- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One area that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin put specific emphasis on heading into this season was penalties.
In 2011, the Aggies ranked 100th in the country penalties per game, averaging seven. Only 20 teams were penalized more on avereage than the Aggies were.
After starting out roughly in that department (the Aggies committed nine penalties in each of the first two games), they've shown improvement in the last two weeks, committing a combined five penalties in wins over South Carolina State and Arkansas. Currently, they average 5.75 infractions per game, tied for 49th nationally.
Sumlin and Aggies players talked about the emphasis placed on it entering the season when meeting with the media on Tuesday at the Bright Football Complex. Former longtime NFL executive Bill Polian, father of Texas A&M special teams coordinator Brian Polian, visited with the team during fall training camp and spoke of an NFL study that equated penalties committed to points.
"Bill Polian was here to speak to our football team and in an NFL study, over time, 10 yards of penalties were equal to one point," Sumlin said. "So all you have to do is look back at Florida. If that's the case, then that was about eight or nine points, which could have been the difference in that football game. So when you start talking to people in terms of what it actually costs, I think guys understand it. And then they realize that it's not OK.
"Five-yard penalties are controlled by the players not the coaches. Pre-snap penalties are controlled by the players, not the coaches. You're responsible for that, lining up correctly, jumping offsides, staying onside; coaches coach and players play. You have a responsibility to everybody to do your job and that's it. You hold people accountable for those types of things in front of your peers and they start figuring it out."
In terms of holding people accountable, the Aggies have disciplinary measures in place as punishment for committing penalties. Offensive players are required to do up-downs, defensive players must do over-and-backs, which means they'll have to run across the field multiple times after practices.
"They've definitely upped the punishment for penalties," senior receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu said. "The big guys definitely don't want to be up-downing after practice as much as we do. We definitely honed in on that. To be a winning ballclub, you can't have penalties. You can't hurt yourself and have mistakes like that. We try to get positive yards, not negative yards, and I would say the coaching staff has definitely done a good job of making us more focused on that."
Rowdy road atmosphere: When the Aggies travel to Oxford, Miss., to meet Mississippi on Saturday, it'll be their first Southeastern Conference road game as a member of the SEC. They've heard what to expect and feel like they have an idea of what it should be like.
"I expect Ole Miss to be a crazy atmosphere, real loud," senior receiver Ryan Swope said. "This is going to be special for us and is what I came back for to play, to go out and experience all those SEC schools. Going on the road to all those SEC schools, seeing how loud these stadiums are. It’s going to be cool to see everything these teams have to offer. I’m really excited about it."
Rankings insignificant: The Aggies haven't yet cracked the top 25, but they say that it doesn't bother them one bit.
"It’s not important," senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart said. "If we were ranked 23 we would be the same exact team. It’s not very important to us right now. We’re just trying to focus on Ole Miss. We know how much talent we have on this team. We know what we’re capable of doing. It’s not a big-time priority for us right now. There’s still a lot of season to play."
Interchangeable parts: The Texas A&M secondary has been an area where there have been shifts from week to week. Sophomore Deshazor Everett has played both cornerback and safety and on Saturday against Arkansas, junior Toney Hurd started at safety after spending most of the first three games at nickel cornerback.
Sumlin said that more versatility is a good thing for the Aggies.
"I think our staff is doing a good job with the pieces we have," Sumlin said. We have some quality pieces; we just don’t have a lot of them. I think Coach [Mark] Snyder, Marcel Yates and our defensive staff, from the front end to the back end, have moved some guys around and made things work...The more that you can play with interchangeable parts, the harder it is for the offense to see what’s going on. The more interchangeable parts we have, the better off our defense will be."
Hits on Manziel: With his running ability, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel has taken several hits in each game as he has scrambled out of the pocket to make plays or simply run the ball on designed run calls. In one particular instance on Saturday, Manziel lowered his head and initiated contact with an Arkansas defensive player near the sideline.
Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said he tells Manziel to run out of bounds rather than taking hits, even though Manziel hasn't done so often yet.
"I say it every time," Kingsbury said. "It's how he plays the game. He'll learn. He hasn't gotten hit that hard yet."
Personnel notes: Redshirt freshman kicker Taylor Bertolet missed a pair of field goal attempts on Saturday and was 3-for-5 in the game, but Sumlin said there was a reason for Bertolet's struggles.
"He was a little nicked up last week," Sumlin said. "He had a little ankle problem and didn't practice for a couple, three days, and I think that showed Saturday. The lesson is, if you don't practice, you probably don't perform at your best even if you're a kicker.
"We've got a lot of confidence in him and he gutted it out. If you had seen his ankle early in the week, there was a time we didn't even think he was going to play."
Senior safety Steven Campbell, who didn't suit up on Saturday because of headaches (Sumlin said after the game that Campbell was tested for a possible concussion) did not practice Monday. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the staff will take a "wait-and-see" approach with Campbell, but the defense is preparing as if he won't be available.
3dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf