May 20, 2013

A&M QB Johnny Manziel is working hard to be the best he can be, which might be the best ever

The Heisman Trophy winner says it’s “scary” to imagine what he could be like in three years.

The last thing George Whitfield Jr. expected was for Johnny Manziel to throw the ball. The Texas A&M star, after all, was blindfolded.

Whitfield, a “quarterback whisperer” or, as he calls himself, a “quarterback engineer,” had never attempted the now-named Zorro drill with one of his protégés. He wanted Manziel to practice some air throws before actually throwing a pass to one of three receivers.

But on Manziel’s first three-step drop, Paris Cotton, standing some 15 yards away to Manziel’s right, clapped his hands three times, and the Heisman Trophy winner drilled the former Central Michigan running back in the hands.

“Oh,” Whitfield said to Manziel, “you’re going to throw it.”

Whitfield already had asked that all cameras be turned off, half-expecting Manziel to be all over the place once he did throw the ball.

“I felt it,” Manziel said after the first blindfold attempt.

Manziel threw only two uncatchable passes in 29 attempts while blindfolded, prompting a bystander to ask if Manziel could somehow see.

“I have always said he has the best antenna in football,” Whitfield said. “I think he just proved that.”

It is just the latest “can-you-believe-that?” moment for Manziel, who led the Aggies to an 11-2 record — including a victory over eventual national champion Alabama — set the SEC record for most total yards with 5,116, scored 47 total touchdowns, earned a cool nickname and became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman. SMU coach June Jones, whose team lost to Manziel and the Aggies 48-3, recently said “Johnny Football” is the greatest college football player he has ever seen.

That’s what Manziel wants the consensus to be when he is done. An encore, with a national championship, arguably would push Manziel past Vince Young, Sammy Baugh, Jim Thorpe, Tim Tebow, Herschel Walker, Red Grange, Archie Griffin, Dick Butkus, Earl Campbell and whomever else is in the debate.

“My goals are lofty,” Manziel told the Star-Telegram. “I know what I want to achieve. My biggest goal is I want to do something at A&M that will never, ever be done again. Never. I want that Cam Newton-type Auburn season. Every time you look at the Auburn program, that’s the one that will pop up. I want that at A&M.

“If you take it game by game, everything else will take care of itself. You go to the SEC Championship, that’s a huge goal right there. At the end of the day, that’s your appetizer. The big main course is the national championship, and then your coffee and your dessert are your accolades that come with that. Ultimately, winning is the only thing that matters.”

Manziel, 20, finished last season under 200 pounds. He now weighs 210 and expects to play this season in the 200-205 range.

“He hasn’t lost any of his speed,” Whitfield said. “He’s gained some horsepower.”

Manziel spent last week working with Whitfield, six sessions in four days at the end of a family vacation to California that included golfing on six courses. It marked the third time Manziel has worked with Whitfield, who got his start in 2004 working with a Pop Warner quarterback and got his break in 2010 when he was hired to train then-suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Whitfield now is considered a quarterback guru, having worked with Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Landry Jones, Braxton Miller, Logan Thomas, Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray, among others. Jack Del Rio’s son, Luke, who will walk on at Alabama, and North Carolina State quarterback Pete Thomas also had workouts with Whitfield last week.

Much of Manziel’s training was dedicated to his base, balance, footwork, weight transition and body control.

“Not very sexy stuff,” Whitfield said.

Whitfield put Manziel through a series of unorthodox individual drills, some designed to take Manziel out of his comfort zone. He used a broom in the havoc drill, swiping at Manziel like a defensive lineman as Manziel’s eyes continued looking downfield. It is a drill Manziel credits with helping him in his most famous play, a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Swope that came after Manziel bobbled the ball, regained control and rolled to his left to avoid swarming Alabama defenders.

Whitfield used a soccer goal for Manziel to work on his touch, a drill Manziel credits for his 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Malcome Kennedy just over the outstretched hands of Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner.

Five of Manziel’s sessions took place at the University of California, San Diego. The other was a two-hour workout on South Mission Beach, where Manziel “killed” his legs in the sand. In one drill, Whitfield tossed bean bags at Manziel while Manziel repeated numbers on flash cards held up downfield. Few of Manziel’s throws hit the ground.

Fishermen, kayakers and walkers stopped by to ask who was drawing the crowd of onlookers that included Manziel’s family and friends as well as ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit.

“The Heisman Trophy winner?” one asked before taking a cellphone photo.

The beach session ended with Manziel in the 61-degree water up to his waist, sliding his feet through the surf as waves knocked him off balance. It was a “battle,” Whitfield said.

“I think George has helped him tremendously,” Manziel’s father, John Paul, said. “He’s given him a lot of confidence, and as we move forward, I think he’s getting his mechanics down. He respects George a lot, so it’s good to have another person in the mix who he respects.”

Johnny Manziel will return this summer to San Diego, where the sky is clear, the temperature is comfortable and the work environment is interrupted only by the occasional roar of military jets overhead. Manziel said he is a better quarterback today than he was last year or even a week ago.

“There’s so much left,” Manziel said. “There’s so much time left. If I can get as good as I have from being a freshman to a redshirt freshman to being a redshirt sophomore to where I am today — if I can do that for three more years — I don’t even want to think about it. It’s scary.”

The joke is obvious: Johnny Football now can do it with his eyes closed. In reality, it isn’t as easy as he sometimes makes it look.

Manziel’s goal is to be the best he can be. He figures if he can do that, the “best ever” title should follow whether he plays one more year at A&M or three.

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