Texas A&M Aggies: Darian Claiborne

Another week, another off-field incident. That is the way it has been this offseason in the SEC, and this past week was no different.

Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.

At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.

These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.

SportsNation

Which SEC team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions this coming season?

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    12%
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    13%
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    43%
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    8%
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    24%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,544)

In Tuscaloosa, the media's pick to win the SEC has had its fair share of off-field incidents. Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.

Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.

The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.

At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.

Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.

SEC's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
12:00
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Johnny Manziel will throw out the first pitch in tonight's Cleveland Indians game. It's a safe bet he won't go all 50 Cent on us.

Offseason exodus in the SEC

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
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It's that time of year that coaches dread, when unfortunately there tends to be as much activity off the field as on the field.

On Tuesday, we saw three projected defensive starters in the league -- Georgia safety Tray Matthews and Texas A&M linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden -- shown the proverbial door.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's Darian Claiborne is one of three several projected SEC starters who were dismissed by their schools on Tuesday.
In the case of Claiborne and Golden, they were already on double-secret probation and ran out of chances after being arrested and charged with robbing three victims at gunpoint on May 23 after the three men agreed to purchase marijuana from Claiborne and Golden. Claiborne had already been arrested twice and Golden once in the last seven months.

Much will be made of the Aggies, especially as bad as they were on defense a year ago, being in no position to lose young talent the caliber of Claiborne and Golden. But Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is smart enough to know when enough is enough, and when you've got guys on your team who already have previous brushes with the law and are accused of robbing people at gunpoint (in a drug deal, no less), it's past time to cut your losses.

At Georgia, coach Mark Richt had obviously had enough with Matthews, who started six games a year ago in an injury-plagued freshman season. Matthews had shown promise and was a big hitter, but Richt's statement concerning Matthews' dismissal spoke volumes. Matthews was arrested in March, along with three other players, and charged with allegedly cashing school-issued financial aid checks twice.

"We are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right," said Richt, who almost never publicly calls out players, be it current players or former players.

Ironically, Matthews tweeted that he'd likely wind up at Auburn or Louisville, a pair of schools that have become a safe house of sorts for Georgia players who get into trouble or decide to leave the program. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins have transferred to Louisville, and Nick Marshall is entering his second season as Auburn's quarterback.

Just in the last five or six years, Richt has cut loose a ton of highly regarded talent. Other than Matthews, Harvey-Clemons and Marshall, some of the other names include Isaiah Crowell, Zach Mettenberger, Chris Sanders, Ty Flourney-Smith, Brent Benedict and Washaun Ealey.

Below is a list of the some bigger names around the SEC who've either been dismissed or have decided to transfer for various reasons since the end of last season:

Alabama: RB Alvin Kamara

Florida: S Cody Riggs, QB Tyler Murphy

Georgia: S Josh Harvey-Clemons, QB Christian LeMay, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins

Kentucky: QB Jalen Whitlow

LSU: QB Stephen Rivers

Missouri: WR Dorial Green-Beckham

Ole Miss: OT Austin Golson

Tennessee: QB Riley Ferguson

Texas A&M: LB Darian Claiborne, DT Isaiah Golden, QB Matt Joeckel, S Kameron Miles
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A defense that struggled mightily in 2013 will go into the 2014 season without two of its top players. That’s not what Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder needs as he tries to rebuild the Aggies' defense, but that’s the hand he is dealt after the news of the dismissal of starters Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Golden
John Korduner/Icon SMIFormer ESPN 300 recruit Isaiah Golden, who played as a true freshman in 2013, is one of two Aggies who were dismissed from the program on Tuesday.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin made the announcement on Tuesday. The Aggies will enter the fall without two players who were All-SEC freshman team selections.

But it’s a decision Sumlin had to make. Both Claiborne and Golden were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery on Tuesday from an incident that occurred on May 23. Both have already had second chances (Claiborne was on his third), so they were already on thin ice. The seriousness of the charges made the decision easy for Sumlin.

Claiborne emerged as perhaps the defense’s best player late last season after he began to find his groove as a middle linebacker, which isn’t his natural position. He finished the season with 89 tackles in his 12 games, nine of which came as starts.

