COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — 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, 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 past couple of months.
The 20-year-old sophomore calmly answered question 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 in 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.”
Manziel and the rest of the Aggies had their first practice late Monday afternoon. If the problems were weighing on Manziel, it was hard to tell by watching him on the field.
He laughed and talked with teammates before they lined up to stretch. The Aggies practice to music and when the first song of the day, the track “Versace” by Migos featuring Manziel’s buddy rapper Drake came on, the quarterback looked carefree as he bobbed his head and bounced to the catchy tune.
The media were only allowed to watch the first 20 minutes of practice and there were no full team drills during that time.
Manziel threw a few passes while the quarterbacks and receivers worked alone on a section of the field surrounded by dozens of reporters.
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.
LSU’s Hill reinstated
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Hours after a judge decided against sending Jeremy Hill to jail for a probation violation, LSU’s leading running back last season apologized to his teammates and then joined them at practice.
“We waited for legal system to act,” Miles said after Monday afternoon’s practice. “They’ve spoken very strongly to Jeremy Hill. That being said, he’s free to do things that everybody would do in this community: Attend college, play college football.”
Miles stressed that Hill would face further punishment from coaches which will be handled internally, leaving open the possibility that Hill could be forced to sit out some games. However, Miles declined to specify how many games, if any, Hill may have to miss.
“He owes this school, this team, this community, his best behavior,” Miles said. “We’re not certain about further punishment, but there will be some.”
Hill was suspended indefinitely after his arrest more than three months ago, and Miles said he was reinstated only after his teammates voted him back on the squad.
“He’s our brother. We still talk to him, still encourage him, still love him,” offensive tackle La’el Collins said. “I’m pretty sure he’s humbled and he’s worked everything out. He’s seen the effect that it’s taken on him and he’s going to make better decisions.”
Hill’s arrest marked the third straight season that a key LSU player has been in trouble during the offseason. Two seasons ago, Jordan Jefferson was involved in a bar fight resulting in a four-game suspension that was lifted after he was charged was reduced to a misdemeanor. Last year, former Heisman Trophy candidate Tryann Mathieu was dismissed just a few days into August camp for failing repeated drug tests.
“The reality is, we’re people and you can see it. We’re flawed. Every one of us. Hopefully we learn by our mistakes and we improve,” Miles said. “Jeremy Hill certainly has a chance to do that — strongly.”
Shortly before Miles spoke, Hill offered a short public apology, but did not take any questions.
“I want to thank coach Miles and this university for giving me another chance,” he said. “I made a poor choice in judgment. But since then I have learned from that mistake and moving forward I will continue to be a better person, continue to be a better teammate and continue to be a role model for the kids in the community.”
Hill was caught on video punching a man outside a bar last spring. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery — a violation of his probation from an earlier misdemeanor stemming from his sexual relationship with a then-14-year-old girl at his high school.
During Monday’s hearing, State District Judge Bonnie Jackson was scheduled to review more restrictive terms she attached to Hill’s first probation — including a 9 p.m to 6 a.m. curfew and bar ban — in May, shortly after Hill’s late-April arrest. Jackson also decided to take up prosecutors’ motion, filed last month, to revoke Hill’s probation. Her decision to do so came on the first day of LSU practice.
While Jackson kept Hill on probation, she added 40 hours of community service to his sentence while also agreeing to curfew flexibility when Hill needs to be out for football, including games and travel.
The judge also admonished Hill for the “arrogance” he displayed on the video and told Hill that is why many wanted to see him jailed.
“To see you laughing about having sucker-punched that young man struck people as being extremely arrogant. It struck people as seeing someone who felt they had a sense of entitlement: ‘I’m Jeremy Hill and I can do whatever I want to do. Ha, ha, ha,’” Jackson said. “Bar fights happen all the time. I don’t think if this had just been a bar fight people’s emotions would have been worked up as much as they were.”
However, Jackson also told the 20-year-old Hill that she understands young people make “immature decisions — but do you learn from those?”
Hill said he was “terribly sorry” and that he “let my emotions get the best of me.” He stressed that he is now focused on church, his family, hanging around “better people” and aims to help “teach younger people to not be in situations like I have.”
Hill’s earlier probation stemmed from his January 2012 guilty plea to misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile. That plea deal allowed him to avoid felony charges and enroll at LSU. The bar scuffle ultimately led to the second probation term, along with a second six-month suspended sentence.
District attorney Hillar Moore said he respected Jackson’s decision, but thought revoking probation was in order, given that after Hill’s first arrest, prosecutors assured Hill’s teenage victim and her mother that Hill would go to jail if he ran afoul of the law again.
Moore also sounded skeptical about whether Hill’s apology in court was genuine, but hoped the running back would make the most of his second chance.
“He spoke about how things have changed,” Moore began, but added “I’m not sure how much change you can make” in the few months since the arrest.
Hill rushed for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, his freshman season. Hill got increased playing time after season-opening starter Alfred Blue went out with a season-ending knee injury in LSU’s third game. Blue has returned this season, as has junior running back Kenny Hilliard.
Ducks begin new era
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Mark Helfrich opened his first fall camp as head coach of the Ducks on Monday but he got upstaged by Oregon’s new football performance center.
The lavish complex adjacent to Autzen Stadium houses a locker room with showers lined in Italian tile, a team auditorium with seats upholstered in the same leather Ferrari uses, and a 25,000-square-foot weight room with Brazilian hardwood floors.
“If a building was a superhero, that’s it,” said Helfrich, the team’s former offensive coordinator who was promoted to head coach when Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this year.
The Ducks have an ever-growing national profile on the field, but the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, as it is officially named, is undeniably world-class. Estimated conservatively at $68 million, the six-story, multi-wing football building was funded by Oregon alum and Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny.
It officially opened Monday.
“I was pretty speechless, and I’m still speechless about it,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said.
“My locker room in high school was basically a bathroom,” said running back De’Anthony Thomas when asked if he had anything he could compare it to.
The team’s annual “media day” to open fall camp included a tour of the facility. Meanwhile, fall practice officially got underway under sunny skies with temperatures in the mid-80s.
Helfrich plans to keep most of what the team has been doing for the past several years in place, including practices that that are closed to spectators.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of difference from a football standpoint,” Mariota observed. “Coach Helfrich has always said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”
Oregon finished 12-1 last season, topped off by a 35-17 victory over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. Oregon went 46-7 over the past four seasons under Kelly, who devised the Ducks’ innovative hurry-up spread offense. Over that span, the Ducks won three Pac-12 championships and played in four BCS bowl games, including the national championship game in 2010 against Auburn.
Kelly departed for the Philadelphia Eagles in January and Helfrich took over. He inherited a team that retains two of its biggest offensive stars, Mariota and Thomas.
Newcomers include home-state standout Thomas Tyner, who rushed for 3,415 yards for Aloha (Ore.) High School as a senior, setting a new single-season rushing record for the state.
On his 18th birthday last September, Tyner set a state record with 643 yards rushing and scored 10 touchdowns in an 84-63 victory over Lakeridge High School. It was the third-most ever for a prep player, behind John Giannantonio’s record of 754 yards in a game for Netcong High School in New Jersey in 1950, and Paul McCoy’s 661 yards rushing for Matewan High School in West Virginia in 2006.
The Ducks overall are no longer under the specter of NCAA sanctions. Earlier this summer, the NCAA stripped Oregon of a scholarship in each of the next two seasons and placed the program on probation for three years for recruiting violations.