Replacing the incomparable Johnny Manziel is no small task. It’s downright Herculean. As in, ask the son of Zeus how difficult it was to live up to his Greek pops’ legacy. Hercules’ Twelve Labors is a playdate compared to the 12-game chimera set before Texas A&M in year 1 post-Manziel.
Inquire with John Brantley or Jeff Driskel about the psychological impact of having to hear Tebow comparisons echo through The Swamp while they continuously stumbled reaching for his lofty standards. Yet somebody has to step up into the unenviable position of carrying Texas A&M to the next stage of their evolution.
To delve into this quarterback comparison, let’s draw the curtain, redact a few names and play a game of blind resumes. The point is to strip off the bias and give some perspective on how the Aggies new freshman starter compares to their ascendended gridiron wizard. One of these MaxPreps career stats belongs to Johnny Manziel. One of the remaining three is his successor’s career prep school numbers.
Prospect 1 is dual-threat passer with a decisive decision-making process. [Note: the 107 interceptions during his sophomore year is a site glitch. Either that or his prosopagnosia (a neurological condition affecting the ability to recognize faces) was cured between his junior and senior seasons.]
Prospect 2 is also a former Texas high school football signal caller with a predilection for playmaking with his arms and legs.
Prospect 3’s ability to break contain is one of his trademarks, but he evolved significantly as a passer during his senior season.
Prospect 4 is another diminutive offensive maestro with a slimmer resume than the rest.
Not to keep the audience shrouded in mystery for too long, but Prospect 3 is the man, the myth, the legend known colloquially as Johnny F**kin’ Football. Prospect 2 is Manziel’s successor – in high school.
Parks McNeil can identify with the arduous experience of succeeding a Texas football demi-god at the most scrutinized position in sports. Instead of lightning bolts, Manziel electrified the masses with his calculated risk and YOLO style of play.
McNeil was a 5-9 junior when he was given the keys to Manziel’s old whip. Remarkably, McNeil drifted the offense around corners like a seasoned vet while racking up beaucoup yards by air and land, including an accumulation of over 7,600 yards in total offense. McNeil reached or threw for paydirt 84 times during a two year run, but his production couldn’t compare to Manzie;s gridiron alchemy.
Thrice in Manziel’s prep career at Tivy High School in Kerville Texas, the gunslinger on hot wheels dashed and passed for eight total touchdowns in a single contest. Production like that is dificult to duplicate.
Conversely, Texas A&M believes it should have better luck replacing the 2012 Heisman Trophy Winner than Tivy in its point-scoring petri dish.
In a conference where defenses dominate, running backs plow through clouds of dust and quarterback play has always been hit or miss, Texas A&M has become a quarterback utopia. That shift can partially be credited to Urban Meyer at Florida. However, the offense implemented by head coach Kevin Sumlin has taken it to another level.
In six years at the helm of Houston and Texas A&M, Sumlin’s offenses have finished outside the top four in total offense just once—when they ranked 11th in 2010.
During the course of his distinguished career, he’s become renowned as a stat PED supplier, peddling copious passing yards. Sumlin is the Anthony Bosch to Art Briles’ Victor Conte. Whoever steps up to the plate for a Sumlin offense is guaranteed to send balls flying out over the warning track in a hitter-friendly park.
Knowing that Sumlin’s resume included Drew Brees, Drew Bledsoe, Sam Bradford, Johnny Manziel and college football’s all-time leader in total offense, passing yardage, passing touchdowns and 5,000 yard seasons gives you a sense that Sumlin has the complete opposite effect as Les Miles’ voodoo work with upper echelon high school quarterbacks who he’s been entrusted with developing.
All of this proves why you should buy into the newly-named starter, Kenny Hill.
The one time Briles and Sumlin actually co-opted a quarterback; Case Keenum shattered nearly every FBS career passing record. It shouldn’t be too shocking then that Hill’s college decision came down to Texas A&M and Baylor.