Golden, meanwhile, was forced into the starting lineup after the Aggies lost senior Kirby Ennis to a season-ending knee injury. With the kind of size (6-foot-2, 310) the Aggies were looking for in a defensive tackle, Golden held his own well as a true freshman.

Both would have started this fall, which means the Aggies must come up with new plans to replace them. Claiborne would have likely been the starting weakside linebacker as Jordan Mastrogiovanni has emerged as the team’s new middle linebacker.

The absence of Golden makes a January recruiting coup by the Aggies even bigger. In mid-January, the Aggies were able to flip four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, who was originally committed to Texas. An early enrollee, Henderson was on campus shortly thereafter and participated in spring football with Texas A&M. He showed flashes of potential, enough to get practice time with the first team and give the coaching staff optimism that he can contribute quickly.

Now, Henderson could be a starting candidate at defensive tackle, along with sophomore Hardreck Walker, who played as a true freshman last season. The Aggies also have an incoming recruit in ESPN 300 defensive tackle DeShawn Washington, who will join the team this summer. Their top defensive recruit from the 2013 class, Justin Manning, redshirted last season but saw plenty of repetitions this spring. One of those two might have to get game-ready sooner rather than later.

Losing Claiborne is a significant blow as well, but fortunately, the Aggies are building solid depth at linebacker and should have a myriad of options. Two outside linebackers in particular, A.J. Hilliard and Shaan Washington, turned in good showings during spring practice and are likely to fight for a starting spot in August. Hilliard transferred from TCU and sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, and Washington found himself in a special teams role last season, as well as a reserve linebacker. They have plenty of ability, but neither have much experience, which is the quandary the Aggies found themselves in last season en route to a horrific defensive showing. The Aggies were last or near-last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories in 2013.

Senior Donnie Baggs, who started early last season and played plenty, likely figures into a significant role somewhere as an outside linebacker. He received praise from linebackers coach Mark Hagen this spring. The Aggies also have incoming outside linebacker recruits in ESPN 300 duo Otaro Alaka (who they flipped from Texas) and Josh Walker.

Another linebacker who showed some promise in the spring is one who has been around but hasn’t seen much of the field -- senior Justin Bass. One of these players will have to emerge as the Aggies search for options to replace the once-promising Claiborne.
When it comes to Texas A&M's spring, the first question surrounding the Aggies often relates to the quarterback battle and who is in the lead to succeed Johnny Manziel.

The next question is usually relates to the defense, and how much better -- if at all -- the unit will be after a disastrous 2013 season.

While neither can be definitively answered, when it comes to the defense, there is at least some reason for optimism coming out of spring football. The Aggies can't get much worse than they were a year ago, when the ranked last or near last in the SEC in virtually every major statistical category, but there were signs during spring practice that indicate that brighter days are ahead for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's group.

One reason the Aggies have to feel better about their defense is the experience they'll have. Last year the root of the struggles seemed to be the youth and inexperience up and down the depth chart, with the Aggies having as many as a dozen freshmen in the defensive two-deep.

Though the Aggies will still be relatively young in some areas (particularly linebacker), most of the players who are candidates to start or see significant time were thrown in the fire last season.

Middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni is a perfect example. Though he'll only be a sophomore this fall, he started against Alabama last Sept. 14 and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke. Mastrogiovanni called it "overwhelming," but as the guy getting first-team work at his position this spring, coaches have heaped praise upon the former ESPN 300 prospect.

Should defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne return from suspensions (both missed the spring after February arrests), they too will benefit. Both started a large portion of the season as true freshmen.

Other players who could be in position to contribute, such as linebacker Shaan Washington or cornerback Noel Ellis, weren't starters but saw enough field time to give them a taste of what life in the SEC is like.

Add to those young players a host of returning veterans, such as the starting secondary of Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris, Howard Matthews and Julien Obioha, Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams and the Aggies can begin piecing together a more experienced defense.

With so many players returning (nine starters return from last year's defense) and a top-five recruiting class on the way, the Aggies will continue to add to their talent level on defense. One defensive player is already on campus (defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson) and showed flashes of his potential during spring football.

