Every day for almost three months, Simoni Lawrence and the Hamilton Tiger-Cat defence went up against Johnny Manziel in practice. The linebacker wasn’t allowed to lay a lick on the quarterback – the gold jerseys are untouchable – but that doesn’t mean the opportunity didn’t present itself.
Or so Simoni says.
“Johnny Manziel, he’s a ball player, he can get outside the pocket, he has a cannon for an arm. He’s a little shifty. I used to get on him a little bit. It’s funny because in practice, you’re like ‘Ohhhh, I would have did this, I would have did that,'” Lawrence said Tuesday. “We’re not in practice anymore. Now we’re gonna see what would have happened. So that’s cool.”
Indeed, Manziel will start Friday for the Montreal Alouettes against the team that brought him to the CFL, then dealt him away on July 22 for two players and two draft picks. It’s a bit of fortuitous scheduling making that’s added another layer of intrigue to a game that’s already drawing a ton of attention on both sides of the border.
For Montreal, the challenge will be how to get Manziel ready to start his first CFL game with just five practices with his new team under his belt. Hamilton head coach June Jones, who also coached against Manziel in college, has some idea of how they’ll try and do it.
“Well, that’s an interesting deal. I think you package your plays and then you let Johnny be Johnny. He’ll know where he’s supposed to go with the ball in a couple of things and then just let him make it happen,” Jones said. “When I was at SMU, we had an idea of how to practice against him and we played him twice and we still didn’t contain him.”
Jones said he went back and watched the second pre-season game in which Manziel played almost a half against Montreal (of course) throwing for 88 yards on 12 of 20 passing and a touchdown. He also ran four times for 19 yards.
“He didn’t really know what he was doing but he completed 60 per cent of his passes, threw a touchdown pass and scrambled all over the place,” Jones said. “That’s what he’s capable of. If you get him plugged in, which I’m sure they will, with things that he can understand and know, he’s a good player.”
The Ticats will also be facing two other former teammates in offensive tackle Tony Washington and guard Landon Rice, both of whom were included in the Manziel deal and are expected to start for Montreal against the old club.
But Manziel will be the focus, as he has been since reports of a possible CFL opportunity surfaced last summer. That attention has spurred some resentment from players around the league and a couple of Edmonton Eskimo players celebrated sacks against Montreal by doing a “Money Manziel” celebration despite the fact he wasn’t in the game.
Defensive end Adrian Tracy says that didn’t sit well with him.
“I took offence to it because that’s his thing and I think they’re mocking him, making fun of him,” Tracy said. “This is somebody who has come up here and nose to the grindstone and showed our team nothing but hard work and when people do that … even if he’s on that team, he’s still my guy.”
“It really pisses me off, to be honest. At the end of the day, this is a human, he’s trying to pick himself up from where he was.”
Neither Manziel’s status as a former teammate or his ability to generate an enormous amount of attention seem to be a factor for Tracy and Lawrence. On Friday, he fills the role of opponent and they get treated the same, no matter who they are.
“Everybody that comes through this stadium, I respect them and love them,” Lawrence said. “But I have a kill switch that I have to turn on during games because my competitive nature won’t let me like anybody on the field.
“I get hyped up for all quarterbacks.”