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Manziel's future tops offseason storylines
January, 11, 2013
Getty Images, USA TODAY Sports
The futures of Johnny Manziel, Chip Kelly and LSU were all topics of discussion in Nashville.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- College football had better enjoy Johnny Manziel while it's got him, if you believe a couple of coaches I talked with here this week at the AFCA convention.
So much for three more tries to become only the second repeat Heisman winner?
"There's no way he stays four years," one coach told me with insistence. "I bet he's gone after this season."
At first, I thought that seemed implausible. But the more you think about it -- whether it's the social behavior that isn't conducive to college boundaries or a growing market for mobile quarterbacks like him in the NFL -- it begins to make some sense.
First, the draft prospects. Manziel is listed at 6-foot-1, but is probably between 5-11 and 6-feet. That doesn't mean as much as it used to, not with Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson, maaybe 5-11, leading a highly efficient offense in the playoffs.
With more offenses featuring a highly mobile quarterback, Manziel's stock could spike. Manziel is among college football's most elusive players, regardless of position.
"With where the NFL is going, with these spread offense and the zone-read [philosophies], I can't see how Manziel's not going to be appealing to some people," said Kevin Weidl, one of ESPN's draft analysts who breaks down game film for a living. "Originally I didn't think there was much to him, but you watch him more and more and he'll change your mind."
Weidl particularly marveled at Manziel's acceleration, on display notably in the signature wins against Alabama and the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. He also said he has seen growing improvement in Manziel's arm.
"He can throw on the run, put the ball in tight windows on the run," Weidl said. "It's pretty good. It's definitely above average."
And that's after Manziel's first season. I spoke this week with one coach who follows the Texas A&M program closely and he noticed the difference in Manziel's decision-making, when to run and when to throw, from September to November.
That's the trickiest thing with a dual threat on Manziel's level, the coach told me. In high school, Manziel could run around and past everyone -- and he's still capable of making those plays in college. But balance is king, even if that's something that must be instilled. It makes sense; if you had those wheels, imagine restraining yourself to keep them parked.
His now-departed coordinator, new Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, worked to coach Manziel to keep his eyes downfield and throw whenever and wherever it's available: The airborne ball covers yardage a lot faster, and less hazardously, than legs and feet with the ball in tow.
Manziel is learning to do both well. I brought up the Alabama game to coaches as a good example, and they agreed. When Tide coordinator Kirby Smart had enough of Manziel's running, he tweaked the system to contain him. But Manziel, as opposed to those early-season losses against Florida and LSU, had developed enough to make the proper reads -- and, more than that, make strong and accurate throws. The Aggies had to hold on to win, but the offense provided just enough to make it happen. I recall in particular two great throws, one down the sideline to Ryan Swope on a rollout and then the 24-yard touchdown -- across the field, diagonally -- to Malcome Kennedy.
That victory looks all the more impressive after Monday night's BCS romp. Throw A&M in a four-team playoff right now, and it very well might be the favorite. Manziel is a big reason, if not the biggest. If he continues developing at this rate -- can he do so without Kingsbury and top-five pick, tackle Luke Joeckel? -- he could certainly be raw-but-NFL-ready in a year's time.
Then there's the off-the-field aspect to Manziel that coaches here in Nashville and in New York in December were quick to bring up. Every week, it seems to be something new with Manziel. Some tweet. Some picture. Something. He's never doing anything really all that wrong, but it's far from a low profile that he's keeping. And it's early January, a long, long way from the season in September. Who knows what storylines will unfold in the time that Manziel is away from school?
Manziel's father, Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin and Kingsbury -- publicly and privately -- have made no secrets that keeping Manziel corralled is something of a challenge. It's another reason he might eventually get tired of the walls and rules of being a college athlete. He already has shown that he's a guy who is going to do pretty much what he wants, regardless of criticism or perception. That's a lot easier to do in the NFL than as a "student-athlete."
Manziel is only 20, so perhaps he'll mature into Jonathan Football. But no one I spoke with this week was exactly anticipating that evolution.
"This is who the kid is," said someone who recruited Manziel a bit.
He even seemed to indicate as much when reporters caught up with him before the BCS title game in South Florida. "I'm doing the same stuff I've always done," he said, according to USA Today. "It's just now people actually care what I do. … I've been doing this forever. This is nothing new for me."
It has been a heck of a ride, watching Manziel's rise. Something tells me it will continue to be that way, regardless of how long he stays at Texas A&M.
Here are a few other storylines that were topics of conversation at the coaches' convention:
AP Photo/Bruce Schwartzman
Chip Kelly's peers weren't surprised to see him return to Oregon, but they won't be surprised if he flirts with the NFL against next season, either.
Chip Kelly stays at Oregon (again)? Yawn.
While the Chip-to-NFL newsfeed was steady last week -- he all but took the Cleveland job over the weekend, depending whom you were reading or listening to -- the coaching convention wasn't exactly stunned when Kelly decided for the second straight year that Oregon > NFL.
In fact, one veteran ops guy said Kelly's closest staff members felt sure all along that he was going to stay. Really? They could have clued in the rest of us.
What was the hang-up with the Browns and Eagles? Everyone in Nashville was convinced it was money, although the reality is he could have been lukewarm on the move all along, despite reporters' insistence, myself included, that it was a foregone conclusion.
"We could be doing this again in a year, you know?" one coach reminded me.
Carolina was the job that intrigued most observers. Kelly with Cam Newton as a catalyst? Ron Rivera held on this year, but six or seven wins might not be enough with a new GM.