With players like defensive end Myles Garrett, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect, ESPN 300 athlete Nick Harvey, who will be a defensive back at Texas A&M and other ESPN 300 prospects like Deshawn Washington, Otaro Alaka, Qualen Cunningham, Armani Watts and Josh Walker, competition will only increase when preseason training camp starts.


The increased depth on the defensive line could be the biggest factor in helping the defense improve. Snyder indicated how critical it was earlier this month.

"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] … that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."

For the Aggies, there really is nowhere to go but up defensively. They could be another year away from being the kind of defense they hope to be, but the developments this spring suggest at least some improvement is in order in 2014.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like many of Texas A&M's defensive players, Jordan Mastrogiovanni was thrown onto the field sooner than most anticipated.

He got his first career start in the Aggies' most anticipated game of 2013, the Sept. 14 clash against Alabama. He appeared in all 13 games last season and made another start in the Aggies' Chick-Fil-A Bowl game win over Duke.

[+] EnlargeMastrogiovanni
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Texas A&M coaches expect sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni to be a defensive leader in 2014.
Most incoming recruits relish the chance at early playing time, but for the ESPN 300 prospect out of Dallas Jesuit, the excitement was also met with a dose of reality.

"To be honest with you, it was overwhelming at times," Mastrogiovanni said. "To think that a year [before] I was playing in front of 2,000 people in a high school football game, that's just one of those things where you have to man up and take care of your responsibilities and do the best you can."

What was overwhelming about it? In a word, everything.

"Really, every aspect of the game," he said. "The players, the calls, just looking up in the stands and seeing 100,000 people, that's something not many people get to experience. As an 18-year-old kid looking up, it's something that not a lot of people get to experience."

In the bowl game against Duke, Mastrogiovanni started at middle linebacker in place of the suspended Darian Claiborne, who served as the starter for most of the season. Linebackers coach Mark Hagen recalls the difficult start the defense had across the board against the Blue Devils, as the Aggies surrendered 38 first-half points while a handful of glossy-eyed freshmen, Mastrogiovanni included, tried to figure things out.

"It was a disaster from the opening kickoff in the bowl game," Hagen said. "Nothing went right. I think like most of our guys they were questioning themselves in the locker room and it was just a matter of going out there and getting a stop and I think you saw the confidence start to come back a little bit. It was a playing time issue really as much as anything [for Mastrogiovanni], just not having a ton of [first-team] reps."

But as the Aggies regrouped in the locker room, Mastrogiovanni spoke up and the defense collected itself. The unit allowed only 10 points in the second half as the team completed its come-from-behind effort to steal a 52-48 win.

"At halftime I went in and was pretty frustrated with my performance and the rest of the defense's," Mastrogiovanni said. "I tried to take over as the leader at that point and I said 'Turn the page. Don't even think about it.' That's what Johnny [Manizel] was saying too. I really think we went out there and bought in on what the coaches and players were preaching in the locker room. I think you can see on tape that we were a lot more physical and we trusted each other so it paid off."

The Aggies are hoping the instinct the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker showed that night carries over into this season, because he figures to be Texas A&M's starting middle linebacker. Mastrogiovanni spent the spring working with the first team. The Aggies are looking for improved play -- and leadership.

"I think we lacked a lot of it last year," coach Kevin Sumlin said of the defensive leadership. "We need a guy who's going to step up and talk and make sure we know everything and that we play with some confidence. I think that whole year has given him some confidence and some credibility among his teammates. It's one thing for you to be confident, but what about the guys around you? Mastro has spoken up."

Spring football, which wrapped up for the Aggies on Saturday, was productive for Mastrogiovanni. He became much more comfortable in his role as the middle linebacker and showed the qualities the coaching staff seeks.

"I just think you see a totally different person out there," Hagen said. "Much more comfortable, he's taking charge, he's getting our guys lined up which is over half the battle on defense."

The coaches want him to continue to progress, but so far he has given them reason for optimism. The one thing Sumlin wants him to work on is, of all things, his voice, so his teammates can hear him.

