By Jimmy Burch
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. _ During a summer workout with a private instructor, an under-the-radar candidate seeking to become Texas A&M’s starting quarterback tweaked his delivery by shortening his stride.
“The ball came out quicker. It came out smoother. I threw a better spiral,” Johnny Manziel said of a fundamental change that allowed him to get more power behind his throws. “That was kind of the point where I couldn’t wait … to go out and show that I’ve gotten better and I can compete to win this starting job.”
Manziel, a record-setting redshirt freshman, underscored just how good he’s gotten Thursday night by becoming the first freshman to win the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award on the same day he celebrated his 20th birthday.
Manziel, one of three finalists who will be in New York for Saturday’s live announcement of the Heisman Trophy winner, will be honored Feb. 18, 2013 during a ceremony at the Fort Worth Club. A Tyler native who played in high school at Kerrville Tivy, Manziel said it “meant the world” to collect the O’Brien at the conclusion of a freshman season when he set a Southeastern Conference record for total offense (4,600 yards) and accounted for 43 touchdowns (19 rushing, 23 passing) while leading No. 9 A&M (10-2) to a Jan. 4 berth in the AT&T Cotton Bowl at Cowboys Stadium.
“To be named the best quarterback, it’s a dream come true,” Manziel said. “And looking back at the beginning of the year, if somebody would have told me, I probably wouldn’t have believed them.”
But the 2012 season has unfolded in dramatic fashion for “Johnny Football,” who won a three-player battle in fall drills to become the Aggies’ starting quarterback and projects as the favorite heading into Saturday’s Heisman announcement, based on multiple straw polls. If successful, Manziel would become the first freshman to win the Heisman in the award’s 77-year history.
He already is the first freshman, and first A&M player, to win the O’Brien. Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, a fellow O’Brien finalist and Heisman hopeful, considers the honor well-deserved.
“He’s a great player that has made huge plays for his team in huge games. And in huge moments in those games,” Klein said of Manziel, who ranks second nationally in total offense (383.3 yards per game) and is the first freshman _ and fifth major-college quarterback _ to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
Manziel has declared himself “shocked” by his instant success in college football. But that sentiment is not shared by George Whitfield, the San Diego-based passing guru who helped Manziel shorten his stride and works with multiple NFL quarterbacks.
“A lot of quarterbacks are alpha males,” Whitfield said. “But some of them can’t even fathom a less-than-ideal outcome. And he’s one of those few. Johnny thinks he can slay dragons. His confidence is built-in.”
Manziel rushed for 1,181 yards, passed for 3,419 and completed 68.3 percent of his passes in his first season as the Aggies’ starter. He led the team to a 29-24 upset of then-No. 1 Alabama (11-1), which will play Notre Dame (12-0) in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7 in Miami.
Manziel set an SEC single-game record for total offense in a 58-10 victory over Arkansas (557 yards), then shattered it two weeks later during a 59-57 victory over Louisiana Tech (576 yards) in which Manziel rushed for three touchdowns and threw three TD passes.
A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel, an Arlington High School graduate and finalist for the Outland Trophy, said members of the Aggies’ offensive line are regularly stunned when watching videotapes of Manziel’s elusiveness and improvisational skills because they do not realize what is happening behind them during games.
“Watching the film on Sundays, we all watch together and we just laugh,” Joeckel said. “Because what kind of football player can do that kind of stuff? He’s just an incredible player. That guy’s got about two years of Heisman highlights in one season.”
He also has an O’Brien Award, which projects as a good omen for Saturday. Five of the last six O’Brien winners also won the Heisman in the same season.