- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
The 2012 season was one to remember for Texas A&M.
The Aggies' first season in the Southeastern Conference was better than almost anyone could expect. And while much of the focus centered around a redshirt freshman -- Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel -- first-year A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin repeatedly praised his seniors for their leadership and buying in when they didn't have to.
As Sumlin often said this year, "They didn't sign up to play for us."
Sumlin was referring to the upperclassmen -- and, really, anybody who wasn't a true freshman or transfer who joined the squad this season -- who signed up to play for previous head coach Mike Sherman.
Many of the Sherman recruits (Manziel included) played critical roles in the Aggies' ability to go 11-2, finish tied for second in the SEC West and conclude the season ranked in the top five. When looking back four years ago at the 2009 recruiting class, roughly a dozen of them wound up being key players in the memorable 2012 season.
There were several diamonds in the rough. Among them were Ryan Swope, who was ranked the No. 116 athlete in the country in 2009. The running back from Austin (Texas) Westlake became a receiver at Texas A&M and eventually set the school's career receiving yardage record, among other marks, such as single-season catches, single-season receiving yards and career 100-yard games.
Another lightly heralded player was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. Ranked 105th nationally at his position, the San Antonio Reagan product always brought high energy and effort and this season became a catalyst in the Aggies' transition to a 4-3 from a 3-4 the last two years. Nealy, a defensive end the previous two seasons, moved inside to defensive tackle and took on double teams week after week. The job he did inside helped facilitate the terrific season outside by defensive end Damontre Moore.
The other starting defensive tackle in 2012, who had a solid season of his own -- Kirby Ennis -- was also a member of the 2009 class.
One of the most important offensive players in 2012 not named Manziel was center Patrick Lewis, another class of 2009 recruit. As one of the "Louisianimals" as Lewis referred to himself and his fellow Louisiana natives, Lewis was the man who made the offense go, literally. The Aggies installed a high-tempo attack upon Sumlin's arrival, and dictating tempo was one of Lewis' primary jobs. He had to get to the ball before the ref spotted it and make protection calls as well. As one of the team captains, Lewis was a true leader.
The two senior linebackers who started for the Aggies, who also served as leaders for this year's team, were also part of the class of 2009: Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart. Both started all 13 games this year. Stewart was second on the team in tackles with 81, while Porter was fifth (66) and second on the team in tackles for loss (6.5).
Running back Christine Michael was the top recruit in the class, ranked No. 4 in the country among running backs and No. 35 overall in the ESPN 150. While he was productive, things didn't always go as planned for Michael. His sophomore and junior years were cut short by injury, and he didn't log quite as much playing time as a senior as he did previously, as junior Ben Malena emerged and true freshman Trey Williams joined the fray. But Michael still had an overall solid career as an Aggie.
There were several others who were starters or were significant contributors from the 2009 recruiting class, including cornerback/return specialist Dustin Harris, receivers Uzoma Nwachkwu and Kenric McNeal, safety Steven Terrell and punter Ryan Epperson. Tight end Michael Lamothe contributed in spots during the season, though the Aggies' new offense doesn't use tight ends exhaustively.
The class produced a total of 12 players who were listed as starters on the Aggies' final depth chart of the 2012 season before the AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma.
One 2009 recruit that was a starter for the Aggies but not part of the 2012 squad was cornerback Coryell Judie. His senior season was in 2011, and though slowed by injuries (he missed the 2009 season and six games in 2010) he was a two-year starter who earned honorable mention Big 12 honors in 2010.
As happens in any recruiting class, some players didn't end their careers as they'd hoped in Aggieland. Some were slowed by injuries throughout their career, like Aaron Arterburn, Steven Campbell, Stephen Barrera, Malcolm Johnson, Clint Naron and Charlie Thomas; some transferred to other schools (Colton Valencia to Houston, Andrew Weaver to Sam Houston State) while others either didn't pan out or left the team for various reasons.
But when looking at the 2012 season and the success the Aggies had, there's no doubt that the 2009 recruiting class put its stamp on the unforgettable year in College Station, Texas.
2dJeremy Crabtree and Brandon Chatmon