COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- A year ago at this time, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel had only been the Aggies starting quarterback for a week.
After a four-way battle that spanned spring football and preseason training camp, the then-redshirt freshman emerged as the Aggies signal-caller. Outside of Texas A&M, not much was widely known about the young man eventually tabbed at Johnny Football.
Fast forward a year and the Aggies are once again sifting through candidates to make a decision on a quarterback. The difference? This year's situation is much more complex.
"Last year's situation is a little bit different than right now," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said Tuesday with a laugh. "It's kind of a fluid deal."
Many who follow Texas A&M football know the gist of the story: The Aggies are sifting through information in an effort to decide whether Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, will begin the season as the starting quarterback. The uncertainty stems from an NCAA investigation into allegations that Manziel profited from signing autographs, which -- if true -- could affect his eligibility.
While Texas A&M continues to do its due diligence in the matter, Aggies fans have understandably paid close attention to the battle of backup quarterbacks. Throughout preseason training camp, three candidates have fought for the right to be No. 2 to the Aggies' No. 2: junior Matt Joeckel, redshirt freshman Matt Davis and true freshman Kenny Hill.
Each player has his own distinct qualities.
"Joeckel's probably the most experienced," Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "He's a big kid, but not the most mobile guy, so you'd probably call the game a little differently than with Johnny in the game than him."
The 6-foot-4, 234-pound Joeckel, the twin brother of former Texas A&M and current Jacksonville Jaguar offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, is the only one of the three candidates to have appeared in a college game. Matt Joeckel played in five games last season and made 11 pass attempts. It's not much experience but it's more than any other quarterback not named Manziel on the roster.
Hill is the greenest of the three but has seen plenty of practice time in order to help him understand and grasp the offense better. He's the product of a perennial power program in Texas high school football -- Southlake Carroll -- that's known for producing successful college quarterbacks.
"He's young, you can tell, I give a lot of credit to the Southlake Carroll coaches because you can tell he's been pretty experienced in this type of offense," Spavital said. "He's still going through the learning curve, so I'm trying to give him as many reps as possible because both Matts [Joeckel and Davis] went through spring ball, so I know what they're capable of doing. So I'm trying to put Kenny Hill through this."
As for Davis, Spavital said last week that the 6-2, 206-pound quarterback has had "a good offseason" and has been "throwing the ball pretty well out there." Though Davis redshirted last year, he does have the benefit of two spring practice sessions (he enrolled in time for the spring 2012 semester), two summers and two preseason training camps. While Joeckel isn't considered to be extremely mobile, the ability to make plays with his feet is one of Davis' strengths.
"Davis -- same as Joeckel, they can communicate and operate the offense the best so far because they're over the learning curve and it's year 2 of the offense," Spavital said.
Sumlin said on Tuesday that no decision has been made. The Aggies had their final two-a-day practice of training camp on Wednesday and begin game preparation for Rice today. Last year, Sumlin named Manziel his starter roughly two weeks before the Aggies originally-scheduled season opener. He said there is no such deadline this year because of the nature of the situation.
"We haven't made a decision on any of the quarterbacks at this point," Sumlin said. "They're still going. I'm not setting a date this year."
Throughout training camp, all three have taken turns working with the second-team offense. On Saturday, the Aggies hosted an open scrimmage at Kyle Field in front of roughly 10,000 fans. If the way repetitions were doled out in the scrimmage are an indication, it appears that Hill and Joeckel lead in the battle.
The 6-1, 215 Hill was the only one of the three to get a chance to run a series with the first-team offense in the scrimmage (Manziel took the majority of the first-team reps). He also had the most series (five) of any of the candidates that day. While that could have been some of the extra reps that Spavital alluded Hill needs, it also speaks to the confidence the staff has in his abilities and makes him a serious contender for the job.
Joeckel had four series and threw a touchdown pass while Davis had just two series and struggled, with both of his series ending without a first down.
Sumlin has overseen several quarterback battles in his head coaching career. In his first season at Houston, Case Keenum beat out Blake Joseph in training camp before going on to a record-setting career with the Cougars. In 2010, after injuries knocked Keenum and backup quarterback Cotton Turner out for the final nine games of the season, the Cougars had a mid-season battle between two then-true freshmen, David Piland and Terrance Broadway for a job that Piland eventually won.
Last season the aforementioned Manziel beat out Jameill Showers (who has since transferred to UTEP), Joeckel and Davis in training camp before making history, becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
Those experiences have helped Sumlin shape his philosophies on choosing a quarterback. The characteristics he looks for are clear.
"Leadership," Sumlin said. "Knowledge of the offense. Being comfortable. Not giving the ball to the other team. Pretty simple, huh?"