First-year Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury stopped by SI.com’s office in New York last week. Here are his thoughts on Johnny Manziel’s sophomore prospects, Mike Leach’s future at Washington State, the coming College Football Playoff and much more.
SI: Last year at Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel wasn’t named the starting quarterback until fall camp, and he was largely overshadowed until his Heisman campaign took off in earnest in October. Why do you think he flew under the radar for so long?
Kliff Kingsbury: You can see why people may not have said [he’d be] a quarterback, ‘cause he’s not one-two-three and the ball is out, and he’s not setting his feet a lot. It’s just making plays over and over and over and over. And nobody thought, I guess, that would translate to the college game. And obviously it did. But we really didn’t know what we had in him until about the first quarter of the Florida game. Simply because when there aren’t controlled practices with coaches blowing the whistle and [defenders] are getting close to him, that’s when Johnny goes into his “freak mode” as I call it and starts making plays.
SI: It’s funny you mention his pre-college question marks, because many those same doubts have now started to surface about Manziel’s NFL potential. How do you think his skill set translates to the next level, when he eventually decides to make the move?
KK: I think it all translates. And I think now is a perfect time for him to be coming out with RGIII, Russell Wilson, [Colin] Kaepernick, even Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers -- guys who are great at extending plays. And not always running, but just getting out of the pocket, keeping plays alive. And that’s what he does. He’s phenomenal. He’s the best I’ve ever seen at it. He’s a very accurate thrower. He has above-average arm strength. Phenomenal athlete. Football savvy. And the height deal, I think Russell Wilson and Drew Brees have knocked that out of the park. I would take him the first pick if I had it.
SI: Now that you’re at Texas Tech, are you sick of being asked questions about Manziel yet?
KK: I tell people, I couldn’t be prouder of that kid and what he’s accomplished. For him to go in that league as a freshman and win the Heisman, nobody’s ever done it. I’ll talk about him as much as people want to talk about him. That’s an incredible feat.
SI: During your playing days, you came up in an Air Raid scheme, then you presided over offenses at Houston and A&M that were pass-heavy at times. Is it important for you to maintain a level of offensive balance?
KK: That’s huge. And I tell people, we’re a run-first offense. That’s what we try to be. And I think last year, leading the SEC in rushing, proved that. That’s one of the best offensive lines I’ve ever seen, obviously. But we’re gonna play to our strengths. We’re gonna run the ball and do what we have to do to keep defenses honest. And I would say over the last three years that I’ve been a play-caller, it’s probably close to 60-40, 55-45, as far as run-pass [split]. It’s not as skewed as everybody thinks. We like to run the ball and if we can do it, we’re gonna do it. Now if we can’t, we’ll air it out. I’m not opposed to throwing it every single down.
SI: Your former coach at Texas Tech, Mike Leach, went just 3-9 in his first season at Washington State in 2012. Do you think he’ll turn things around?
KK: He will. I think the offense that [Washington State] had in place there was so foreign and so far away from what he does that it’s just gonna take him a couple of years to get his skill players in there to get it rolling. But he’ll get it rolling. He’s an unbelievable mind. You saw the last game for them to beat Washington was incredible. I know they’ve built off that. So I fully expect him to get it rolling this year.
SI: You also have a unique perspective on the BCS, as you played in college during its inception and are now a head coach for its final season. What’s your overall takeaway from the BCS era?
KK: It was the best they could do. And a lot of times they got it right, and a few times -- this year, for instance -- you hate to see it be that lopsided in a championship game. But I think they did the best they could do. But I am glad they’re moving forward and I think it’s gonna be awesome in college football this new set up. I hope they keep expanding it, get more and more teams in.
SI: Do you wish there had been a playoff in place last season?
KK: That would’ve been fun. ‘Cause you get hot at the end of years. This year at A&M, I don’t know who would’ve beat us. We were rolling pretty good there in the last six [games]. And then it’s just over. Every other sport has a playoff to determine the champion. It’s hard on the kids ‘cause you lose one game and you’re out. In another sport, the Packers go 9-7 and they win the Super Bowl. So as a coach, you’d like to keep being able to dangle that carrot in front of them.
SI: In 2008, you were a quality control assistant at Houston. Did you ever think you'd be able to move up the ranks to become a head coach so quickly?
KK: [In 2008] I was still figuring out if that’s what I wanted to do. I was like, “All right, I’ll try this out.” And then being associated with coach Sumlin was huge, with the success he’s had, and Dana [Holgorsen]. I’ve just been very fortunate. I’ve been around great players. And that’s what this game’s about, man. You have good players, you’re gonna look good. And that’s the bottom line.