Texas A&M Aggies: Edward Pope

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — While many eyes in Aggieland are fixed on the quarterback competition and who Johnny Manziel's successor will be, another task that carries significant weight at Texas A&M is finding the next big-time receiver.

With Mike Evans gone, the Aggies are looking for their next star at the position, one that has seen records broken several times in the last few years.

There is a lot of talent among the Texas A&M receivers, but it is mostly unproven and inexperienced talent. With spring football underway, the Aggies coaches have a chance to discuss and dissect the multitude of openings they have at wide receiver.

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsMalcome Kennedy is the Aggies' most experienced returning receiver after catching 60 passes for 658 yards and seven scores in 2013.
"One thing that we have now that we didn't have at this position when we got here is that we have an enormous amount of depth," Texas A&M receivers coach David Beaty said. "We have real SEC receivers here. That's something that we've developed over a two-and-a-half, three-year period."

The most productive returning receiver is veteran Malcome Kennedy. He is the lone returning starter, having hauled in 60 passes for 658 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Beaty has praised Kennedy's work ethic and leadership before, and Kennedy emerged as a reliable target for Manziel last season.

Now it's about figuring out who the starters will be, which eight receivers will occupy the two-deep and who will separate themselves from the pack. One player most people seem excited to have back in the fold is redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones, who sat out most of last season with a knee injury he suffered in the season-opening win over Rice.

"Getting him back healthy is a blessing for us," Beaty said. "The guy’s got unlimited potential. We really needed him back. I look for him to make huge waves for us."

Through two practices so far, coaches say the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Seals-Jones doesn't appear to show any ill effects from knee surgery.

"He looks good to me out there," offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. "He's a big target and he's obviously going to bring a whole other element to what we're trying to do. He can stretch the field vertically, and he's very big and physical on the perimeter."

Perhaps the most exciting name to Aggies fans among the receiver group is one of the newest: five-star recruit Speedy Noil. Ranked as the nation's No. 1 athlete prospect in the 2014 ESPN 300, he is already drawing positive reviews from teammates and coaches in his short time on campus.

Beaty called Noil “the best receiver in the country” in the 2014 recruiting class.

“As explosive as anybody I've ever seen,” Beaty said. “Combination of strength, speed and explosiveness. Really smart guy.”

One player who could emerge as an option at outside receiver is redshirt freshman Kyrion Parker. At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Parker has several physical gifts.

"This guy is as talented as any receiver I've ever had," Beaty said. "He's got to grow up and mature, and I've watched him do that before my eyes. He's starting to grow into his own. I look for great things from him in the future. He does things that other people can't do. He's big, he's strong, he's fast, he's got great hand-eye coordination. He can go get the ball deep. He's a better route runner than Mike [Evans] probably was at this point in his career."

There is also an assortment of receivers who received modest playing time last season at varying levels: LaQuvionte Gonzalez (21 catches, 240 yards), Edward Pope (nine catches, 65 yards) and JaQuay Williams (four catches, 71 yards). Any of the three could be factors this fall.

“LaQuvionte Gonzalez grew up a ton this year,” Beaty said. “You'd like to redshirt a guy like that, but we weren't able to. He was a guy that benefited from it. ... I think you're going to see him do some great things.

“JaQuay Williams, another really good talent that can do a lot of great things and has come a long way from the time he got here at this time last year. Ed Pope, another guy that I'm looking for to step up and compete. He's got to do a better job of putting on weight and getting really serious about this because there are some real guys here now.”

With so many inexperienced receivers and only one real seasoned veteran in Kennedy, head coach Kevin Sumlin said getting all of these players as much work as possible is the most important part of spring for the receiver group.

“Reps, reps, reps,” Sumlin said. “Reps right now are as important as anything.”

When it comes to figuring out which of the above names are going to emerge as prominent players, Beaty said it’s simple to figure out.

“Here's what's going to happen: The serious, committed guys, those guys will rise to the top,” Beaty said. “The ones that are here just kind of messing around, those guys will drop to the bottom. There are just too many good players here now.”

Position battles to watch: Receiver

February, 17, 2014
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Editor's note: This is the first part of a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M.

In each of the last three seasons, one of Texas A&M's receivers exited after rewriting the record books.

In 2011, Jeff Fuller put his name atop the list several A&M receiving categories: single-season receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, and he established career records in all three.

In 2012, it was Ryan Swope. He left Aggieland as the school's career leader in catches and receiving yards and was its single-season leader in both categories.

