Asking Mark Smith to pick the most spectacular play of Johnny Manziel’s high school career is like asking a sky gazer to pick the best shooting star.
They’re all the same.
“They’re all just, ‘Wow, did he really do that?’ ” said Smith, Manziel’s coach at Tivy High in Kerrville, Texas.
Folks are still asking that question about the game-changing, play-making, strong-armed quarterback for Texas A&M — even if the spotlight on the 20-year-old talent isn’t as bright this season.
He has been overshadowed by the rookie performances of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, by Alabama’s run toward college football history and by his own team’s two losses.
While the attention has dwindled, the performance has steadied. Those nifty spin moves, those long touchdown passes, those baffling runs — they’ve all been there.
This is still the same ole Johnny, the one that became the first freshman Heisman Trophy winner last year, the guy who beat top-ranked Alabama in 2012 and had the Tide on the ropes earlier this season.
There is one difference: He’s passing the ball better than ever.
When No. 18 LSU (7-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 10 Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2) on Saturday, the Tigers meet a quarterback who can knife through secondaries with his arm just as well as with his feet.
Manziel has nearly 600 more passing yards than he had through 10 games last season. He has 13 more passing touchdowns and completes 73 percent of his throws, up six points from 2012.
He still makes those game-changing runs, just not as many. His rushing yards are nearly half of what they were through 10 games last season, and his attempts are down about 50 percent.
“I think he’s stronger and faster. I think he has more confidence throwing the ball,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I don’t think he really needs to do a lot of running. (He is) a very talented thrower.”
He might not need to run, but he will. And when he does it, he does it big. Excluding sacks, Manziel averages 12 yards every time he carries the ball.
Yeah, he’s still Johnny Football. He’s still Johnny High School, too.
“The biggest thing I remember is the time — I guess it was his sophomore year — he ran a touchdown 85 yards, and it got called back for holding,” Smith said. “Guess it made him mad. He ran 90 yards for a touchdown the next play.”
The most recent example of Manziel’s run-savvy ways colliding with his new pass-centric theme came against Mississippi State last week. On third-and-25, he slipped away from one Bulldog defender and spun 360 degrees on a move that left another with an ankle-busting collapse.
He then completed a 26-yard first-down pass.
Wow, did he really do that?
“One guy with one ball probably does as much offensively as anybody that I’ve seen,” Miles said.
Smith saw it before most.
He became aware of Manziel when the QB-to-be was in eighth grade. He played on the Tivy High freshman team the next year before getting promoted to varsity for Tivy’s playoff run that season as a receiver.
He started his sophomore season at running back while an injury kept the team’s starting tailback from playing.
About four games in, Manziel replaced the longtime starting QB.
“He took off from there,” Smith said. “From then on, it’s what you see on TV.”
From then on, defenses became helpless.
LSU defended Manziel as well as anybody last season in a 24-19 win. Manziel’s touchdown-to-interception ratio in that game — three picks, no TDs — is the worst of his career.
The Tigers plan to do defend him similarly this season. The problem: Eight starters from that defense are gone.
Last season, LSU had something of a “spy” on Manziel, linebacker Lamin Barrow said. Barrow, another linebacker or a defensive lineman watched the QB at all times.
Manziel had 27 yards on 17 carries against a Tigers team in 2012 rife with NFL talent.
“I think there’s a little different team here,” Miles said of defending Manziel this time. “I think there’s some things we are going to change. In the same vein, some of the principles used a year ago are real quality.”
The coach and his staff have turned to speedy receiver and return man Odell Beckham Jr. to mimic Manziel in practice. Beckham, at one point, completed 6 of 8 passes against the Tigers defense, Miles said.
He’s preparing LSU for the pass-heavy Manziel. The QB has thrown for at least 300 yards in six of 10 games this year. He did that four times in 13 games last year.
His latest outing — 30-of-39 for 447 yards and five passing TDs — is arguably his second-best aerial performance of his career.
The first? This year’s game against Alabama. He threw for 464 yards and five scores and completed 71 percent of his attempts against a secondary that has allowed the 11th-fewest passing yards in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Texas A&M lost that game 49-42, and with the defeat went much of the attention on Manziel.
The QB has arguably the best stats of any player nationwide, but in a straw poll on HeismanPundit.com this past week, he trailed Winston. Before Oregon’s loss last week, Manziel was third, also behind the Ducks’ Marcus Mariota.
Maybe the missing attention is a good thing for a guy who found trouble over the offseason in the wake of launching to national fame in 2012.
“It got overwhelming for a while for him. He wasn’t sure how to handle it,” said Smith, who keeps in contact with the QB. “Johnny’s Johnny. He enjoys the things he does. As much as he competes on the field, he competes in life, too.”
Meanwhile, Smith will continue to wrack his brain, trying to find that best play.
Said Smith: “There are so many.”