COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Every time Johnny Manziel watched fellow Texas A&M quarterback Jameil Showers throw this spring, Manziel felt inadequate. Back then, Manziel wasn't Johnny Football, Heisman Trophy contender. He was a redshirt freshman in a three-man race for a starting job, and he was losing.
"I'd see Jameil throw the ball," Manziel said. "That thing doesn't flutter at all. I was like, 'There's got to be some trick that I'm not getting.'"
Manziel's coaches weren't as hard on Manziel as Manziel was on himself. They knew the good lord blessed Showers with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. To fret about not throwing as tight a spiral as Showers does is akin to going in the tank after losing a footrace to Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. But Manziel, who struggled with turnovers during spring practice, couldn't help but wonder if mechanical improvements to his throwing motion might give him an edge in the quarterback competition. He knew he could run better than the other quarterbacks. If he could match Showers arm-for-arm, Manziel probably would win the job.
Manziel's mother, Michelle, had read about San Diego-based quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. when Whitfield trained Cam Newton and Andrew Luck for the NFL draft. Michelle Manziel understood that for most of her son's life, coaches in every sport he played had been reluctant to tinker with his mechanics because his natural ability produced such amazing results. So she and husband Paul contacted Whitfield and asked if they could purchase lessons for their redshirt freshman. Whitfield, who trains players from Pop Warner to the pros, told them he had an open slot in May. The Manziels agreed, and shortly after Texas A&M's spring semester ended, Johnny headed to San Diego for five days that helped turn him into a Heisman candidate.
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Whitfield had seen Manziel's highlight video on YouTube. Like almost everyone who meets Manziel, Whitfield expected someone bigger. Of course, if Whitfield wanted to see a large quarterback, all he had to do was look at one of the other two college signal-callers who came to work out that week. Massive Virginia Tech junior Logan Thomas had also come west to sharpen his skills. Originally, Whitfield had planned to work out Manziel and Thomas separately. That plan didn't last long.
"I had it set up for both of those guys to work out twice a day, but back-to-back workouts," Whitfield said. "Johnny put an end to that almost immediately. He said, 'I'd like to go with him.' He knew who Logan was. He'd seen Logan in the Sugar Bowl. I told him Logan's got some things he's got to work on and you've got the things you need to work on. He said, 'I'll work on my things and do his workout.' It was as politely agitated as you can be. I walked over to Logan and said 'This is Johnny Manziel from Texas A&M. Would you mind if he works out with you?' And Logan had this big smile."
Before long, Whitfield noticed Manziel pantomiming Thomas' every move as he waited for his turn to throw. Whitfield couldn't help but smile. "It's the beauty of the quarterback position," Whitfield said. "Logan Thomas is like a Kodiak bear. Then you get this leopard. They're both lethal, but they're going to go after you in different ways. One is 6-foot, 195 pounds and the other is 6-6, 260 pounds."
Whitfield worked to rein in Manziel's instinct to run the moment something went wrong. While a broken play certainly requires a scramble, some plays require only a shuffle, a slide or a rollout to allow the quarterback time and space to find an open receiver. The quarterback doesn't get hit, and the play might still gain big yardage. As an added bonus, the offensive coordinator remains happy because the quarterback ran the play the coordinator called.
Texas A&M coordinator Kliff Kingsbury had already begun teaching Manziel to stay in the pocket longer during the spring. Whitfield reinforced that teaching by giving Manziel the same advice he gave another quarterback who dominated college football with legs and arm. "Cam and I also had this conversation. I wanted both of those guys to learn to work in the cockpit," Whitfield said. "If something happens in your cockpit, you've got one of the biggest parachute jump packs that anybody ever had. You can always rip the cord, but don't rip the cord as soon as the play starts. They can play like everybody else. They just have a default mechanism like few others."
Whitfield said the key with Newton and Manziel was teaching them how to use all the switches and handles in the cockpit. For Manziel, that meant refining his throwing motion. Whitfield had Manziel raise his elbow and keep the ball closer to his ear. Whitfield also shortened Manziel's throwing motion. Instead of stepping long and forcing his arm to do all the work, Manziel kept his body coiled and used his lower body to generate power for his throws. Manziel saw results almost immediately. "Finally, in California, I was a lot more compact. I took a lot shorter stride," Manziel said. "It came out better. It's closer. It's tighter, and it comes out a lot faster."
When Manziel returned to the practice field in August, he seemed a different quarterback. He still could break off a 50-yard run if his blocking broke down, but he could also drop a back-shoulder fade to a receiver in the end zone. "I just came back with confidence," Manziel said.
That confidence grew after Manziel won the starting job. As the season progressed, he grew even more comfortable in the pocket. Ask him for his season highlight, and he'll skip the miracle runs or the scramble throws and pick a play in which he caught the snap, made a throw and walked off the field pumping his fist in celebration. Manziel's favorite play is his 24-yard touchdown pass to Malcome Kennedy in the fourth quarter of the Aggies' win at Alabama on Nov. 10. Cornerback Dee Milliner had Kennedy smothered. He could not have covered him any better. Manziel's pass zipped over Milliner's outstretched arm and into Kennedy's hands.
Kingsbury loved that throw. He also loves the fact that Manziel is so determined to make himself the best pocket passer he can be. Manziel probably could dominate with his legs and average passing skills. But if he continues to improve as a thrower, his ceiling rises even higher.
"He has a big chip on his shoulder because nobody thought he was a drop-back passer in high school," Kingsbury said. "He'll make snide comments after throwing a touchdown pass. 'God, I suck at drop-back passing.' He'll say things like that. He wants to prove everybody wrong."
With an assist from Whitfield, he is.