Texas A&M Aggies: Brian Polian

For newcomers or players who are stepping into new roles, spring football is an important time to develop and get acclimated to their surroundings.

The same can be said for new coaches.

Texas A&M has three new position coaches this spring -- special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jeff Banks, linebackers coach Mark Hagen and quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

Banks, who filled the void left by new Nevada head coach Brian Polian, brings plenty of experience to the table, especially since Banks was an all-conference punter himself at Washington State.

"We talked about replacing Brian with a guy who's just as capable, and Jeff is that," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's got a wealth of experience, he's a former kicker/punter. He can be a technician and can help our guys. I think he's brought a different kind of scheme in all four phases. He's had the ability to keep their interests. Sometimes, change is good."

Sumlin said through the first nine practices, he is seeing some improvement from kicker Taylor Bertolet, who showed inconsistency during his redshirt freshman season in 2012. Bertolet was 13-of-22 on field goals (59.1 percent) and 67-of-74 on point-after-touchdown kicks last year.

"Just like quarterbacks and receivers, they have the opportunity to continue their craft all summer," Sumlin said. "So that will be an ongoing work. But definitely there's been some improvement, particularly with Taylor."

Tommy Sanders
Courtesy of Butler C.C.Junior college transfer Tommy Sanders is getting plenty of work at linebacker for Texas A&M.
Plenty on Hagen's plate: Hagen has a unique challenge. None of the linebackers who has taken snaps with the first team this spring were regular starters last year. The one returning starter of the group -- weakside linebacker Steven Jenkins -- is out this spring with a torn labrum.

"He's got a bunch of young guys," Sumlin said. "He's got Donnie Baggs, who has not played a whole lot of football around here at Texas A&M. He's got two guys who should be going to the prom next month at linebacker in Brett Wade and Reggie [Chevis]. And then he's got a junior college transfer [Tommy Sanders], who just got here. I don't talk to him much because he's busy. His plate's full; he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."

"You throw Shaun Ward in there and guys who haven't played a bunch. With Jenkins out, that's given all those guys a lot of turns, [including] Nate Askew, who we moved from wide receiver."

Sumlin said he's seen some positive signs from Hagen and his young linebackers.

"It's really good for a new coach because those guys aren't used to doing a lot of things," Sumlin said. "He has a lot of energy and obviously those guys have made really good strides during the course of spring."

Askew making progress: One of the many new faces at linebacker is one that was on offense last year: Nate Askew.

Before the spring, Askew moved to linebacker from receiver. Sumlin said he's seen Askew make improvement during the spring.

"It's going good," Sumlin said. "Some good, some bad. He's been over there nine practices in pads and the great thing about it has been his attitude and how he's approached the position, how he wants to get better, how he hasn't shied away from contact."

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Askew brings size and athleticism to the position.

"He's one of the top athletes on this whole team," Sumlin said. "He can really, really help us if he continues to get better the way he's gotten better the last couple of weeks."
This week, GigEmNation looks back at five decisions that helped define Texas A&M's 2012 season. These moments could be on or off the field or could have even come before the season, so long that they had a lasting impact on the Aggies' 2012 campaign. Today, we look at our pick for No. 2, the hiring of Kevin Sumlin.

On Dec. 10, 2011, Texas A&M officially chose Kevin Sumlin as its next head football coach.

Grading the positions: Special teams 

December, 27, 2012
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In the weeks leading up to Texas A&M's bowl game, GigEmNation will take a look back at how the Aggies performed position by position and give each group a grade based on that performance. Today, we conclude the series with a look at the special teams:

[+] EnlargeBen Malena
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTexas A&M utilized players such as starting running back Ben Malena to find success on special teams.
Highlights: The first thought that might come to the mind of many Aggies when thinking about special teams is the inconsistency in the field goal department. But special teams is more than field goals, and there was a lot of good about Texas A&M in the third phase in the game. As a team, the Aggies ranked ninth in the nation in net punting (40.3 yard net average per punt). Punter Ryan Epperson didn't have enough punts to make the FBS leaders, but if he did, he would have ranked in the top 30 in gross average per punt (42.8 yards). The Aggies also were good covering kicks and punts. They ranked 17th in the nation in kickoff return yardage defense and 27th in punt return yardage defense. And senior Dustin Harris finished 11th in the country in punt return average (13.1 yards per return) and the Aggies ranked 12th as a team in the category.

Lowlights: The biggest lowlight was the aforementioned field goal struggles. Redshirt freshman Taylor Bertolet hit just 13-of-22 attempts, making field goals at a 59.1 percent clip. He was good inside the 30 (8-of-9 attempts) and from 50 or longer (3-of-4). It was from 30-49 yards that he was at his worst. He hit 2-of-9 attempts from that distance (1-of-6 from 30-39 yards; 1-of-3 from 40-49 yards). The inconsistency was frustrating for Aggies observers, especially considering his ability to hit from long range (he had a long of 54). On the bright side, he was good on kickoffs, recording 61 touchbacks on 96 kickoffs.

