Texas A&M Aggies: Derel Walker
There will be live national coverage, on television and the web. There will be countless hours of analysis on the airwaves in the aftermath -- and there already has been in the lead up to the event. Political figures, past and present, will be in the house. Johnny Manziel even got to spend time with a former president on Wednesday. Later in the day, Manziel's visit with Jon Gruden for Gruden's QB Camp will air on ESPN (you can get a sneak peek here). It's, as one NFL coach called it, "Johnny Day."
At the NFL scouting combine last month, Manziel did almost everything except throw for the 32 teams on hand. Thursday, he will finally display the fruits of the intensive labor he has put into his right arm (as well as his footwork, accuracy, arm strength and mental capabilities) over the last 10 weeks.
In mid-January, less than a week after officially declaring for early entry into the NFL draft, Manziel headed west for San Diego, the city that would become his training ground to prepare for the combine and pro day. Working with his personal quarterback coach, George Whitfield Jr., Manziel went to work in what they dubbed "Dime City," hoping to prove to the NFL, and specifically the Houston Texans, that the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is worth the No. 1 overall pick.
"I want them to say absolutely, without a doubt, with 100 percent certainty, that I'm who they want," Manziel told the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram in February. "I want everybody from the janitor at Reliant Stadium to the front-office executive assistant all the way up to [owner] Bob McNair to say, 'This kid is 100 percent, can't miss. This is who we want being the face of our program. We want the Texas kid staying in Texas and leading the Texans.'”
Thursday, personnel from the Texans and almost every other NFL team will be present. Texans general manager Rick Smith, head coach Bill O'Brien and quarterbacks coach George Godsey will be there watching closely. Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer will not be, but there won't be a shortage of pro personnel. NFL.com's Gil Brandt put the over/under on NFL folks at 125.
Manziel won't be the only one they are there to see, either. Receiver Mike Evans -- who like Manziel, did not work out at Texas A&M's first pro day on March 5 -- will also perform for the scouts on hand. A projected first-round pick, Evans has the opportunity to add to his already storybook career, one that includes him going from high school basketball star with no varsity football experience to one of the best receivers in college football.
Because Manziel is expected to be taken early and not every team needs a quarterback, there will be as many -- perhaps more -- eyes on Evans. Projected initially to be a mid-first round pick, some felt his performance at the combine last month might have given off a good enough impression to help Evans work his way into the top 10. Either way, there are plenty of teams that feel they might have a shot to take him.
At 6-foot-5 and 231 pounds, with a 37-inch vertical and a 40-yard dash time of 4.53 seconds, Evans has the physical tools coaches desire and was extremely productive in the SEC despite having only four years of football experience.
Joining the two projected first-rounders in the pro day performance will be their Texas A&M teammates, running back Ben Malena, receivers Travis Labhart and Derel Walker and tight end Nehemiah Hicks. Whitfield has been in town with the group this week working with them on the pro day script.
Texas A&M defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., who had to sit out the Aggies' March 5 pro day while awaiting medical clearance from offseason surgery, also plans to perform for scouts.
But the nation's attention will be on Manziel. He's a polarizing figure in this draft, just like he has been throughout his college career, for many reasons: his height (5-11 3/4), his scrambling ability, his tendency to orchestrate seemingly impossible plays and the headlines he has made, particularly off the field. The predictions and opinions about his future run the gamut, from those who feel he will excel at the next level to those who believe he will be a bust. Can he make all the throws? He has the opportunity to answer those questions now.
His accomplishments at Texas A&M are well-documented, but what kind of impression will he leave for his future employers? Most of his life, Manziel has been at his best when the lights have been brightest. A coach who knows him better than most expects that to be the case once again.
"I'm not going to be shocked when he does well," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Some other people may but it won't shock me at all when he does well."
Earlier that morning, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was in Kevin Sumlin's office, catching up with his former head coach.
And in the afternoon, prior to his workout, he made headlines across the Internet with this viral video of him displaying his athleticism with a multitude of dunks.
Yes, it was just like old times in Aggieland for Manziel.
The difference this time is, he wasn't suiting up for practice with the Aggies. Instead, he was utilizing the facilities where he launched his memorable college career to prepare for the latest "most important day" of his young career, his pro day workout in front of NFL personnel on Thursday.
Though he has spent most of his time since January in San Diego, working with private quarterback coach George Whitfield and Aggies teammate Mike Evans (who will also perform on Thursday), Manziel is finding respite in the place he spent the last three years.
