Slowing the Heisman Trophy winner

Slowing the Heisman Trophy winner

It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. The Florida defense stifled a redshirt freshman making the first start of his collegiate career. What happened in the next 11 games for Texas A&M is what made the Gators look special on defense. Johnny Manziel put together a historic run, carving up SEC defenses on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. There was one defense that slowed him.

The numbers Johnny Manziel put up against Florida look good at the time. Now in December, they look phenomenal. The Gators held the freshman Heisman winner to a season-low 173 yards through the air and 60 net rushing yards, the second fewest he ran for on the season.

Manziel dominated the first half of the game. He torched Florida with his legs and with his arm, but the Aggies had just seven points to show for it. The Florida defensive front was undisciplined and lost contain, helping Manziel to move out of the pocket and create positive yards.

When Texas A&M came out in the second half, the Gators forced a punt on the first six possessions.

"I thought really from a players' standpoint in terms of how they rushed and pushed the pocket, and we played really good coverage on the back end," Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said, recalling the game. "I think it was a total combination of those guys playing together."

Even Manziel remembered the success the Florida defense had in the first start of his collegiate career.

"They're extremely quick," Manziel said on a conference call in late November. "They really shut us down there in the second half. They did a really good job of staying with our receivers. Even when we did get out and scramble, their linebackers had really unique speed."

At a recent coaches gathering, Quinn had time to sit and talk to Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who recently took the head coach job at Texas Tech. Kingsbury called plays and was an important part of Manziel's Heisman Trophy run. There was only one way for Quinn to explain what he saw on that day, and there's a good chance plenty of other defensive coaches in the SEC felt the same way.

"I had a chance to talk to the offensive coordinator there and we were laughing at it," Quinn said. "There was another coach from LSU and we said, ‘That guy (Manziel) is a problem.' That was my best way to describe him when people ask how you play that guy. He's a problem."

Kingsbury told Quinn and other coaches stories from spring football. Manziel, like all quarterbacks, was in a non-contact jersey. He would tuck the football and run through the defense, but when a defender got close to him, Kingsbury or Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin would blow the play dead.

That's when Manziel would blow up.

"They didn't know this guy was a runner, so they blew the whistle any time someone was close to the quarterback," Quinn said, laughing as he recalled the story Kingsbury told him. "Johnny kept telling them, ‘They wouldn't have got me. They wouldn't have got me.' They kept tapping him on the back and telling him ‘Sure they wouldn't." But sure enough, they wouldn't have got him."

It soon became obvious to other SEC coaches, a league previously dominated by defense, that Manziel was special.

"What a season the guy had," Quinn said. "Sometimes you just look at numbers and you can get, ‘Oh my God, they had 40-something points a game or 500 yards.' It was not a lot different from at Houston (where Sumlin was the head coach in 2011) when we were doing our preparation from the year before.

"You've got to tip your hat to that crew to how they can get that much accomplished in a short time with a staff. I really tip my hat to A&M and how fast they really developed offensively."

All except for what happened in that second half. The Gators shut out Texas A&M in the second half. There wasn't a halftime speech to rally the troops. Instead, it was all about playing disciplined and not giving Manziel the easy opportunity to tuck the ball and run. When that changed, so did the Aggies' success.

"It also certainly didn't hurt that we had him in his first ballgame," Quinn said. "I'm not sure everybody knew where this guy was at."

LIFE AFTER STURGIS: It's not something the Florida coaches have wanted to put much time into figuring out. Despite an offense that hasn't put up the big numbers, Caleb Sturgis has made coaching easy when in the opponent's territory.

"I don't even like to think about it to be honest with you," Muschamp said with a grin.

The All-American kicker has changed play calling for first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease. When the Gators need points, the Florida offense doesn't have to get far to put them on the board. Sturgis warms up before every game on both sides of the field and tells the Florida coaches which yard-marker he feels good from. It's always from a minimum of 50 yards.

Sturgis will leave Gainesville holding almost every kicking record in the school record books.

"When you get into that certain range, that 35-yard line area, and the red zone, you know how aggressive you can be with the ball, what you can do play-calling," Pease said. "It opens up the field more because you know you maybe don't have to go any further. Sometimes you've still got to plan to try to go for that touchdown shot or are you playing to get into the 25-, 20-yard range for a kid who has to kick it from there. With someone like Caleb, he opens up our playbook offensively for us."

Taking over for Sturgis won't be easy. Austin Hardin took a redshirt this season and will fight for the job as a redshirt freshman in 2013. Hardin pulled his hamstring during the middle of the 2012 season and missed ‘three or four weeks,' but he is back and kicking during bowl practices.

Muschamp also said that Brad Phillips will factor into the battle for the kicking job.

"Anybody else that we feel like can be a dependable guy will be involved and hopefully compare to Caleb at some point," Muschamp said.

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