Manziel forced into comeback mode with injury, Heisman race

Posted Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The hits continued coming Tuesday for Johnny Football and his Texas A&M teammates.

One day after watching the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner attend Monday’s practice with his throwing arm in a sling, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said he is “hopeful” quarterback Johnny Manziel can play Saturday against Vanderbilt. But Sumlin also acknowledged plans to tweak practice reps at the position, with an eye toward resting Manziel’s sore right shoulder after he was driven into the ground on a fourth-quarter tackle in last week’s 45-41 loss to Auburn.

“It’s a different team when Johnny’s out there,” A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. “We hope he goes. If he doesn’t go, we can’t cancel the game. So we’ve got to get another guy ready.”

The Aggies’ next three practices will determine whether Manziel, who finished the Auburn game despite playing in pain, will yield the field to one of two backups with Tarrant County connections: Matt Joeckel, a junior from Arlington High School, or Kenny Hill, a freshman from Southlake Carroll.

Asked if Manziel could play Saturday if he does not practice this week, Sumlin said: “We’ll see.” Before Tuesday’s news conference, Manziel took a morning treatment and his status was unclear for the afternoon workout. During Monday’s practice, Manziel wore the sling and threw some left-handed passes to stay involved, said receiver Travis Labhart.

Coaches and teammates seemed optimistic that Manziel, who wore the sling for precautionary reasons, will be able to take his normal spot in the lineup when No. 16 A&M (5-2, 2-2 in SEC) meets Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3) at 11:21 a.m. Saturday in Kyle Field.

But optimism clearly is diminishing in regard to Manziel’s chances to capture a second consecutive Heisman, based on Tuesday’s latest straw polls and one set of updated odds that listed Manziel fourth among the favorites, his lowest placement of the season.

Manziel placed a distant third behind two other quarterbacks, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston, in Heisman polls released Tuesday by USA Today and heismanpundit.com. Bovada sports book (www.Bovada.lv) dropped Manziel two spots, to its No. 4 betting favorite, in its updated Heisman odds released Tuesday.

Manziel received 12/1 odds, down from 5/1 last week, and trails Mariota (10/11 odds), Winston (11/10 odds) and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron (10/1 odds). Only five players received individual odds, with Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty (20/1) rounding out the list.

The timing is curious, considering Manziel just played one of his best games: 454 passing yards, four TD passes and a go-ahead scoring run after returning from the fourth-quarter hit that sidelined him for one full series and the final play of another. But it should not be surprising.

In today’s game, the Heisman typically goes to the best player on the nation’s best team or to a player with ridiculous statistics who lifted his team beyond preseason expectations. Manziel fit Option No. 2 last year. At this point, A&M does not fit in either category, making it likely that Manziel will watch someone else offer this year’s acceptance speech.

Time will tell. But this much is certain: Manziel’s Heisman hopes will not improve if he watches the Vandy game from the sideline. And everyone in maroon is rooting for the swift return of the quarterback who A&M receiver Mike Evans called “a fierce competitor and the best player in the country.”

Evans, like Labhart, was wowed by Manziel’s performance in the Auburn game. After struggling to grip a football on the A&M sideline, he returned from the locker room and completed 9-of-10 passes for 102 yards on the Aggies’ last two drives. He ran for a touchdown. And he battled significant pain on every snap.

“After he threw me an out route, I could see he was wincing,” Labhart said. “I thought, ‘Man, he is a tough dude.’ It’s great to see that your quarterback is that tough.”

Evans said: “He played through the pain. He still had zip on the ball and everything.”

Now the game-day adrenaline no longer masks the pain. And there are questions about Manziel’s status for Saturday. Perhaps the questions exist only to tempt Vanderbilt coaches into studying extra videos of Joeckel and Hill. But the questions could become a Saturday game-changer.

“Obviously, you can’t sit here and say you’re completely comfortable with a backup going in because of who Johnny is,” Labhart said. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. You want Johnny back there.”

By Saturday, we’ll learn if “hopeful” translates to “probable.” Either way, Manziel will be in catch-up mode in the 2013 Heisman Trophy race the next time he takes the field for the Aggies.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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