READ: Why Manziel's stock is rising
VIDEO: Manziel's highlights at Texas A&M
Q&A: Billy Luicci on Manziel's career
AUDIO: Texans 24 Hour Radio Podcast
Texans Draft Central
As part of our Texans 'On the Clock' draft profiles, we reached out to various media members who covered the featured prospect. In this week's installment we sat down with Billy Luicci of TexAgs.com.
Luicci covers Aggie athletics for TexAgs, and has followed Johnny Manziel's career in College Station.
HoustonTexans.com: What did you know about Johnny Manziel when he first arrived at College Station?
Luicci: Manziel arrived in College Station without a ton of recruiting hype (though he was considered the state’s No. 1 QB and had been a longtime Oregon commit). Then again, he also arrived in Aggieland as a folk hero of sorts, with tales of his exploits at Kerrville Tivy and one of the more ridiculous highlight tapes you’ll ever see from a high school quarterback preceding him. With Ryan Tannehill entering his senior season, I think it was a foregone conclusion that Johnny would redshirt in year one and then compete for the starting job in year two. Personally, I thought he was destined to be a great player at A&M…only later in his career, not right out of the chute.
HoustonTexans.com: Going into his redshirt freshman season, there was an open quarterback competition for the starting position. How did you rate his chances of winning that QB battle coming into the fall?
Luicci: Jameill Showers is a guy who many inside the A&M program (including then-head coach Mike Sherman) felt had NFL potential. He’s still got one more year at UTEP to make that happen. Once Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury arrived, I think Manziel’s odds of winning the job as a redshirt freshman went through the roof. He played with the type of fiery passion and competitive edge that Sumlin knew a young team entering the SEC needed, his ability to create and make defenders miss was something to give the offense an edge against SEC defenses loaded with future first-round draft picks and the devil-may-care style and frenetic pace that Johnny brought to the table was something that I always believed would be too appealing for Kingsbury to pass on. Still, Manziel had to earn it and prove it in front of his teammates, which is something that happened fairly early in fall camp.
HoustonTexans.com: Despite winning the Heisman his freshman season, he put up even better statistical numbers this year. What kind of growth did you see in him as a quarterback?
Luicci: I think, first and foremost, Johnny matured as a quarterback. The game slowed down for him (see his performance against Alabama in September for a good example of that). He was also in control of the offense and was much more confident in what he saw from defenses, both pre-and post-snap. As was talked to death throughout the season – mainly because it was true – Manziel surveyed the field and threw the ball from inside the pocket much more as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. He became more of a pocket passer instead of relying so incredibly much on his rare athletic ability. More than anything else, however, I’d say Johnny simply became much more comfortable with and better at managing a game in 2013.
HoustonTexans.com: What does Kevin Sumlin’s offense ask their quarterbacks to do in his system? How in control of the offense was Manziel, especially this season?
Luicci: In the A&M system, a veteran quarterback like Johnny essentially has full control of the offense. The coaching staff will try to put him in the best position to succeed but, if the expected look wasn’t there, Manziel almost always had the freedom to check into a different play. The faith that Sumlin, then-OC Clarence McKinney and position coach Jake Spavital had in Johnny to run the offense with live bullets flying and while trying to operate one of the fastest-paced offenses in college football is not very common at this level. The freedom afforded to Manziel by Sumlin and the A&M staff is even more telling when you consider the fact that he wasn’t a fourth-or fifth-year senior but was still only a sophomore last fall.
HoustonTexans.com: How comfortable do you think Manziel will be in a more traditional pro-style offense?
Luicci: Johnny is such an exceptional athlete and is a smart enough football player that he’ll be able to adapt to any system. I think he’ll blow away NFL personnel during the draft process when it comes to what a quick study he is on the whiteboard and when it comes to absorbing the Xs and Os of any offense. Those who are most familiar with Manziel the football player have zero doubt that he could function and ultimately thrive in a traditional system – which is why Mike Sherman and Tom Rossley recruited him to A&M in the first place. That said, I believe Manziel’s strengths and lack of prototypical height make him a better fit in a shotgun system and that whoever drafts the Heisman Trophy winner would be foolish not to maximize Johnny’s strengths as a once-in-a-generation playmaker.
HoustonTexans.com: What does Manziel need to improve on as a QB he enters the NFL?