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Jeremy Tabuyo 'committed 100 percent' 

December, 20, 2012
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Sometimes it all feels like a dream for Honolulu Saint Louis School receiver Jeremy Tabuyo.

The visits to the campus of a major college football program. The visits from that program's coaches. The chance to play for a team that has a high-powered offense and was often the talk of the nation in 2012.

Forgive Tabuyo if he has to pinch himself.

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Aggies add juco TE Cameron Clear 

November, 27, 2012
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For the second time in as many days, Texas A&M has scored a commitment, this time for the class of 2013 and from the juco ranks.

Arizona Western College tight end Cameron Clear became the latest member of the Aggies' 2013 class, giving his verbal pledge to A&M on Tuesday night.

Clear, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound prospect who originally signed with Tennessee out of high school, played 12 games as a true freshman for the Volunteers before transferring to Arizona Western.

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Brett Wade excited to get A&M jumpstart 

November, 1, 2012
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Brett WadeWilliam Wilkerson/ESPN.com Texas A&M four-star linebacker commit Brett Wade has excelled for Kennedale (Texas) High School and can't wait to enroll at Texas A&M in the spring.
Since Kennedale (Texas) High School reached the district portion of its schedule, the defense has been good. Really good.

Texas A&M commit Brett Wade has been a part of that dominance. The four-star inside linebacker led off district play with a three-interception game against Springtown (Texas) High School on Oct. 12, a 48-17 win for Kennedale. In the last two games, the Wildcats haven't allowed a single point and in the last three games, they've outscored their opponents 193-17.

"It's been going really good, honestly," Wade said. "The last two games we've played, the total offense between [our opponents] is 8 yards. In all of district, which is three games, we've forced 13 turnovers."

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Notes: Aggies make mark on Savaiinaea 

October, 4, 2012
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Isaac SavaiinaeaTom Hauck for ESPN.comHonolulu Punahou inside linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea remains committed to Stanford but said the Aggies are in his "top two" after a visit to Texas A&M.

There was a sadness that came over Honolulu Punahou inside linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea when Sunday afternoon arrived.

That's because it was the end of his official visit to Texas A&M, a trip that the Stanford commitment called "amazing." He enjoyed the visit so much that he said he didn't want to return home to Honolulu.

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Notes: Penalties a point of emphasis

October, 2, 2012
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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.

[+] EnlargeScott Novak
Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty ImagesReferees' flags were an issue for the Aggies in the first two games of the season.
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.

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Epperson, A&M special teams have excelled

September, 27, 2012
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Every season that he has been on campus, Texas A&M punter Ryan Epperson has found a way to be the last man standing in the punting battle.

As a freshman, he took over punting duties seven games into the year. As a sophomore, he appeared in nine games before an injury interrupted his season. As a junior he won a battle in fall camp to earn the job and did so again this year as a senior.

[+] EnlargeRyan Epperson
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireStatistically, Texas A&M's Ryan Epperson is one of the best punters in the nation.
And while his punting average has gone up each season since his arrival, this season he's punting with the best in the country through three games. Epperson ranks third in the FBS in punting average, yielding 47.6 yards a kick on 14 attempts so far.

He sits behind only Houston's Richie Leone (48.7) and Utah's Sean Sellwood (47.8) through the early portion of the season.

But not all of his punts have been boomers. He has had a few that weren't hit as well as he wanted, but he has been fortunate enough to get some favorable bounces. He's trying to eliminate those not-so-great punts and become more consistent.

"The stats are definitely great," Epperson said. "Whenever I am connecting with the ball it’s traveling pretty well and that’s a great confidence booster. I obviously don’t want to go out there and hit those rollers, so I’m just trying to work on turning over every single ball in the game and eliminating those rolls of the side of my foot. Like I said, whenever I do make good contact I’m getting some pretty good hang time. I’m just trying to force those catches so the recovering team doesn’t have to do much."

So far, when it comes to defending punt returns, the Aggies are doing well in that department. They've only had three punts returned against them so far for a total of six yards, an average of two yards per return. The Aggies are tied for 14th nationally in that statistic.

"I think the net punting average is excellent," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "One of the tops in the country and our coverage has been very, very good."

This fall, Epperson competed with sophomore Drew Kaser during fall camp before eventually winning the job. Epperson said he focused on what Sumlin and special teams coordinator Brian Polian wanted from him -- consistency.

