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Containing Johnny Manziel


The first two questions of head coach Hugh Freeze's weekly press conference centered on Texas A&M quarterback and last year's Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.


In last year's game, Manziel accounted for 320 yards of total offense, 191 through the air and 129 on the ground, and two total touchdowns, one each through the air and on the ground, as Texas A&M erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 30-27 in Oxford.


Through five games this year, Manziel leads the SEC and ranks sixth nationally in total offense, averaging 360.6 yards/game. He also averages 9.59 yards/play, which ranks second in the league and ninth nationally, and 36.1 percent of his offensive plays have resulted in a gain of 10 or more yards.


"You have to be multiple," Freeze said of defending Manziel. "You can't just give him one thing. There are no bad coaches in this league, and they have tremendous players, so they will make adjustments, if they get a beat on what exactly you're doing. We did have a good plan and we contained him for the better part of three quarters, but the fourth quarter, he showed why he won the Heisman Trophy.


"We will look at last year very closely and use what we think was very good and try to mix in some new stuff. We were able to create some turnovers last year, which I think was big, so hopefully we can have a repeat of that performance and contain him a bit. You're not to going to stop him but hopefully contain him and give us a chance to be in it late in the game."


A large part of the defensive game plan last year involved sophomore Mike Hilton, who made his first career start against Texas A&M last year. From his dimeback position, he spent most of the game spying Manziel and had three solo tackles, including two sacks and a forced fumble.


"We're going to have someone spy Manziel this game," junior linebacker Serderius Bryant said. "Mike Hilton did a great job with that last year. Hopefully, we're going to put him back on him this year. Our corners and defensive backs are going to have to step up this week because they're going to throw the ball to Mike Evans a lot. He's a great, very tall receiver, so we're going to have to make some plays on Mike Evans."


"The coaches are going to think of a different type of scheme this year," Hilton said. "We have a whole year under our belt watching him, so we're going to have more defensive packages set for him."



One of those packages might include a 3-3-5 defensive look the Ole Miss defense showed some against Auburn, with Bryant and sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche on the field at the same time, along with senior linebacker Mike Marry. 


Bryant has started the last four games at Stinger linebacker and leads the SEC and ranks ninth nationally with 10.8 tackles/game, while Nkemdiche returned from injury against Alabama and led the Rebels with nine tackles and recovered a fumble last week against Auburn.


"That package went pretty well," Bryant said. "The coaches told us they were going to put something else in this week that we're going to run. They want to try to get me and Denzel on the field at the same time. We're both playmakers, and we're both fast and have speed. They want to try to get to playmakers on the field at the same time.


"When me and Denzel are on the field together, Denzel takes on blocks better than me, so he plays down close to the line, and I'm free to roam back at Stinger linebacker about six yards off the line and read the ball, and wherever it goes, I go to the ball."


Along with scheme, players said it's as much, if not more, about winning 1-on-1 battles and just making plays when defending Manziel and the Texas A&M offense.


"Don't overdo anything," Hilton said. "Play your game. If you get a chance to get him on the ground, make sure you get him on the ground because he can make plays. Everybody knows it. You got to make a play when it happens."


"It's physically, you got to make a play," sophomore safety Trae Elston said. "If you play athlete on athlete, the best athlete is going to make the tackle, so that's what he have to do against him."



Both Freeze and Hilton noted that Manziel has played a lot more in the pocket this year compared to last year. And his passing numbers are up, from yards per game, to completion percentage, to pass efficiency.


Through five games this year, Manziel ranks second in the SEC and 14th nationally in passing offense (297.8). He also leads the SEC and ranks eight nationally in completion percentage (71.4) and ranks second in the SEC and fifth nationally in passer rating (188.06).


"You notice that he doesn't mind standing in the pocket longer," Freeze said. "I thought he was a good thrower last year, too. We were hoping he wasn't, but when you faced him live, you realized he was. He certainly does not mind standing in the pocket longer this year. They have worked on that to minimize some of the hits that he takes and him developing as more of a complete quarterback. You can tell work has been put in on him doing that."


"You have to let it come to you," Hilton said. "You have to be conservative. Everybody knows how he plays. He has actually played a lot more in the pocket this year. He still has the ability to escape and make plays happen. We have to sit back and let him come to us and make a play when it happens."


Manziel's favorite target in last year's game and again so far this season is 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore Mike Evans. The two connected for a 32-yard gain on 3rd-and-19 from the Texas A&M 3-yard line, as the Aggies rallied to win last year in Oxford.


A Freshman All-SEC selection last year, Evans leads the SEC and ranks third nationally in receiving yards (138.2 ypg). He also leads the SEC and ranks second nationally in yards per reception (24.7). He has also accounted for 10 plays of 30 or more yards, which leads the nation, including four plays of 40 or more yards.


"Everybody wanted us to copy Alabama's plan against A&M, and I wanted to show them on tape where 270 yards came from," Freeze said of Evans. "It was a guy going up and just making a play, which he's very good at. We saw that on 3rd-and-19 last year at our place. Senquez had perfect coverage on him, and he just went up over him. 


"We have got to think through that. We have thought about a lot of crazy things, trying to think out of the box a little bit on who we might put on him in some situations that can compete for a jump ball with him, so we're thinking along those lines. Certainly, even if you have him covered, there's no guarantee that he's not going to make the play." 


Who might the Rebels put on Evans? The Rebels' two starting cornerbacks, Hilton and junior Senquez Golson, are listed at 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-9, respectively. 


Senior Charles Sawyer, who also plays a lot at cornerback, is listed at 5-foot-11. Freshman Derrick Jones, at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, who switched from wide receiver to cornerback earlier this season, might also figure is some situations.


"You have to be physical with him right before he gets up in the air because he uses his body a lot, so you have to get your body into him before he does," Hilton said. "And if you know you can't get a pick, separate his hands, so he won't catch it."


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