The son of a former MLB All-Star pitcher, Kenny inherited the baseball genes from his father; but growing up in Southlake, Texas allowed the environment to nurture him into a virtuoso ace quarterback on the gridiron as well.
As opposed to the aforementioned McNeil, Hill was the 4th ranked air bender in the Class of 2013 according to Rivals while Manziel was ranked a modest 16th nationally two years earlier. Also taking into account Sumlin’s history with quarterbacks, it begs the question: Could Hill actually be better than Johnny Football?
The offense will be relied upon to bail the defense out once again. The Heisman doesn’t reward subtlety and a combination of the Sumlin system, their offensive armory, plus the porous Aggie defense should put Hill in the position of having to win games and stockpile stats in the SEC. Behind a fortress of an offensive line spearheaded by left tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi, Hill will have plenty of protection as he hails leather Mozgov Cocktails onto SEC defenses.
Hill isn’t even supposed to be in this position. Hill begins the season without much fervor surrounding his promotion because freshman Kyle Allen was projected to win the competition. Although, Allen is much more of a pocket statue than Sumlin’s most recent quarterback-athlete undertakings, he was the No. 1 quarterback in his class after throwing for 86 touchdowns and 8,000 yards in his prep career.
Not only was Allen quickly gaining on Hill, but the consensus was that his talent would beat experience just as fellow true freshman Brad Kaaya has done at Miami, or Wake Forest's John Wolford. Or as most insiders expect LSU's Brandon Harris to do.
Of course, the people of College Station were just as shocked when Manziel leapt in front of Jameill Showers on the depth chart two summers ago.
Mike Evans is gone, but wide out/tight end in-training Ricky Seals-Jones and freshman Speedy Noil should be around for a while longer to develop a rapport with Hill.
The challenge for Hill will be building on the bedrock laid down by Sumlin and Manziel. At the very least he’ll be expected to win as often as, if not more than, Manziel.
Stylistically Hill bears a close physical and stylistic resemblance to Manziel, but is more of a “lane runner” than the shifty Manziel. Hill will look a lot calmer than the "man on fire" Manziel often embodied.
The pressure on Hill won’t be to captivate imaginations. It’ll be capturing an elusive conference title. Maybe not this season, but eventually. The Aggies endured the entire BCS era and have switched conferences twice in the 19 years since they clinched an outright Southwest Conference title.
Manziel raised expectations. The Aggies aerial offense shouldn’t skip a beat. It’s the defense that has to catch up.
Manziel's prolific stats can be attributed to the necessity for him to rifle passes at the pace of a gun turret to combat the flurry of points his phantom defense regularly surrendered.
Offensive recruits have watched the Aggies proliferate points and line up in droves to do the same. Sumlin has begun focus on pitching to defensive worldbeaters. Until he does, A&M quarterbacks will be battling uphill to keep pace with their spongy defense.
True freshman defensive end Myles Garrett was graded by most recruiting services as the No. 1 ranked high school senior defensive end in the nation after tormenting Texas quarterbacks like Manziel and Hill.
He’ll be joined by four-star cornerback Nick Harvey, and next season the top defensive tackle in 2015 should be plugging a few gaping holes in the Aggies defensive front. It’s not exactly a Nick Saban-type haul, but they’ve got to start somewhere.
In the meantime, Sumlin’s got himself a new canvas to paint with Hill.
Manziel arrived in College Station as a Texas football legend, but Hill is a champion. As a junior he guided Southlake Carroll, the powerhouse program that also produced Chase Daniel, to a 5A Division I state championship.
Hill threw for 3,014 yards, posted 25 touchdowns, a 63 percent completion percentage, as well as 1,399 yards, and 24 touchdowns on the ground. However, Manziel wasn't just a statistical marvel. He was a prime time player. Likewise, Hill's late game moxy is what defined the Dragons eighth state title.
Three of their wins, including two playoff contests, were clinched in the final 50 seconds and in the state title game, Hill’s 229 yards passing and 117 rushing overcame a 10-point deficit to Fort Bend Hightower in Cowboys Stadium.
