FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash has put together plenty of plans to combat talented quarterbacks throughout his coaching career.
Ash has prepared for a dangerous dual-threat like Michigan’s Denard Robinson, who was a handful for Big Ten opponents throughout his career. He’s also worked to devise schemes to stop Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller.
All three were tough tasks when Ash directed Wisconsin’s defense. But he admitted none of them compared to tonight’s challenge: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.
"I haven’t seen anything really like him. … It’s kind of a circus to be honest with you out there," Ash said. "The way he runs around and the mechanics he throws the ball with at times is very unorthodox. It’s different than what most people could even attempt to do and be successful doing it. That sets him apart."
College football’s rock star will be in Razorback Stadium tonight, leading the 10th-ranked Aggies (3-1) into a Southeastern Conference showdown against Arkansas (3-1). No one has stirred up more off-the-field drama in the past six months than the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, whose offseason included numerous appearances at high-profile sporting events, social media rants, a peculiar Manning Camp dismissal and, of course, the signatures that raised NCAA red flags.
But the first four games of the season have made it clear the stormy summer hasn’t bothered Manziel on the field. Johnny Football remains the most maddening player to defend in college football. Just ask Alabama coach Nick Saban, who had an entire offseason to game plan for Manziel, but watched as the quarterback still put up 42 points and 562 yards in the Crimson Tide’s 49-42 win two weeks ago.
So Arkansas defensive tackle Darius Philon said Manziel’s on-the-field work is the only problem the Razorbacks have been concerned about this week.
"Whatever they say about him, that’s between them. But he’s an awesome player on Saturday," Philon said. "I don’t look at what he does off the field. I’m worried about what he does on the field, because I have to see him on the field."
Arkansas had more than enough last season, playing an unwanted role in Manziel’s Heisman Trophy run. The quarterback enjoyed a coming out party, of sorts, against the Razorbacks in a 58-10 win. He shredded Arkansas’ secondary with his arm and, literally, ran circles around them with his legs in the lopsided game.
Manziel set the SEC’s single-game total offense record with 557 yards, breaking a mark that had been held by former Ole Miss great Archie Manning for roughly 40 years. The good news for Arkansas: The record didn’t last long because Manziel broke the mark a few weeks later with 576 yards against Louisiana Tech.
Arkansas linebacker Jarrett Lake remembers pregame film study didn’t really help the Razorbacks comprehend how fast Manziel was on the field. They know now after last year’s nightmare, but it doesn’t make the task any easier because of Manziel’s uncanny ability to turn broken plays into jaw-dropping works of art.
"Once you think the player is over with, or he has no chance, he’ll pull something out of his hat like magician," Lake said. "He just makes plays."
Said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema: "He’s one of those guys that you swear he has eyes in the back of his head. He can feel pressure coming from behind him and it’s kind of uncanny. Some people bring three-man pressures, four-man, five-man, six-man, seven-man pressures. And he’s really been able to defeat them all."
So limiting Manziel’s impact will be a daunting task. But the Razorbacks aren’t running away from the challenge as they open SEC play in front of a sold out crowd.
Defensive end Chris Smith said Arkansas defensive front, which is leading the SEC with 10 sacks in four games, must put pressure on Manziel while keeping him in the pocket. The secondary must be at its best, too, against a talented receiving corps that becomes even more dangerous when its quarterback is on the run. Ash said his team must be unpredictable for when it decides to apply pressure and when to back off.
"I haven’t seen a perfect formula yet," Ash said, noting Florida came closest to stopping Manziel last season and it was in the quarterback’s first college game. "You rush four and you have guys just standing there trying to keep him in the pocket and it still opens up rush lanes and gives them 10, 12, 13 seconds back there to pick you apart. You rush five, you rush six, he makes somebody miss and everyone is running off down the field man coverage and there is no second level to the defense.
"You have got to do a good job mixing it up and you have to be very smart and calculated when you do certain things."
Bielema said Arkansas’ offense will play a big role in the defense’s success against Texas A&M as well. The quarterback can’t hurt the Razorbacks when he’s standing on the sideline and Arkansas needs its ground game to dictate the pace.
Texas A&M wants to move fast and strike quickly. The Razorbacks intend to take away possessions from their opponents with long drives that eat up clock.
"I think offensively we’re wired in a way that the more we can hang onto the football and advance the chains and be efficient in the red zone with touchdowns, not field goals, that’s a key part," Bielema said. "I think to beat A&M, it’s got to be a complete game. Not just an offensive or defensive or special teams game plan.
"It’s about how all three work together to beat a common opponent."
Manziel will become the third reigning Heisman Trophy winner to play in Fayetteville in six years tonight. None of the previous games have ended well for Arkansas, which is kicking off a stretch of four straight games against ranked teams.
Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow led the Gators to a 38-7 win in 2008, while former Alabama running back Mark Ingram helped the Crimson Tide really to beat the Razorbacks 24-20 in a battle between top-10 teams in 2010.
The atmosphere should be similar tonight. Arkansas students began camping out for tonight’s game Thursday. The stadium will be full for Arkansas’ SEC debut under Bielema and its second close look at Manziel after last year’s disaster.
The Razorbacks said they’re eager and motivated to go head-to-head against another Heisman Trophy winner. But that’s no surprise. The important question tonight: Does Arkansas have any chance of slowing Johnny Football this time?
"We don’t want to get Manziel-ed," Smith said. "We’ve been working on our tackling the whole week. … Johnny’s going to be Johnny, but we’ve just got to make plays."