After setting the college football world on fire in 2012 and becoming the first redshirt freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel set the bar high for himself.
What will he do for an encore?
Manziel isn't sneaking up on anybody this year. Teams are making a concerted effort to force him to beat them with his arm, and he's doing it.
He is leading the SEC in completion percentage (73 percent), passing yards (2,594), touchdown passes (22) and quarterback rating (181.95).
|Year||Rushing YPG||Passing YPG||Comp. %||Yards/Att||Total TD/Game|
Manziel came out hot versus Alabama in Week 3 and lit up the Crimson Tide defense to the tune of 562 total yards and five touchdowns. Despite losing 49-42, that game served as a sign that Manziel 2.0 is the real deal.
"There's a reason he won the Heisman," Crimson Tide safety Vinnie Sunseri said after that game, according to ESPN.com. "He's an unbelievable player, I don't care what he does off the field. He has great receivers and everything. We knew it was going to go back and forth and we just had to try to slow him down."
How has he improved?
The most noticeable change is that he's going through his progressions.
Even in his game versus Alabama last season in the video above, Manziel would go one-two in his progressions and bail. That's not a knock. After all, it worked. But any good athlete adjusts, and Manziel did just that this season.
He spent a week in San Diego with quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. and came back to College Station for fall camp with an intent to polish his game to benefit this team and make himself more attractive to NFL scouts.
The result is a quarterback who's equally capable of beating you with his legs and arm.
On his first touchdown pass of the season, he looked left, came back across the field to his slot receiver running a dig and then found Mike Evans on a slow-developing route underneath for the score. It was a sign that this version of Manziel is a little bit different than its predecessor.
He also hasn't lost what makes him great as a scrambler.
Part of the reason he put up 1,410 rushing yards last season was his ability to keep his eyes downfield when he breaks the pocket while allowing running lanes to develop. By the time defenders recognized that he was taking off, a five-yard gain had turned into a 10-yard gain because defensive backs had to respect his duality.
When he does take off, it's his vision that makes him so dangerous. That has been aided by his ability as a passer, because defenders have to respect him even when he's on the run.
He rarely has to make Barry Sanders-like moves to get by defenders, because he recognizes where threats are coming from early and forces defenders to take bad angles. That turns 10-yard gains into home runs.
But contact is unavoidable, and Manziel doesn't shy away from it.
He rarely slides, and when a defender is standing between him and the end zone or a first down, he's not afraid to lower his shoulder and fight for that extra yard.
Sometimes that backfires, as it did in the fourth quarter against Auburn, when he injured his shoulder near the goal line after taking on Tigers safety Ryan White. That cost him a series versus and put his availability last weekend versus Vanderbilt in doubt.
He was favoring that shoulder last week versus the Commodores, and judging from his four carries, he clearly made an effort to protect himself.
It didn't matter. All he did was toss four touchdown passes, throw for 305 yards and make some NFL-caliber throws in the 56-24 win.
On his third touchdown pass of the game—a 14-yarder to Derel Walker—Manziel zipped it through a tight window to Walker in tight coverage for the score. Keep in mind, this is with a shoulder injury that was clearly bothering him.
Will Johnny Manziel succeed in the NFL?
He doesn't have the rushing yards that he had last season, but it really doesn't matter. It's clear he can still make things happen on the ground and has evolved his passing game to a point where it's as much of a threat as his ground game.
His stats won't show it, and it's unlikely that he'll hoist the Heisman Trophy following this season, but Manziel is doing better than he was in 2012. He made an effort to better himself this season as a pocket passer, and it's clear through eight games that his effort has paid off.
Love him or hate him—and there really is no in-between with Manziel—he's a lot of fun to watch.