Not very many people knew of Johnny Manziel outside of College Station, TX., at this time last year. Now, he is a potential two-time Heisman Trophy winner and early-round NFL draft choice next April, if he matures into a responsible person/athlete.
ESPN football analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Manziel as one of his top 25 prospects on the NFL Draft Big Board. Before last season, the resourceful Kiper probably had little clue about Manziel.
Although Manziel is an academic junior in 2013, he is a redshirt sophomore. Those who are not convinced that Manziel can maintain his euphoric rise in college football are awaiting him to suffer a sophomore jinx, or continue to make headlines for the wrong reasons.
During the offseason, he overslept and missed activities as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy, and he also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of not identifying himself to a police officer following a 2012 altercation at a bar near campus in College Station.
“Johnny Football” led the Aggies to an 11-2 record in 2012 — including a victory over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa — and set the SEC record for most total yards in a season with 5,116. He scored an astounding 47 touchdowns. SMU coach June Jones, whose team lost to Manziel and Texas A&M 48-3, told reporters that “Johnny Football” is the greatest college football player he has ever seen.
What will it take for Manziel to build upon last season’s success and have an even better 2013 season — aside from resolving his maturity issues?
1. Duplicating last season’s performance is not good enough
Having the same production in 2013 will get him into the Heisman discussion again, but if he surpasses his numbers of last season, Manziel will be on his way to legendary status.
He passed for 3,706 yards, completing 68 percent of his passes (295 of 434), with only nine interceptions compared to 26 touchdowns. He also rushed for 1,410 yards on 21 carries, an average of 7 yards per carry.
Manziel wants to accomplish more this season and prevent Texas A&M from losing two games like in 2012.
“My goals are lofty,” Manziel told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I know what I want to achieve. My biggest goal is I want to do something at A&M that will never, ever be done again. Never. I want that Cam Newton-type Auburn season. Every time you look at the Auburn program, that’s the one that will pop up. I want that at A&M.
“If you take it game by game, everything else will take care of itself. You go to the SEC Championship, that’s a huge goal right there. At the end of the day, that’s your appetizer. The big main course is the national championship, and then your coffee and your dessert are your accolades that come with that. Ultimately, winning is the only thing that matters.”
2. Keep the finesse while gaining the necessary pounds to take the hits
Manziel, the leading returning rusher in the SEC, will be the primary target for the unrelenting defenses in a conference known for playing great defense. To remain healthy and able to carry the ball enough times to make Texas A&M successful, “Johnny Football” must be physically ready.
He is listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds by Texas A&M. He finished last season under 200 pounds. He tells reporters now that he weighs close to 210 and that he will play this season between 205 and 210.
Quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., who has trained Manziel extensively in San Diego, told the Star-Telegram that Manziel “hasn’t lost any of his speed. … He’s gained some horsepower.”
Johnny Football has a place in NFL despite his size, but he must keep his weight closer to 210 rather than around 200. Drew Brees is 6-foot and 209 pounds. Russell Wilson is 5-11 and 206. They have achieved success in the NFL because of their overall strength and dynamic passing ability.
3. Standout performances against Alabama and LSU are a must
Other than playing those two SEC heavyweights, Texas A&M’s schedule is relatively light based on 2012 results. Florida and South Carolina are not on the schedule, but difficult tests may come at Arkansas and Ole Miss and in home games against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
But all eyes will be on the Sept. 14 home game against an Alabama team that will be determined to avenge last season’s 29-24 loss in Tuscaloosa. The game at LSU on Nov. 23, the second-to-last game of the season, will also serve as an indicator of whether “Johnny Football” becomes better in 2013 than what he showed in 2012.
Manziel completed 24 of 31 passes (77.4 percent) for 253 yards against Alabama last season. He had two touchdown passes with no interceptions. He also rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries (an average of 5.1 yards per carry). Alabama’s proud defense will be reminded of those numbers by Nick Saban, who is not a fan of the spread offense Texas A&M runs.
Manziel was far less successful against LSU’s defense, rushing for only 27 yards on 17 carries in a 24-19 home loss a season ago. He attempted 56 passes against the Tigers and completed 28 (51.8 percent) for 276 yards.
If Manziel improves upon these performances – especially at LSU – he will be a candidate for another Heisman and early-round NFL draft status. The defenses at LSU and Alabama include many players with NFL-caliber talent. The significant question mark is how he performed against LSU. But three weeks later, he shredded Alabama’s defense on the road.
Responding to challenges like that — and staying out of trouble — will cement Johnny Football’s legacy in college football.