COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — Johnny Manziel won't be on the field when No. 7 Texas A&M opens the season against Rice on Saturday.
At least not until after halftime. The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was suspended Wednesday for the first half of the game for what the school said was an "inadvertent" violation of NCAA rules. The quarterback was being investigated for allegedly accepting money for autographs from memorabilia brokers, which could have led to a much longer suspension.
The brief punishment keeps Texas A&M's national championship hopes intact as the team opens its second season in the Southeastern Conference. Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman last season, setting numerous school and SEC records while leading A&M to an 11-2 mark and a victory over No. 1 Alabama. He then spent the offseason making headlines for immature antics off the field before the NCAA investigation became a distraction as A&M prepared for the most highly anticipated season in College Station in years.
Now that the Aggies know how long they'll be without him, they can focus on moving forward, and that starts with taking care of the Owls, who enter the game on a five-game winning streak. "Just like everyone else in the country, we're excited," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Our kids are excited. Our fans are excited. Everyone's excited. This is a time of year where guys work extremely hard, especially down here in this part of the country. It's a time for this team to come together."
Five things to know about Rice-Texas A&M: WHO WILL FILL IN FOR JOHNNY FOOTBALL?: The Aggies will use either junior Matt Joeckel or freshman Kenny Hill in the first half in place of Manziel. Joeckel is more of a pocket passer and Hill is a dual-threat quarterback. Joeckel has thrown 11 passes in his college career. Hill, who starred at Texas high school powerhouse Southlake Carroll, threw for 2,291 yards and 20 TDs and ran for 905 yards and 22 more scores as a senior last season. Sumlin said the competition between the two is ongoing, and that he's been pleased with the progress of both players.
NO GAINES: Rice cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Darrion Pollard will have to pick up the slack with the absence of Conference USA preseason defensive player of the year Phillip Gaines against Texas A&M's powerful passing game. Gaines was suspended for Saturday's game for violating a team rule. Saturday will be Pollard's first game back after being injured in Rice's opener in 2012.
NEW-LOOK O-LINE: Texas A&M's offensive line is expected to be strength of the team despite the loss of left tackle Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall NFL draft pick. Jake Matthews has moved to left tackle and will be joined on the line by little brother Mike Matthews at center. They are sons of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews.
"We've got a really solid offensive line which takes a little bit of the pressure off Matt and Kenny," Sumlin said. "When Johnny's taking snaps, when he's in there he's really trying to help the perimeter guys. Our offensive line gives us an opportunity to rotate those quarterbacks and have them be successful."
LONG HISTORY: This is the first meeting between these teams since the Southwest Conference disbanded after the 1995 season, but these teams met every year from 1914-95. Texas A&M has won 15 straight over Rice with the Owls' last win coming in 1980.
REMEMBERING POLO: The Aggies will wear a special helmet sticker this season to remember defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu, who was killed in a New Mexico car crash along with two others late last month. The sticker is black and white and features his No. 90 with designs in the number that were inspired by his Tongan heritage.
"We wanted to come up with a tribute to Polo as a player, but also reflect a bit of his personality as well," Texas A&M equipment manager Matt Watson said. "After talking with several of his friends and family it was evident how much Polo's Tongan heritage meant to him. After trying to incorporate partial elements of Polo's actual Tongan Tribal arm tattoos we came up with this design that hopefully his family, friends, and teammates will deem a fitting and personal reflection to who he was both on and off the playing field."