Johnny Manziel has played his last game for Texas A&M, using his near flawless performance in the Aggies comeback victory over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl as the ultimate curtain call. Manziel declared for the NFL draft Wednesday, the long-assumed decision a much harder one than the quarterback expected.
"After long discussions with my family, friends, teammates, and coaches, I have decided to make myself available for the 2014 NFL draft," Manziel told CBS Sports. "The decision was such a tough one for me because of how much I wanted to go back and be with all those guys that I love playing with."
Manziel, college football's ultimate showman, reminded us on New Years Eve why the two-time Heisman finalist and 2012 recipient is among the most electric players in the game's history. Completing 30 of 38 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns (all while leading the Aggies in rushing), Texas A&M stormed back from a three touchdown halftime deficit to finish Manziel's collegiate career on a high note.
In a season filled with eye-popping highlights that only a quarterback with freakish athleticism, sandlot skills and the guts of a cat burglar can pull off, Manziel added a final chapter to the legend of Johnny Football.
Yet those trademark plays, the ones that go viral on YouTube or get featured on SportsCenter, do a disservice to the quarterback Manziel has become. And while he was college football's best-known rock star, after the craziest offseason in college football history, Manziel got down to business and just played football.
No Twitter. No controversies. Just football.
After spinning and juking his way into the hearts of college football fans, Manziel spent this season conquering an opponent that even he couldn't sidestep: himself.
But the work is far from over. With the NFL now on the horizon, Manziel will have to battle a new set of critics before one NFL team takes a shot on Johnny Football as their quarterback of the future.
To prepare for the most important audition of his career, Manziel is heading back to San Diego to work with George Whitfield, the man that helped build his legend.
Whitfield is one of the few coaches who can understand Manziel's meteoric rise. Not just because he worked with the young quarterback before he was known by his nickname, but because just a few years ago, Whitfield was training Pop Warner and junior high quarterbacks. Like Johnny's friend Drake would say, they both started from the bottom.
"A fourth grader literally asked his mom if she would give me a chance," Whitfield said. "And then it kind of snowballed a bit. As I was working with him, I’d get calls from other Pop Warner and junior high families and coaches about working with other kids."
After retiring from an arena football career, Whitfield spent six months working his way through San Diego youth leagues before his father challenged him to go all in on his passion.
"True be told, once arena ball was done I wanted to go to law school," Whitfield said.
But instead of the LSAT, Whitfield went to school on the evolution of quarterbacking, packing his life into a suitcase as he took a crash course on the ever-changing position.
"I traveled the country. I went to about eight universities and worked their summer football camps," Whitfield said. "Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tressell, Mack Brown, Nebraska, Pitt, Coach Tressel at Ohio State, Coach Neuheisel at UCLA, just traveling all summer. I didn’t even go home for about five or six weeks.
"I needed to hear what college coaches were stressing and coaching and teaching and I tried to take it all and bring it back home."
Whitfield worked double time at those camps. He'd work his drill while watching out of the corner of his eye as a coach ran another. Each day he'd fill pages of a notebook he carried in his back pocket, jotting thoughts or drills or coaching tips he found interesting.
As offensive systems were exploding, Whitfield was in perfect position to grasp everything. He picked the brains of the coaching community while cataloging different teaching techniques. He became a curator, taking an academic approach with his findings, spending weeks determining how he'd teach different aspects of the position.
"That kinda got the wheels going and thinking more along the lines of curriculum," Whitfield said. "Different ways to chart progress. I’m from a family of teachers and my dad’s a principal. So in a sense I went through it to teach it."
Perhaps the biggest break Whitfield got on his way up the coaching ladder was an unpaid internship with the San Diego Chargers. Then-offensive coordinator Cam Cameron gave Whitfield the opportunity to see behind the curtain of an NFL program, an experience Whitfield compared to letting a science teacher roam NASA. Whitfield watched the Chargers draft and groom quarterback Philip Rivers.
"He’s a rookie and I’m a rookie. And we both got a chance to go through that together," Whitfield said.
The knowledge learned during that season in San Diego gave Whitfield the confidence to open Whitfield Quarterback Academy. Two years later, Whitfield was preparing undrafted quarterback Hunter Cantwell for the NFL.
A year later, Cantwell's agent had another client in need of some private training: suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Six months later, Cam Newton came calling. Then Andrew Luck. Then Manziel.