"I give him a hard time because I tell him to put some bass in his voice," Sumlin said with a smile. "I keep forgetting he's a freshman. He has played a bunch of football here. 'Yell from the diaphragm, act like a middle linebacker, put some bass in your voice.'"

With Claiborne likely to move to the weakside linebacker position and the Aggies mulling over a number of options for strongside linebacker, Mastrogiovanni's play is key. Texas A&M is looking to improve a defense that was last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories and struggled mightily against the run. It also didn't deal with offensive wrinkles well, something that having an experienced middle linebacker with the leadership qualities coaches are looking for will help improve.

Mastrogiovanni doesn't want to see another season go by with the Aggies ranking in the bottom 30 nationally defensively, like they did in 2013.

"That's just unacceptable, especially for a program the caliber of Texas A&M," he said. "The fans deserve better and we need to push ourselves. That's not the product we want to put out on the field. We're driven, we're motivated, we just don't want to have another defensive season like that."

Opening spring camp: Texas A&M

February, 27, 2014
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Schedule: The Aggies begin spring practice on Friday and will go through the first week of April, while taking off spring break week in between. Because of the redevelopment project of Kyle Field, the Aggies will not have their annual maroon-and-white spring game.

What’s new: The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator (Jake Spavital, previously A&M's quarterbacks coach) and a new secondary coach (Terry Joseph, previously at Nebraska and replacing departed secondary coach Marcel Yates, who is now at Boise State). Aside from that, the coaching staff stayed stable and most of the newness will come on the field, as the Aggies face life post-Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherWhoever Texas A&M names at quarterback will have Cedric Ogbuehi protecting him at left tackle.
On the move: Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi moves from right tackle to left tackle to fill the void left by Jake Matthews. On defense, linebacker Darian Claiborne -- who started nine games at middle linebacker -- moves to his natural position of weakside linebacker.

New faces: Texas A&M had seven recruits who enrolled in January and who will be available for spring football: quarterback Kyle Allen, junior college offensive linemen Jermaine Eluemunor and Avery Gennesy, offensive lineman J.J. Gustafson, defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, receiver Speedy Noil and junior college receiver Joshua Reynolds.

Also, outside linebacker A.J. Hilliard -- a transfer from TCU -- will go through his second spring in Aggieland, but 2014 will be the first year he is eligible to play for A&M after sitting out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Question marks: Some of the biggest question marks going into spring practice are related to off-the-field issues. Head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn't publicly commented on defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and Claiborne, both of whom were arrested over the weekend on separate charges. Athletics department policy calls for them to be suspended immediately and indefinitely while things are sorted out, but how much time will they miss this spring? As for on the field, most of the questions exist on a defense that was last in the SEC in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing and red zone efficiency last season. Will the young defensive line show improvement? Will the secondary play, specifically from the safeties, get better? Can two new faces at linebacker help the cause?

Key battle: The main one everyone will watch is at quarterback, where senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and Allen will square off. At right tackle, expect the junior college transfers, Eluemunor and Gennesy, to compete for the starting job initially. There are receiver positions up for grabs and a host of candidates. There's a spot at strongside linebacker up for grabs as well.

Breaking out: With Mike Evans gone, there are a lot of catches and yards to be had. Only one starter returns at receiver (Malcome Kennedy), but look for one of the young up-and-comers to break out. That guy could be Ricky Seals-Jones, who missed most of last season with a knee injury that he suffered in the season opener against Rice. Seals-Jones is big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), fast and can be a matchup problem wherever the Aggies put him. Also keep an eye at running back for potential breakout players. The team's two leading rushers the last two seasons -- Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- are gone, so someone has to get those carries. Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams will get the chance to prove their worth, and someone will emerge as the No. 1 back on the depth chart.

Don’t forget about: Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris. For much of last season, you could say Everett was the Aggies' best and most versatile defensive player, flip-flopping from cornerback to safety and vice versa. His versatility gives the Aggies options in the secondary. Harris showed significant improvement last season as a sophomore over his true freshman season in 2012, when he started right out of the gate. If those two remain at corner, their veteran presence will provide some stability in the defensive backfield, and both have shown the ability to be playmakers.

