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Thursday, October 3, 2013
Manziel progressing, thriving on the field

By Sam Khan Jr.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Before the season, and even in the first week or two, little of the national conversation surrounding Johnny Manziel had to do with his on-field exploits.

The talk centered on his offseason. Or the NCAA investigation into an autograph controversy in which he was involved. Or hand gestures he made to opponents and a flag he drew for unsportsmanlike conduct against Rice.

Johnny Manziel
Improved pocket presence has helped Johnny Manziel improve his passing efficiency.
In recent weeks, Manziel hasn't done much talking publicly with the media, but instead mostly allowed his play to do the talking. And it has spoken well for him.

Through five games, Manziel is No. 1 in the SEC in completions (140), passing yards (1,489), passing touchdowns (14) and completion percentage (71.4 percent). His touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-to-4) is excellent, as is his yards per attempt (10.6). And yes, he can still run the football.

In leading the Aggies to a 4-1 record, it'd be hard to ask for much more from Manziel.

"[I've seen] more confidence, more excitement," Texas A&M right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "He's gotten a lot better since last year. He trusts his arm more, so that's good. You can tell he's a great overall player."

Manziel's on-field play has been good enough to keep him in the thick of the Heisman Trophy discussion, despite the fact that Texas A&M lost to Alabama on Sept. 14. Manziel threw for 464 yards and ran for 98 against the Crimson Tide. It also didn't hurt that wiedout Mike Evans had a career day and has been one of the nation's best receivers all season.

But this is not a carbon copy of the 2012 edition of Manziel. He has shown more patience in the pocket, leading to fewer scrambles, without taking away his effectiveness as a runner.

Through the first five games last season, Manziel carried the ball 72 times and had double-digit carries in four of the contests. This year through five games, he has just 48 carries and has 10 or more carries in a game just twice so far.

His yards-per-carry average is similar (6.88 through five games last season, 6.54 so far this season), but he has been perhaps just as effective or more so carrying the football. Manziel has significantly improved on third-down rushes, with 70 percent of his third-down carries resulting in first downs. Last season through five games, only 45.5 percent of his third-down carries wound up as conversions.

He has also reduced the number of rushes that result in zero or negative yardage. Only seven carries (14.6 percent) have netted that type of result this year, compared to 21 carries (29.2 percent) that went for zero or negative yards in his first five games last year.

"I think he’s done a better job of seeing the field and not bailing right away as he did a year ago," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "And when he ran, he’s used pretty good judgment in getting out of bounds and sliding, which he didn't do last year, which we begged him to slide. He’s probably slid more in the first five games than he slid all of last year, which is another sign of growing up. He’s protecting the football and not being reckless."

Manziel's progress is a result of his work, improved maturity and a better understanding in his second year operating the Aggies offense.

"He's more comfortable with what's going on. He's repped it so many times, he knows where the players are going to be," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "We put an emphasis on him throughout the spring to stay more in the pocket and get to his third and fourth progressions. ... He made some great scrambles (this season). You never want to handcuff him with that, but we can help him out and be more of a threat if he can sit in that pocket longer and throw some balls downfield for completions instead of always reverting to run."

His teammates have noticed his improved patience as well.

"We watched film and this past game he was sitting back there waiting and he could have easily ran, but he was trying to find somebody to get open downfield," receiver Derel Walker said. "I would say he's trying to become more of a pocket quarterback to show everyone that he can do that job and still be able to scramble. That's very important."

Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney noted that there were no designed run plays for Manziel in the game plan against Arkansas last week. But that doesn't mean he's going to refrain from running at all -- Manziel still carried the ball nine times for 59 yards.

Sumlin said Manziel has also been given more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage and has handled that part of it well, too.

"He’s got some parameters, [but] he’s been able to get us into some good plays," Sumlin said. "What it is, is keeping us out of horrendous plays, negative yardage plays. And I know he understands that a lot more this year in year two than in year one, and he should.”

And even as he endured the scrutiny earlier in the year, Manziel's play remained at a high level. That's something that has impressed Spavital and just about everyone else in Aggieland.

"You've got to commend him for it," Spavital said. "I don't think anybody that has ever played the college football game has been through that much scrutiny and pressure. I think he's lived up to the expectations and he just enjoys going out there and playing."