After 2013, Mike Evans declared for early entry into the NFL draft and left the Aggies having broken Swope's single-season mark in both single-season receiving yards and single-game receiving yards, and he tied Fuller for the single-season record for touchdown receptions.

As 2014 approaches, the Aggies will be looking for their next great receiver. When spring practice begins later this month, competition begins for the right to be the go-to guy in the wide-open Aggies offense.

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWith 60 receptions for 658 yards and seven touchdowns, Malcome Kennedy is Texas A&M's leading returning receiver by far.
The simple question: Who is replacing Evans? The answer is not as easy to discover.

There will be fierce competiton this spring at the outside receiver positions. Sophomores Edward Pope and JaQuay Williams each return after playing a backup role at outside receiver last season. There is also a redshirt freshman, Kyrion Parker, who could quickly become a factor.

Pope had nine catches for 65 yards last season -- including the memorable reception at the end of Johnny Manziel's Houdini act to escape a sack attempt by Alabama's Jeoffrey Pagan on Sept. 14 -- and appeared in nine games last season. Williams had four catches for 71 yards and a touchdown while playing in 10 games last season.

A key figure to watch will be Ricky Seals-Jones. The Aggies had high hopes for his freshman season, but those were derailed by a knee injury that cut his season short. He showed a brief glimpse of his ability with a 71-yard touchdown catch in the season-opening win against Rice and did enough in preseason training camp to earn practice time with the first team. If not for the injury, Seals-Jones appeared poised to be a contributor last season.

Much of his practice time was spent as an inside receiver last fall, though he did get some experience lining up outside, too. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he has size similar to that of Evans, so he would make sense as the potential option at Evans' old position should the Aggies choose to go that way. But he appears versatile enough to line up anywhere. If the Aggies like the matchup problems he gives defenses, he could be again seeing time as an inside receiver. Where he lines up and how often will be worth watching in the spring.

Most of the other Aggies' young receivers on campus, including LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Jeremy Tabuyo, freshman Speedy Noil and junior Sabian Holmes, all appear to be inside receiver types, so it's unlikely any of them will take Evans' place on the field.

When it comes to production, Malcome Kennedy, a veteran who spent his time as an inside receiver last season, is the returning statistical leader among the Aggies' receivers. After a 60-catch, 658-yard season in which he caught seven touchdowns, it stands to reason he could see an increase in production, but does that also mean he'll become the go-to guy in the offense next season while remaining an inside receiver?

In addition to Noil, an incoming freshman already on campus, junior college transfer Joshua Reynolds (also a mid-term enrollee), 6-foot-7 receiver Frank Iheanacho and 5-foot-8 prospect Jamal Jeffery will also join the fray in 2014. Iheanacho and Jeffery won't be on campus until the summer, but Reynolds will get a chance to prove if he's worthy of early playing time when the Aggies begin spring practice.

In this offense, it's sometimes difficult to know who will emerge. Nobody had Travis Labhart on their radar at this time last year -- especially after he broke his collarbone in spring practice -- yet the former walk-on wound up being a key member of the receiving corps with 51 receptions for 626 yards and eight touchdowns while filling in at all four receiver spots in the offense.

The position battles at all four receiver spots -- not just Evans' outside receiver spot -- will be among the intriguing things to watch when the Aggies begin spring drills at the end of the month.

Offseason spotlight: Texas A&M

February, 11, 2014
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Now that Johnny Manziel is gone, the offseason spotlight at Texas A&M is shining brightly on a young receiver looking to put a season-ending knee injury in his first year in College Station behind him:

Spotlight: Ricky Seals-Jones, 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, redshirt freshman

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayRicky Seals-Jones had this 71-yard touchdown catch against Rice, but an injury eventually netted him a redshirt in 2013..
2013 summary: A knee injury forced Seals-Jones to miss most of the season. He played in only two games and ended up redshirting. However, he caught three passes for 84 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown against Rice in Week 1.

