The pre-season opener for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts will be anything but just another game.
Johnny Football will see his first CFL action with Hamilton at Tim Hortons Field, less than two weeks after making headlines across North America when he signed with the Ticats. The former Heisman Trophy winner will follow starter Jeremiah Masoli and is expected to take roughly 15 snaps.
It will be Manziel’s first pro action since December 2015 when he was with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. The six-foot, 210-pound Texan was released in April 2016 after posting a 2-6 record as a starter over two tumultuous seasons.
“It’s going to be fun just getting back out on the field, just getting the chance to play and take some snaps and do what I love doing,” Manziel said. “There’s no pressure on myself right now.
“I don’t have to come up here and prove anything in the first pre-season game. I just have to come out and play ball. That’s all I’m doing.”
Hamilton coach June Jones is looking forward to seeing just how far Manziel, 25, has come in his Canadian football education.
“That’s going to be fun to watch, for you guys (media) and me,” Jones said. “I think he knows some things and I think he’s still feeling his way on others.
“But he’s a football player and he makes plays and hopefully he does that (Friday).”
However, Jones said there was no scenario where Manziel could supplant Masoli as Hamilton’s starter to open the season.
Manziel said he feels comfortable operating Jones’ offence, adding he ran many of its concepts during his collegiate career at Texas A&M. That’s where Manziel made NCAA history in 2012 when he became the first true freshman to win the Heisman Trophy as U.S. college football’s top player.
“I feel very comfortable with a lot of the concepts that we’re running, having repped them a million times at A&M,” he said. “This is the first time I get a chance to go out on a gameday in the pre-season and go play.
“Now we get a chance to see another team’s defence, get a chance to see how other teams play our offence and you get a chance to learn. For me this is the first time to get out on a Canadian field and throw the ball around.”
Toronto head coach Marc Trestman said the Argos’ organization is hoping Manziel can transition positively to the Canadian game.
“We want to see him succeed,” he said. “We want to be able to win the games we play against him but like any player we want him healthy, we want him to have a successful career, we want him to be safe.”
Toronto quarterback James Franklin, who’ll play in the second half Friday, has a history with Manziel. They both participated in the Manning Passing Academy – a highly regarded camp operated by the legendary Manning family – and later in college when Franklin played at Missouri.
“In my second year we played them on senior night and he said some really nice things to me after the game,” Franklin said. “Pretty much to paraphrase it was like, ‘Good job, you’re a great player and we’ll see you in the future,’ kind of thing.
“I think he’ll do pretty well (in CFL). I’m pulling for him. I’m pretty excited to watch him play again.”
Unlike Jones, Trestman won’t be playing many of his veterans, including starter Ricky Ray, on Friday night. Sophomore McLeod Bethel-Thompson will start and play the first half before giving way to Franklin.
Second-year American Dakota Prukop and Canadian rookie Noah Picton could also get some second-half snaps. Trestman said Franklin will start Toronto’s exhibition finale next week against Ottawa and play the opening half.
“We’re going to play guys who don’t have a lot of league experience or are in a position where they really have a chance to make the team and we need to get a little more look at them,” Trestman said. “On every level there’s competition and a lot of it will take place on special teams.”
Trestman’s plan is to split all the kicking duties between returnee Swayze Waters and Canadian Ronnie Pfeffer.
“We’re going to try,” Trestman said. “You don’t know how these games go but the competition is neck-and-neck right now.”