he wondered why he even bothered.
“I saw the video and it was just a highlight tape,” Sumlin said. “I didn’t have to watch very much of it. There’s a couple of guys that when coaches come back and say: ‘Coach, you need to see this, can we offer this guy?’ You watch a few plays and ask: ‘Why did you even show that to me? Why didn’t offer the guy when you were there?’”
Manziel passed on Houston and several other schools and verbally committed to Oregon. He’d always loved the school and was a big fan of coach Chip Kelly. But as Manziel thought more about playing there, he realized he couldn’t be more than 2,000 miles away from his family, Smith said.
Smith helped him navigate that situation, and was impressed by the way he handled it. Manziel agonized over the decision to sign with A&M instead of Oregon, and Smith sat with him when he called Kelly to break the news.
“In the end, the young man made a decision on the things that he valued most and that was his family,” Smith said. “That says more about him than any play he could ever make on the football field.”
Sumlin doesn’t allow Manziel to speak with the media because he’s a freshman. It’s a decision that certainly protects him, but also has left his work on the field to do the talking.
And according to those who know him best, he likes that just fine.
“He’s kind of taken aback by all the attention,” said Smith, who talked with him the day after the win over Alabama. “He just wants to be a football player. He wants to be another guy.”
As with most teenagers, glimpses into his off-the-field life can be found online. He talks about his affinity for country music, chats about upcoming tests and occasionally quotes Bible passages on Twitter. He also takes time for fun; pictures on the Internet show him at a party dressed as Scooby Doo alongside some beautiful and scantily-clad young women.
His Twitter account also hints that he might not be all that fond of being called Johnny Football. When someone mocked him for “accepting the nickname,” he fired back: “How did I accept that nickname? When have you ever seen me use it?”
After his redshirt season last year, Manziel entered spring practice as the front-runner to nab the starting job. But a tough spring left the decision up in the air.
“In spring, he was extremely careless with the football,” Sumlin said. “He would make a great play and then he would give it to the defense. He’s done a lot better job of handling the football and taking care of it and still creating the offense.”
Manziel didn’t have a turnover against Alabama’s top-ranked defense and hasn’t thrown an interception in three games.
As the Aggies continue to win and Manziel’s profile has grown, so have the attempts to profit off the catchy moniker. Jason Cook, Texas A&M’s vice president for marketing and communications, said the university has sent more than 10 cease-and-desist letters to retailers selling products with the Johnny Football name or Manziel’s likeness in the last few weeks.
The proliferation of merchandise prompted Manziel’s family to start working with Texas A&M officials to try and trademark Johnny Football.
“No one is looking for profit off the mark,” Cook said. “It’s to protect eligibility and to protect his name and likeness from being exploited by third parties.”
Another byproduct of Manziel’s success is the growing talk about the Heisman Trophy.
“It’s like anything else that comes with winning,” Sumlin said. “As you win, those types of things come.”
Some have questioned why A&M hasn’t embarked on one of those in-your-face Heisman campaigns. Texas A&M is certainly promoting Manziel for the award, Cook said, but noted that he’s already being talked about across the country.
“Right now, it is wall-to-wall Johnny Manziel,” Cook said of media coverage. “The awareness for us is already there. Our approach is we need to reach the right people with the right message to make the right decision. Our efforts are targeted directly at Heisman voters and the football writers.”
No freshman has ever won the award, and John David Crow is Texas A&M’s only winner, back in 1957.
Cook, who was instrumental in Texas A&M’s move from the Big 12 to the SEC, talked often about how the new league would bring increased exposure to the school.
“Our No. 1 decision factor was visibility, and Johnny Manziel is benefiting from that,” Cook said.
The Aggies can thank Manziel for some visibility, too.