All eyes on: The coordinators. Mark Snyder had a strong first season as the Aggies' defensive coordinator in 2012, but last season's defensive performance had Aggies frustrated. Everyone, including Snyder and his staff, is looking for significant improvement from a group that will be a year older after having a dozen freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart at times last season. On offense, Spavital takes over as the play-caller, a duty he assumed before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He'll call the plays straight from the sideline and, as the quarterbacks coach, should have a symbiotic relationship with Manziel's successor. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles are added to the offense and what it transforms to under the 28-year-old's watch.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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Happy Tuesday! It's combine, combine and more combine talk around the league, as SEC athletes make news in their NFL pursuits. Also, spring football is starting soon -- on Friday for Texas A&M -- so there's a sprinkling of that as well in today's lunch links:
Editor's note: This is the fourth part of a weeklong series looking at five players to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M

It’s no secret that Texas A&M’s defense left much to be desired in 2013.

[+] EnlargeMastrogiovanni
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni is expected to start at middle linebacker for Texas A&M in 2014.
The Aggies were downright bad throughout much of the season and the statistics illustrated as much. The reasons given for those struggles were plentiful, perhaps none more so than youth and inexperience. There were 11 freshmen, either redshirt or true, that occupied a spot on the two-deep depth chart for much of the season, and anybody who has been through the rugged SEC will tell you that can be a recipe for disaster.

While the Aggies went through growing pains en route to their 9-4 season, ranking in the bottom 15 nationally in rushing yards and total yards allowed per game, there is hope in College Station, Texas, for a brighter future, in large part because of all the young players that saw the field in 2013.

And perhaps no position is more important than middle linebacker, the spot that will be manned by sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni.

As a freshman, Mastrogiovanni saw action in all 13 games last season, starting twice: against Alabama on Sept. 14 and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder felt comfortable enough to give Mastrogiovanni the nod in the most high-profile game of the season, though the next week the Aggies shifted their focus at the position to Darian Claiborne, who turned in a strong freshman campaign even though he had to change positions midway through the season.

This season, Claiborne is expected to move back to his more natural position of weakside linebacker and Mastrogiovanni will be expected to step in at middle linebacker. The Dallas Jesuit product got a taste of it in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, having to start in place of Claiborne, who was suspended.

For the season, Mastrogiovanni turned in 26 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and a pass defensed. In the bowl game against Duke he was second on the team with eight tackles and logged a half tackle for loss.

During the latter part of the season, Mastrogiovanni saw increased practice repetitions at the position as Claiborne’s backup and gained some valuable experience in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl as well as the practices leading up to the bowl game where he saw first-team reps. As an ESPN 300 recruit who was part of the 2013 recruiting class, there are high hopes for his future in Aggieland.

And if the Aggies are to improve on defense in 2014, they’ll have to see improvement from virtually all positions, including middle linebacker, one of the most important positions on the field. Mastrogiovanni’s role will be key and his progress during spring practice will be worth watching for Texas A&M.

TAMU to-do list: Find the leaders

January, 22, 2014
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Editor's note: This is the second part of a week-long series looking at the five most pressing concerns Texas A&M faces this offseason.

Strong player leadership is something Texas A&M has been fortunate to have in Kevin Sumlin's first two seasons.

During the 2012 season, players such as linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, center Patrick Lewis and receiver Ryan Swope were among those cited by coaches and teammates as carrying that responsibility.

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsSoon-to-be senior Malcome Kennedy, who caught 7 TD passes last season, could be called upon as a leader on the Texas A&M offense.
As those players and others tabbed as leaders moved on, the Aggies looked to guys such as running back Ben Malena, left tackle Jake Matthews and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., among others. And certainly, the team's two best players, Mike Evans and Johnny Manziel, set a standard with their level of play.

As we continue our look at the offseason to-do list for Texas A&M, it seems appropriate that finding the next wave of leaders is high on the list, because all of those above names are gone via graduation or the NFL draft.