The skinny: Seals-Jones was the Aggies' top signee a year ago and figured to play a role in Texas A&M's offense during his first year in College Station. However, his knee injury early in the year wrapped up his first year on campus before it could truly get started. With Manziel gone and top receiving target Mike Evans also departing, the Aggies are looking for consistent playmakers to fill those voids. Finding a top-flight, go-to wide receiver also would be very nice with the Aggies also breaking in a new quarterback in 2014. With his size, athleticism and speed, Seals-Jones could be that guy, but it's unknown if he'll work inside or outside. He played at both spots during preseason practice last year, and his 71-yard touchdown against the Owls came while he was lined up inside. That might not matter at all, but what will matter is if Seals-Jones can make an immediate impact in Kevin Sumlin's high-flying offense. Just looking at him, you'd think he'll make some sort of noise, no matter where he lines up. He's a physical mismatch waiting to happen with cornerbacks and will give linebackers fits on the inside and over the middle with his speed. With Malcome Kennedy being the lone returning starting receiver, the Aggies will definitely need help at that position. Kennedy is a fine option after catching 60 passes for 658 yards and seven touchdowns last season, but he won't be able to do it all himself. Youngsters LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Edward Pope, Jeremy Tabuyo and JaQuay Williams will all push for time, and so should highly touted freshman Speedy Noil, who was the nation's No. 1-rated athlete in in the 2014 recruiting class. There are options at A&M, but Seals-Jones might have the most upside right now.

Past spotlights:

Who to watch in spring: Speedy Noil

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
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Editor's note: This is the second part of a weeklong series looking at five players to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M

For the second consecutive season, Texas A&M must replace three starters at receiver.

Going into the 2013 season, there were three seniors who graduated -- with Mike Evans as the lone starter returning -- but the Aggies were able to find ample production from a plethora of players, including Derel Walker, Malcome Kennedy and Travis Labhart.

[+] EnlargeSpeedy Noil
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comFive-star signee Speedy Noil could star for Texas A&M immediately, as several wide receiver positions are open.
In 2014, with Evans declaring early entry into the NFL draft and Labhart and Walker having used up their eligibility, Texas A&M once again must find new bodies to pickup the production slack. Could one of those players be a true freshman Speedy Noil, a five-star signee out of New Orleans Edna Karr High School?

The number of spots open for competition -- not just as a starter but in the receiving two-deep since the Aggies use so many receivers -- makes Noil and intriguing player to watch this spring. He's one of the highest-rated recruits the Aggies signed in the 2014 recruiting class (he was the No. 7 overall player in the ESPN 300 and the No. 1 athlete in the country) and he enrolled in classes early, meaning he can participate in spring practice.

Kennedy, who is the returning statistical leader, and Ricky Seals-Jones, who missed most of last season after knee surgery, figure to have the best shot at starting jobs next season. But the rest is up for debate and coach Kevin Sumlin has long been a "best players play" proponent, no matter how experienced or inexperienced a given player is.

Noil, whose given name is Devante, is nicknamed "Speedy" for a reason. He was the 2013 SPARQ National Champion at The Opening, the prestigious high school showcase for the nation's top prospects. He ran a 4.45-second electronically-timed 40-yard dash and 3.87-second 20-yard shuttle, both blazing times.

A high school quarterback coming out of Edna Karr, Noil figures to be a receiver in the Texas A&M offense but is versatile enough to line up wherever offensive coordinator Jake Spavital asks him to. It's up to Noil to prove he's ready to contribute immediately, and he'll have that chance when spring practice begins. The Aggies' wide-open, Air Raid-style offense aims to get the football to its best playmakers in space quickly, and Noil has the kind of ability that should fit the scheme well.

Texas A&M receivers coach David Beaty praised Noil's explosiveness and said his history as a high school quarterback will benefit him.

"He's explosive as anybody I've ever seen," Beaty said. "He has a combination of strength, speed, explosiveness and he's a really smart guy. He played the quarterback position a lot so he has a little bit more of an understanding [of receiving concepts] than some of my guys that come in."

There are several receivers already on the roster that will be competing with Noil for those receiving jobs in addition to Kennedy and Seals-Jones, namely LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Edward Pope, JaQuay Williams, Jeremy Tabuyo and Sabian Holmes, all of whom saw time on the field last season. Kyrion Parker, who redshirted last season, is also expected to be a factor. But for fans, what's new and fresh is often what is most interesting to observers, and Noil might be the most interesting of the bunch even though he hasn't even been on campus a full month yet.

With the crop of young talent the Aggies have at receiver, expect the competition to be fierce across the board.

TAMU to-do list: Find a go-to WR

January, 23, 2014
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Editor's note: This is the third part of a week-long series looking at the five most pressing concerns Texas A&M faces this offseason.