"I just try to stay as consistent as I can throughout camp after I’ve been able do most of these camps," Epperson said. "A big thing Coach Sumlin and Coach Polian were wanting is coverage punts. They wanted four-second hangs and 30+ yards. In the SEC, you don’t want to give the punt returner a chance to return the ball at all. Really, our goal every game is having that average of 39 yards. Every game they are asking for a net of 39 and I was able to give a consistent 40, 45 yard ball with great hang time, which definitely helps out the coverage units and that’s what they like most about my punting."

Texas A&M is second in the country in net punting with a 47.2 yard net average. Only Texas (49.4) ranks higher.

As the Aggies continue their SEC schedule this Saturday against Arkansas, Epperson is aware of how critical his role will be.

"In the SEC, I think field position is definitely a key factor in winning the game," he said. "Some of the best punters reside in the SEC. I’m just trying to help A&M get good field position whenever the offense can’t get a first down. It will definitely help us win some games this season."

Q&A: Aggies OL target Caleb Benenoch 

September, 12, 2012
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KATY, Texas -- Last weekend was both frustrating and memorable for Katy (Texas) Seven Lakes standout Caleb Benenoch.

Caleb Benenoch
Max Olson/ESPN.comCaleb Benenoch has narrowed his list to five schools.
The 6-foot-6, 321-pound Benenoch, who is ranked 19th nationally among offensive guards, aggravated a right high-ankle sprain injury he suffered in the preseason and couldn't finish his team's thrilling 45-42 triple-overtime win over Friendswood (Texas) Clear Brook.

But the win was memorable and the next day, Benenoch was in College Station, Texas, taking in the festivities as Texas A&M opened its Southeastern Conference era against Florida. GigEmNation caught up with Benenoch to get his thoughts on the trip and where he is in the recruiting process.

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Notes: Kevin Sumlin happy with effort

September, 11, 2012
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A few days removed from the raw emotion of a 20-17 season-opening loss to Florida, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin noted several positives that he and his team could take away from the game, including effort and physicality. Sumlin said he was pleased with his team's effort on offense and defense and that he believed his team played physical. The fact that the Aggies did not turn the ball over was also a positive, but one of the negative sticking points he mentioned Saturday was repeated again on Tuesday: penalties.

"The three things we talk about going into every game: play hard, play smart and be physical," Sumlin said. " I thought we were extremely physical and I thought we played extremely hard. The intelligence part of the game, we did not. So when you're in a close game and you have nine penalties, for 78 yards, that's not going to cut it. I think Bill Polian, the NFL (executive) studied and said that there's a formula that every 10 yards of penalties is worth one point. So there's a lot of combinations into that. I think our players right now, after talking about that, they understand the importance of that part of the game also.

"And as I said, that was an emphasis coming into this year: turnover ratio and penalties. So we got one of them done on Saturday and really one of them, the other side, cost us the football game, which is a learning experience."

Familiar foe

With SMU on tap, it's an opponent Sumlin is plenty familiar with. While at Houston, Sumlin's Cougars met June Jones' Mustangs annually as they resided in the same Conference USA West division. This will be Sumlin's fifth year in a row to meet SMU.

"I have a lot of respect for June Jones," Sumlin said. "He's a guy who's taken SMU to a Conference USA championship game from nothing and really done a fine job with that program. June's a buddy. I think I asked him last time I saw him, if now he'll let me play in his golf tournament in Hawaii since we're not in the same league anymore. He said 'Well, we still play each other,' so I don't know if he's going to let me play in it."

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M will host its second open-to-the-public scrimmage of fall training camp and third overall scrimmage at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Kyle Field. Here are some things to watch for in the scrimmage:

Johnny Manziel: Now that the redshirt freshman has officially been named the starting quarterback, it'll be worth closely watching how he performs in a public setting. The Aggies are fewer than two weeks away from their season opener, so his continued progress will be key to Texas A&M's success. It will be also worth watching to see how the other quarterbacks perform in the wake of the decision.

• The return game: Finding a kick returner is something that still needs to be crossed off the to-do list for coach Kevin Sumlin and special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Polian mentioned that he's not afraid to look at freshmen as candidates and that includes running back Trey Williams and freshman receivers Sabian Holmes and Thomas Johnson.

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Meet the staff: Brian Polian

August, 3, 2012
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Football is in Brian Polian's blood. Always has been and probably always will be.

His father, former longtime NFL executive and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian, tried to talk Brian out of venturing into football for a career. But it was too late. The impression the sport and the men who were involved with it had made on Brian was too strong. So by the time Brian graduated from John Carroll University in Ohio, he knew that football was how he wanted to spend his career.

It was hard not for the game to have an impression on him. Most of his formative years were spent in football locker rooms and stadiums. When his father was with the Buffalo Bills, he got to watch Marv Levy coach and Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Steve Tasker and guys like that play the game. So after concluding his college career at John Carroll he pursued coaching.