The Aggies will be young on both sides of the ball with underclassmen playing in several key positions, potentially even at quarterback. Offensively, senior tackle Cedric Ogbuehi could be one of the players the Aggies turn to.

Ogbuehi, who passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft early to return for his final season, has 30 career starts and has been an integral part of the Aggies' successful first two seasons in the SEC.

Soon-to-be senior Malcome Kennedy, the returning statistical leader among the Aggies receivers after the departure of three starters at the position, is another possibility. Going into 2012, receivers coach David Beaty applauded Kennedy's work ethic and improvement in the offseason and Kennedy emerged into a reliable target for Manziel throughout the season.

On defense, could Deshazor Everett -- who will be a senior -- be one of those candidates? He has 22 starts under his belt, all of which have come in the last two seasons, and he has been a linchpin in the Aggies' secondary with the ability to move between cornerback and safety. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder lauded Everett's willingness to do so when the Aggies were trying to mix and match players in the defensive backfield.

Younger players could be candidates as well. Players such as center Mike Matthews and running back Trey Williams, who will both be juniors, have received playing time in each of the last two seasons and are players to keep an eye on. Before a December arrest in which he was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Darian Claiborne -- who started in nine games as a true freshman at a new position, middle linebacker -- seemed to be a potential candidate, though how he responds from his legal incident will be worth watching.

As the Aggies progress through offseason workouts and head into spring football in a couple months, there will almost certainly be players step forward and emerge as naturals in these roles.

Earlier to-do list posts:
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.

Season wrap: Texas A&M

January, 15, 2014
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With a preseason top-10 ranking and lofty goals coming off a smashing 2012 season, things didn't work out the way Texas A&M had hoped in 2013. There was no BCS bowl game or division championship as the Aggies finished 9-4.

But it was still an interesting, compelling and productive season in Aggieland as Texas A&M is ahead of schedule when it comes to SEC success. Beating a ranked team would have been a nice feather in their caps, but the Aggies weren't able to do it. Nonetheless, recruiting is strong, the facilities are being upgraded and the buzz around the program is at levels rarely seen before.

Offensive MVP: No doubt it was quarterback Johnny Manziel. He improved as a sophomore in several passing statistics from his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2012, and as Manziel went, so did the Aggies. Mike Evans is a close second, but Manziel was still the main man with 4,873 total yards and 46 total touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Considering the struggles of the unit, it's not easy to pick one. But we'll give the nod to true freshman linebacker Darian Claiborne. He was moved into the starting lineup at a new position (middle linebacker) midway through the season and became a major contributor, finishing third on the team with 89 tackles and leading the team with seven tackles for loss.

Best moment: The Chick-Fil-A Bowl. The Aggies trailed by 21 points at halftime, then proceeded to come from behind and win 52-48. There were too many great individual moments in that game to pick just one, from Manziel's hurdle that turned into a touchdown pass to Travis Labhart, to Toney Hurd Jr.'s interception return that gave the Aggies the lead to Nate Askew's interception that sealed the win.

Worst moment: The trip to Death Valley on Nov. 23. With their BCS bowl hopes still alive, Texas A&M was pounded 34-10 by LSU. Manziel and Evans never found a rhythm, the offense never got going and LSU dominated.

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Texas A&M came up short in its regular-season finale, falling on the road to No. 5 Missouri 28-21 on Saturday at Faurot Field. Despite the loss, here were some good performances so we hand out a few helmet stickers:

Drew Kaser: The punter had another strong day at the office, punting eight times for an average of 44.8 yards. He had a long of 58, placed three punts inside the Missouri 20-yard line and had three kicks of 50 yards or more.

Jay Arnold: The true freshman defensive end got probably his most significant playing time of the season and he delivered, coming up with a game-high two quarterback sacks. Arnold finished with three tackles total for the night.

Darian Claiborne: The true freshman middle linebacker had 10 tackles, marking the fifth game of the season he's reached double digits in that category. He's now tied with senior Steven Jenkins for the team lead with 89 tackles this season.

SEC helps A&M, LSU rekindle rivalry

November, 22, 2013
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How long has it been since Texas A&M traveled to Baton Rouge, La., to play LSU at Tiger Stadium? Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin offers perspective.