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.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayRicky Seals-Jones has the size and speed to take over as the Aggies' top playmaker at receiver.
The pair came to Aggieland in the same recruiting class, redshirted the same season and built a strong rapport as scout-team players in their first season.

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.

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.

Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).

For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.

The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.

But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.

In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.

One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.

So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
  • In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
  • The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
  • The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.
If only Johnny Manziel could have played defense.

Well, I guess he could have, considering Texas coach Mack Brown recruited him as a safety coming out of high school. Oh, what a show it would have been if Johnny Football went from schooling Alabama's defense with his arm and legs to intercepting one of AJ McCarron's passes.

But that's for PlayStation enthusiasts. In real life, Manziel did everything he could have to give the Aggies a second consecutive victory over a No. 1-ranked Alabama team. Instead, we're left applauding him for arguably the best performance in a loss to date.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJohnny Manziel kept escaping Alabama's grasp, and perhaps he escaped the criticism that followed him throughout the offseason.
Yes, Manziel's ill-timed interceptions helped Alabama pull off the 49-42 victory in College Station, Texas, on Saturday, but when you look at how Manziel brought his team back and was probably a converted onside kick away from sending Saturday's shootout into overtime, you can't help but be impressed with just how good Manziel is.

His Heisman Trophy should have been enough. But after a controversial offseason, we felt we needed to see more. Manziel made sure we did.

We bashed Manziel for his offseason escapades. From hanging with Drake, chillin' with LeBron, golfing in paradise and getting wrapped up in an autograph-signing controversy, we didn't think Manziel had enough focus to duplicate his record-breaking 2012 performance. We expected more fizzle in his encore.

Boy, were we wrong. For having so much fun off the field, it's clear that when Manziel was around the football during the offseason and in fall camp, he was as focused as ever. He's grown as a passer and game manager. That actually might say more about him than anything. He really can mix business with pleasure and excel at both.

In the biggest game of his career, all Manziel did was throw for a school-record 464 yards with five touchdowns. He ran for another 98 yards. The 562 yards of total offense he registered against Alabama rank second all-time in SEC history.

When Alabama took what we all thought was a commanding 35-14 lead after Vinnie Sunseri intercepted Manziel and took his pass 73 yards to the house in the third quarter, Manziel shrugged and the Aggies drove 58 yards to make it 35-21. He then opened the fourth quarter with a four-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to make cut Alabama's lead to 42-28. Following a T.J. Yeldon fumble, Manziel hit Mike Evans for a 95-yard touchdown pass to make it 42-35.

After Manziel again drove down the field for a scoring drive to cut Alabama's lead to seven with 15 seconds remaining, he needed an onside kick to go his way. It didn't, but imagine if it did.

When we thought the pressure of the big game -- some dubbed as the new Game of the Century -- would get to him, he got to Alabama. And when Manziel had every opportunity to gloat and show up his opponent when the Aggies took an early 14-0 lead, he didn't. The taunting that tainted his short-lived debut in Week 1 was nowhere to be found.

Actually, it was Yeldon who was flagged for doing Manziel's patented money sign celebration and adding the infamous double throat slash.

For once, Manziel didn't play the role of villain. He just made play after play. He even had an Eli Manning-David Tyree moment when he somehow slipped out of Jeoffrey Pagan's attempted bear hug and heaved an errant pass off his back foot into traffic on third-and-8 that somehow found the mitts of wide receiver Edward Pope for a 12-yard gain.

But this wasn't just any 12-yard gain. The play began at Alabama's 34-yard line, but Manziel flamboyantly scampered around to avoid Pagan's sack before launching his pass from A&M's own 40 in front of four Tide defenders rushing toward him.

If that isn't the play of the year, it will only be because of some other wacky play Manziel makes later this season.

Manziel didn't win the game on Saturday, but he had to have won over many of the people saying he wasn't focused enough for another magical season.

So bring on the tweets, Johnny. Take a short trip to Toronto. Spend a night in Austin, Texas. It clearly isn't getting in the way of that thing called football.

Aggies host Sam Houston State tonight

September, 7, 2013
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After another week spent in the national discussion, Texas A&M gets to turn its focus back to the football field tonight when the Aggies host FCS squad Sam Houston State at 6 p.m. at Kyle Field.

The game serves as a rematch from a November clash last season, one that Texas A&M claimed 47-28.

The Aggies are heavy favorites, as expected, but coach Kevin Sumlin has hammered home two main points to his team in preparing for the Bearkats. One traces back to last season's battle.