"It was kind of startling to open the door and see him there," Sumlin said of seeing Manziel in his office first thing Monday morning. "Obviously, he feels at home."
Manziel and Sumlin caught up briefly and the quarterback inquired on the team's practice times so he could schedule his workouts with Whitfield and a host of familiar A&M teammates like Evans, Travis Labhart, Derel Walker and Ben Malena.
Sumlin made sure to mention Manziel's television commercial debut, a McDonald's spot featuring LeBron James.
"We just talked about pro day, we talked about a lot of things," Sumlin said. "I haven't seen him since the first week of spring football, before spring break. I congratulated him on his commercial (laughs). We just talked about a couple things and asked him how he was doing. He wanted to know what time we were practicing and whether we were indoors or outdoors because he was going to come in and throw a little bit beforehand and come out and watch practice. Just regular stuff."
There will be plenty of eyes on Manziel in particular, including those of the Houston Texans, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Manziel workout Thur starts at 11a. He'll have WRs Travis Labhart, Derel Walker & Mike Evans + RB Ben Malena w him. O/U for NFL folks: 125— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) March 25, 2014
"I'm happy for him now," Sumlin said. "This will be a big day for him. The exposure, the bright lights, the video, the brand -- that carries worldwide and that's a big deal for everybody concerned."
The Aggies’ biggest names are all expected to be present at the McFerrin Athletic Center -- quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews -- though Manziel and Evans won’t be working out for scouts until March 27.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin is expecting all NFL teams to be represented at Texas A&M’s pro day, which will feature a dozen players.
“Ever since we’ve been here every team shows up, with a couple of different representatives,” Sumlin said. “We had a couple guys who did real well at the combine. Obviously, Mike was here last week and was real pleased with how he did things. I talked to Johnny [on Sunday] night and he’ll be back in town. I think it’s big when you have those types of marquee players [like them] and Jake. It creates opportunities for other players who weren’t at the combine and I think that’s a big deal.”
Other Aggies who will be present and are expected to work out are linebacker Nate Askew, defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, tight end Nehemiah Hicks, defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., cornerback Tramain Jacobs, linebacker Steven Jenkins, receiver Travis Labhart, running back Ben Malena and receiver Derel Walker.
Evans, Manziel and Matthews are all projected first-round picks and the fact that their presence brings plenty of NFL personnel is a positive, Sumlin said. The same has happened in the past with previous high draft picks who came out of Texas A&M.
“I forget how many guys we got that got into [NFL training] camp but it was a large number of guys that at least got an opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t have had if there’s not a Luke Joeckel here, if there’s not those types of guys,” Sumlin said. “It attracted a lot of guys and just about all of those guys got in camp which is, after that, that’s about all you can ask. Can they all make it? No. But it gave them an opportunity and I think that’s the bigger picture than just the three guys that went to the combine.”
Manziel did almost everything except throw at the NFL scouting combine, running a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and a 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle. He had a 31½ inch vertical jump, his height was measured at 5-foot-11¾ inches and his weight 207 pounds.
Evans measured at 6-5, 231 and ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 37-inch vertical jump. Matthews measured at 6-5, 308, had a 30½ inch vertical and performed the three-cone drill in 7.34 seconds.
The pro day begins at 9:30 a.m. and is closed to the public.
While quarterback Johnny Manziel dominated the headlines in his brief, two-year career at Texas A&M, he had a lot of help on offense.
One of the most important weapons Manziel had at his disposal was receiver Mike Evans.
Once they hit the field together in 2012 as redshirt freshmen, Evans quickly became Manziel's go-to receiver.
In two seasons, Evans caught 151 passes for 2,499 and 12 touchdowns. In 2013, he emerged as one of the nation's best receivers with a school-record 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns, which earned him a spot at the finalists' table for the Biletnikoff Award.
But like Manziel, Evans declared for early entry into the NFL draft. That brings us to our next item on the Texas A&M offseason to-do list, which is finding the next No. 1 receiver.
Because of the way the Aggies have recruited the last two seasons, they will have no shortage of options at the position. In addition to the receivers who were already on campus, the Aggies signed six receivers in the 2013 recruiting class and in the 2014 class, four prospects will wind up at receiver.
