Something To Prove: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel
By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
No player in college football enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom quite like Johnny Manziel in 2012. The Texas A&M quarterback dazzled fans with a dangerous dual-threat game that led his Aggies to the upset of the season at Alabama, a 29-24 victory that launched him into the Heisman conversation and ultimately helped him become the first freshman ever to take home the historic trophy.
Since then, Manziel has ascended to celebrity status, throwing out first pitches, headlining talk shows and sitting courtside at NBA games. His A&M team should begin the season in the top five of most preseason polls, and its 2014 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country according to Rivals.com — two developments largely indebted to Manziel’s explosive freshman efforts.
It begs the question: What else does Johnny Football really have to prove?
First, it’s important to remember that expectations surrounding Manziel will be incredibly — perhaps unrealistically — high in 2013. At this point last year, the only thing we knew about Manziel was that he ran into some trouble with the law. He didn’t even secure the starting job in Kevin Sumlin’s offense until fall camp, and his Aggies flew under the radar entering their first season in the SEC. The bar wasn’t low for Manziel; there was no bar at all.
This season brings an entirely different narrative. Manziel will take the field squarely in the spotlight, and if he can’t live up to his remarkable debut, then many will view his sophomore campaign as a disappointment. But there are still two things Manziel can do this season that he couldn’t do in 2012: Prove he can continue to succeed without Kliff Kingsbury, and win a coveted BCS title.
Kingsbury vacated his role as A&M’s offensive coordinator to become Texas Tech’s head coach in December, and he won’t be an easy man to replace. Under Kingsbury, the Aggies finished first in the SEC in scoring offense, rushing offense, passing offense and total offense. Manziel’s 393.5 total yards per game — tops in the country — accounted for 70.5 percent of the team’s total offensive output. Manziel was also first among FBS quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns (21) and second in rushing yards (1,409) and scoring (126 points), respectively.
Now, co-coordinators Jake Spavital and Clarence McKinney are tasked with handling Manziel. Both coaches are familiar faces, and Spavital, in particular, has plenty of experience grooming elite quarterbacks. But the camaraderie between Manziel and Kingsbury was well documented, and how quickly the Heisman winner jells with his new mentors could play a large part in determining his 2013 success.
Then there’s Texas A&M’s prospects. The Aggies overachieved last fall with an 11-win season, but they still lost two games and failed to reach a BCS bowl. That wasn’t enough to keep Manziel from capturing the Heisman, but it sets a target for Johnny Football and company to aim for as they look to build off last year’s momentum. They certainly appear to have the necessary offensive firepower: Manziel will benefit from the return of three starters, including Jake Matthews, on the offensive line, and sophomore receiver Mike Evans and a crop of highly touted incoming wideouts could make up for the void left by the departed Ryan Swope. The schedule might also provide some leeway; A&M counts Vanderbilt as its cross-division opponent, replacing Florida, which handed the Aggies one of their two losses last fall.
And lest we forget, the power of the 12th Man will be on full display when the A&M faces Alabama in College Station on Sept. 14. ‘Bama will be out to avenge last season’s loss, and Manziel could use a standout showing against the Tide to spark his sophomore year much like he did his redshirt freshman campaign. That much-anticipated showdown should feature SEC, BCS and likely Heisman implications.
All told, the chances of Manziel repeating as the Heisman winner are slim. No player has hoisted the trophy twice since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1975, and the expectations surrounding Manziel make a second award unlikely. Backlash, which has already begun to surface, is inevitable.
Still, Manziel has a chance to cement his college legacy. With the return of a high-powered offense, Johnny Football has a chance to climb to even loftier heights — and avoid a dreaded sophomore slump — in 2013.