Johnny Manziel handles SEC media-day blitz with denial, damage control

The full-house blitz engulfed Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. But the elusive Heisman Trophy winner handled the Wednesday heat from reporters at the SEC media days as deftly as he sidestepped opposing rushers last season.

Manziel, college football’s Joe Namath of the Twitter era, admitted to his share of off-field mistakes, vowed to make better decisions in the future and did a nice job of damage control during a two-hour grilling session that began with a live interview on ESPN.

But Manziel, 20, made it clear that he does not believe he’s crossed into the danger zone of reckless off-field behavior despite being accused of that by analysts who see a giant red flag in the wake of last week’s early departure from his role as a camp counselor at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodeaux, La.

“I’ve made mistakes. But I haven’t done anything I feel is catastrophic,” Manziel said. “At the end of the day, I’m not going for the Miss America pageant. I want to win an SEC championship and a national championship. My teammates know where my heart is at when I step out on the football field. And that’s what really matters to me.”

Translation: As long as Manziel remains productive on the football field during the 2013 season, he is confident his off-field transgressions will not be held against him by A&M fans, All-America voters or NFL scouts. He’s right on all three accounts.

Wednesday’s message sounded remarkably similar to other mea culpas Manziel has delivered after raising eyebrows with off-season Twitter posts of Oklahoma casino winnings, a Mardi Gras trip and a riff about the occasional frustration of living in College Station.

If you liked Manziel before, you’ll embrace Wednesday’s performance. If you considered him an entitled traveler on the road to self-destruction, you’ll roll your eyes on Wednesday’s explanation about the final straw that led to his departure from the Manning camp:

Manziel said he overslept because his cellphone battery died, rendering his alarm useless, and he missed a meeting. Already feeling tired after spending the previous week at a Nike football camp in Oregon, Manziel said his busy schedule — not a late night of partying — convinced him and Manning camp officials that it was in their mutual best interests for him to head home. Dehydration issues notwithstanding.

“Speculation about me being hung over is absolutely incorrect,” Manziel said. “I’ve just been on a hectic schedule and overslept. I absolutely lived up to it [with camp officials]. There was no excuse for not having my phone charged or having an alarm set.”

Yes, Manziel should be well past the “oops, I overslept” period in his life when dealing with his responsibilities. Yes, coach Kevin Sumlin lamented that Manziel has made “some poor decisions” in recent months that caused his quarterback to huddle last week with counselors to help Manziel deal with stress in his life.

But there’s a lot more to like, rather than dislike, about a player who admits the Heisman spotlight he stepped into in December has burned brighter than he ever envisioned. Manziel’s off-field issues as a Heisman winner, by today’s college football standards, are little more than speed bumps that have been turned into mountains because of his high profile and his penchant to share too many voluntary details via social media.

Until Manziel becomes a distraction to teammates or a detriment to their success, it’s hard to admonish him for wanting to live life in large terms as long as he backs it up on the field. He’s done that so far, just as past college and NFL standouts Namath, Ken Stabler and Bobby Layne did.

Stabler once said, “There’s nothing wrong with studying the game plan by the light of the jukebox.” Manziel clearly lives by a comparable credo. Teammates said Wednesday that is fine with them because he’s a stellar player and leader on the field.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a distraction,” defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said of life as a Manziel teammate. “We embrace it all. We’re all trying to play in the NFL some day, just like Johnny Football. I love everything that comes with Johnny.”

Asked if he has concerns about Manziel, offensive tackle Jake Matthews shook his head.

“He wants to be the best,” Matthews said. “I know he wouldn’t do anything to mess that up.”

Manziel acknowledged Wednesday that he has created a slippery slope. He said critics will line up to point toward his off-season travels and tribulations as problematic if his production wanes. And he vowed that won’t happen.

“I guarantee you, when August comes and it’s football time, I’ll be 150 percent ready to go,” Manziel said.

Moments later, he was out the door, headed to Los Angeles — along with Sumlin — for one final victory lap at the ESPY Awards presentation.

As long as Manziel plays well enough this season to contend for a 2014 ESPY, he’ll continue to prove that none of his off-field mistakes have been catastrophic.

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