COLLEGE STATION — Texas A&M is entering a new conference with a new coach. And Wednesday night, the Aggies decided on a new quarterback, too.
Former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said Johnny Manziel will start Texas A&M’s opener against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30 as the Aggies prepare for their first season in the Southeastern Conference. He’ll replace Ryan Tannehill, the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft.
Manziel, a redshirt freshman and sophomores Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel had been vying for the chance to lead Sumlin’s high-powered offense. Showers is the only one of the three to have thrown a pass for the Aggies, but his experience is extremely limited. He appeared in three games last season and was 4 for 5 for 40 yards.
But he was edged by Manziel, a Parade All-American after throwing for 3,609 yards with 45 touchdowns and only five interceptions as a senior at Kerrville Tivy.
“Johnny has performed the best at this stage and we will proceed until the season opener with him getting the first-team reps,” Sumlin said. “My policy is simple really; the best player plays. Competition is a great thing and we need more competition at all of our positions. All of our quarterbacks have competed well, and I expect them to continue to push Johnny.”
Tannehill took over at quarterback for Texas A&M midway through the 2010 season and threw for 3,744 yards and 29 touchdowns last year in his only full season.
The good news for Manziel is that he’ll play behind an experienced line led by left tackle Luke Joeckel and a pair of senior receivers in Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu.
Swope led the Aggies last season with 89 receptions for 1,207 and 11 touchdowns and Nwachukwu added 639 yards receiving with two scores.
A boost to the offense will be the return of Christine Michael, who has seen his last two seasons end prematurely after breaking his leg in 2010 and tearing an anterior cruciate ligament last season. He ran for 899 yards and eight touchdowns last season before the injury.
Sumlin was hired at Texas A&M after Mike Sherman was fired following a 6-6 regular season. Though Sumlin is known for the offenses he led at Houston, he knows that he’ll have to shore up Texas A&M’s defense if he hopes to succeed in the SEC. He has just five returning defensive starters this season.
He said he believes his players want to live up to the storied history of past defenses at the school including the “Wrecking Crew” heyday of the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
“Anytime you’re playing defense at Texas A&M you have a standard,” Sumlin said. “From where I sit, I think that you have to have some sort of motivating factor based on the tradition of excellence on defense in the past. Everybody since the ‘80s and ‘90s has tried to meet that standard. That’s a bigger motivational standard than anything. That’s a huge goal and there’s been a lot of people that have tried to do it here recently and I don’t know that that’s happened.”
The Aggies are switching from 3-4 scheme to the 4-3 under first-year defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. A leader of the group will be senior linebacker Sean Porter, who led the team with 9 1/2 sacks last season.
“I don’t think we’re going to struggle in the first year at all,” Porter said. “I think we’re a pretty good defense. From what I can see we have a solid defense and we’re going to be able to compete in the SEC.”
After opening with Louisiana Tech, the Aggies play their first SEC game when they host Florida on Sept. 8.
Sumlin isn’t focusing on A&M’s opponents right now.
“I think the biggest thing that we have to try to deal with is not Louisiana Tech, is not the schedule, we have to deal with us,” he said. “Before we start talking about opponents, we need to start talking about what kind of things we have to do to get better.”
He said he is most concerned with improving the team’s turnover margin after the Aggies finished last year 106th in the country. Texas A&M also was one of the most penalized teams.
“Those are things that we can deal with internally,” he said. “Those are things that we need to address before we get going and talking about other people.”
Four of Texas A&M’s six losses last year were by a combined 10 points, including a 53-50, four-overtime loss to Kansas State. Sumlin wants to teach his team how to handle playing in close games.
“We have to deal with our mental edge,” he said. “Where we are right now as a team, as a program coming out of last year and the expectation level ... of this football team. (Teach them) how to prepare, how to play and how to close out football games.”