COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In last Saturday's 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel recorded a career-low 11 rushing yards.
Nursing an injured throwing shoulder, Manziel recorded only four official carries, which also was a career low. There were no designed running plays in the game plan for him, Manziel said, and coaches noted that they wanted to be smart about not putting the Heisman Trophy winner's shoulder in harm's way.
But throughout his college career, Manziel's scrambling ability has become a signature trait, something that has helped make him one of the most electrifying players in the country. His combination of speed, agility and decision-making have made him a challenge for opposing defenses, but it also took some adjusting for the Aggies' offensive line last season, when he rushed for 1,410 yards. (Manziel has 497 so far this year.)
"It just takes a while," offensive line coach B.J. Anderson said. "We came in last season and -- it's not just the linemen, it's the coaching staff, too -- I've learned a lot. I remember the Florida game last year [to open the season]. If you look at our offense then as compared to our offense now, now it looks like it's built around our quarterback. Then it looks like it's built around Case Keenum. And that's just the truth of it."
Keenum was the record-breaking passer at the University of Houston, who enjoyed tremendous success under Kevin Sumlin and the Cougars' offensive coaching staff, many of whom followed Sumlin when he accepted the Texas A&M head coach job. Keenum, now starting for the NFL's Houston Texans, wasn't a statue in the pocket, but he wasn't quite the athlete that Manziel is. Few quarterbacks are.
Because of Manziel's ability to extend plays from a traditional three, four or five seconds, the Aggies' offensive linemen must block longer and be smarter, because they never know when or where Manziel might take off and run. Look at his signature play from the 2012 season: a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Swope against Alabama. On that play, Manziel collided into Jake Matthews, who was playing right tackle, before gathering himself, recovering a near-fumble then scrambling away to throw the pass.
Even 21 games into his career, the veterans up front say it's still a process.
"There's still times where you feel like you're adjusting because you never know which way he's going to dart out of that pocket," offensive tackle Jake Matthews said. "Sometimes he's right behind you and you think he's going under you. It can get kind of confusing sometimes. But he makes so many plays for us that we're willing to go the extra mile and block that much longer for him. It's a little bit of a challenge, but you've got to love it."
And Manziel has helped matters by being open about what his preferences are when the play breaks down.
"He's such a football nut," Anderson said of Manziel. "He'll tell you, 'I don't want to run up in there [pointing to a specific area]. There's too much [going on] in there. It's not clear to me. I want to run around people.
"So that's why you've seen all these packages of us pulling everybody around and there goes Johnny. We're not geniuses, but what they're good at, we want to do."
Starting center Mike Matthews says he pays keen attention to where his defender is going, which is what many linemen do anyway because the defensive linemen are chasing after the quarterback. But when the defender takes off abruptly, it can get tricky.
"When [Manziel] rolls out sometimes, it's kind of hard because you're blocking a guy and next thing you know, he sprints straight to the sideline," Matthews said. "I'm assuming Johnny rolled out, so I just start running after him."
Anderson said he believes his group has made significant strides in learning and adapting to their quarterback based on film study and practice time. Opponents try several different tactics, but the Aggies seem to handle them well. The key, Anderson said, is to finish blocks.
"You've got to maintain blocks unlike you've ever done," Anderson said. "Most quarterbacks, you know where they are the whole time. Johnny, that's just part of his game.
"We work awfully hard at finishing blocks, putting pressure on guys -- A, so they don't jump and knock balls down; and B, in case he's right beside you, a guy can't yank him and bring him to the ground. We're going to get to our spots, our intersection points in the passing game, cover people up and apply pressure and let Johnny make us right."