Throwing for more than 3,700 yards and 33 touchdowns this year, Manziel finished in fifth place for the 2013 Heisman Trophy after winning the award last season. But the redshirt sophomore is revered not for the whopping yardage and scoring totals he racks up, but for the manner in which he compiles them.
"He's the best, obviously, that I think anyone has seen in our profession at ad-libbing and extending plays," Blue Devil defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. "We usually talk about five-second plays, and we are able to count many occasions during the games that he plays where the plays become 10 seconds long."
Manziel has spent the better part of two seasons in College Station making defensive linemen look silly, dodging and weaving in the backfield before taking off for positive yards or winging the ball downfield. His escapability plagues opposing defensives, throws off blitzes, confuses cornerbacks and safeties and leads to much of Texas A&M's offensive success.
Manziel's ability to save a busted play or escape a sure sack has earned him comparisons with some of the game's greatest mobile quarterbacks—namely an NFL Hall of Famer who revolutionized the era of the scrambling signal-caller in the 1960s.
"The first guy that comes to mind really is Fran Tarkenton," Knowles said. "I guess that goes back to me when I was a kid. Loved watching him, and he was extremely successful at doing it. Johnny Manziel is the best that I've seen as a coach or player."
The Blue Devils will certainly have their eye on some of the Aggies' other offensive weapons, like wide receiver Mike Evans and running back Ben Malena, but Duke's defensive success will hinge on its ability to limit Manziel's playmaking ability.
Manziel's rare ability could spell trouble for the Blue Devil defense, which has had trouble containing mobile quarterbacks at times this season.
Vad Lee rushed all over Duke's defense, racking up 76 yards on the ground via Georgia Tech's spread-option attack. Duke limited Virginia Tech to 387 total yards on offense, but 101 of those yards came from rushes by Logan Thomas. Wake Forest's Tanner Price rushed for 45 yards against the Blue Devils, and his numbers would have been much higher if not for some disastrous plays in the Demon Deacons' backfield. North Carolina's Marquise Williams ran for 104 yards against Duke in the regular season finale, and Jameis Winston totaled 59 yards rushing in the ACC Championship game.
Duke's biggest weakness might be its susceptibility to quarterbacks who make big plays throwing and running the football. Facing Manziel, as opposed to the other dual-threats quarterbacks the Blue Devils have seen this season, will prove especially tricky.
"Now we have an era of running quarterbacks, but defending Johnny is completely different because these are not—these are not called runs most of the time," Knowles said. "It's just him ad-libbing and making plays. It becomes more like basketball on the football field."
Manziel's ability to adapt to defensive pressure essentially changes the Aggies' play call, a problem that has vexed some of the nation's best defenses this season.
"I've been doing this a long time. I don't think I've ever seen anybody ad-lib on the field better," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "You're almost having to defend two plays in one snap. The one that may be drawn up, which is difficult enough to defend, and then the one that starts when he starts ad-libbing and moving in and out of the pocket."
The Blue Devils' defensive line will be presented the challenge of pressuring Manziel without allowing him to escape the pocket.
"You have to limit your rush. Certain things you just can't do," defensive end Kenny Anunike said. "You can't zoom high, and when we say zoom high, it's going—taking off behind the offensive tackle and trying to get the quarterback from behind, because Johnny Manziel steps up in the pocket and his line will continue to block and he will take off right up the middle, and that will hurt us and that's how they hurt teams in the past."
The defensive secondary also has to take Manziel's ability to elongate plays into account, making sure not to lose receivers after they break off their initial routes.
"When he's back there scrambling around, you can't really tell which routes the receivers are going to run," senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "A 10-yard curl route can turn into a 30-yard go route. That's what makes it so tough."
The key to Duke's defensive success against Texas A&M—keep college football's most electric player from making explosive plays—is easier said than done. But if the Blue Devils can get a handle on Manziel, something few teams have done during the past two years, then Duke has a chance to secure a program-record 11th win and leave Atlanta with an impressive bowl victory.