ARLINGTON, Texas — The familiarity between Oklahoma and Texas A&M remains an intriguing storyline surrounding Friday's Cotton Bowl.
Bygone Big 12 foes reunite after a short separation. Bob Stoops and a former assistant match wits. Landry Jones ends his college career where it began.
But one little known connection came to light this week: Texas A&M freshman phenom Johnny Manziel encounters linebacker Tom Wort, who the Heisman winner praised as among the best players he faced in high school.
The two individual seasons make the Manziel-Wort connection intriguing. Manziel emerged from a four-man, preseason quarterback derby, led an upset at defending national champion Alabama and became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy; Wort, on the other hand, saw his role diminish in a new coordinator's scheme that didn't rely much on — and sometimes completely excluded — linebackers.
“I've always been impressed with him since I was a freshman in high school,” Manziel said, who volunteered his Wort admiration during a broad response to a question about Oklahoma's defense.
Wort and Manziel scrimmaged against one another years ago as Texas prep standouts at New Braunfels High School and Tivy High School, respectively.
Before Wort's senior year, Manziel, then a sophomore, played wide receiver for Tivy; he didn't move to quarterback until the fourth game that season. Wort's younger brother Charles, now a freshman safety at Texas-San Antonio, clashed with Manziel after his move under center.
“He's gone against the Worts a couple of times,” Tom Wort said. “That'll be fun to go against him again.”
Manziel, speaking at Sunday's Cotton Bowl Media Day on the Cowboys Stadium field, called Wort “one of the fastest players I ever played against in high school.”
“He was awesome,” Manziel said. “We'd scrimmage them every year. He was at New Braunfels and some of the things he did ... I've been a fan.”
Wort's college career has taken a couple disappointing turns since last January, though. First, former OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables bolted Norman for the same job at Clemson; Wort's close relationship with Venables made his departure very difficult.
Then came the philosophical changes under new coordinator Mike Stoops. Early in the season, Wort struggled to adapt in schemes that asked linebackers to funnel ball carriers — and as a result, tackles — to defensive backs.
Over the regular season's final stretch, with Oklahoma meeting pass-happy, spread offenses like those of Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, Mike Stoops experimented with one, and sometimes zero, linebackers, choosing instead to play six or seven defensive backs.
“We go in every week knowing that we want to stop the run, but you see these diverse pass offenses, these four-wides and five-wides,” said linebackers coach Tim Kish. “We tried to come up with some wrinkles this year. Again, it was what we thought was best at the time.
“We learned from it, and we've kind of come into a happy mix where we're at today. I think it will evolve a little more toward the linebackers this year.”
Manziel, on the other hand, burst onto college football's national stage with impressive performance after impressive performance throughout the Aggies' first Southeastern Conference season. Manziel's signature game, of course, came when Texas A&M stunned then-No. 1 and defending national champion Alabama in its home stadium.
“I don't know if he really remembers me, or knows who I was from high school, but I definitely remember him,” Manziel said.
Wort certainly knows all about Manziel now, after watching Texas A&M elevate itself to new heights on the arms and legs of the flashy freshman they call “Johnny Football.”
“I'm kind of tired of the talk, as I'm sure he is,” Wort said. “I'm almost kind of done talking about it. I just want to get down to work.”