Also, on a developing front: Who knew that Brian Kelly was going to be the Kelly to watch with the Eagles in the end? The report from Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, which came after coaches had left Nashville, caught me off guard. Kelly had deflected NFL questions leading up to the title game, and I was more inclined to believe him over, say, Nick Saban.
LSU is among the favorites to win the 2013 title? Seriously?
LSU is an early 10-1 or 12-1 to win next season's BCS National Championship, depending on where you look. That seems extremely generous for a team that's losing 10 players to the NFL draft. Several of those involved in the game agreed.
Nothing the Tigers did in 2012 really impressed, and that team had more talent than this year's will. On top of injuries, and there were a lot, discipline and cohesiveness were problematic. Remember when one lineman, senior Alex Hurst, just up and left the team?
"Those things happen in cycles, so it could flip," one of the coaches in the conversation said, "but it made me wonder about their evals [evaluations]. It's pretty obvious they've taken some chances and struck out."
How about 20-1, something in there? That seems more reasonable. But both Pregame.com and Bovada had LSU about fourth or fifth among the futures.
The real eye-popper, though, was Miami at 25-1. Twenty-five-to-1? That's level footing with Oklahoma and South Carolina, which seem a lot more reasonable. What are we missing?
"Maybe they're thinking the ACC could be that wide-open?" a coach said, participating with me in trying to solve the mystery.
Even at that, the ACC champ isn't necessarily a strong bet to play for, or win, the national title. The league hasn't been in the game since FSU in the 2000 season. (Miami, then with the Big East, was present in 2002.)
There are a lot of instances in which Vegas is smarter than I am, but this is a tough one to believe. The recruiting class is OK (currently 23rd, according to our RecruitingNation), the returning talent is OK -- but does OK amount to 25-1? Or the 50-1 neighborhood?
Geno Smith could rise into first round. No. 1 pick? Just maybe
Recall when the 2012 season started that we just kind of figured that Matt Barkley and Landry Jones, the returning heroes, would be the top two quarterbacks in the 2013 class?
What now, though? It's an incredibly weak field, especially compared to Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and, heck, Wilson from a year ago. But just because it's a relatively weak QB class doesn't necessarily diminish teams' needs for QBs.
That would seem to benefit West Virginia's Geno Smith, even if the season didn't work out as well as September's stats indicated that it would.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Could Geno Smith rise up NFL draft boards to become the No. 1 overall pick?
Look at the other QBs in 2013: Barkley, Jones, Mike Glennon, Tyler Wilson, Tyler Bray. They don't run much. Smith will never be confused for Griffin, or Wilson or Manziel, but he can get out of harm's way if he needs to. That could make him appealing for Kansas City at No. 1 after four years -- whenever he's healthy, anyway -- of a sitting duck in Matt Cassel.
"How sick are the Chiefs of not having someone who can move and avoid sacks?" Weidl said. "Looking at the film, I think he's the top guy. I feel comfortable saying that.
"I wouldn't be surprised if that happened. Why wouldn't you take him? Why would you take another offensive tackle?"
A coach in Nashville is the one who caused me to pose the question to Weidl. I asked him off-hand what he thought about Smith as a pro. He told me, flatly, that he could be the No. 1 overall pick. At the very least, the coach said he's on par with another former Big 12 QB, former Oklahoma State and current Cleveland Browns quarterback (and first-rounder) Brandon Weeden, so he's at least a first-rounder in some coaches' minds.
"He's a better quarterback than Weeden," the coach told me. "He'll be a good one for somebody."
Not everyone's sold yet. Insider colleague Mel Kiper, for one, didn't include Smith on his newest Big Board, released this week. The combine and team's pro day could get Kiper and others to come around. There have been plenty of quarterbacks who rose in the four-month leadup. Christian Ponder comes instantly to mind, and he's one of several examples you can find over the past two seasons. Smith (and Barkley, for that matter) can take solace in the fact that two of the four quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2012 draft weren't on Kiper's Big Board this time last year -- Ryan Tannehill and Weeden. It's common for QBs to rise during the draft process.
Given Weidl's comments on the demand for mobile QBs in the NFL right now, I wondered during the day Wednesday whether Clemson's Tajh Boyd would opt to declare. He didn't, but my thought was that he improved so much as a junior -- demonstrating a new level of both mobility and accuracy -- that he might be a dark horse to overtake Smith and every QB in the class. In the end, though, he decided he wanted another year in college. We'll see where he rates this time next year.
Another mobile QB's status
Virginia Tech coaches expect quarterback Logan Thomas to return next season. Remember that name? It was pretty popular in college football and draft circles entering September, and it quickly fell off as Thomas and the Hokies did.
He should come back, because he still has the potential to get back the cred his name had with scouts. With a lack of experience at offensive line and receiver, Thomas often pressed, trying to make plays that simply weren't there -- hence the regression in TD-INT ratio (plus-9 to plus-2), yards per attempt (7.7 to 6.9) and completion percentage (59.8 to 51.3). That was hard to type, 51.3. Woof.
A Hokies staffer said Thomas needs to relax, first of all. There's the old standby of improving footwork, too. Clemson's Boyd would be a good case study for Thomas. Granted, Thomas is 6-6 and Boyd is 6-1, but Boyd did a great job of improving footwork and mechanics between his second and third seasons.
Incidentally, Boyd told my former Charleston, S.C., newspaper colleague Travis Sawchik -- and correctly, I would argue -- that he would be the No. 1 pick in 2013 if he were 6-5.
As for Thomas, the Hokies open with Alabama. While it's a glaring challenge for the team, it'll also be a shot for Thomas to make a statement, one way or another, to start 2013. Don't write him off yet, a Hokies assistant told me midseason as Thomas struggled.