After graduating, Polian joined the staff at Michigan State as a graduate assistant for a season then over the next 14 years went from coast to coast coaching college football with stops at Baylor, Buffalo, Central Florida, Notre Dame and Stanford.

Now, the 37-year-old is in College Station as the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach for Texas A&M. Here's some more insight into Polian from GigEmNation's Q-and-A with the veteran coach:

SK: What drew you to Texas A&M?

BP:
"Kevin (Sumlin), quite frankly. I mean it's not like I left a bad place. Stanford is a very unique school to work at. The people there are fantastic, the kids are great and it's one of the nicest places in the country to live. But I met Kevin four or five years ago when I was coaching at Notre Dame. We developed a friendship and I think so much of him as a person. And frankly, he's a little different in the sense that we're in a business where often head coaches, they're not really interested in helping you achieve your goals. I want to be a head football coach in Division I college football. Kevin knows that, he embraces it. He's been a great teacher for me just in the short time that we've been together. He's going to help me along that path. If it's next year or 10 years down the road, who knows? But my experience with him will make me better when I finally get my opportunity.”

SK: Outside of your family, who has had an influence on you in football?

BP:
"Marv Levy, first and foremost because in my formative years I watched him so closely. I had a front row seat to how he ran the organization in Buffalo. Tony Dungy, another one that I've never had a chance to work alongside, but I had access that some other people wouldn't necessarily have had in Indianapolis and he's become a friend and mentor, as has Jim Caldwell. My position coach at John Carroll University, a guy by the name of John Storey, who is a legendary high school coach in Cleveland and then became an assistant at Carroll. He was a great influence on us. London Fletcher from the Redskins, Elvis Grbac, Desmond Howard, he coached all of them in high school. He's a storied Cleveland guy and is somebody that I'm very close with.

SK: Give me a sense of what you learned during spring football and what you have to work with when it comes to your special teams units.

BP:
"I don't think Kevin told me Randy Bullock was graduating (laughs). He forgot to mention that one. Unfortunately, we have to answer questions at all three of the specialists spots: the punter, the kicker and the holder. The punter I know, they were a little bit up and down last year -- two different guys punted. We don't want to do it by committee, plus we're going to be a little bit different compared to what they did the year before. So we've got to get those questions answered. And obviously, we're replacing the Lou Groza Award winner. And we do have a guy here on scholarship, Taylor Bertolet, but we have two other guys that are joining the program as a walk-ons (Davis Plowman and Seth Hiddink) and hey, it's a production-based business. You either do it or you don't and we're going to give all three guys a chance to win the job. Whoever the best guy is, that's going to be the guy that kicks."

SK: How do you feel about the return game?

BP:
"I'm excited about it. You could see a young guy back there on kickoff returns. You could see a freshman, because we brought in some speed. I'm not afraid of a freshman kickoff returner. We've had that before. We had that at Stanford last year with Ty Montgomery who was a Dallas kid. So I'm not necessarily afraid of a freshman kickoff returner. Punt returner is a little different. You'd like to have a guy back there that has a little experience. Dustin Harris is obviously pretty good and has been productive, but we feel like we've got some other vets who look really comfortable catching the ball back there, so that's not necessarily etched in stone either. I'm excited to find out what freshman we recruited that are going to have a role somewhere on special teams. Jordan Richmond, Trey Williams, Mike Richardson, we've got some good-looking bodies as freshmen and we're going to need some of those guys to contribute for us and they're going to have to help us as core special teams players. And to be honest with you, that's part of what makes my job fun. I don't look at the same eight faces every day of the season. At some point, I'm going to engage just about everybody on the football team and that's a lot of fun. So we'll see what young guys we're going to get into the mix and we're going to figure out what veterans will make up our core 8-10 guys that will show up on most of these units.

SK: What's your feel on the coverage units and how those will shape up for you?

BP:
"We're going to put the best guys out there. If you're going to see starters playing on (special) teams, you're going to see them on the coverage units, because that's the stuff that'll get you beat. The layperson says 'Who's really good on special teams? Well this team blocks punts and this team has returns for touchdowns.' Our first job is to not lose the game. That's our first job. Our first job is to win in the coverage units and make sure that we don't give up the big play. Our second job is to make our field goals and extra points and to be trustworthy that if it's fourth-and-6 on the 28 or 30-yard line that we can feel confident that we can knock the three through and win the game when we have to. Our last job is to be productive on the return units. Not to say that we don't want to be, but if we're not doing those first two things, we're costing our team ballgames. We've got to cover kicks, we've got to change field position and we've got to score points."
Ask the players themselves and they'll tell you: Texas A&M's move to the Southeastern Conference matters.

When it comes to a reason for recruits in the 2013 class choosing the Aggies, many say the SEC is near the top of that list.

"That's a big reason," Manvel cornerback Tavares Garner said. "The SEC, it doesn't get bigger than that. It's the best conference, really."

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