- Mitch Sherman, College Football
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IRVING, Texas -- A young trio of quarterbacks stared in awe. They listened intently, almost afraid, it seemed, to open their mouths.
Among them was John Lovett of Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha Catholic, who came here Saturday to compete against the nation's reputed best, and 6-foot-5 gunslinger David Cornwell of Norman (Okla.) North, the eventual MVP of this Elite 11 regional.
In just whose presence, exactly, were they standing near the center of the practice turf at Valley Ranch, the Dallas Cowboys' facility?
Tony Romo? Maybe Trent Dilfer, the former Super Bowl-winning QB who coaches this roster of future big-name field generals? Or George Whitfield, the California-based guru who makes every stop on the Elite 11 circuit and counts a growing list of QB greats among his students?
No. This was better. This was Johnny Manziel.
He's just three years older than the kids in the Class of 2014, but they see something in Manziel that no one else here could match.
The way they stared, it was as though Manziel, the Texas A&M redshirt freshman who's still white-hot four months after he won the Heisman, was carrying the trophy under his right arm.
"He is their Tom Brady," said Whitfield, who coached Manziel for 10 days last summer in San Diego and escorted him around the Valley Ranch facility Saturday.
"It is that big of a deal to these kids. They respect him. Kids in urban areas, rural kids. Kids who play out of the [shotgun], under center. He transcends the game to them."
Part of that admiration, of course, involves Manziel's meteoric rise. Yes, he accounted for 51 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards of offense. Sure, he beat Alabama.
But overnight Manziel went from unknown college freshman to ultra-famous.
He showed up at the Super Bowl, on late-night TV and at NBA All-Star Weekend festivities.
Dilfer warns the Elite 11 kids not to confuse their love of football with a love for what the game can do for them.
It has done a lot for Manziel. He knows it.
"I was here three years ago, just trying to get noticed like all these kids," Manziel said. "It's crazy how things have changed. I could have come out here six months ago and been just another face in the crowd. Now, it is …"
"It is what it is," he said. "It's a big adjustment. But it's cool. It's a blessing, for sure, so I'm enjoying every second of it."
Manziel, at least an inch shorter than the 6-foot-1 at which Texas A&M lists him, came dressed in black socks pulled up high past his ankles. If no QB copies his look this spring at another regional, it'll rank as a mild upset.
Before the event Saturday, one young quarterback told Manziel he'd spent part of that morning studying his moves on every A&M game tape from last fall.
"That's shocking," Manziel said.
It's also why his message to the 80-plus young quarterbacks in attendance holds extra importance. For better or worse, Manziel's words resonate with the kids more than anyone's.
He spoke to the group at the midpoint of their three-hour session. Manziel told them to stay humble, to remain true to themselves. He encouraged them to have fun with the game, no matter the circumstances.
"It's so amazing to see someone so big act so humble," said QB Manny Wilkins of Novato (Calif.) San Marin, in attendance Saturday in Irving. "I thought it was so cool that he could come out here and chill with these kids.
"He wasn't at the top of any [recruiting] rankings, but look at him. He's a Heisman Trophy winner now."
Placed on this stage, Manziel carries a burden unlike any quarterback his age because of his accomplishments, his aura and his upbringing in Texas.
Texas is a hotbed of QB talent. Last year, six of the 25 Elite 11 finalists came from this state. You know the Heisman legacy, with Manziel and Robert Griffin III. Not to mention the other NFL talent such as Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees.
For that reason, the kids look to Manziel even more.
He carries their flag.
"Trying to," Manziel said.
Manziel said he's a fan of the kids' play, too. After all, he's barely removed from Kerrville Tivy High School and the Texas prep scene. He rattled off the names of 2014 prospects such as Jerrod Heard (Denton, Texas/Guyer), a Texas commit, and even a 2015 QB, Kyler Murray (Allen, Texas/Allen), who has offers from the likes of Ohio State and Clemson.
Heard said he was grateful to get a few minutes to chat with Manziel.
"Him coming out here, that means a lot," Heard said. "He doesn't have to be here. He's got the Heisman."
DeVante Kincade of Dallas Skyline has made it his goal to be the next Manziel. Kincade, part of Ole Miss' eye-popping, No. 5-rated signing class in February, also has studied Manziel's film.
After watching Alabama stymie senior Denard Robinson of Michigan in August at Cowboys Stadium, Kincade said he was stunned by Manziel's mastery of the Tide in the Aggies' November win that vaulted Johnny Football atop the list of Heisman contenders.
"I want to be just like him as a freshman," Kincade said. "Texas quarterbacks are stepping up big time. I feel like I'm next in line."
When the Elite 11 regional concluded, the quarterbacks surrounded Manziel. Most wanted a picture with him or a piece of advice. And beside most of them, Manziel looked small and unimpressive.
Looks are deceiving.
Even in talent-rich Texas -- the "most diverse state, by far," Dilfer said, in producing quarterbacks -- Manziel's special skills are easy to identify.
"Johnny Manziel is high-level NFL with his instincts," Dilfer said. "He looks at stuff over here and throws over there. That's very hard to teach. He's Brett Favre-ish."
When the sun set over Valley Ranch on Saturday, the next generation of quarterbacks went home. On Sunday, Manziel threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Arlington at Rangers Ballpark.
What, no trip to the Final Four?
"I wish," he said. "Maybe the Masters."
That's no joke for Manziel, who has raised the already lofty bar in Texas -- and captured the attention of QB prospects everywhere.
Johnny Manziel went from unknown freshman at Texas A&M to ultra-famous college football legend overnight. He is everything every prep quarterback hopes his future will look like.