TUSCALOOSA — They call him Johnny Football, and now it’s Alabama’s turn to figure out how to slow him down.
Only a redshirt freshman, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has turned into something of a larger-than-life character in Southeastern Conference football. He not only has helped the Aggies rise to No. 15 in the nation in their initial SEC season, but he has broken records along the way.
A running and passing threat, he posted 557 yards of total offense against Arkansas, breaking a record set by Ole Miss’ Archie Manning in 1969 and tied by Rohan Davey at LSU in 2001. Two weeks later, Manziel broke his own record with 576 yards against Louisiana Tech.
“Johnny Manziel is a terrific player,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He can do a lot of things, creates a lot of plays, extends a lot of plays. He’s a great scrambler. A very effective passer. They’re in the spread, no-huddle, going fast. He does a really good job of executing it.”
A former Texas high school star, Manziel has made news off the field, too, which only seems to have added to his legend. This summer, he was arrested for getting involved in a bar fight and producing a fake ID. He was shirtless in his jail mugshot. Six weeks later, he was named Texas A&M’s starting quarterback.
This past week, pictures surfaced on the Internet of Manziel at a Halloween party dressed as Scooby Doo. In one photo, he is looking at the camera with a huge smile as he dances with a scantily-clad blonde.
If Alabama has faced anybody similar to Manziel, it might be Michigan’s Denard Robinson, also a running and passing threat. And like Robinson, Manziel isn’t especially tall for a quarterback -- 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, although he seems smaller. Nick Saban compared him to former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, who is 5-10.
Robinson struggled against Alabama in a 41-14 loss in the season opener, passing for 200 yards and rushing for 27 while throwing a pair of interceptions.
“It’s probably a lot of similarities and probably a lot of differences. ... They’re both great quarterbacks and both carry their teams well,” Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “We’ve just got to do our job well and try to contain them just like we did in the first game of the season.”
Manziel sat out last season as a redshirt, while Ryan Tannehill ran the team at quarterback. Tannehill now starts for the Miami Dolphins, and Manziel is putting up similar numbers to what he did when he was an all-state performer at Kerrville Tivy (Texas) High.
As a high school senior, Manziel passed for 3,609 yards with 45 touchdowns and rushed for 1,674 yards and 30 more scores. He also caught a touchdown pass and ran a kickoff back for another. He ran for 34 touchdowns as a junior. As a sophomore, he played mostly wide receiver.
At Alabama’s practices, the Crimson Tide is using backup quarterback Blake Sims to play the part of Manziel on the scout team. Sims can run and pass, although not as well as Manziel.
“If we had somebody that could play that part, we’d play them. They’d be playing,” Saban joked. “Blake Sims probably will try to do it some, at least the running part, the scrambling part. We’ve also got to prepare our team to do what we have to do. That’s the best we can do, probably, athletically at the quarterback position to give us a look at that.”
Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard said he believes Sims can handle the job.
“Blake provides us with a good look when we played Michigan and Denard was at quarterback,” Hubbard said. “Everyone always asks you what’s the difference between Denard and this guy named Johnny. Our scout team, they always give you a good look every week.”
In the midst of all those great statistics and numbers about Manziel, there are a couple that should be comforting to Alabama.
When Manziel played two of the SEC’s best defenses in Florida and LSU, he struggled. Combined against those two teams, he didn’t put up as many yards as he did against Arkansas. Texas A&M also lost both games, falling to Florida 20-17 and LSU 24-19. The Bengal Tigers intercepted him three times.
“I’ve heard he’s a pretty good quarterback,” Hubbard said, “and we’re going to have to go with a game plan and execute it well.”