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April 3, 2013

What Makes Johnny Go?

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel arrived on Texas A&M's campus in the spring of 2011 already a legend among Aggie fans. His high school numbers -- 75 touchdowns, over 5,000 yards of total offense, and a 66% completion percentage during his senior season -- were worthy enough to garner multiple awards and offers from programs such the Aggies, Oregon, and Stanford.

Even more noteworthy, Manziel was a highlight reel unto himself, generating big play after big play. In fact, Manziel's antics caused fans to talk about his ability to make plays like he had a sixth sense or eyes in the back of the head even though he lacked the size or the arm associated with pro style quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck.

Manziel redshirted his freshman year and struggled to acclimate himself to college ball early on in his career. He was the backup coming out of spring ball last year, showing flashes of his ability but also making too many mistakes. In addition, he needed help with delivery and footwork. He went to see a quarterback guru last summer, George Whitfield Jr., who helped to refine him. He also worked hard in off season workouts to apply what he learned and emerged during August practices as the starter.

It didn't take long for Manziel to start putting up numbers similar to those from his high school days against much stronger competition. He went on to help A&M beat national champion Alabama on the road and demolish co-Big 12 champion Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. He emerged as the best player in college football and became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

Manziel continued to confound critics the same way that he did in high school by making plays that defined description even though once again he wasn't as big or as imposing as the competition he was facing. In fact, people attribute Manziel's success to intangibles, items that are not part of his physical makeup, such as his ability to sense things. It is true that Manziel is a great competitor and he does have great elusiveness. However, much of Manziel's success IS due to physical attributes that are not easily categorized as are most and combine together to provide him with an overall skill set that is unique. In fact, when you look at both his high school and college highlights, three different attributes jump out at you that combine to make him not just the best football player in A&M history but also the most exciting one as well.

Vision: Scouts talk mostly about running backs or point guards having great vision, the ability see things outside of their normal field of vision that enables them to avoid a tackler or see a teammate for a no-look pass.

In Manziel's case, he has that same great peripheral vision that enables him to see things to one side or the other that most people are physically incapable of seeing. He is able to see flashes of color or people and either avoid bad situations or create good ones outside the normal realm of probability.

One example was in the Cotton Bowl when he saw Malcolme Kennedy from the outside of what would be considered his field of vision and fired a pass toward the middle of the field where Kennedy was headed. Kennedy bobbled the ball and it was picked off, but the ball was right on the money between multiple defenders. No other quarterback could have even made the throw because they never would have seen Kennedy in the first place.

Core strength: One of the knocks on Manziel is his arm strength, his ability to throw the ball deep or on sideline routes. However, throwing a football involves your feet and the core of your body moreso than it does the arm itself. Read what George Whitfield Jr. (who helped Manziel out last summer) has to say on the importance of the core:

"You have to sort of coach the core," said Whitfield. "It is such an incredible area. For a right-handed quarterback, you can raise the ball to your shoulder and you may be strong enough to drive it over there. However, you are exponentially stronger if you twist your upper torso.

"If I see a receiver -- your shoulders and hips have disconnected and are working in separate planes. Once you do that, you put tension on your core. I am going to twist until my left shoulder sees you and then my left elbow goes though backwards and drives the right side forward."

Manziel has incredible core strength. As a scratch golfer, he is very good off the tee and much of the power generated by a golf swing is via a person's core. When you watch Manziel throw a football, he can rotate his body 90 degrees or even more in the direction of the pass and generate tremendous velocity behind the ball. It enables him to make throws that you wouldn't normally associate with a guy his size or passes where his feet aren't set. It works even more to his advantage when he is on the move. Normally, right handed quarterbacks like Manziel are at a disadvantage when moving to their left but Manziel played shortstop in high school and he described how it aids him even today:

"I played baseball growing up as a kid and it definitely helped," he said at a press conference prior to the Cotton Bowl. "Just throwing the ball wild and even running around the back yard throwing it sidearm, running to the left and throwing it all the back across the right."

Coordination: Manziel doesn't just see things. He sees them and translates them into actions almost instantaneously. Against man coverage, Manziel is especially dangerous because he can see defenders chase receivers and because he knows where the receivers are going, he understands where the defenders are headed as well. Thus, he makes big plays with his feet by turning upfield and running sometimes even before the defenders turn to run with their man but too late for them to turn around and respond to his foray. His touchdown run against Mississippi State last season where a Red Sea of defenders seemingly parted before him like Moses is evidence of that.

Sometimes, Manziel goes for the trifecta, where all three elements combine together into one extraordinary moment that defines both a season and a Heisman Trophy winner. For example, last season against Alabama, Manziel retreated into the pocket on a third and goal play in the middle of the first quarter. He steps up into the pocket and starts to run to his right. However, tackle Jake Matthews gets pushed back into the gap and Manziel bumps into him and the ball pops up the air. Not only does he turn 180 degrees and control it behind him before it hits the ground (coordination), he sees an opening on his left outside of the tackle and starts to run for the sidelines. Running full speed, Manziel's head is turned toward the left corner of the end zone. Without breaking stride, he sees (vision) Ryan Swope in the back middle of the end zone all by himself as a safety has left Swope and Swope happens to be at the right edge of his line of vision. In the middle of his stride toward the sidelines and with one foot off the ground, he basically turns his body (core) back to his right 90 degrees and lets the ball fly to Swope even as he keep moving toward the sideline and backwards. Swope hangs on give A&M a 14-0 lead in a game that it would eventually win 29-24.

In essence, all of Manziel abilities came together as a unique skill set to produce a play that could not have possibly been made by anyone else in college football. Most importantly, although they usually aren't identified as being important attributes of the ability to play quarterback, they translate to superior production on the field and more awards and highlights off of it.


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