By KRISTIE RIEKEN
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Johnny Football is practicing with Texas A&M. Whether he starts the season opener is another question.
Coach Kevin Sumlin on Monday said he would not speculate when asked if Johnny Manziel will be his starter on Aug. 31 against Rice following an ESPN report that the NCAA is investigating whether the Heisman Trophy winner was paid for signing hundreds of autographs last January.
“There’s a lot of people involved in that decision,” Sumlin said without being specific.
If Manziel was paid for his autograph on memorabilia, it could potentially violate NCAA amateurism rules and put his eligibility in question a year after his jaw-dropping performance on the field made him the first freshman to win the Heisman as college football’s top player. Speaking to the media as the team began preseason practices in earnest, Sumlin said he learned of the ESPN report Sunday.
For now, Manziel will lead the Aggies. But his coach is clearly thinking of backups, too.
“He’ll get as many reps as he was going to get yesterday,” Sumlin said of Manziel, before adding: “We’ve got to develop a backup quarterback no matter what.”
The report is just the latest in a string of off-the-field distractions caused by Manziel. He’s made headlines for tweeting that he “can’t wait to leave College Station,” despite having three years of eligibility remaining, he allegedly overslept at a football camp run by the Manning family and was supposedly kicked out of a University of Texas fraternity party in the last couple of months.
The 20-year-old sophomore calmly answered questions after question at SEC media days last month, acknowledging his eventful offseason and indicating he needed to make better decisions because he’s such a public figure.
“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that’s catastrophic,” Manziel said then. “Of course, I’ve made my mistakes. It’s time to grow up.”
Last week, Manziel tweeted: “I ain’t perfect, I ain’t insane but I AM worth it...if there’s one thing I am worth it.”
The antics have overshadowed what is expected to be a banner year for Texas A&M. The Aggies are coming off an 11-2 record in their first season in the SEC after moving from the Big 12, a year highlighted by Manziel leading Texas A&M to an upset win at No. 1 Alabama. The rematch in College Station is Sept. 14.
But instead of answering questions about his expectations for the season, Sumlin was left to respond to question after question about Manziel.
“I’ve been through different things,” Sumlin said. “As a coach when those things happen, it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it. We’ve got a veteran staff that knows how to deal with different situations.”
Manziel’s teammates seem unfazed by his recent trouble and said that nothing has changed the way they view their quarterback.
“He still has all leadership qualities he displayed last year, he’s being more vocal now, he’s taking on more of the leadership responsibilities,” running back Ben Malena said. “The off the field issues doesn’t bother us not one bit when it comes to a team aspect.”
While Sumlin is working through the Manziel situation, he noted that a much more difficult task was talking to his team about the recent death of defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu, who was killed in a New Mexico car crash along with two others.
“It was not an easy topic,” Sumlin said. “It’s one of the hardest things a coach has to deal with. In a way getting back together as a group and getting back in the routine, going out on the field today, somehow that might help. Because these guys share the same kind of emotions the same kind of feelings for a guy that they cared very, very deeply about.”
He also said starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who was arrested in February on a weapons charge, will be suspended for the Rice game.