"It's a little bit different for our current players than maybe it is for our former students or our fans," Sumlin said. "That was [19] years ago. Guys like [starting middle linebacker] Darian Claiborne, shoot, they couldn't even walk the last time we went to Tiger Stadium."

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesKevin Sumlin will take Texas A&M back to Death Valley for the first time in 19 years.
To be exact, Sept. 3, 1994, was the previous trip the Aggies made to Death Valley. Texas A&M won 18-13, and the teams played the next season at Kyle Field, a 33-17 win for the Aggies.

The 1995 battle was the last of 10 straight and the teams didn't meet again until the Cotton Bowl brought them together in 2010. The major shifts that shook up college football because of conference realignment have broken up many rivalries, but in this particular case, it rekindled an old one, with the Aggies and Tigers becoming conference mates in the SEC West Division.

LSU and Texas A&M have a long history together; the Tigers lead the all-time series 28-20-3. Former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, who coached in seven of those battles, called it a “great rivalry.”

"I think over the years it's been a natural thing because the closeness of the two states and the environment," said Slocum, who was born in Louisiana and coached high school football in that state, but grew up in Orange, Texas, virtually on the Texas/Louisiana border. "There were so many people, particularly in Southeast Texas and in Houston in the oil industry that had Louisiana ties. And if you went into southeastern Louisiana and down to New Orleans, again, because of the oil industry, there were a lot of people with Texas ties.”

It was a bit of baptism by fire for former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo. When the teams met in 1995, it was DiNardo's first game as the Tigers' coach. And he had the unenviable task of coaching the season opener at raucous Kyle Field.

"I don't know that anybody wants to open up at A&M when you take over a job," DiNardo said with a laugh.

"I really didn't know much about it. I was in the Southeast for four years at Vanderbilt, then I went to LSU. When you first take over a job, there's so many things that you have to do that honestly, you don't pay much attention to your first opponent until it's close up.

"I did have an appreciation for the rivalry. It was a great setting and a good game."

The teams' first meeting dates to 1899 and the teams played sporadically until 1942, which began a series of seven straight years that the teams played. They met annually from 1960 to 1975, then not again until 1986, which started a string of eight consecutive matchups.

The teams were to continue playing through at least the 1997 season, but LSU chose not to play the final two games that were part of a 10-year contract that began in the 1988 season.

[+] EnlargeDiNardo
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesGerry DiNardo's first taste of the rivalry came in his first-ever game as LSU's coach.
DiNardo suspects that the SEC expansion that turned the conference into a 12-team league and split it into two divisions in 1992 was a big factor in ending the rivalry at that time.

"When the SEC went to two six-team divisions, everybody thought they were all going to kill one another," DiNardo said. "I was at Vanderbilt the first year we had that and I'm sitting in the coaches' meetings and coaches were saying, 'We will never win another national championship game.'

"Alabama won it that year and obviously, the rest is history. Just the opposite happened."

Now the teams share the same division and will see each other annually. With Texas A&M not playing longtime rival Texas -- its former Southwest Conference and Big 12 Conference mate -- for the foreseeable future, it could be LSU that emerges as the Aggies' traditional Thanksgiving weekend rival. The teams are scheduled to play on Thanksgiving in 2014.

"I am ecstatic about LSU and being able to play on Thursday of Thanksgiving," Texas A&M athletics director Eric Hyman said when the SEC schedule was announced in August. "To be able to play LSU just makes a natural rivalry, the proximity and everything else."

There also should be some familiarity with players on each side, as LSU recruits Texas and Texas A&M recruits Louisiana. As long as Sumlin and Les Miles are coaching, that will continue. But for it to develop as a rivalry, the teams might have to play each other a few more times consecutively and it won't hurt if both teams are successful -- as they are right now, with both in the top 25 of the BCS standings -- when those meetings occur.

"For our fans, it has the potential [to become a rivalry]," Sumlin said. " . . . I've got a feeling that as soon as we try to get into Tiger Stadium tomorrow at about 12:30, they'll figure out what kind of atmosphere we're playing in and what kind of rivalry it is."

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