And it won't just be Evans' production that needs to be filled. The Aggies are saying goodbye to three starters as two others (Travis Labhart and Derel Walker) were seniors. Malcome Kennedy (60 receptions, 658 yards, seven touchdowns) is the lone returning starter and returning statistical leader in each major receiving category.
As an inside receiver who became a reliable target for Manziel, it stands to reason that Kennedy will see more opportunities. But who replaces Evans at outside receiver?
Ricky Seals-Jones, the Aggies' top-ranked recruit in the 2013 class, is an intriguing option, though it isn't necessarily a guarantee that he lines up outside. During preseason training camp last season, Seals-Jones received practice time at both inside receiver and outside receiver and made his biggest play of the season, a 71-yard touchdown reception against Rice, as an inside receiver.
He missed most of the season with a knee injury, but no matter where he lines up, he figures to play a prominent role in the offense in 2014 and could be a prime candidate to be a go-to guy with his size (6-foot-5, 240) and speed.
Several young receivers played in 2013 and will compete for the chance to start in 2014, such as LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Ja'Quay Williams, Jeremy Tabuyo and Edward Pope, all of whom were freshmen last season. Sabian Holmes, who will be a junior, and redshirt freshman Kyrion Parker could also be factors in the offense next season.
A lot of eyes will be on the offensive gem of the 2014 recruiting class though: ESPN 300 five-star athlete Speedy Noil. A high school quarterback at New Orleans Edna Karr, Noil is ranked as the No. 1 athlete in the country and will play receiver for the Aggies. Noil began classes earlier this month and will participate in spring football, giving the country's No. 7 overall player a head start when it comes to finding himself on the field in 2014.
Derel Walker: He was the best of the receiving bunch for the Aggies on Saturday. Walker scored the Aggies' only touchdown on a 51-yard catch late in the second quarter and finished with six receptions for 130 yards, a nice 21.7 yards per catch average. Even with that, Walker could have had an even better day if he had held on to a pass from Manziel in the end zone on third-and-goal from the LSU 3 in the second quarter. But on a rough day for the A&M offense, Walker was a bright spot.
Drew Kaser: Kaser has been one of the better punters in the league and in the country this year, even though he hasn't had a ton of opportunities. On Saturday he had plenty, punting five times for 224 yards, an average of 44.8 yards per punt. He had only one punt returned, and he placed one inside the 20 and finished with a net punting average of 38 yards.
Josh Lambo: Lambo was called upon for a 41-yard field goal in the second quarter and hit it, and he also made a PAT kick. He continues to be solid in the kicking game and gives the Aggies some stability and consistency at placekicker.
As the Texas A&M sophomore dominates defensive backs weekly, defensive coordinators shift their game plans to pay more attention to the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans. Rightfully so, because if proper attention isn't paid, he'll make opponents pay, as he did to Auburn (287 receiving yards, four touchdowns) or No. 1 Alabama (279 receiving yards). In eight games, Evans has nearly matched his 2012 season-long receiving yardage total with 1,101 yards (he had 1,105 in 2012) and has more than doubled his touchdown total from last year's 13-game campaign (11 this season after five in 2012).
Other than Evans, this year's crop of receivers was a mix of returnees who have received only modest or no playing time and a batch of newcomers, as the Aggies signed six receivers in their 2013 recruiting class.
So far, the Aggies seem to be finding contributors.
The most consistent of the supporting cast has been junior Malcome Kennedy. Best known for catching the Aggies' final touchdown in their 29-24 upset win over Alabama in 2012, he is second to Evans with 43 receptions, 447 yards and four touchdowns. Kennedy has provided a consistent, middle-of-the-field target for Johnny Manziel this season, stepping into Swope's old 'Y' receiver position.
From week to week, the players who have emerged have varied. Senior Derel Walker (30 catches, 414 yards, two touchdowns) appears to have an increasing role in the offense as an outside receiver, with at least four catches in three of the last four games, including two touchdowns against Vanderbilt. Senior Travis Labhart has emerged lately, catching 20 passes in his last three games after only three receptions in the first five games of the season.
Early in the season, sophomore Sabian Holmes was targeted several times and a true freshman, Ricky Seals-Jones, had a smashing debut against Rice before a knee injury ended his season.
"That's what our philosophy is based on," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We need good players at all those positions instead of just one. Otherwise you get the double team and then, 'Now what?' We've got good running backs that can catch it out of the backfield and put pressure on you that way, but in order to be a complete offense we've got to get production from our other receivers."
