Alabama Crimson Tide: Jonathan Stewart

Revisiting Texas A&M-Alabama, part I

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
1:40
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M shocked the college football world when it went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide last November. It was a game for the ages, with the Aggies jumping out to a 20-0 lead, Alabama charging back to make it close and a nailbiter finish that included a turnover near the goal line.

With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.

1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense

When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.

A.J. McCarron
John David Mercer/US PresswireAJ McCarron threw his first interceptions of the season in Alabama's loss to Texas A&M last season.
The first play from scrimmage helped the Aggies set the tone as Alabama handed off to running back Eddie Lacy on an off-tackle play to the left side. Tight end Michael Williams motioned to that side of the formation to help open a hole for Lacy, but Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter eluded Williams and sliced into the gap between Williams and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and made a strong tackle to stop Lacy for no gain. Alabama went three-and-out on that drive and punted.

The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.

One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.

On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.

And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.

The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.

Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.

2. Finding the "Y"

Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.

Ryan Swope
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRyan Swope, a senior last season, made 11 catches against Alabama.
As the game wore on, Manziel went downfield to Swope, who made some of the biggest catches of the season. One was in the middle of the field for 28 yards as he was nailed by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the third quarter. In the fourth, Manziel found Swope down the right sideline for 42 yards.

Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?

And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.

3. McCarron can scramble, too

While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.

McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.

In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.

4. Defending Manziel on the ground

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave MartinJohnny Manziel had great success running in the first half against Alabama, but the running lanes closed a bit in the second half.
In the first half last year, Manziel was electric with his feet. Then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was comfortable in calling designed quarterback draws. They were successful as Manziel piled up 82 yards on nine first-half carries.

But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.

This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.

5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game

Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.

He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.

SEC's DLs, LBs strong at combine

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
12:03
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Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Today: Defensive linemen and linebackers.

Alabama Crimson Tide


Alabama's front seven was rock solid and had a distinctive rock-n-roll flair in nose guard Jesse Williams. Though the Crimson Tide defense lacked a true superstar, Williams' Mohawk haircut, countless tattoos and colorful face paint made the unit stand out.
  • DT Jesse Williams (Position rank: No. 8)
    Strengths: Like his counterpart on the middle of the Alabama offensive line, Barrett Jones, Williams is nothing if not versatile. He played both defensive end and nose guard at UA and possesses the type of strength and quickness that would allow him to do the same at the next level.
    Weaknesses: While Williams is above average in defending the run and the pass, he's not superb at either. His production at Alabama was less than ideal, which can be attributed to the scheme on defense, but a lack of sacks and tackles for loss highlight an inability to consistently rush the passer.
    Comparable: In terms of versatility and athleticism, he is similar to Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams.
  • ILB Nico Johnson (Position rank: No. 8)
    Strengths: Johnson -- who no longer is scheduled to attend the combine -- has the look of an NFL linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 249 pounds. He is a solid wrap-up tackler with good instincts. The fact that he has had no off-field trouble or injury concerns will only help his draft stock.
    Weaknesses: The emergence of C.J. Mosley hurt Johnson in 2012. When Alabama had to defend multiple-receiver looks, Johnson often came off the field in favor of Mosley. Johnson is built for run support, but his lack of athleticism hurts in terms of being an every-down linebacker.
    Comparable: Johnson looks and plays like New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton. Both are sure tacklers with good instincts getting between the tackles and getting to the ball carrier.
  • DE Quinton Dial (Position rank: No. 27)
    Strengths: Every so often an Alabama player doesn't hit his potential until he has left college. Dial might be one of those guys. The big, thick defensive end has the raw size (6-foot-5, 307 pounds) and skill to play at the next level and will likely do well in team workouts leading up to the draft.
    Weaknesses: A lack of production at Alabama will create a glass ceiling for Dial. While scouts can fall in love with measurables, they still want to see the talent on tape.
    Comparable: Dial could learn a thing or two from Baltimore Ravens defensive end DeAngelo Tyson, who didn't blow away anyone at Georgia, but after being selected late in the seventh round has become a solid contributor. In terms of size, the two compare favorably, as Tyson comes in at 6-foot-2, 315 pounds.
  • Damion Square (Position rank: No. 29)
    Strengths: Square isn't going to light up the scoreboard with sacks or tackles for loss, but he's consistent. Under coach Nick Saban's watchful eye, Square developed into a solid defender against the run and pass, and understands the idea of gap-assignment football.
    Weaknesses: Simply put, Square doesn't possess the necessary athleticism to get drafted. If there is a player hurt most by missing out on the Senior Bowl, it's him.
    Comparable: N/A

Florida Gators


The heart of the Gators’ 2012 defense will participate in the combine today. DT Sharrif Floyd, whose stock is rising rapidly as he is projected to be taken as high as No. 3, had a fantastic season and anchored UF’s front. He dominated Florida State’s front, and his mixture of size, strength and quickness has scouts drooling. ILB Jon Bostic started every game the past two seasons and was UF’s leader on defense. Nobody was more dependable than Bostic. OLB Jelani Jenkins was limited in 2012 because of a broken finger, a strained hamstring and a broken foot, but when healthy he’s a solid player. OLB Lerentee McCray was forced into action at the buck position (hybrid end/linebacker) because of the injury to Ronald Powell. He didn’t produce big numbers but was a high-effort, high-motor guy.

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Q&A with Aggies beat writer Kahn

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
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In advance of Saturday's game between the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide and the No. 15-Aggies, Texas A&M beat writer Sam Kahn Jr. spoke to TideNation about the matchup and what Kevin Sumlin's team will have to do to be successful in Bryant-Denny Stadium:

Scarborough: Texas A&M has made the transition to the SEC look easy despite a complete overhaul of the coaching staff and a rookie quarterback under center. How has Kevin Sumlin gotten the Aggies to this point and how much of that success is credited to Johnny Manziel?

Kahn: The early success I think is helped in part by the fact that while the coaching staff is completely new, a large chunk of the staff is familiar with each other. Sumlin hired most of the offensive staff he had at Houston over at Texas A&M, strength coach Larry Jackson, as well as a few other staff members that worked with him there, so that continuity has helped. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury is a rising star in the coaching ranks and I think there's little doubt that he'll be a head coach of his own in the future. The hire of Mark Snyder as the defensive coordinator has paid huge dividends as Snyder and his staff have done a really good job getting that side of the ball to play above expectations, despite limited depth in a few areas. Manziel no doubt has been a big part of the success. If he was playing like you might expect a redshirt freshman to play, I don't think there's any way they're 7-2 right now. But he has taken care of the ball (mostly), made some amazing plays and the confidence that has combined with his ablity and the personality fit with Kingsbury has been huge for the offense. And I don't think it can be overlooked that the strength of the team, personnel-wise, is the offensive line, which is critical in SEC play. That unit has been stellar for most of the season.

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Tide schedule preview: Texas A&M 

July, 17, 2012
7/17/12
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[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP PhotoTexas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin will need a stout defense to compete in the SEC.
The rundown
2011 overall record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 4-5
All-time record against Alabama: 3-1

SEC post-spring power rankings

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
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We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:

1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.

2. Alabama: The defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, but coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.

3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), and senior Akeem Auguste coming back after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.

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Four SEC West Teams In AP Top Five
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