Sam Houston State outscored the Aggies 28-6 once A&M's backups entered the game. Sumlin noted Tuesday that many of those that were on the field at that time have significant roles on this season's squad.

Also, seven FCS teams earned upsets over FBS teams in the opening week of the season. One of those teams was Sam Houston State's opponent in the FCS national championship game last year, North Dakota State, which went into Manhattan, Kan., last week and upset defending Big 12 champion Kansas State.

"Anybody who watched North Dakota State last week win their game last week, that'll get your attention in a hurry," Sumlin said. "They go to Kansas State and win. Then you turn on last year's Sam Houston-North Dakota State game and it's a heck of a ballgame. Our players get that."

Texas A&M comes into the game shorthanded in a few areas. Four players are serving the second of a two-game suspension for a violation of athletic department rules, three of whom are defensive starters: cornerback De'Vante Harris, outside linebacker Steven Jenkins, defensive end Gavin Stansbury and reserve receiver Edward Pope. The Aggies will also begin the game without the services of starting cornerback Deshazor Everett (targeting) and true freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall (throwing a punch). Both were ejected in the second half for their respective infractions and thus, by rule, must sit out the first half of tonight's game.

The Aggies do regain the services of starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and safety Floyd Raven, both of whom served one-game suspensions as the result of offseason arrests. Tonight will also mark the first start of the season for quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was suspended the first half of the season-opening 52-31 win over Rice because of "inadvertent violations" discovered during an NCAA investigation that concluded last week.

So now that all the personnel issues are hashed out, here are some keys to look out for from Texas A&M:
  • Improvement on defense?: The Aggies yielded a whopping 509 offensive yards, including 306 on the ground, to Rice. Many of the struggles can be attributed to the fact that six key defensive players sat part or all of the game because of suspensions, and a total of 11 defensive true freshmen saw the field at some point. Against a veteran offense like Rice that's well-coached, that's a bad combination. But the Aggies need to show some improvement from game one to game two because some of those young players will have to play significant minutes later this season, starting next week in the Aggies' showdown against Alabama.
  • Assignment football: Sam Houston State an option attack which will require the Aggies to stay disciplined on defense and play assignment football. That should be useful experience for Texas A&M's young defensive players. The Bearkats return the two-time Southland Conference Player of the Year in running back Tim Flanders and starting quarterback Brian Bell, who has engineered 31 victories in the last three seasons. A transfer from Texas A&M, Chance Nelson, is also back after a freshman season that saw him record 671 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. That experience will help the Bearkats, who are have appeared in the FCS national championship game the last two seasons.
  • Keep the offense rolling: When Manziel took hold of the offense, he engineered four scoring drives and threw three touchdown passes, looking much like his 2012 self. Backup quarterback Matt Joeckel was solid in his starting debut, leading the Aggies to 28 first-half points. What is often overlooked is the Aggies' running game, which was productive in Week 1. Starter Ben Malena compiled 82 rushing yards and a touchdown while Tra Carson added 76 rushing yards and two scores. Sophomore transfer Brandon Williams is expected to play after healing up from offseason foot surgery, adding a dynamic option to the Aggies' backfield.

When it's all said and done, the Aggies are hoping to come away with a solid win to put themselves at 2-0 prior to their much-anticipated showdown with defending BCS champion Alabama.

Planning for success: Texas A&M

September, 5, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- After a season-opening win against Rice, Texas A&M looks for a 2-0 start as it hosts FCS foe Sam Houston State on Saturday at Kyle Field.

While the Aggies are heavy favorites, players say they're still preparing for the Bearkats as if they were a conference opponent. Here are a few keys to success this weekend for the Aggies:

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave EinselTexas A&M had its way with Sam Houston State last season, but recent upsets by FCS teams have the Aggies on notice.
1. Beware the upset: Head coach Kevin Sumlin said on Tuesday that he had no problem getting his players' attention when it comes to Sam Houston State after the first weekend of college football yielded seven wins for FCS teams over FBS foes, with three of those upsets coming against teams in the "power five" conferences. Sumlin specifically cited North Dakota State's road win over Kansas State for one primary reason: North Dakota State faced Sam Houston State in the FCS national championship game last season (North Dakota State won 39-13). Sam Houston State has been to the FCS national title game two years in a row, so the Bearkats aren't an easily dismissed lower-division team.

