Against Tide, Old Manziel = Good Manziel


By Chris Mahr

When the talk surrounding Johnny Manziel this past offseason actually focused on football, it pertained to how Manziel sought to improve as a passer.

There was the May trip to San Diego to train with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield. There was a good deal of speculation from pundits and fans alike that a) Texas A&M’s 2013 opponents wouldn’t be taken by surprise by Manziel’s running ability like they were last year; and b) If Manziel continued to run a lot, he’d eventually take a pounding — particularly at the NFL level.

Through two games, albeit against overmatched opponents in Rice and Sam Houston State, Manziel has drawn positive reviews for his improved footwork and ability to wait for his receivers to get open downfield. All the while he’s run for only 55 yards on 13 carries (4.2 YPC) and a touchdown.

It’s all well and good, particularly if Manziel leaves College Station after this season and enters the NFL draft. But in the interim, he has Alabama to worry about in perhaps the biggest game of the season on Saturday.

If Manziel wants to repeat his heroics against the top-ranked Crimson Tide from last season in Tuscaloosa, he’d best be served returning to his scrambling, sandlot style of play. For while the Tide can clamp down on just about any pass-first QB in the country, a dual threat is another story.

As most SEC fans know by now, Alabama head coach Nick Saban is a massive control freak. Leading up to game day, it’s in his nature to account for every single on-field scenario and drill it into his players’ heads. While this isn’t different from any other head coach in the country, Saban does it better than any of his counterparts.

Yet even he can’t completely account for Manziel or a player of his ilk. After all, how does one defend what a quarterback does when the quarterback himself doesn’t know in advance what he’s going to do?

“Even when you’ve called the right defense and your defense does everything right, that kind of quarterback can still beat you by improvising,” Saban told Lars Anderson for Sports Illustrated’s September 9th cover story (appropriately titled “How to Beat Bama”). “It’s the stuff you can’t really plan for that always brings a high level of concern. I mean, it can drive you crazy as a coach.”

As Anderson pointed out, three of the four QBs to defeat the Crimson Tide since 2010 fit that description: LSU’s Jordan Jefferson (in 2010 and 2011), Auburn’s Cam Newton (2011) and Manziel (2012). Even South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, to a lesser extent, was a threat to run in his team’s 2010 victory over ‘Bama.

Dual-threat QBs not only prevent Saban from completely planning for them, they also mitigate the size and strength advantage that the Crimson Tide defense has had over most of its opponents since 2008. In the Saban Era, their plan of attack has been premised around massive linemen and thumping linebackers.

If Manziel and A&M know what’s good for them, they’d prefer to have these big boys chase them around sideline to sideline rather than when Johnny Football drops back to pass — the better to tire them out quickly.

Once that happened last year, Alabama had to commit more defenders to spy Manziel in the event that he took off running. That’s when he found WR Ryan Swope streaking downfield for big, fourth-quarter gains and, later, Malcolme Kennedy for a 24-yard TD pass that proved to be the difference.

That’s the thing about Manziel’s scrambling. It doesn’t mask his subpar ability to make all the key throws, a la Notre Dame’s Everett Golson in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. Rather, he uses the former to set up the latter.

Manziel was 24-of-31 passing (77.4% completion) for 253 yards, two TDs and zero INTs against the Tide last year in addition to rushing for 92 yards on 5.1 YPC. In the Aggies’ second biggest win of last season, in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma, he was even better: 22-of-34 passing (64.7% completion) for 287 yards, two TDs and an INT to go along with 229 rushing yards on just 17 carries (13.5 YPC).

For someone with his eyes on the future as much as Manziel, it’s wise for him to devote more time working on what will make him a successful NFL quarterback and less on what’s made him a college star. But his college career isn’t over yet. Perhaps the biggest game of his life is just four days away.

And if he wants to defeat the top-ranked Crimson Tide for the second time in as many tries, it’s best that he not abandon the scrambling ways that first made him a star. If anything, he should do plenty of it.

Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.

Photo Credit: John David Mercer/USA Today Sports

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