"Up until Ben, I had only worked with elementary, junior high, high school and young college quarterbacks. I had never worked with anyone as big as him," Whitfield said. "And then it goes, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Every guy after can look at you and point to a guy that he automatically verifies and you don’t even have to say anything because they trust you."
All of a sudden, Whitfield was one of the premier names in the world of quarterbacking. And that got the attention of the Manziel family, whose son was spending his freshman season at Texas A&M redshirting for then coach Mike Sherman.
"Coach Whitfield's name just kept popping up," Manziel said. "Cam Newton kept popping up. Ben Roethlisberger, big names just kept popping up. It was more what I was looking for in a quarterback coach."
To hear Whitfield tell it, his relationship with his star pupil came by chance. And mostly because Manziel's mother Michelle wouldn't take no for an answer.
"We weren't going to take any more guys, but she kept calling," Whitfield told TexAgs.com.
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That Manziel and Whitfield met when they did was incredibly lucky. A decade earlier, Johnny Manziel might not have been a household name. He might not even be a quarterback. But as athletes like Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt wreak havoc on opposing offenses, coaches have opened up to the idea of putting an elite athlete at the quarterback position.
"It’s not just that the best athletes want to play quarterback; it’s the revelation that the best athletes are being allowed to," Whitfield said. "Now we’re saying, just give us the best weapon that we can possibly have."
Manziel's athleticism had been on display since he was dazzling fans at Kerrville Tivy High. But tightening up the fundamentals of quarterbacking was the biggest challenge for Whitfield, who needed to harness the athleticism that Manziel had used so freely, forcing the young quarterback to retain the demands of his position when chaos breaks loose.
"You want to rep and work with these guys at such a frequency so the training is in the veins," Whitfield said, talking about the offseason work he put in with Manziel. "So it’s just instincts now, so they’re not counting steps like they’re dancing or something like that."
Whitfield's training techniques are unorthodox. They're a product of his environment and the freedom that comes with coaching without needing to kowtow to conventional wisdom. He'll use tennis racquets to simulate a defensive lineman's arms or throw beanbags at quarterbacks to improve their pocket presence. He spends hours with his quarterbacks up to their knees in the Pacific, using the push and pull of the water to better prepare his students for games.
"It provides instability. It forces you to deal with all those unknown factors," Whitfield said.
Manziel's 2013 season serves as validation for Whitfield's teaching methods. Manziel stayed athletic in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield, a focal point not just for Whitfield, but for NFL scouts wondering if Manziel could do more than just run. His improved footwork helped show enough arm strength to bolster the belief that he could make the throws needed to succeed on Sundays. And his knowledge base grew exponentially as defenses spent months preparing game plans to stop Johnny Football.
Manziel upped his completion percentage and quarterback rating. He threw more touchdown passes and cut back on his rushing attempts. He spent the season doing everything skeptics wondered was possible, making the third-year quarterback confident that he's ready for his next challenge.
"You take everything into account. But more than anything, ‘Are you ready for the next level?’ That’s the big thing. In my mind, I think I am," Manziel told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
"In my mind, I feel like I’m playing, for the most part, at a really high level of football. I’m putting the ball where I want it to be, and I’m throwing it with a lot of velocity."
Manziel and Whitfield's work is only just beginning. After working in short bursts these past few years, they'll be able to spend months together. They'll prepare Manziel for an even more intense microscope, as NFL teams try to decide whether to invest millions of dollars in an unorthodox franchise quarterback.
There's no better time in the game's history for a quarterback like Manziel to succeed.
"He has a style about him that I call the Russell Wilson effect," Elite 11 coach Yogi Roth said. "It’s changed every level of football. His success with the Seahawks, it’s let people say, 'Wow, Johnny’s not 6’3”, 230, he can play!'"
Roth has worked with both Manziel and Whitfield in a career that also included coaching quarterbacks for Pete Carroll at USC. In between doing announcer work for the Pac-12 Network, traveling the globe and writing best-selling books, Roth has kept a close eye on the changing face of offenses, and he sees Manziel as the evolutionary next step.
"It’s no longer just, we’re going to make you a pocket passer. We’ll develop that part of your game, but still don’t lose the stinger that you have when you can make plays. And that balance and that communication is really where George has become an expert."
With nothing left to prove at the college level, Manziel heads towards an unknown future armed with not just the confidence of two historic seasons behind him, but a sport that's evolving in his favor.
"I feel very relieved. It's a weight off my shoulders," Manziel said of the decision to head to the NFL. "I'm ready to become a professional and dedicate myself to making my dream a reality of becoming the best quarterback I can be."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.