Legend of Johnny Football growing amid Manziel's record-setting start
Redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel has become a national sensation
The gifted athlete is second in the FBS with 392.67 yards of total offense per game
Free-wheeling Johnny Football originally committed to Oregon before switching
In the center of the Texas A&M locker room, during the wretched, sun-roasted throes of training camp, white medical tape on the carpet created a grid that might as well have been a gladiatorial pit. Four men entered, one man left. For some, the action was a time-killer between meetings. For Johnny Football, it was a time to become Johnny Four Square.
As legend has it, the ball hit Johnny's square and bounced away. Johnny did the natural thing: He dove for it. His body twisted, sort of opposite the ball's trajectory, to avoid a collision with someone else. He stretched out a hand to return the shot. Johnny Manziel, known in these parts as Johnny Football, played on.
"It was another one of those moments that you're like, 'Wow, really dude?'" Texas A&M receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu said. "It's Four Square, man. You don't have to be diving and jumping and all that type of stuff."
Of course Manziel had to be diving and jumping and all that stuff. The free-wheel chromosome is embedded in him, creating a kinetic, record-setting redshirt freshman starting quarterback for the nation's sixth-ranked offense. That attack offers the only hope of prying apart an LSU defense that will arrive at Texas A&M Saturday like a thunderclap.
Into the maw runs Johnny Football, second in the nation with nearly 400 total yards of offense per outing, one week removed from a school- and SEC-record 576-yard day, orchestrating precision dissections or fire-drill anarchy from snap to hair-raising snap. A yell leader, indeed.
"Anybody would be lying to say you'd think a guy would be throwing up 500 yards in a game this early in his career," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Was he capable of that? Yeah. Did we expect it to be where it is right now? I don't know. You see things in a game that surprise some people, but we see it in practice a lot. Because of that, it's a surprise, but not as big a surprise as some people think."
Sumlin's lung-bursting offense has churned out 543.7 yards and 47 points per game in Year 1. But at the outset of spring practice, it was "mass chaos," said Nwachukwu, with gassed linemen and clueless receivers and a three-man quarterback race.
Linemen improved conditioning for 50-play practice periods by pushing sleds for 40 yards, resting, then doing it again. Receivers honed routes with daily walkthroughs. All that remained was to drop a brick on the gas pedal. "Johnny, of course, has been playing lights-out," tackle Luke Joeckel said. "He's been doing everything he can for us."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound, all-of-the-above-talented Manziel has been doing everything for some time. He is, perhaps by his own account, a rec basketball marvel capable of 360-degree dunks. At Tivy (Kerrville, Texas) High School, he was a five-tool shortstop who, in his senior season, moonlighted with the golf team and helped boost Tivy to regionals.
Also, he played football. Eventually he became a Parade All-American; instantly he was a centrifugal shockwave. As a sophomore, Manziel took a quarterback draw 90 yards for a touchdown. A holding penalty negated it. The next snap, Manziel took another quarterback draw another 90-plus yards for another score.
"I think he was mad because they called it back the first time," said Mark Smith, who was then Tivy's coach, "so he wanted to say, well, here, I'll do it again."
But the legend of Johnny Football began sometime later, on a Sunday in the Tivy High locker room. Smith and his staff were dissecting film when Manziel walked in after a visit to Texas A&M. It was not standard for any player to show up on a Sunday. Manziel stood silent, just to Smith's right.
"Johnny, do we need to talk?" Smith asked, finally.
"Can we?" Manziel replied.
They repaired to Smith's office where Manziel, then an Oregon commitment, discussed how he fell for the Aggies. His family could see him play without traveling thousands of miles. The next morning, Smith dialed up Ducks coach Chip Kelly and handed the receiver to Manziel, who delivered the news. By January, Manziel was in College Station.
By the end of the year, he was Johnny Football.
As a scout team quarterback, Manziel's primary task was throwing the ball where the defensive coordinator wanted the ball thrown. But at the snap Manziel was off, running the length of the field twice, heaving off his back foot, nothing near a simple look to the post route. Word of these exploits trickled out. Johnny Football was born.
"Just out there trying to carve them up every single day, any way he can," offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said.
Kingsbury didn't coach Manziel in 2011. But he invoked Johnny Football repeatedly during spring ball, when Manziel recklessly tried to win the job with every pass, to score on every scramble. The nearest offensive coach would see another Manziel mad dash while one-hand palming the ball and shout: Put. The ball. Away.
Sumlin's version was more direct: Don't do that anymore, or you will not play.
In camp, Manziel didn't do that, whatever that was, and he won the job. "After the spring, we talked about, hey, you don't have to make the home run every play," Kingsbury said. "Make the routine play and when the spectacular plays are there, let them come to you. In camp, he was much better at that. Luckily it's carrying over to games."
At this point his poorest decision in memory is a June arrest after an altercation that resulted in misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, failure to identify and possessing false identification. Smith, his former coach, called Manziel the next day.
"I screwed up," Manziel told him.
"I talked to him that day," said Sumlin, who added that some of Manziel's discipline remains ongoing. "There was no pointing the finger or anything like that. He pointed it right at himself."
That is where defenses and teammates now point, if they can find him. Joeckel will lock up with a pass-rusher who sprints left, then hustles right moments later. At which point the Aggies tackle thinks: Man, what is Johnny doing back there?
No one can predict Manziel. Nwachukwu calls this "the secret of it." Some routes in the offense are designed to clear out defenders. But Johnny Football doesn't do design. Hence the running joke in the tight ends meeting room: You better run like you're getting it, because with this guy, you just might.
"It's funny," tight ends coach Brian Polian said. "You watch a play in practice or a game and the kid is running around making something happen, and they're going, 'Johnny Football. Keep your eyes up. Keep running. You never know.'"
Per Sumlin's policies, Manziel hasn't spoken publicly yet -- that comes "sooner than later," the Aggies coach said -- but his time is now. Manziel recognizes it. After agonizing over missed throws in a near-upset of Florida on Sept. 8, he devoted more time to film study. Not one defense, Sumlin claimed, has done to Texas A&M what Texas A&M saw on film. Still Manziel has thrown for 1,680 yards and run for another 676, accounting for 24 touchdowns.
That production has stoked Heisman Trophy murmurs. And then there's the play Johnny Football made that no one can forget.
The Aggies were at Louisiana Tech's goal line, attempting to score last Saturday when the ball came loose. Not everyone heard officials blow the play dead. A Louisiana Tech player scooped up the fumble and began to return it, so Manziel worked off a blocker, tracked the defender down and stripped the ball. When it bounced to another Louisiana Tech player, Manziel tackled him, too.
Texas A&M's offensive line had heard the whistle and didn't move. After a mind-numbing 59-57 win, they razzed Manziel: What were you doing?
Replied Johnny Football: I was just trying to make a play.
"He's one of those talents that has the ability to do those type of things and 'wow' you," Nwachukwu said. "You can't close your eyes any time when you're watching him."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. You can follow him at @ChiTribHamilton.