In an era of hyperbole and overreaction, Johnny Manziel's performance on Saturday spawned an near unprecedented wave of hype and adulation. After leading his team into Tuscaloosa and upsetting previously unbeaten Alabama, Johnny Football staked his claim to becoming Johnny Heisman. For a change, the hype machine explosion is deserved.
As exhilarating as the Ags win over the Crimson Tide was, Manziel's impact goes far beyond the single victory. As I watched the game at a Dallas sports bar, surrounded by fans in "Johnny F'in Football" shirts, it became clear that the kid best known for his shirtless police mug shot mere months ago had restored hope to an A&M program in the midst of a complete transition into the unknown. A new small conference coach, a daunting new conference and searching for a quarterback to replace a first round NFL draft pick, the Aggies were a program of question marks. Until Johnny Football took the reins.
The legend of Manziel almost died before it began at A&M after a campus brawl and tendering of a fake ID earned Manziel a shirtless place in the police blotter. Already locked in a 4-way competition most figured Jameill Showers had a steady grip on, Manziel's slim hopes of winning the job appeared to be on life support. But after the competition lingered into the summer, Manziel seized the job. And from his first game against Florida, the Kerrville native has looked every bit the part of a man named Johnny Football.
Manziel had his (redshirt) freshman moments against an LSU defense that managed to contain him (4 turnovers in a game the Aggies could have won), but outside of that game, he has been consistently electric. Every touch of the ball is accompanied by an air of expectation and excitement. The kid is must watch television. But while that flash provides the excitement, it's his smarts on the field that have turned that excitement into victories and star power.
Through ten games, Manziel has put together a game of 576 yards of total offense, 7 games of 90+ rushing yards, and almost 3800 yards. He's a thousand yard rusher who made Alabama's defense of first round draft picks look very much like a college defense. He's been helped by a strong offensive line to be sure, but he's the team's leading rusher and he's made the Aggies an explosive offense with Ryan Swope and freshman Mike Evans as his go-to threats on the outside.
But there's something even beyond the tangible that he brings to the boys in maroon -- belief. Last year's edition of the Aggies folded in the game's crucial moments. Against Alabama, the Fighting Manziels shook off a potentially crucial missed extra point and field goal to score an insurance touchdown and put together a game-saving goal line stand despite repeatedly giving up big plays in the fourth quarter. And even when things started to slip, there was a sense Johnny Football would make it alright. It may have just been me and the JFF fans at the bar, but it also seemed to permeate throughout the entire team -- a belief that if they needed a play, they had a guy who could do it. And much of that comes from the way he plays the game.
He's been the unique dual threat quarterback that continues to keep his eyes downfield when outside the pocket, while also showing a willingness to dump the ball of to his receivers in the flat instead of holding out for the big plays he seems destined to provide. He's stayed away from becoming a boom or bust player outside the pocket with a football acumen far beyond what is expected from a first year quarterback.
On the strength of the redshirt freshman's play, the Aggies have gone from an also ran in the Big 12 to a contender in the SEC. In the process, all the question marks have aligned for the Aggies' football program. Their quarterback is a star, their coach and his system have transitioned seamlessly into the vaunted SEC, and they've established themselves as a force in the nation's premier conference after all of 7 conference games. For his key role in making that improbable reality come true as much as his stats, Johnny Football may just become Johnny Heisman. Or Johnny Heismanziel. Or, in more simple terms, the first Freshman to win the Heisman trophy.
Colin Klein is the unquestioned leader in the Heisman race, but he's about a single win from sliding off that stage and watching a man named Football become the first Freshman to join college football's most elite fraternity. This, of course, assumes Manziel and the Aggies continue their roll. But after restoring a storied program to prominence in only 10 games, Sam Houston State and Missouri hardly look like a challenge in the crosshairs of college football's newest sensation.