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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Johnny Football was the elephant in the room Tuesday at Texas A&M.
The seventh-ranked Aggies head into Saturday's season opener against Rice with questions still swirling about whether Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel will play against the Owls. The NCAA is investigating whether he was paid for autographs, a potential violation of amateurism rules that could threaten his eligibility.
It was the only thing anyone really wanted to talk about Tuesday when the Aggies addressed the media. The topic, however, was off limits.
Athletic director Eric Hyman said Monday night that he'd instructed everyone in the program not to talk about Manziel. And if that wasn't clear enough, a member of the sports information department slowly and sternly read the statement, not once, but twice during the session.
However, after not discussing the matter Tuesday, coach Kevin Sumlin broke his silence about how Manziel has dealt with off-field distractions during the SEC teleconference Wednesday.
"Johnny's handled it very well," Sumlin said. "Everything around football, he's been extremely sharp and focused."
Sumlin said Tuesday that the coaches have plans for any number of situations that could happen with their players and team, and that they plan for the possible absence of players every week.
NCAA investigators spent a large chunk of Sunday with Manziel, questioning him about allegations from memorabilia dealers that he accepted payments for autographs, a source familiar with the investigation told ESPN.com on Monday night.
CBSSports.com, citing a source, reported that Manziel told the investigators he didn't take money for his autographs.
Manziel has taken all of the practice reps with the first team. Barring a decision by the NCAA, the school has until kickoff to decide whether Manziel starts against Rice.
To speed up any NCAA action, the school could declare Manziel ineligible based on the information about possible violations, then ask the NCAA to reinstate him pending an investigation. The school, however, has said it believes Manziel has not done anything wrong.
While Sumlin wouldn't discuss Manziel's availability for Week 1, he had no problem talking about whether football has helped the quarterback deal with everything going on off the field.
"I know he likes to play football," Sumlin said. "I think the structure that he has had since Aug. 4 has been nothing but helpful."
If Manziel doesn't play against the Owls, the Aggies will use either junior Matt Joeckel or freshman Kenny Hill. Joeckel is more of a pocket passer and Hill is a dual-threat quarterback. Joeckel has thrown just 11 passes in his college career. Hill, who starred at Texas high school powerhouse Southlake Carroll (near Dallas), threw for 2,291 yards and 20 TDs and ran for 905 yards and 22 more scores as a senior last season.
Sumlin said the competition between the two is ongoing and that he's been pleased with the progress of both players. He said it helps the team because it's allowed all quarterbacks to get work with the first team.
"Anybody who has been around knows that we rotate players with the first team, has seen us rotate snaps with the first team, and because of that I think it gives your team a chance to develop a relationship or camaraderie with that first team if something happens," Sumlin said.
Sumlin is confident that Texas A&M's offense will be OK no matter who's running the show because of its offensive line. The group, led by left tackle Jake Matthews, is expected to be a strength despite losing Joeckel's twin brother, Luke Joeckel, who was selected second overall in the NFL draft by Jacksonville. Matthews, son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, will be joined on the line this season by younger brother Mike Matthews at center.
"We've got a really solid offensive line which takes a little bit of the pressure off Matt and Kenny," Sumlin said. "When Johnny's taking snaps, when he's in there, he's really trying to help the perimeter guys. Our offensive line gives us an opportunity to rotate those quarterbacks and have them be successful."
Senior running back Ben Malena is confident that Matt Joeckel or Hill could ably fill in at quarterback if necessary.
"Both of those guys have really done great things when they've got their opportunities in practice," he said. "They have both had opportunities to make plays and they have. It's a great competition."
The uncertainty surrounding Manziel has put a damper on the excitement surrounding the Aggies, who finished 11-2 in their first season as a member of the SEC. Without naming Manziel, Sumlin was asked how he balances the needs of a player over those of the team. He likened his team to a family, saying many things are done and said behind closed doors that the public will never know about.
But he did share his philosophy on leading the Aggies.
"There's nothing more important than the team," he said. "We talk to them about what we expect from them on the field, what we expect from them off the field and what we expect from them effort-wise and accountability-wise and being able to trust each other."
Information from ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy, Travis Haney and The Associated Press was used in this report.