ARLINGTON, Texas -- As impressive as Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was during the Cotton Bowl -- and there haven't been many more impressive bowl performances as long as they've been playing college football -- he was just as good afterward.
While we know pretty much everything we need to know about Manziel as a quarterback, we don't know much about Manziel off the field yet. He wasn't allowed to speak to the media for most of the season because of coach Kevin Sumlin's policy on freshmen. He's flashy on the field and has the catchy Johnny Football nickname, so maybe there's a notion that he's cocky off the field.
All I can tell you about Manziel is this: He handled himself as well as any quarterback could in the post-game media interviews following Texas A&M's 41-13 win over Oklahoma. He deflected all hints of praise while maintaining a confident aura, which isn't easy to pull off. That is especially impressive considering how much fame was heaped on him before he turned 20 years old less than a month ago.
The first freshman Heisman Trophy winner, who did stops on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show" in the past month, didn't take any credit for the 229 rushing yards or 287 passing yards he had. The Cotton Bowl record of 516 yards was all due to his offensive line. The game plan. The seniors on the team.
"I know for me, without them, none of my success this year would have been possible," Manziel said of the seniors.
(USA Today Sports Images)The game he played was incredible. He beat the FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a bowl game by 28 yards. Oh, and he passed the ball better than Oklahoma counterpart Landry Jones, the first player in FBS history with at least 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in each of his four seasons. When Manziel hit Uzoma Nwachukwu for a 34-yard touchdown with 9:03 remaining in the fourth quarter, he was 13-of-17 for 212 yards in 20:57 of game action in the second half. That's roughly a 600-yard pace over 60 minutes. And this was against the co-Big 12 champs, not some FCS patsy on a Saturday in September.
When asked if Manziel was as good as any college quarterback he had gone against, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops answered quickly, "Absolutely." He talked about playing one safety deep, something the Sooners didn't do much before the Cotton Bowl, Manziel said, and getting burned, then playing two safeties deep and getting burned another way.
Did Manziel think it was his best game?
"It was our best team offensive (game)," Manziel said. "The team and coaches put me in great situations to be successful."
He talked about getting better this offseason, getting in the weight room, going out to California to once again work with quarterbacks guru George Whitfield, who has worked with Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. He talked about how he needs to improve his fundamentals as a passer, like footwork.
"Throwing less balls off your back foot - even though it may work out, do it right," Manziel said. "Get better."
Then he was asked about Texas A&M's chances of being a national title contender next year, considering the Aggies should be a top five preseason pick. It's an easy question that could be answered quickly, but Manziel got serious.
"It depends how hard people want to work in the offseason," Manziel said. "I'm going to call the people who are left and say, 'How bad do we want this? Do we want to be preseason hype and not back it up, or do we really want to come out and grind in the summer when people don't want to come?'"
Manziel is looking you right in the eye now.
"When you have class in the morning and you don't want to go to 7-on-7 in the afternoon, you don't want to wake up at 6:30 and lift, you don't want to do some of these things, that's going to be big for this team," Manziel said. "If you want to put in the work, the sky is the limit for this team."
He is barely 20 years old but carries himself with the poise of a NFL starter. It's impressive.
(USA Today Sports Images)Offensive lineman Luke Joeckel said a lot of the Aggies knew all about Manziel coming out of high school ("We'd heard about the legend of Johnny Football," he said), even gathering around to watch his highlight tape. They learned a lot about him when he was redshirting. They saw him working hard in the weight room and at every practice. By the time he became the starter, they were already following him.
"We all had respect for him," Joeckel said. "He's a natural leader. He's always had confidence, but it's not arrogant confidence. He doesn't have to talk about it. He's an easy guy to follow."
He did everything right at Cowboys Stadium, and the game was just part of that. You can't make a judgment on a person's leadership ability based on a short interview session, but he has everything needed to remain a star in college and beyond. Even though he will enter his sophomore season with a crushing amount of hype (and probably without All-American tackles Joeckel and Jake Matthews, who were also great against Oklahoma and could each be top 10 picks if they leave early for the NFL Draft), he has lived up to all of it so far. He can throw the ball about as well as any pocket passer. In person, his elusiveness and ability to beat a defender to a spot while running the ball is astonishing. He seems willing to improve and established himself as a leader before his freshman year was done. And he refused to brag about any of it.
"I'm still Johnny Manziel, the same guy I was against Florida," Manziel said, referring to the season opener. "Our team has gotten better, obviously. But I'm the same person."
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