The Aggies got that against Vanderbilt, with Kennedy hauling in a team-high eight passes, Evans catching five and Walker with four. As the season wears on, even more players are finding themselves in the mix, such as true freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez. Though most of the time he has seen has been on special teams as a kick returner or running fly sweeps, Gonzalez got into the mix on Saturday and caught four passes for 52 yards and his first career touchdown. With his speed and quickness, he has the look of someone who will fit nicely in the offense moving forward.
And, as Sumlin noted, running backs are a factor in the passing game as well.
"We've got a number of guys that we feel good about going in and out of the game and we need to have that this time of year," Sumlin said. "Because of what we do, all those guys have to be able to execute the offense, catch the ball, hang on to it, because you can't play one guy the way we go up and down the field. We had 78 snaps [Saturday]. We've got to be able to develop some depth, and I'm pleased with how those guys have come along."
Johnny Manziel is tough: The Heisman Trophy winner got beat up some against the Rebels. He apparently hurt his left knee in the first half, but after applying a brace, returned to put together a masterful performance. He took some big hits in the fourth quarter, but Manziel kept getting up and put his team in position to win.
The Aggies can rely on receivers not named Mike Evans: Evans has been Manziel's go-to guy but on Saturday it was Travis Labhart who led the team in receiving with eight catches for 97 yards. Malcome Kennedy added seven receptions for 89 yards, and Derel Walker had five for 72. So Manziel was able to spread the wealth to guys other than Evans, who had four catches for 46 yards.
The defense can get a key stop or two but still needs a lot of improvement: When the Aggies had to have a stop on Ole Miss' last offensive possession, the defense got that. But it was another rough night for a struggling A&M defense. The first half wasn't so bad. but Deshazor Everett got sidelined for a bit by an injury and there were some big plays given up in the second half, especially in the passing game. Overall the Aggies allowed 462 yards, including 329 passing. The Aggies got key stops against Arkansas as well, but the defense has to be better start to finish.
The talk centered on his offseason. Or the NCAA investigation into an autograph controversy in which he was involved. Or hand gestures he made to opponents and a flag he drew for unsportsmanlike conduct against Rice.
Through five games, Manziel is No. 1 in the SEC in completions (140), passing yards (1,489), passing touchdowns (14) and completion percentage (71.4 percent). His touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-to-4) is excellent, as is his yards per attempt (10.6). And yes, he can still run the football.
In leading the Aggies to a 4-1 record, it'd be hard to ask for much more from Manziel.
"[I've seen] more confidence, more excitement," Texas A&M right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "He's gotten a lot better since last year. He trusts his arm more, so that's good. You can tell he's a great overall player."
Manziel's on-field play has been good enough to keep him in the thick of the Heisman Trophy discussion, despite the fact that Texas A&M lost to Alabama on Sept. 14. Manziel threw for 464 yards and ran for 98 against the Crimson Tide. It also didn't hurt that wiedout Mike Evans had a career day and has been one of the nation's best receivers all season.
But this is not a carbon copy of the 2012 edition of Manziel. He has shown more patience in the pocket, leading to fewer scrambles, without taking away his effectiveness as a runner.
Through the first five games last season, Manziel carried the ball 72 times and had double-digit carries in four of the contests. This year through five games, he has just 48 carries and has 10 or more carries in a game just twice so far.
His yards-per-carry average is similar (6.88 through five games last season, 6.54 so far this season), but he has been perhaps just as effective or more so carrying the football. Manziel has significantly improved on third-down rushes, with 70 percent of his third-down carries resulting in first downs. Last season through five games, only 45.5 percent of his third-down carries wound up as conversions.
He has also reduced the number of rushes that result in zero or negative yardage. Only seven carries (14.6 percent) have netted that type of result this year, compared to 21 carries (29.2 percent) that went for zero or negative yards in his first five games last year.
"I think he’s done a better job of seeing the field and not bailing right away as he did a year ago," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "And when he ran, he’s used pretty good judgment in getting out of bounds and sliding, which he didn't do last year, which we begged him to slide. He’s probably slid more in the first five games than he slid all of last year, which is another sign of growing up. He’s protecting the football and not being reckless."
Manziel's progress is a result of his work, improved maturity and a better understanding in his second year operating the Aggies offense.