Luicci: All quarterbacks must continue to improve their game as they enter the NFL or risk being swallowed up by the learning curve, but I suppose that’s especially true for a sophomore entering the draft. Because he’s come so far as a passer in a year’s time, I’d say an area of improvement that he’s likely targeting while working in San Diego with George Whitfield might be honing the finer points of his game. Things like doing a better job of matching his footwork with route combinations and possibly working to become even more accurate and on-time with his passes. Those are both areas that he showed marked improvement in from year one to year two but continuing down that road is what could push Manziel over the top when it comes to being an instant success in the league. All indications, including the fact that Manziel decided to skip out on Super Bowl week altogether while continuing his combine preparation would seem to indicated he’s hell-bent on ironing out any perceived areas of weakness.
HoustonTexans.com: Manziel’s size is always brought up in terms of projecting him in the NFL. Do you think this is fair, and how would you compare him to other “shorter” QBs like Drew Brees or Russell Wilson?
Luicci: It’s fair to bring up Manziel’s lack of ideal size because it’s something that NFL teams are anxious to find out the ‘official’ answer to at the upcoming combine. My prediction? He’s going to come in right around 6-0, so we’re not talking Doug Flutie or even Russell Wilson here. Very comparable in size to Drew Brees and Michael Vick, if I had to make a comparison based on that alone. As far as comparing Johnny to Wilson or Drew Brees, I’d say each of those three quarterbacks bring something unique to the game that allows them to make up for lacking an inch or two on a tape measure. All three can sling the rock. For Manziel, what differentiates him from the other two is supreme escapability and raw athletic ability. Just like the Saints have done so masterfully with Brees and what Seattle is doing with Wilson, the key to Johnny developing into a Super Bowl or Pro Bowl quarterback is building an offensive system around his very unique skill set.
HoustonTexans.com: Being around him every day, how would you characterize his personality and how he interacts with his teammates?
Luicci: I’ve been around Texas A&M, Big 12 and, now, SEC football for a long, long time and I can count the athletes that have come through who are as competitive as Johnny Manziel on one hand. As far as being a team leader is concerned, I haven’t seen anyone better on game day. Watching him throughout the Chick-fil-A Bowl – a 21-point comeback against Duke – paints a pretty accurate picture of the type of leader Manziel is. He’s very vocal on the sidelines and loves keeping his offensive line engaged, oftentimes sitting with or hovering around his blockers when the offense isn’t on the field. You won’t find a player on the A&M team that would tell you he’s not the guy they want in the huddle in the fourth quarter of a big game. As far as his personality and interaction with his teammates goes, there’s a reason why you never heard a single teammate utter a negative word or do anything but get his back when asked about their quarterback.
HoustonTexans.com: Of all the “Johnny Football” moments on the field for the Aggies, is there one play or game you’ll most remember from his time in College Station?
Luicci: As you might imagine, choosing just one play from Johnny Manziel’s highlight reel is pretty difficult. I’ll go with one that isn’t nearly as flashy as most of the memorable Johnny Football highlights. Fourth-and-8 against Ole Miss in the fourth-quarter, on the road, with the Aggies trailing by seven. Manziel drops back, avoids pressure and – standing 21 yards from the first down sticks – decides to run for the first down. With the game hanging in the balance, the A&M quarterback put his head down and charged full speed straight into the heart of the Rebel defense. After making the first tackler whiff, #2 lowered his shoulder and bulled over a 225-pound Ole Miss linebacker. The play extended the game for the Aggies, Manziel ran it in for the game-tying score a few plays later and then led A&M to a game-winning field goal as time expired. Just a clutch play where the ‘flashy’ quarterback laid it all on the line and won. As far as one game is concerned, I’m torn between either of his games against Alabama, going for 500 yards and 5 TDs despite being injured in a shootout loss to Auburn and the instant-classic, come-from-behind win over Duke in last month’s Chick-fil-A Bowl.
HoustonTexans.com: If you were the GM of the Houston Texans, would you select Manziel with the #1 overall pick?
Luicci: As the GM of the Houston Texans, I wouldn’t want to be the guy who did not select Johnny Manziel with the top overall pick. All kidding aside, ticket and jersey sales and the Texans/Cowboys Lone Star popularity contest isn’t what this year’s No. 1 pick is about. It’s about the Texans returning to the playoffs and reaching their first Super Bowl as quickly as possible. Manziel isn’t the prototypical NFL quarterback but, over the past two seasons, he’s proven to be the most exciting, talented, competitive and productive player in the college game. I’ve talked to dozens of current and former NFL players since the end of the college football season and the overwhelming, nearly unanimous, consensus is that Johnny’s game will translate into success at the sport’s highest level. Russell Wilson’s Super Bowl performance and what both he and Colin Kaepernik did against the league’s two best defenses in the NFC Championship game certainly had to have helped Manziel’s No. 1 case.