Examining the value of Manziel's scrambles

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M conducted its lone open-to-the-public scrimmage during preseason training camp this month, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel didn't exactly light the world on fire.

While he showed plenty of his skills, it wasn't a clean or particularly memorable performance. Head coach Kevin Sumlin said he is probably partially to blame -- and his quarterback agreed -- given the restriction against scrambling that Sumlin places on him in practice.

"He blames me," Sumlin said after that Aug. 17 scrimmage. "He said the reason he doesn't run around at practice is because I blow the whistle. That's probably true."

But after Manziel serves his two-quarter suspension and takes the field Saturday against Rice, the shackles will be off. No more scramble restrictions -- Johnny Football will be allowed to let it rip with his arm and his feet again.

That's not just good news for Manziel -- it's good news for the Aggies as well. While this offseason included much work by Manziel on becoming a better pocket passer, he's still going to be who he is. It's not far-fetched to think that because of his increased grasp on the Aggies' offense in his second year in the system, his passing totals will increase and rushing totals will decrease. It's an area he showed progress during the second half of the 2012 season. But the coaches don't want to take away what made him great last year.

"Johnny wants to be a better pocket passer," Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said this spring. "You can see him progress as the year went on, and he's going to keep getting better at it. The main thing is you don't want to handcuff him and you want Johnny to be Johnny. His ability to scramble and make plays and get out of the pocket is the reason he won the Heisman. You want to just keep working on the little things and get him to be a better passer, but at the same time, you just want that kid to keep balling the way he is."

His scrambling ability carried tremendous value for the Aggies last season. Many know the basics of his 2012 campaign: 5,116 total offensive yards and an SEC-record 47 total touchdowns. He led the SEC in rushing yards (1,410) and led the Aggies to victory at eventual BCS champion Alabama.

But dive deeper into the numbers and it becomes even more evident what he meant to the Aggies' 11-2 season, which vaulted them to their best postseason ranking (No. 5) since 1956.

The Aggies did much of their best work last year on third downs. They were tied for No. 1 in college football with Marshall for the best third-down conversion rate last season, turning 54.6 percent of their third-down situations into first downs. Third down is also when Manziel shined.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Manziel was the best in the country at converting third downs via the pass, doing so 51.6 percent of the time (the FBS average was 37.3 percent). Of course, his scrambling ability was also critical on third down as he ran for 28 first downs, 19 of which came with 5 yards or more to go. That also was best in the country, as no other quarterback had more than 12 first-down runs on third-and-5 or longer.

That scrambling ability accounted for a 857 rushing yards, 60.7 percent of his season total. If you combined the rushing yards on scrambles of Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller from 2012, it still comes up 30 yards short of Manziel alone. Fifteen of his scrambles gained at least 20 yards, which was also the best in the SEC.

The players who go up against Manziel in practice know how hard it is just to chase the redshirt sophomore.

"Even getting within 5 yards of him is hard," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said on Tuesday.

Manziel also had one of best offensive lines in the country in front of him and will have a strong front five again, anchored by offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi.

Manziel didn't just run when he scrambled, either. Of his 26 touchdown passes last season, eight came on scrambles. He also threw for 26 first downs on scrambles, 14 of which came on third down.

In total, according to ESPN Stats & Info, 20 percent of Texas A&M's offensive yards, 24 percent of the Aggies' touchdowns, 25 percent of their plays of 20 or more yards and 18 percent of their first downs came when Manziel scrambled. They gained 1,438 of their 7,261 offensive yards when he scrambled. Take those yards away and the Aggies dip from second nationally in total yards to 30th.

Manziel's progress as a pocket passer this offseason has been lauded by the coaching staff. Spavital said earlier this month that Manziel during camp has "been staying in the pocket, going through his progressions, and I think it's making him a better pocket passer."

But the Aggies coaches won't be upset if he still decides to break that pocket and make magic happen.