"He's more comfortable with what's going on. He's repped it so many times, he knows where the players are going to be," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "We put an emphasis on him throughout the spring to stay more in the pocket and get to his third and fourth progressions. ... He made some great scrambles (this season). You never want to handcuff him with that, but we can help him out and be more of a threat if he can sit in that pocket longer and throw some balls downfield for completions instead of always reverting to run."
His teammates have noticed his improved patience as well.
"We watched film and this past game he was sitting back there waiting and he could have easily ran, but he was trying to find somebody to get open downfield," receiver Derel Walker said. "I would say he's trying to become more of a pocket quarterback to show everyone that he can do that job and still be able to scramble. That's very important."
Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney noted that there were no designed run plays for Manziel in the game plan against Arkansas last week. But that doesn't mean he's going to refrain from running at all -- Manziel still carried the ball nine times for 59 yards.
Sumlin said Manziel has also been given more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage and has handled that part of it well, too.
"He’s got some parameters, [but] he’s been able to get us into some good plays," Sumlin said. "What it is, is keeping us out of horrendous plays, negative yardage plays. And I know he understands that a lot more this year in year two than in year one, and he should.”
And even as he endured the scrutiny earlier in the year, Manziel's play remained at a high level. That's something that has impressed Spavital and just about everyone else in Aggieland.
"You've got to commend him for it," Spavital said. "I don't think anybody that has ever played the college football game has been through that much scrutiny and pressure. I think he's lived up to the expectations and he just enjoys going out there and playing."
- Run defense must improve: It almost sounds like a broken record after the first two weeks. The Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice, 240 to Sam Houston State and 234 on Saturday against Alabama. The good news is the total keeps getting lower, but the bad news is they're still allowing more than 200 rushing yards per game. The Crimson Tide used that to their advantage, extending long drives to control the pace of the game and score methodically while keeping the Aggies' offense on the sideline. The fact that A&M got several key players back from suspensions, including linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury on Saturday will help, but they still must get better.
- The secondary and pass rush can get better, too: There's an injury back there (Floyd Raven missed the game with a collarbone injury) but the Aggies were beat in the air routinely on Saturday by the Crimson Tide. Quarterback AJ McCarron threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns on 20-of-29 passing. He was rarely pressured -- the Aggies had zero sacks and only one quarterback hurry during the day. The secondary's job becomes harder when there's no pass rush. Tackling can get better, too.
- Other receivers are emerging: Mike Evans stole the show for the Aggies in the passing game, but others are beginning to emerge as well. Malcome Kennedy had a career-high three touchdowns in the win. Derel Walker also hauled in five passes for 66 yards after catching four passes for 57 yards last week. Tight end Cameron Clear even got in the mix on a 1-yard touchdown reception on the first drive of the game. The Aggies need players to step up after three senior starters graduated last year and it appears that's happening gradually.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Just like the quarterback for whom he became a favorite target, Mike Evans was a relative unknown outside of Aggieland at this time a year ago.
A redshirt freshman without much organized football under his belt -- he played just a year of varsity football at Ball High in Galveston, Texas -- Evans became much more well known to the college football world as Johnny Manziel's favorite target in 2012.
This spring, Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital used a unique term to describe what Evans -- who led the Aggies with 82 receptions and 1,105 receiving yards in 2012 -- became to the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
"I call him his 'Panic guy,' " Spavital said. "When you're in a panic, you turn and you find Mike Evans and throw it at him. And he did a lot of that last year."
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans won't surprise anybody this season, as opponents are now well aware of what he can do. Whether it was making a clutch catch to help the Aggies pull out a comeback win at Ole Miss, using his physicality to stiff-arm his way past smaller defensive backs or simply becoming a consistent option for Manziel, the sophomore receiver is looking to build off a strong first season.
And yes, he can get better, according to his coaches. That's not an ideal thought for opposing secondaries.
"Probably the biggest thing for himself [that he can improve] is route running," receivers coach David Beaty said. "Just the art of route running and understanding how to control that big ole body and play with bent knees, his posture being a little bit lower, really being able to use that tool, playing lower and creating more explosiveness."
Beaty would like to see Evans improve near the goal line as well.
"With his 6-5 frame, we need more production from him down by the red zone," Beaty said. "He should be a human red-zone highlight film himself. We need him to step up and do that, along with the rest of the guys -- it's not just going to be Mike. But we've got to be able to throw it up to that big sucker and have him come down with it."