2. Watch the video: Another point Sumlin hammered home was the fact that Sam Houston State outscored Texas A&M by more than three touchdowns in the final quarter-and-a-half last season when the Aggies put their backups in the game. "A lot of those guys that were backups, in my opinion, lost the second half 28-6," Sumlin said. "And when you turn on that film of the guys who were in the game in the second half, you saw a lot of those guys playing last Saturday [against Rice]. That gets their attention, that's got our attention."

3. Improvement from youth: The Aggies played 16 true freshman and 21 newcomers total in their win over Rice. There were plenty of struggles -- particularly on defense, where 11 true freshmen saw action at some point -- as the young players adjusted to live action. Now that there's a game under their collective belt, Sumlin expects improvement from that group. The sense of urgency in preparation this week should have gone up a few notches for those players and thus help them play better this week.

4. Regaining personnel: Texas A&M had a host of suspensions in its season-opener, but the Aggies will get a few of those players back this week. Starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis returns and that should be a significant help to the run defense. Safety Floyd Raven is back as well. Cornerback Deshazor Everett, who missed the first half of the Rice game, will miss the first half of the Sam Houston State game because he was ejected in the second half for targeting by the officials and must sit the first two quarters on Saturday by rule. But having him back out there in any capacity will help, particularly since the other starting corner, De'Vante Harris, is serving the second of a two-game suspension, as are three others (defensive end Gavin Stansbury, linebacker Steven Jenkins and receiver Edward Pope).

5. Ground and pound: Those are terms not necessarily synonymous with the Aggies' offense, but it ran the ball with plenty of success in the win over Rice. Texas A&M compiled 202 rushing yards, averaged 5.2 yards per rush and got solid efforts from both starting running back Ben Malena (82 rushing yards, 18 receiving yards, two total touchdowns) and transfer Tra Carson (14 carries, 76 yards, two touchdowns). Another transfer, Brandon Williams, joins the fray this week to help bolster the Aggies' ground attack.

6. Good special teams work: The Aggies were just about perfect on the special teams end of things on Saturday. Punter Drew Kaser averaged a whopping 62.7 yards per punt, which included a long of 76. Placekicker Taylor Bertolet was perfect on all his kicks (seven extra points, one field goal), something that he couldn't always say last season. That will be important for the Aggies to continue all season if they want to reach some of their lofty goals.

7. Let Johnny be Johnny: Texas A&M's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, played well in his short stint (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdowns) against Rice. He showed a desire to stay and throw from the pocket once he got rid of the early nerves of entering the game at halftime and the Aggies simply need to let him continue to do what he does best -- make plays.


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There are several reasons Texas A&M was so highly thought of and had lofty expectations coming into the 2013 season.

The No. 7 Aggies, who were ranked in the top 10 of both preseason polls (they were No. 6 in the coaches' poll), returned a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, a plethora of running backs and an All-America caliber tackle, and play a style of offense that many SEC teams -- defending champion Alabama included -- find hard to defend.

And while there were several positives to take away from Texas A&M's season-opening 52-31 win over Rice on Saturday at Kyle Field, the win also illustrated that the Aggies still have a long way to go in several areas if they plan on fulfilling championship expectations.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Eric GayThe good news is Johnny Manziel looked like his Heisman Trophy winning self once he got in the game. The bad news is the Aggies look like they still have lots of work to do if they want to win titles.
One of those areas is maturity. Head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed that after the game, and while he was specifically addressing it in relation to the ejection of freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall and the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty drawn by quarterback Johnny Manziel after a touchdown pass, Sumlin's words can apply across the board.

The Aggies had eight players miss at least the first half of Saturday's game. Four were suspended for "violating Texas A&M athletics department rules and regulations." Three were suspended after offseason arrests and Manziel was suspended for the first half after "inadvertent violations" that occurred as a result of signing autographs after the conclusion of an NCAA investigation.

That was also part of Manziel's message, according to Sumlin, to his teammates when he addressed them on Friday as part of the requirements of restoring his eligibility.

"Actions just like today and just like other guys on this team, those actions may be actions that you think just hurt you, but they end up hurting the whole football team," Sumlin said. "That was the real gist of [Manziel's] message to the team. That everybody's individual acts affect the team. When that happens, it's not good."

Of the suspended players, five were defensive starters (defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury). Another, Floyd Raven, is a key player expected to contribute this fall and was one time projected to start at free safety before Clay Honeycutt wound up first on the depth chart after a strong training camp.

