South Carolina State safety Kimario McFadden knew his team’s defensive unit would be facing a pretty good freshman quarterback when the Bulldogs traveled to College Station, Texas, in late September.
At that point, Johnny Manziel had started two college games in his career and already begun to show flashes of brilliance in games against Florida and SMU, something the Bulldogs saw in film sessions.
But they had no idea that they were about to take on the player who would become the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy.
“We knew he was a good player and a good athlete — he could make a lot of plays running around and throwing the ball well by using his feet — but we had no idea that he would blow up into what he is today,” McFadden said.
S.C. State coach Buddy Pough said he didn’t see Manziel’s emergence coming either.
“He was a work-in-progress at that time. He was still trying to find his way,” Pough said.
By the time Manziel finished leading the Aggies to a 70-14 victory against the Bulldogs, they came away with a better sense of how good he is. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound freshman completed 15 of 20 passes for 174 yards and touchdowns of 9, 30 and 37 yards. He ran the ball eight times for 78 yards, including touchdown runs of 39 and 20 yards.
“We tried to make him run so we could hit him,” Pough said with a laugh. “Well, we forced him into some runs, but we never caught him to hit him. He just ran right into the end zone.”
McFadden, a 5-11, 197-pound junior from the Atlanta area, quickly learned how difficult it was to defend Manziel, who made it almost impossible for the players in the secondary to decide to stay with their men or go chase him.
“If you don’t contain him, receivers start to run around the field, you have to cover them a lot longer, and he can take off himself with the ball. It’s just really tough because he brings two dimensions to their offense,” said McFadden, who had six tackles but no good hits on Manziel.
Pough said the Aggies were working toward Manziel being a throw-on-the-run quarterback as a way of keeping defenses honest.
“As they learned more about him and his capabilities, you could tell they tried to develop his game that way. Toward the end of the year, he was really hitting on all cylinders,” Pough said.
Heading into Saturday night’s Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, where he is expected to be the first freshman to win the award in its long history, Manziel has posted gaudy numbers while leading No. 9 Texas A&M (10-2) to a Cotton Bowl date with Oklahoma.
Pough got a charge out of watching Manziel’s progress, which included conference record-setting single-game performances against Arkansas and Louisiana Tech.
Manziel’s season highlight was leading the Aggies to a 29-24 road win against No. 1 and undefeated Alabama, the defending national champion. Pough credits Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, a longtime friend in the coaching business, for realizing what he had in Manziel.
Pough, a member of USC’s staff under Brad Scott and Lou Holtz, remembered a trip to study Purdue’s offense after the Gamecocks’ 0-11 season in 1999. Sumlin was the receivers coach for a Purdue team that featured quarterback Drew Brees, who would go on to finish third in Heisman balloting in the 2000 season after a prolific year throwing and running the ball. Pough said Sumlin must see the similarities between Manziel and Brees, now an established NFL star.
And although his team fell well short of knocking off the Aggies, Pough, whose Bulldogs finished 5-6, liked playing in front of nearly 87,000 fans, which included the famed Twelfth Man, and facing the possible 78th Heisman Trophy winner, which has never happened in S.C. State history. Pough said he’ll use that on the recruiting trail this winter.
“When you play those kinds of games, you don’t think about these situations possibly happening, especially where this guy could be the first freshman (Heisman Trophy winner) ever,” he said. “I’m rooting for him and hope that he wins.”
McFadden, who finished his season with 54 tackles, said he and his teammates will be pulling for Johnny Manziel, too.