Aside from Evans, there are openings for three starters at receiver because of graduation.
The heir apparent to Ryan Swope, who was the team's second-leading receiver last year and leader in touchdown receptions, is junior Malcome Kennedy.
Perhaps best known for making the touchdown catch that gave the Aggies their final points in a 29-21 upset win at No. 1 Alabama, Kennedy is the new starter at Swope's old 'Y' receiver position, which is essentially the slot receiver to the right side of the offensive formation. Kennedy's goals are clear.
"Being a playmaker," he said. "I made a few plays last year, but people only saw a few of them: the Alabama play and a few plays against Missouri. I'm ready to be a go-to guy. The position that I play, the 'Y' for Texas A&M, that's the go-to man."
Senior Derel Walker, who had an impressive spring game, has been working as the first-team outside receiver opposite Evans during preseason training camp and could be the starter there. Beaty called Walker the "brightest surprise" of his group since spring. At the other slot position opposite Kennedy, sophomore Sabian Holmes has received much of the first-team work in camp after playing part time last season as a true freshman.
And the six freshmen who were part of the Aggies' top-10 recruiting class that signed in February are making their presence felt as well. One in particular that has caught the eye of almost everyone during camp is former Sealy (Texas) High School standout Ricky Seals-Jones.
If there's anyone on the Aggies roster that could compare to Evans in body type it's Seals-Jones, whom Evans called "bigger" than him earlier this month. At 6-5 and now 240 pounds, Seals-Jones was an ESPN 300 selection who was ranked as the No. 8 receiver in the country coming out of high school.
"The guy's all muscle," strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson said. "This guy is 18 years old and he looks like a grown man. Chest, abs, everywhere there are muscles. I just have to make sure for 70, 80, 90 snaps that he can keep rolling."
Head coach Kevin Sumlin said that Seals-Jones, who has practiced a lot as the 'Y' with the second team, will get plenty of playing time.
"He's got real ability," Sumlin said. "He's very athletic, but he's got to learn the nuances of the position. He's seeing a lot of different blitzes; we're throwing things at him. I think with Malcome in there right now, it's giving us some flexibility that he doesn't have to start right away. We can kind of bring him along, which is good with him. But he's definitely going to have a role in our three and four-wide and maybe even some two-wide package, but he's got real talent and he's working on it.
"He's big and he's fast and he's got real good hands."
LaQuvionte Gonzalez, a quick, versatile weapon out of Cedar Hill, Texas, who was also an ESPN 300 recruit, figures to have a role. So does four-star signee Ja'Quay Williams out of Georgia. And the Aggies figure to use more tight ends in their attack this season with the return of senior Nehemiah Hicks and the addition of 6-foot-7, 270-pound Cameron Clear out of Arizona Western College.
If training camp is any indication, Manziel will have plenty of quality targets in addition to Evans this fall.
Last week was also the first week of practice in preseason training camp for Texas A&M. Now we turn our focus to the field and look at some of the things we've learned from the first week of practice:
If the stories about the NCAA's investigation into allegations that he profited for autographs bothered Manziel, you couldn't tell by watching him practice. He looked like an even better version of the Manziel that observers came to know en route to him becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. He was accurate during 11-on-11 sessions, showed good command of the offense and even showcased his trademark scrambling ability to buy time to throw when plays broke down. Head coach Kevin Sumlin said Manziel has gotten better in several areas, including his understanding of the offense.
2. Receivers taking shape
When the first team worked out in 11-on-11 during the open-to-the-media portions of practice last week, the first-team group of receivers regularly featured four players: returning starter Mike Evans, sophomore Sabian Holmes, junior Malcome Kennedy and senior Derel Walker. While it might be too early to say with certainty that those will be the starting four the Aggies trot out on Aug. 31, but it might be safe to assume they'll be heavily in the rotation come the start of the season.
3. Obioha making smooth transition
One of the primary questions to be answered on defense centers around who will replace the production of defensive end Damontre Moore, who entered the 2013 NFL draft and is now with the New York Giants. Obioha has slid over to the rush end position occupied by Moore last season, and the reviews so far are positive for the sophomore. He started last season as a true freshman. Sumlin called him tough guy and hard worker and hopes he can continue to improve every game, like he did a season ago. Others will be counted on to help put pressure on the quarterback but Obioha will be a key piece.
