COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Johnny Football was the elephant in the room Tuesday at Texas A&M.
The seventh-ranked Aggies head into Saturday’s home opener against Rice with questions still swirling about whether Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel will play against the Owls. The NCAA is investigating whether he was paid for his autograph, a potential violation of amateurism rules that could threaten his eligibility.
It was the only thing anyone really wanted to talk about on Tuesday when the Aggies addressed the media. The topic, however, was off limits.
Athletic director Eric Hyman said Monday night that he’d instructed everyone in the program not to talk about Manziel. And if that wasn’t clear enough, a member of the sports information department slowly and sternly read the statement, not once, but twice during the session.
Reporters asked anyway, and coach Kevin Sumlin did what Hyman asked.
“We’re not discussing that,” he said. “I thought we went over that right from the beginning.”
He later added that they have a plan for any number of situations that could happen with their players and team, and that they plan for the possible absence of players every week.
ESPN, citing an anonymous source, reported that Manziel met with NCAA investigators over the weekend. CBSSports.com, also citing anonymous sources, reported that Manziel told the investigators he didn’t take money for his autograph.
While Sumlin wouldn’t discuss Manziel’s availability for Week 1, he had no problem talking about whether football has helped the quarterback deal with everything going on off the field.
“I know he likes to play football,” Sumlin said. “I think the structure that he has had since Aug. 4 has been nothing but helpful.”
If Manziel doesn’t play against the Owls, the Aggies will use either junior Matt Joeckel or freshman Kenny Hill. Joeckel is more of a pocket passer and Hill is a dual-threat quarterback. Joeckel has thrown just 11 passes in his college career. Hill, who starred at Texas high school powerhouse Southlake Carroll, threw for 2,291 yards and 20 TDs and ran for 905 yards and 22 more scores as a senior last season.
Sumlin said the competition between the two is ongoing, and that he’s been pleased with the progress of both players. He said it helps his team because they’ve always allowed all quarterbacks to get work with the first team.
“Anybody who has been around knows that we rotate players with the first team, has seen us rotate snaps with the first team and because of that I think it gives your team a chance to develop a relationship or camaraderie with that first team if something happens,” Sumlin said.
Sumlin is confident that Texas A&M’s offense will be OK no matter who’s running the show because of his offensive line. The group, led by left tackle Jake Matthews, is expected to be a strength despite losing Matt’s twin brother, Luke Joeckel, when he was selected second overall in the draft. Matthews, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, will be joined on the line this season by little brother Mike Matthews at center.
“We’ve got a really solid offensive line which takes a little bit of the pressure off Matt and Kenny,” Sumlin said. “When Johnny’s taking snaps, when he’s in there he’s really trying to help the perimeter guys. Our offensive line gives us an opportunity to rotate those quarterbacks and have them be successful.”
Senior running back Ben Malena is confident that Joeckel or Hill could ably fill in at quarterback if necessary.
“Both of those guys have really done great things when they’ve got their opportunities in practice,” he said. “They have both had opportunities to make plays and they have. It’s a great competition.”
The uncertainty surrounding Manziel has put a damper on the excitement surrounding the Aggies after they finished 11-2 in their first SEC season. Without naming Manziel, Sumlin was asked how he balances the needs of a player over those of the team. He then likened his team to a family, saying that many things are done and said behind closed doors the public will never know about.
But he did share his philosophy on leading the Aggies.
“There’s nothing more important than the team,” he said. “We talk to them about what we expect from them on the field, what we expect from them off the field and what we expect from them effort-wise and accountability-wise and being able to trust each other.”