AUBURN, Ala. — Kevin Sumlin is no longer surprised by anything Johnny Manziel does on the field.
Yes, he’s still impressed every time he sees the sophomore signal-caller conjure up another jaw-dropping play. It’s just that he’s seen it so often, he’s become, well, numb to it. As Sumlin tells it, Manziel doesn’t save his feats of derring-do for Saturdays alone.
Manziel’s impeccable improvisational ability surfaces with such regularity during practice that the team now comes to expect it.
“It happens on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, too,” Sumlin said. “So we get a little bit used to it. We're a little spoiled by it, but we never get tired of it.”
The same can’t be said for opposing defenses.
Manziel’s unwillingness to give up on a play is a nightmare. And that’s just on plays where he ends up passing the ball. He’s every bit as difficult to defend when he tucks and runs.
Sure, Manziel is far from the only quarterback whose feet are as feared as his arm.
But it’s neither his feet nor his speed that separates Manziel from his quarterback peers, according to Ellis Johnson.
“The thing that makes him extremely difficult is on top of that mobility he has a lot of vision when he’s scrambling,” Auburn’s defensive coordinator said. “He sees a lot of stuff down the field. You’re trying to run him down, and maybe your front guys can’t catch him, and you don’t know when to come out of coverage. Do you pull the trigger and come get him now, or do you stay back here because this guy’s going to be wandering open and he can find him? That’s the thing that I think is so hard.”
Just three years ago, many of the same things were said about Cam Newton. Gus Malzahn, who was Newton’s offensive coordinator, understood how people might want to draw parallels between the two Heisman Trophy winners.
Auburn's head coach didn’t necessarily agree that their games are mirror images, but he said the pair was indelibly linked in another way.
“I would say those two are probably two of the best that ever played the game in college football,” he said. “We only got to see Cam Newton for one year, but this guy, he's in the same element.”
Perhaps the most important attribute they share is a knack for playing their best in big moments. Newton saved Auburn numerous times during the team’s national championship season in 2010, while Manziel’s two most memorable performances have come when Texas A&M faced the nation's top-ranked team. Both times, that foe was Alabama. Last year, Manziel keyed the Aggies’ 29-24 victory over the Crimson Tide, giving the national champion their lone loss of 2012. In the rematch on Sept. 14 in College Station, Manziel played even better — producing 562 yards of total offense on his own — but Alabama did just enough to escape with a 49-42 win.
That Manziel has always risen to the occasion in the harshest of spotlights is part of the makeup of all transcendent players, Sumlin said, the component that separates great players from merely good ones.
“No stage has been too big for him, and he's picked up where he was last year and continued down that path,” Sumlin said. “I think he enjoys playing the game no matter what, and being in the league that we're in, every stage becomes big. The more you win, the more important every game gets.”
Saturday qualifies as such a contest, with the winner moving to 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the Southeastern Conference.
As big a challenge as Manziel poses, Malzahn said how his defenders deal with frustration will also figure prominently in the game's outcome.
“He's going to get his, there's no doubt,” Malzahn said. “And we've just got to hang in there and we've got to keep battling. The good thing is we do have some depth on defense, and that will be very critical in a game like this. You've got to put the play behind you and you've got to move forward.”
Hugh Freeze knows that feeling all too well. Last week, he saw Manziel engineer a come-from-behind victory against his Ole Miss team for the second straight season — with both rallies coming with the Rebels holding fourth quarter leads.
When Freeze and Malzahn texted earlier this week, the Ole Miss coach imparted the best advice he could summon to aid his friend on Saturday.
“’Good luck with Manziel,’" Freeze said of his message. “I'm not sure that anyone has quite figured out exactly what the best thing is to do to defend him."