4. Key players recovering from injuries
Sophomore running back Brandon Williams and kicker Taylor Bertolet were among the players to miss practice time last week because of injuries. Williams wore a walking boot and is recovering from offseason surgery on his foot, according to Sumlin, but should be ready for the Rice game on Aug. 31. Sumlin didn't expand on why Bertolet wasn't participating or when he'll be ready and most of the placekicking repetitions were taken by sophomore Josh Lambo and senior Kyle Serres, so that's worth monitoring.
5. Battle for backup quarterback job continues
If the first week is any indication, the battle for the backup quarterback job is wide open. During open portions of practice, there were instances where both redshirt freshman Matt Davis and junior Matt Joeckel got to work with the second group. Toward the end of the week, it appeared Davis got the first opportunity with the second group more often, but the battle will continue to go on. Also keep an eye on true freshman Kenny Hill. The Southlake (Texas) Carroll product doesn't have as much experience as the aforementioned two, but he is a true dual-threat with a good arm and good mobility and time in a similar scheme at Carroll.
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No. 11 Derel Walker
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2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1
QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews
LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, OLB Sean Porter, MLB Johnathan Stewart, FS Steven Terrell
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel* (1,409 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel* (3,706)
Receiving: Mike Evans* (1,105)
Tackles: Damontre Moore (85)
Sacks: Damontre Moore (12.5)
Interceptions: Deshazor Everett* and Steven Terrell (2)
1. Johnny Football: The Aggies are in the rare position of returning the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Heading into his sophomore season, Texas A&M is hoping that quarterback Johnny Manziel can be even better than he was a season ago. This will be his second year in the offense and for quarterbacks who have played in this system, year two is typically a season in which they progress significantly as passers. That's one of Manziel's primary goals, even though he'll still run when the time calls for it. As long as he's healthy and playing well, things bode well for the Aggies.
2. Experienced secondary: Last season, the defensive backfield was young and inexperienced. This fall, there are still young players back there, but it is the most experienced unit on the Aggies' defense. Three of the four starters in the secondary from the AT&T Cotton Bowl are back: Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris and Howard Matthews. Junior Floyd Raven has moved from cornerback to free safety and appears to have the skill set (range and tackling prowess) to fit into the position well.
3. Loaded backfield: The Aggies have four good options in their offensive backfield for Manziel to hand off or throw to. Starting running back Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams, who returned kicks and received carries as a true freshman. Add to the mix a pair of transfer backs who sat out last season, Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) and the Aggies have a quartet that gives them a multitude of options.
1. Front seven: The Aggies are looking for someone to replace the production that third-round NFL draft pick Damontre Moore brought last season. Moore led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. Also, with two senior leaders gone from linebacker (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) Texas A&M not only has to replace the bodies but also the leadership. Because of injuries, the Aggies were thin up front in the spring but when all their key players return in the fall, it will ease at least some of those concerns. Keep an eye on names like defensive end Julien Obioha (who started opposite Moore last year), defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have a chance to see their contributions increase significantly this year.
2. New receivers: Only one starting receiver returns from last year's squad: Mike Evans. Four of the top six players in receiving yardage are no longer on the roster, including second-leading receiver Ryan Swope. So who will Johnny Manziel throw to? Keep an eye on guys like Malcome Kennedy, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown against Alabama last season, Derel Walker, who had a strong spring game, Edward Pope, who was a star on the scout team when he redshirted last year and a host of recruits from the 2013 class like Ja'Quay Williams and ESPN 150 duo Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Developing other reliable pass-catching options is critical, so keep an eye on how they use the tight ends with newcomer Cameron Clear (6-7, 270) on campus.
3. Kicking game: One player who fans kept a close eye on this spring was kicker Taylor Bertolet. In his redshirt freshman season, the strong-legged kicker struggled with consistency, hitting just 13-of-22 field goal attempts and missing seven point-after attempts. With a new special teams coordinator (Jeff Banks) who has college punting and kicking experience around to guide him, the Aggies are looking for an improvement from Bertolet this fall. Also the Aggies are working in a new punter, Drew Kaser, who takes the reins after senior Ryan Epperson graduated.
1. QB Johnny Manziel
It's worth noting that he faced a second-team defense and had little pass rush to disturb him in the Maroon and White game, but he still showed what Aggies fans hoped to see: accuracy, arm strength and no major mistakes. He's the straw that stirs the drink and will continue to this fall.
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