Texas A&M fans stopped, individually and in small groups, for photo opportunities Saturday with the BCS crystal football given annually to college football’s national champion.
It stood throughout the pregame as a silent reminder of what type of expectations surround the 2013 Aggies, who return Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel and a nucleus of other difference makers from last year’s 11-2 team that shined in its SEC debut season.
After the opening kickoff in Kyle Field, nothing that happened for the next two hours in front of the ESPN cameras should have done anything to dampen that enthusiasm. Or diminish the lofty hopes for a football program seeking its first national title since 1939.
While this A&M defense may not pitch any shutouts next fall, it should have plenty of leads to protect.
The Aggies flashed plenty of fresh offensive players to surround Manziel, who considers himself on a mission to squash any talk about a sophomore slump after becoming the first freshman in history to win the Heisman in 2012.
Manziel, decked out in bright yellow shoes, drove home that point early and often Saturday. He led scoring drives on the first six possessions by the Aggies’ first-team offense (five touchdowns, one field goal), working primarily against the No. 2 defense.
During that stretch, Manziel completed 24 of 28 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed three times for 18 yards and did not throw an interception. But in the estimation of A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, the best part of Manziel’s day, which included two late incompletions that dropped his final passing line to 24-of-30, involved the quarterback’s improved pocket awareness.
“We’ve got a quarterback who understands it now,” Sumlin said. “He continues to improve.”
Manziel also has some intriguing newcomers helping him, starting with running back Brandon Williams (7 carries, 59 yards, 1 TD). The transfer from Oklahoma, who worked primarily with the starters, zipped around left end for 32 yards on the first snap of the game. He also mixed in enough catches (3 receptions, 29 yards, 1 TD) to suggest the five-star recruit should be a lethal and versatile addition to the Aggies’ offensive arsenal next fall.
Manziel expressed confidence in what the Aggies can accomplish in efforts to exceed last year’s record-setting offensive numbers and in pursuit of this year’s national championship.
“I’m not going to pay any attention to the sophomore slump. People said there was a Heisman hangover, too,” said Manziel, who dispelled that notion with 516 yards of total offense in the team’s 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 4.
Instead, Manziel has turned his attention to those who question the staying power of this Aggies’ team as a 2013 national power.
“There’s a big dragon out there for us with all the people who are doubting A&M, all the people who are doubting me and saying that last year was a fluke,” Manziel said. “So that’s a chip on my shoulder. And that’s a dragon I’m going to slay this year.”
To make it happen, he’ll need the continued support of Williams, whose debut in a maroon jersey impressed his coaches, teammates and the 45,212 in attendance, a record for an Aggies spring game.
“The guy’s got all kinds of energy. He’s got a real gear with the ball,” Sumlin said. “Brandon Williams showed today that he’s got a skill set that can help us win.”
So do the other three members of a four-back tandem that includes returning starter Ben Malena (3 carries, 12 yards), Trey Williams (7 carries, 67 yards, 1 TD) and Tra Carson (6 carries, 11 yards).
The defense, which operated without three of its starters among the front seven, was not sparkling Saturday in a game that used a creative scoring system and ended with a final of Maroon 43, White 23. But the starters, who surrendered some significant yards to the second-team offense, did not allow a touchdown.
By next fall, the defense will be at full strength. It will benefit from the explosiveness of the Manziel-led offense, which operated in high gear Saturday despite some significant spring personnel tweaks in the offensive line and at wide receiver.
The only potential hiccup occurred when Manziel attempted — briefly — to throw an impromptu block near the goal-line on a touchdown play. Manziel went to the ground while a defender hurdled him and Brandon Williams scored.
Manziel, wearing a noncontact jersey, called it an instinctive move and later apologized to coaches for his exuberance.
Manziel said his next order of business is a May session with George Whitfield Jr., his private quarterback tutor, followed by continued pursuit of the crystal football that sat Saturday in Kyle Field. Just in case anyone was not already aware of the stakes on the table during A&M’s 2013 season.