Sports

August 27, 2013

Aggies bracing for backup QB option, just in case

Johnny Manziel’s meeting with NCAA investigators clouds status for opener.

Another day inside the vortex of the Manziel Memorabilia Maelstrom raised more questions than it answered Tuesday about whether the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner will play for Texas A&M in Saturday’s season opener against Rice.

A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, in accordance with the edict of athletic director Eric Hyman, sidestepped questions about Manziel’s availability in the wake of a reported six-hour Sunday meeting between Manziel and NCAA investigators. But Sumlin and A&M players weighed in on other aspects of Johnny Football, the Aggie Code of Honor and the team’s comfort level if forced to play with a backup quarterback.

Bottom line: In a pinch, everyone in maroon who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference sounded comfortable with the idea of facing Rice with either Matt Joeckel, a junior from Arlington High School, or Kenny Hill, a freshman from Southlake Carroll, in the lineup. Just don’t expect to get the same level of enthusiasm two weeks from now if either backup remains a lineup fixture heading into No. 7 A&M’s Sept. 14 showdown against top-ranked Alabama.

And be careful drawing too many conclusions from an ESPN.com report, citing an unnamed source, that detailed Sunday’s meeting or a subsequent CBSSports.com report, citing sources close to Manziel, saying the quarterback denied allegations he took money for signing autographs in violation of NCAA rules.

“A lot of things going on internally right now are different from the perception that’s outside,” Sumlin said, attempting to make sense of a three-week ordeal that began Aug. 4 with ESPN’s initial report that Manziel accepted a five-figure fee in exchange for his signature from a memorabilia broker in Florida.

So, does that mean A&M officials have an iron-clad plan about whether Johnny will play Saturday in Kyle Field?

“We’re not discussing that,” Sumlin said. “A lot of people will be involved in that decision.”

From all indications, A&M officials will wait as long as possible — regardless of last week’s declaration by Chancellor John Sharp that Manziel was “innocent” of all allegations — in hope of getting more clarity from the NCAA before deciding if Manziel will trot out with the first-team offense for Saturday’s opening possession.

To date, there has been no reported evidence of a paper trail tying Manziel to payments received. Until one surfaces, it will be difficult for the NCAA to wield much of a hammer against the Aggies’ quarterback.

But as long as discussions continue between NCAA investigators, A&M administrators and lawyers for the school and the Manziel family, anything remains possible. Any fresh piece of evidence could trigger more questions for Manziel and A&M runs the risk of future forfeits if Manziel plays during games and it is later ruled he was ineligible to compete in those contests.

Gut instinct: Manziel plays Saturday and throughout the season. But there was a greater air of caution Tuesday from A&M officials than last week, when Sharp issued his unequivocal support of Manziel and questioned the validity of ESPN’s reports.

Sumlin indicated he would be comfortable with a game-time decision in regard to his starting quarterback and players echoed those sentiments.

Asked how teammates would react to playing without Manziel, running back Ben Malena said: “We would be really comfortable. It’s not something we worry about.”

Center Mike Matthews praised both backup quarterbacks, who Sumlin described as locked in “an ongoing competition.” Joeckel, a drop-back passer, has the edge in experience. Hill, a dual threat, has more improvisational skills.

“The backup quarterbacks are putting in the time and effort,” Matthews said. “I’m confident in the quarterbacks we have if Johnny is not able to play.”

With rare exception, Sumlin delivered a team-first mantra as he discussed his team’s awkward August created by the Manziel allegations.

“There is nothing more important than the team,” Sumlin said. “We sit in this room all the time, and I talk to these guys about the truth. What we expect of them on the field. What we expect of them off the field. What we expect of them, effort-wise and accountability-wise.”

When asked if the school’s Aggie Code of Honor — “An Aggie does not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do” — would be used to guide A&M administrators in making a call about Manziel’s playing time, Sumlin responded: “I can’t talk about how the decision’s going to be made, and what goes into that decision. I’ve said from Day One, a lot of people will be involved in that decision. What goes into how that decision’s made, obviously, I can’t discuss.”

The only certainty, at this point, is that the decision must be made by Saturday.

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