When Johnny Manziel first stepped onto the field at Texas A&M, virtually nobody knew what to expect.
Even with a wealth of information instantly available about a player before he reaches campus, recruiting remains an inexact science. How a teenager fares in Division I football is affected by so many forces, several of which are outside a player's control.
When the 6-foot quarterback from Kerrville (Texas) Tivy High made his starting debut Sept. 8, 2012, against Florida in the Aggies' first SEC game, it was historic on many levels.
On Tuesday, when Manziel jogs out onto the Georgia Dome turf for the No. 21 Aggies (8-4) when they take on No. 24 Duke (10-3) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it could be the final game in a brief, eventful and fascinating college career.
The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is draft-eligible once his season is complete. He hasn't officially declared for the NFL draft, but it's hard to find anyone speculating that he'll return for a fourth year at A&M.
Publicly, Manziel has avoided tipping his hand on his future, telling reporters in Atlanta on Sunday that he is no closer to making a decision than he was when asked about it earlier this month in the buildup to the Home Depot College Football Awards and the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
"Nowhere even close, just where I was back in New York, back in Orlando," Manziel said of his thought process. "I haven't had any more time with the bowl practice we had at College Station. Didn't get a chance to really do much."
He has until Jan. 15 to declare for the draft. If the consensus opinion and speculation is true, it was quite a ride.
Manziel took the college football world by storm in 2012, becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman. The way he did it -- winning the A&M quarterback competition in training camp and performing highlight-worthy feats that were impossible to ignore -- captivated fans. He had the cool nickname "Johnny Football" and a compelling story. He smashed records and earned a signature victory that served as his "Heisman moment" when the Aggies went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and took down No. 1 and eventual BCS champion Alabama.
He broke Cam Newton's single-season SEC total offensive yardage record, gaining 5,116 yards. He accounted for 47 touchdowns. He turned near-fumbles into touchdown passes. He made seemingly impossible plays look easy. It was unlike anything we've seen from a freshman.
The offseason became even more of an event. No matter what Manziel did -- making trips to Toronto to hang with rap star Drake, hitting Cabo San Lucas for spring break, playing golf at Pebble Beach with his family -- people were talking about him. Some positive, some negative, but they were talking.
That talk reached a fever pitch this summer. He was the focal point of college football's largest preseason media event, SEC media days, after leaving the Manning Passing Academy early. That came about a month after a Manziel tweet about wanting to leave College Station went viral. Then came an NCAA investigation into allegations he profited from autographs, with a half-game suspension as a result.
Despite the off-field distractions, Manziel's play didn't suffer. In fact, he elevated his level, even in an early-season loss to Alabama. The highlight-reel plays were back and Manziel was doing things his way: fun and unapologetically.
However, his season hasn't lived up to the expectations for either Manziel or the Aggies. Texas A&M thought it would be getting ready for a BCS bowl right now, not the Chick-fil-A. But struggles on defense all season and some late-season offensive woes, including a beaten-up Manziel, contributed to an 8-4 season.
Still, Manziel was good enough to earn a trip back to New York as a Heisman finalist. He improved as a passer and showed significant progress in several areas of his game. And he managed to keep the talk surrounding him this fall focused on his play, not on off-the-field exploits. That in itself was an accomplishment.
"So much has gone on in between last year at this point and now," Manziel said. "I feel like every week there's almost been something. It's been a little bit of a journey, but I feel like I'm a lot better at handling it now than I was last year at this point. Still no regrets or anything in that regard, and I'm really happy and content with where I am right now."
His numbers were still impressive in 2013: 3,732 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, 686 rushing yards and eight more scores. He ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing yards per game, passing touchdowns, completion percentage, yards per pass attempt, passer rating, total offensive yards per game, yards per attempt and points responsible for per game. No other player was ranked in the top 10 of all those categories.
His performance often spoke for itself. He was must-see TV and he's one of the best the sport has seen in a long time. If he leaves for the draft, he leaves without a ring -- the Aggies did not win a division title or conference title in his three years on campus -- and he has a simple desire for his legacy.
"I just want to be remembered as one of the best to have played at A&M," he said. "[I] definitely don't like coming in second or being second-best at anything. ... As far as a team, the past two, three years that I've been here have been awesome. I think three bowl wins, what we did last year at a team with the Cotton Bowl and with the Heisman -- I just want to be remembered as one of the best."