Last spring—long before Johnny Manziel became widely known as “Johnny Football”—a coach dropped Manziel’s name in conversation with a beat writer, saying the mobile youngster could change the already vaunted air raid offense.
The coach wasn’t Aggies head man Kevin Sumlin or even then-Aggie offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury. Heck, this coach wasn’t even talking to an A&M journalist.
No, this conversation took place far away from College Station, all the way in the heights of Appalachia in Morgantown, W. Va.
At the time, Jake Spavital was the quarterback coach at West Virginia. He was talking QBs with Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail, but instead of talking about his own prolific field general, Geno Smith, his attention turned to Manziel:
[Spavital] spoke both with fondness and interest, suggesting Manziel was a wild card who could change the way Air Raid offenses attack defenses, but speculating how it might look with a mobile, running quarterback throwing the passes. No one knew then what we know now.
At the time, Manziel wasn’t even the front-runner to win the starting job for the Aggies. Many believed sophomore Jameill Showers would take the starting job, but Spavital saw otherwise and so did Sumlin and Kingsbury.
One year later, Spavital looks almost prophetic as he sits as the new quarterback coach and co-offensive coordinator at Texas A&M.
Between the time of Spavital’s conversation with Casazza and now, Manziel took the reins of Sumlin’s air raid offense and turned it into the most productive individual season in Southeastern Conference history—not to mention a Heisman Trophy.
This incredible season earned Manziel’s former mentor, Kingsbury, the head coaching position at Texas Tech. And to fill his position Sumlin chose a familiar face in Spavital, a coach who has a lot in common with the man he is replacing.
Both Spavital and Kingsbury started their coaching careers in 2008 as quality control assistants at successful Conference USA programs that boasted powerful offenses—Kingsbury at Houston and Spavital at Tulsa. And along the way, they were under the tutelage of some of the best offensive minds in college football.
At Houston, Kingsbury was underneath head coach Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen, the Cougars offensive coordinator at the time.
At Tulsa, Spavital worked with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and head coach Todd Graham, who now hold head coaching positions at Auburn and Arizona State respectively.
Then, in 2009, Spavital joined Kingsbury, Holgorsen and Sumlin as a graduate assistant in Houston to learn the ways of the air raid offense.
Spavital has been preparing to be a coach his whole life as his father, Steve Spavital, recalled to ESPN.com’s Sam Khan Jr.:
He would draw and create plays and do all kinds of things. He had his own playbook. ... He would just sit there for hours and draw plays. He has a good mind for the game. He really understands it.
Spavital had such a mind for football that it didn’t take him long to pick up the concepts of the air raid. So when Holgorsen left Houston for Oklahoma State in 2010, he brought Spavital along, again as a graduate assistant.
Next, after just one season in Stillwater, Holgorsen’s big break finally came and with that, so did Spavital’s. Holgorsen accepted the head-coaching job at West Virginia and he brought Spavital along—this time as the quarterbacks coach.
Spavital spent the next two seasons grooming Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith into the school’s all-time leader in every passing category and first-round prospect in the 2013 NFL draft.
All the while, Spavital kept an eye on his buddies at A&M and their budding young quarterback. He even devoted time each week to swap game film with his friend Kingsbury, and the two bounced ideas off each other, as he told Kahn:
Kliff and I have traded tape for the past three years. When I was at Oklahoma State and West Virginia, we would trade every single week. He would look at my tape and I would look at his tape and maybe I'd take some ideas off of him and he would be like 'Hey, from a different perspective, what do you think of Johnny?'
So when Kingsbury left for Texas Tech, it was an easy decision for both Sumlin and Spavital. They already knew each other and Spavital already knew the scheme and its players, making the coaching transition about as seamless as possible for all parties involved.
Now, Spavital finds himself as the mentor of Johnny Football, the talk of college football. And after a successful inaugural SEC campaign in 2012, the Aggies will be arguably the biggest in-conference threat to the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
This may sound like a tall task for a 27-year-old coach who looks young enough to be mistaken for a player on the sideline.
But Spavital doesn’t see it that way.
"I'm not worried about the pressure of it," Spavital told Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated. "It's more keeping the operation going."
Already knowing the ins and outs of the A&M operation, there may not be a better coach to take the keys and keep it rolling than Spavital.