TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Nick Saban watches film of Johnny Manziel leading Texas A&M's offense, his mind goes back to another undersized spitfire of a quarterback from decades past. His ability to move around in the pocket and create plays from nothing is reminiscent of Boston College's former Houdini under center, a national sensation in the early 1980s that teenagers and 20-somethings only recall in the context of naming a brand of cereal.
Flutie Flakes aren't on the shelves anymore, but Manziel is making defenses snap, crackle and pop one serving at a time.
"Look," Saban told reporters on Monday, "I've been around longer than most, and most of our players can't relate to this, but this guy reminds me of Doug Flutie. I had to play against him a long time ago."
That was 1982 and Saban was an assistant at Navy. Flutie was a 5-foot-9 sophomore hurling the ball around the field for Boston College. His Eagles beat the Midshipmen 31-0 that year, and two years later Doug Flutie became Doug Flutie. His Hail Mary pass to beat Miami (Fla) with no time left in 1984 became a pinnacle moment in sports history. Flutie won the Heisman Trophy and has been used as the model for diminutive quarterbacks ever since.
Manziel might be listed at 6-foot-1, but Saban puts him in the category of Flutie: a player that's small in stature, short on overwhelming physical tools and rarely the most athletic guy on the field. Despite all that, he makes plays.
"He's a really good player, a really good competitor and that's who this guy reminds me of," Saban explained. "He can throw it. ... He's extremely quick. He's very instinctive, has a unique ability to extend plays and seems to know when to take off and run it. And when he scrambles and makes plays he's throwing the ball down field."
No. 1 Alabama welcomes No. 15 Texas A&M to Tuscaloosa on Saturday afternoon, and the focus is squarely on how the defense plans to stop Manziel and the Aggies offense. After the way the Tide played in Baton Rouge, La., this past weekend, there are concerns. Saban said it was flat-out the worst the team had played on defense all year, whiffing on tackles and blowing assignments.
"We didn't cover them in man-to-man. We didn't break to the ball well enough in zone," Saban said. "Just fundamentally we didn't play what we needed to play to be able to have success."
Miss a tackle against LSU and it might end in a first down. Miss a tackle against Texas A&M and it might end in a scoreboard change. The Aggies come into Saturday's matchup fourth in the country, scoring 44.67 points per game.
Manziel has been a revelation in College Station. The freshman is No. 2 in the country in total offense, putting up an average of 383.2 yards per game. He's accounted for 31 touchdowns this season, more than Alabama starting quarterback AJ McCarron and staring running back Eddie Lacy combined.
"This is a unique guy in terms of his playmaking ability and his size, quickness and speed and ability to make people miss in space," Saban said. He would add that his team will need to prepare for Manziel's ability to make plays happen on the run -- in all directions.
"You've got to practice scramble rules, matching patterns, trying to contain the guy in the pocket and push the pocket -- because (Manziel) doesn't just run around you, he'll step up and take off as well," he said.
As the sixth-year coach of the Crimson Tide put it: "You've got to put athletic people of the field. This is not a time to have a bunch of guys out there that play two-gap on the nose and can't move."
UA linebacker C.J. Mosley said the key to stopping Manziel is containment and sound tackling. The team leader in tackles said it's up to the front seven to get pressure without creating running lanes, something it did well against Michigan's Denard Robinson in the season opener and is hoping to replicate this weekend.
"Just gang tackling, I guess just the way we do our defense," Mosley said. "We try to get to the ball and we try our best to contain whoever's a threat to us."
Unlike Michigan and the rest of the offenses Alabama has faced this season, Texas A&M is predicated on balance. Most plays go through Manziel, but the run-pass ratio is not tilted in any one direction. The Aggies are in the top 20 nationally in passing and rushing offense.
First-year coach Kevin Sumlin brought his version of the run-and-shoot offense with him from Houston to Texas A&M. He tries to get athletes such as Manziel and receiver Ryan Swope the ball in space to make plays.
The key to stopping that? Don't let a small gain become a big one.
"We've just got to make the plays that have to be made," UA defensive end Damion Square said. "Have to be a sure tackle. Can't let a 2-yard gain turn into a 35-yard gain. You know, you've got to get a guy on the ground, you've got to try and get as many three-and-outs as possible and the offense has got to get on the field and control the tempo of the game."