TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — All eyes might be on Johnny Manziel in Saturday’s Alabama-Texas A&M game – except for the Crimson Tide’s defensive backs.
Top-ranked Alabama coach Nick Saban doesn’t want his DBs turning back to check out No. 6 Texas A&M’s electric quarterback when he’s moving in the backfield.
Too many things can happen, and most of them bad.
“I told our players, ‘There’s a lot of NFL games on Sundays. You want to watch the quarterback, go watch those games. But if you start watching this guy in our game, you’re going to get busted,’ ” Saban said of the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner. “It happened in our game last year. We’ve got people covered pretty well, you look back at the quarterback and their receivers do a good job of extending the play and getting away from it. He finds them and makes big plays.”
Manziel was able to succeed like few have against Alabama’s defense last season with improvisation and big plays in a 29-24 win.
A defense that has been the nation’s stingiest two years running is bracing for another crack at Johnny Football & Co. with 60 minutes of sometimes painful experience to draw on.
That’s helpful since Tide safety HaHa Clinton-Dix calls him “one of a kind.” Johnny Scout Team isn’t quite the same.
“He had a great game,” Clinton-Dix said. “He came out and did his job and I have to give it to him, he’s a great quarterback. We just have to lock in on him this time and stay locked in.”
Saban, who works daily with the secondary, understands Manziel will make plays, praises his passing ability and instincts and calls him “a fierce competitor.” He also said he’s never seen him rattled in a game.
Saban stressed discipline as a key to defending Manziel and said Tide defenders have to faithfully abide by “scramble rules” and stay focused as receivers change their routes based on where he heads in breaking away from pressure. Saban said Aggies receivers have a knack for that and Manziel is instinctive on when to run or throw.
“You’re not going to make him be a pocket passer, because if someone’s not open, he doesn’t throw them the ball,” the coach said. “He’s going to extend the play to run or to make a play throwing the ball. I think throwing the ball first for him is what he does. He will run and he can run, he’s an effective runner. He’s really fast.”
Then there’s the temptation for a defensive back to lose sight of his man and peek at Manziel. Manziel was sacked four times in last season’s game but still ran for 92 yards. Clinton-Dix said you have to resist the notion that “Oh, maybe I can go get him.”
“That’s what coach Saban talks about: Never take your eyes off your man,” Clinton-Dix said. “The minute you do, he’ll pop out of the ground and you know Johnny Football will throw the ball 40, 50 yards and complete a pass. It’s very important that we stay on our keys and our assignments.”
The most notable time it happened last season was when Manziel rolled right, bobbled the ball, then reversed course to avoid several Alabama defenders and hit Ryan Swope in the end zone.
Tide safety Vinnie Sunseri, whose responsibility was the middle of the field on that play, admits he “paid attention to my eyes and not my brain.” Sunseri’s takeaway: “Don’t take your eye off your man or coach Saban going to kill you.”
Saban said there’s no stopping Manziel from making plays. You just try not to let it happen because of defensive mistakes.
“That’s where the discipline part comes in,” he said.