"Johnny Football" is the wave of the future at the quarterback position.
Traditional NFL enthusiasts might cringe at the notion of a spread-option quarterback taking over the league, but that development seems inevitable when you look at the college football being played on Saturdays. Texas A&M signal-caller Johnny Manziel is one of several dual-threat playmakers (including Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Kansas State's Collin Klein and Oregon's Marcus Mariota) who torment opponents with their versatility. Creative offensive coordinators are finding ways to maximize these players' considerable talents by giving them multiple run-pass options on every play, exploiting the vulnerable areas of opposing defenses. When coupled with a quick tempo and a wide variety of formations, the multitude of options allows the quarterback to operate like a point guard running a fast break in basketball.
I watched Texas A&M's surprising win over Alabama, and there isn't a better point guard in college football than Manziel. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound red-shirt freshman was magical against the Crimson Tide, completing 24 of 31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. He also added 92 rushing yards on 18 attempts, including a 32-yard jaunt that showcased his impressive speed, quickness and elusiveness.
While those unfamiliar with Manziel's exploits this season likely came away surprised by his performance, I suggest that it wouldn't even qualify as the best showing of the year for the prolific signal-caller, slotting in as another in a long line of strong outings. Manziel has topped 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game four times this season, and leads the SEC in rushing with 1,014 yards. Most impressively, he ranks fourth in the SEC in passer rating (151.2) and sports an impressive 18:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Offensive coordinators are adept at building game plans around the talents of their playmakers. Manziel has the kind of ability that some NFL evaluators could find intriguing down the road.
Here are three things I noticed about Manziel's game and his ability as a first-year player for the Aggies:
1) Accuracy: Manziel's arm isn't the strongest in college football, but he is a pinpoint passer with outstanding accuracy and touch. He consistently puts the ball within the receiver's strike zone, and his ability to hit the receiver in stride leads to huge gains after the catch. In addition, Manziel can squeeze the ball into tight windows between multiple defenders down the field. On one occasion, he threaded the needle to Ryan Swope on a deep crossing route with defenders in close proximity; on another, he delivered a pinpoint strike to Swope on a go-route down the boundary while rolling to his right away from pressure. Both passes were delivered in stride and away from the outstretched arms of defenders. Given that NFL coaches place accuracy and ball placement at a premium, Manziel's superb touch could make him an intriguing prospect in a few years.
2) Mobility: One of the biggest trends in college football has been the use of the quarterback as the primary ball carrier. Texas A&M doesn't feature Manziel exclusively as a runner, but the Aggies do routinely call predetermined quarterback runs to take advantage of his speed and quickness in the open field. Against Alabama, Manziel used a few quarterback draws and misdirection runs to exploit the aggressiveness of the Crimson Tide defense. This resulted in several big plays, including a 29-yard burst on a quarterback draw on the Aggies' first offensive series.
Coach Kevin Sumlin and his offensive staff also utilized Manziel's athleticism by putting him on the move in the pocket. By using sprint outs and bootleg passes, the Aggies were able to get their best playmaker on the perimeter with the option to run or pass, based on the reaction of the defense.
Finally, Manziel's remarkable athleticism and mobility allowed him to turn potential negative plays into big gains. For example, in the first quarter, Manziel eluded multiple defenders in the pocket before rolling to his left and delivering a tear-drop 10-yard touchdown pass to Swope in the back of the end zone. Manziel's elusiveness puts a ton of stress on the defense; worried about a potential scramble, defenders end up questioning their coverage assignments.
3) Clutch factor: All quarterbacks are measured by their ability to perform on the big stage. In his brief career, Manziel has already shown he can raise his game when needed. Manziel's performance against the Crimson Tide on the road demonstrated much about his poise, confidence and composure. The game didn't look too big for Manziel; the fact that he was so efficient early on says a lot about his ability to rise to the occasion. More importantly, he made the plays he needed to with the game on the line; his poise was one of the biggest differences in the Aggies' upset win. NFL scouts are placing added emphasis on how quarterbacks perform in critical conference showdowns, and Manziel will garner high marks on draft boards across the league with more strong showings in future big games.
Manziel is just a red-shirt freshman, but his game has already caught the attention of scouts looking for potential playmakers down the road. Manziel lacks the prototypical size that scouts covet in top prospects, but the fact that he has so many winning characteristics will undoubtedly make him one of the prospects to watch over the next few years.
Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers
It's hard to ignore Greene's remarkably productive career as the centerpiece of the Scarlet Knights' defense. The reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year has tallied 347 tackles, nine sacks and seven interceptions in three-plus seasons, displaying a game that is built for the NFL. Greene shows outstanding instincts, awareness and anticipation when diagnosing plays within the box, and attacks runners like a heat-seeking missile in the hole. Greene put those traits on display with a 22-tackle effort against Army on Saturday, leading the Scarlet Knights to a 28-7 victory. He repeatedly thumped runners at the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble inside the red zone to thwart a scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Scouts covet defenders with playmaking potential; Greene's performance Saturday will just enhance his stock in the minds of evaluators.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball has come on like gangbusters in recent weeks, rushing for more than 100 yards in four of the Badgers' past five contests. The recent surge has placed Ball over the 1,200-yard mark for the second straight season, and quelled some of the concerns about his consistency and durability as a feature back. Against Indiana, Ball logged 20-plus carries for the seventh time this season (27 rushes for 198 yards and three touchdowns) and finished 2 yards shy of posting his second 200-yard game of the year. If Ball can continue to string together strong performances, he'll certainly cement his status as a Day 2 prospect on most NFL draft boards.
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
The former running back has quietly become one of the top pass rushers in college football in his first season as a linebacker, showing outstanding speed, athleticism and awareness. Barr has also displayed natural instincts and rush skills for a player with limited experience on the defensive side of the ball. While leading UCLA to a 44-36 victory over Washington State, Barr flashed the kind of dominant ability scouts covet, notching an eight-tackle performance that included three tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. The effort pushed Barr's sack total to 11.0 for the season, placing him among the nation's leaders in that statistic.
David Ash, QB, Texas
It's too early to tell if Ash will blossom into a legitimate pro prospect, but there is no doubt that he has developed into an effective playmaker for the Longhorns. Ash has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and sports an impressive 17:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. After suffering through a midseason slump that included subpar games against Oklahoma and Kansas, he bounced back with strong showings against Texas Tech and Iowa State, which says a lot about his confidence and mental toughness. Those intangibles are valued on par with physical attributes like arm strength and mobility. Ash could develop into a solid prospect in a few years.
Robert Woods, WR, USC
Woods entered the season as the top receiver in college football, but he has been a bit of a disappointment. The junior All-American has just one 100-yard game on his ledger, and looks like the second option in the passing game behind the ultra-talented Marqise Lee. The most disappointing thing about Woods' play has been his inability to turn short passes into big gains. Last season, Woods routinely took quick screens and smoke routes to the house; his remarkable production (111 receptions for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns) was partly fueled by his explosive running skills. This year, however, Woods has struggled to elude tacklers in the open field and doesn't appear to have the burst to run away from pursuers down the field. Woods remains one of the most dangerous weapons in college football, but he's certainly lost some of the cachet that surrounded his game prior to the season.