Hill continued his individual trophy haul by unleashing an offensive melee, sweeping the 5A Player of the Year and Texas Gatorade Player of the Year after a more modest senior campaign by burning defenses for 2,790 yards, 27 TDs plus a cool 67 percent completion rate. With his legs, Hill left a trail of footprints all over the backs of opposing defenses by gaining 1,430 rushing yards, gobbling up nearly nine yards per rush and 33 TDs.
Manziel historians will note that Manziel was responsible for over 75 touchdowns and 5,200 yards of total offense in his senior year at the reigns of Tivy High School’s fire-breathing offensive attack. However, if Hill’s given the volume of playmaking opportunities afforded to Manziel at Tivy or A&M, there’s no reason to believe he can’t slip right into the system and give Nick Saban another reason to huff and puff about up-tempo no-huddle offenses.
The similarities between Hill and Manziel go beyond their mobility and exploits on the diamond.
Their parallel beginnings also stretch off the field where Hill was suspended indefinitely after being arrested for public intoxication during the spring. Manziel was charged with disorderly conduct and possessing a fake ID about a month before he officially beat out Showers for the starting job.
Yet, Hill won’t be engaging in many of the antics that Manziel became both famous and infamous for.
“When he’s in the pocket or waiting for the snap, he’s always poised. He’s always reading the defense,” receiver Malcolme Kennedy told the Fort-Worth Star Telegram. “After practice, Kenny is a silly, loose guy. But when he gets in the huddle, he’s serious. I’ve seen him grow up a lot over the past year.”
His highly-touted backup Allen may now be stuck in limbo.
Sumlin is vehemently opposed to the the popular concept of alternating quarterbacks during the season opener and beyond.
"It's like pitching. You don't like to play looking over your shoulder at that position," Sumlin told ESPN Dallas. "Quarterback is a lot different [than other positions]. You have to have confidence. The hard part is every one of those guys that you recruit is used to being 'the man.'"
Hill matching or exceeding Manziel’s collegiate apogee isn’t an outlandish idea. Marcus Allen won the Heisman two years after Charles White at USC’s Running Back U. Mark Ingram preceded Trent Richardson at running back for Alabama’s Heisman Machine. Carson Palmer beget Matt Leinart.
Even Kosar and Testaverde, David Ware and David Klingler, Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders or BYU’s bridge from Steve Young to Robbie Bosco and finally Ty Detmer. So a precedent of successful transitions have been established.
Bosco was a repeat-Heisman finalist who never gained the same iconic status as Young or Detmer, but 30 years ago, he set the table for the most recent non-BCS program to clinch a national title.
If Hill is Sumlin’s Bosco and ushers the Aggies to the precipice of national supremacy, then he’ll leave A&M as a living legend. To the victor goes the spoils. The loser is bestowed with a clipboard.
Allen, who won’t be redshirting, could get even more claustrophobic when College Station’s Kyle Field becomes Kyler Field.
2015 quarterback commit Kyler Murray is not only the No. 1 quarterback in the Class of 2015, and a legacy recruit as the son of former Aggie, he may have already eclipsed Manziel’s prep career mythology.
Murray who was our Prospect 4 above has won all 27 of his prep starts, clinched two Texas state titles, displays Russell Wilson-like receipts when the time calls for improvisation and buying time in the pocket, Manziel-type vision in the open field and immaculate mechanics. Aside from his diminutive size (5-11), Murray, not Hill, could potentially be the root of Sumlin’s magnum opus.
In the meantime, Hill will plow forward, beginning with the season opener on Thursday against No. 10 South Carolina, which will feature the Dylan Thompson supplanting Connor Shaw, who now backs up Manziel and Brian Hoyer in Cleveland, as the full-time starter.
If Hill can quickly find his footing and avoid the pitfalls that accompany his position trudging through the road cemented by Manziel's legend, he'll be well on his way to forking his own path.