Gary Cosby Jr./The Decatur Daily file photo
Gary Cosby Jr./The Decatur Daily file photo
Johnny Manziel ran for almost 1,700 yards and 30 touchdowns as a dual-threat quarterback his senior year of high school at Kerrville Tivy.
Who would have thought he’d be even more impressive at Texas A&M when pitted against the defenses of the Southeastern Conference?
On Tuesday, Manziel picked up another major award for his spectacular debut season. He was voted The Associated Press Player of the Year. As with the Heisman Trophy and Davey O’Brien Award that Manziel already won, the QB nicknamed Johnny Football is the first freshman to collect the AP award.
Manziel’s 31 votes were more than twice that of second-place finisher Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s starting linebacker. He is the third consecutive Heisman-winning quarterback to receive the honor, following Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton.
Manziel erased initial doubts about his ability when he ran for 60 yards and a score in his first game against Florida.
“I knew I could run the ball; I did it a lot in high school,” Manziel said in an interview with the AP. “It is just something that you don’t get a chance to see in the spring. Quarterbacks aren’t live in the spring. You don’t get to tackle. You don’t get to evade some of the sacks that you would in normal game situations. So I feel like when I was able to avoid getting tackled, it opened some people’s eyes a little bit more.”
The 6-1 Manziel threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 1,181 yards and 19 more scores to help the Aggies win 10 games for the first time since 1998 – and in their inaugural SEC year, too.
Ryan Tannehill, Manziel’s predecessor now with the Dolphins after being drafted eighth overall this season, saw promise from the young quarterback last year when he was redshirted. But even he is surprised at how quickly things came together for Manziel.
“It’s pretty wild. I always thought he had that playmaking ability, that something special where if somebody came free, he can make something exciting happen,” Tannehill said. “I wasn’t really sure if, I don’t think anyone was sure if he was going to be able to carry that throughout an SEC season, and he’s shocked the world, and he did it.”
After Manziel sat out as a redshirt in 2011, Texas A&M’s scheduled season-opener against Louisiana Tech this year was postponed because of Hurricane Isaac. That left him to get his first taste of live defense in almost two years against Florida.
He responded well, helping the Aggies race to a 17-7 lead early using both his arm and his feet. The Gators shut down Manziel and A&M’s offense in the second half, and Texas A&M lost 20-17.
But Manziel’s performance was enough for Texas A&M’s coaching staff to realize that his scrambling ability was going to be a big part of what the Aggies could do this season.
“The first half really showed that I was a little bit more mobile than we had seen throughout the spring,” Manziel said. “Me and (then-offensive coordinator) Kliff Kingsbury sat down and really said: ‘Hey, we can do some things with my feet as well as throwing the ball.’ And it added a little bit of a new dimension.”
Manziel knew the biggest adjustment from playing in high school to college would be the speed of the game. Exactly how quick players in the SEC are still was a jolt to the quarterback.
“The whole first drive I was just seeing how fast they really flew to the ball, and I felt like they just moved a whole lot faster,” he said of the Florida game. “It was different than what I was used to, different than what I was used to in high school. So it was just having to learn quick and adjust on the fly.”
He did just that and started piling up highlight-reel material by deftly avoiding would-be tacklers to help the Aggies run off five consecutive wins after that.
His storybook ride hit a roadblock when he threw a season-high three interceptions in a 24-19 loss to LSU. But Manziel used it as a learning experience, taking to heart some advice he received from Kingsbury.
“He just told me to have a plan every time, before every snap,” Manziel said. “Make sure you have a plan on what you want to do and where you want to go with the ball.
“I feel like as the year went on, I just learned the offense more and knew exactly where I wanted to go, instead of maybe evading the blitz and just taking off running for the first down instead of hitting a hot route or throwing it underneath to an open guy and doing things a lot simpler and cleaner.”
The Aggies and Manziel rebounded from the loss to LSU by winning their last five games, highlighted by their stunning 29-24 upset of top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 10.
By the time Manziel wrapped up a 253-yard passing and 92-yard rushing performance to lead Texas A&M to the victory in Tuscaloosa, Ala., you hardly could call him a freshman anymore.
“You keep growing and growing every week,” he said. “By the time I played Alabama I had a much better grasp of the game than I did in the first one.”
The 4,600 yards of total offense Manziel gained in 12 games broke the SEC record for total yards in a season. The record previously was held by 2010 Heisman winner Newton, who needed 14 games to pile up 4,327 yards. The output also made him the first freshman, first player in the SEC and fifth player overall to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.
Manziel, who turned 20 two days before taking home the Heisman, has been so busy he hasn’t had a second to step back and digest the historical significance of his accomplishments this season.
He’s far more concerned with helping the Aggies extend their winning streak to six games with a win over Oklahoma on Jan. 4 in the Cotton Bowl.
“I think it will happen after the bowl game and after the season is completely over,” he said. “I’m just ready for it to die down a little bit and get back into a practice routine where we get better and hopefully do what we want to do in the bowl game.”
He’ll have to do it without his mentor Kingsbury, who left A&M last week to become coach at Texas Tech, where he starred at quarterback not that long ago. Manziel said he is happy Kingsbury got to return to his alma matter but still is adjusting to the idea of playing without him.
“I’m the happiest guy on the face of the earth for him,” Manziel said, speaking from California where he appeared on the “Tonight Show” on Monday evening. “I think he deserves it with how hard he’s worked this year to get us where we were. It’s bittersweet, though, because I’d like him to be here for the entire time that I’m here.”
Manziel is eager to get back on the field for the Cotton Bowl and is focused on helping the offense pick up where it left off in the regular-season finale.
“Even though Kliff Kingsbury’s not here anymore, we just need to continue to get better and do what we do,” Manziel said. “Push tempo, go fast and be the high-flying offense that we have been all year.”
AP Sports Writer Steven Wine contributed to this story from Miami.