As a result, the Aggies' defense was filled with true freshmen and newcomers getting significant playing time on Saturday and ended up surrendering 509 total offensive yards. Now, Rice is a good team in Conference USA that could contend for the league title, but it’s not nearly the caliber of opponent Texas A&M will see on its SEC schedule. The Owls ran for a whopping 306 yards -- six yards a carry -- and appeared able to run right at the Aggies' defense.

The Aggies struggled with missed tackles and missed assignments, which are to be expected when you have a significant number of 18- and 19-year-olds on the field.

"We played 20 guys out there that had never played before," Sumlin said. "Is that an excuse for our play? No. I think we learned from today."

The Aggies regain the services of Ennis and Raven next week, though Everett will again have to sit out a half, by rule, because he was ejected in the second half after being called for a targeting penalty. The other four suspended -- Jenkins, Harris, Stansbury and receiver Edward Pope -- won't return until Sept. 14 when the Aggies host No. 1 Alabama.

But there were plenty of positives to be seen as well, most notably in the win column. Backup quarterback Matt Joeckel showed he was capable of moving the offense, leading the Aggies to 28 first-half points while putting up more than respectable numbers (14-of-19 passing, 190 yards). Joeckel's lone touchdown pass was a 71-yard catch-and-run completion to an apparent star in the making, 6-foot-5, 240-pound true freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones.

Players who are considered to be among the team's leaders, running back Ben Malena (100 total offensive yards, two touchdowns) and Mike Evans (84 receiving yards, two touchdowns) played their roles aptly. The kicking game was consistent as Taylor Bertolet was perfect on all his kick attempts, something he struggled with last season. And as Sumlin noted, the positive to having so many young players on the field on defense means they'll have a chance to learn from their mistakes and develop. Though there were struggles, they came up with turnovers and still did enough to win.

Most importantly, the Aggies got their quarterback, Manziel, back on the field in the second half and he looked like the player who captivated the nation a season ago. He was 6-of-8 passing for 94 yards with three touchdown passes and showed his trademark scrambling ability, though Rice did a solid job of keeping him from running too wild.

This is a team that has encountered a lot this offseason. From the headlines Manziel made and the NCAA investigation, to the suspensions and most importantly, the death of a teammate -- Polo Manukainiu -- the Aggies have already dealt with their fair share of adversity.

The Aggies honored Manukainiu on Saturday by wearing decals with his number, first name and a Tongan-inspired design on their helmets and electing sophomore defensive tackle Alonzo Williams to wear Maunkainiu's No. 90. The team will elect a different defensive lineman to do so each week as a nod to Manukainiu and his family that he is "still out there with us," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said.

This team has lofty goals. Hurd mentioned Saturday the team would wear the Manukainiu decal "each and every week, leading [up] to the national championship." If they plan to get there, they have a lot of work still to do.
The 2013 season is quickly approaching with Texas A&M players scheduled to report for fall training camp Aug. 4 and begin practicing Aug. 5. Much of the talk surrounding the Aggies this offseason is connected to its star quarterback, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. But there are several other aspects of the team to keep an eye on as the Aggies try to build on their 11-2 campaign in 2012. Here are five storylines to watch, not Manziel-related, for fall practice.

Aggie Snapshot: WR Edward Pope 

June, 10, 2013
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During the summer, GigEmNation will take a closer look at returning starters and other key players on the two-deep for Texas A&M -- excluding the Aggies' 2013 recruiting class -- that could make notable impact this fall in our Aggie Snapshot series. Starting with No. 1 De'Vante Harris, the series will follow the roster numerically through our final analysis of No. 95 Julien Obioha.

No. 18 Edward Pope
Redshirt freshman receiver



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Texas A&M Aggies spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
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2012 record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Texas A&MTop returners

QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews

Key losses

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)

Spring answers

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.

Fall questions

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.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M wrapped up spring football on Saturday with the annual Maroon and White game. After 15 practices, there's plenty to take away, but here's five things we learned during the Aggies' spring:


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Spring game storylines: Texas A&M 

April, 11, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M has been busy working the last five weeks, participating in spring football with 13 practices under their belt. The 14th is today and the 15th is on Saturday: the Maroon-and-White spring game, which is at 2 p.m. CT at Kyle Field. There's much to know and watch for this weekend. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on:


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Alabama Blows Out Texas A&M In 59-0 Rout
Kevin Sumlin gets shut out for the first time in his coaching career as Alabama romps over Texas A&M 59-0.
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