Texas A&M Aggies: Floyd Raven

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 -- Texas A&M’s defense struggled across the board in 2013, and the Aggies can use all the help, and depth, they can get in order to improve in 2014.

That is probably more true at safety than any other position. It’s a spot the Aggies have found challenges when trying to maintain or add talent and depth, with the latest hurdle coming recently as spring practice opened.

The loss of safety Kameron Miles, whom the Aggies announced officially on Thursday had been dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons, isn’t cause for panic because as head coach Kevin Sumlin pointed out, Miles didn’t see the field at all last season.

[+] EnlargeClay Honeycutt
Juan DeLeon/Icon SMIClay Honeycutt is one of the returning players Texas A&M hopes will fill the open safety positions.
But it is cause for concern at position of need for the Aggies. This is one of the biggest challenges facing new Texas A&M secondary coach Terry Joseph this spring.

Safety is certainly a position where they need to see on-field improvement, both from the 2013 contributors who are returning this season (Clay Honeycutt, Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven) and the new bodies that could step in.

So while Miles -- an ESPN 300 recruit who signed in the 2013 class -- didn’t play (he redshirted after missing all of preseason training camp recovering from a knee injury), he certainly was a candidate to do so this season. Losing him is impactful, especially considering his potential and the rough end to Class of 2014 recruiting at the position.

Texas A&M had an ESPN 300 safety committed to them for months in Dylan Sumner-Gardner, but he switched his commitment to Boise State in early January after former secondary coach Marcel Yates left his post in Aggieland to accept the defensive coordinator position at Boise State. Even before Sumner-Gardner’s switch, the Aggies were still trying to add another safety to the 2014 recruiting class.

The loss made finding a safety even more urgent in the class. The Aggies long recruited ESPN 300 safety Steven Parker II (who signed with Oklahoma) and made a late run at ESPN 300 safety Mattrell McGraw (who signed with Oregon), not to mention other ESPN 300 prospects whom they recruited earlier in the process but decided on other programs.

The Aggies were able to land a safety late in the 2014 recruiting cycle when three-star athlete Donovan Wilson (Shreveport, La./Woodlawn) committed four days before national signing day and inked a letter of intent with the Aggies. He will enroll at Texas A&M for the fall semester, but whether he will be able to have an impact this fall is unknown until he arrives on campus.

Texas A&M has commitments from two elite safeties in the 2015 recruiting class in ESPN Junior 300 prospects Justin Dunning and Larry Pryor Jr., but that has no bearing on this fall.

What is known is that the Aggies need the three who played the most last season to improve and for others to contribute. One name Sumlin mentioned on Thursday was junior safety Devonta Burns, a 6-foot, 214-pounder who contributed mostly on special teams last season.

“Devonta Burns is having a really, really good camp,” Sumlin said. “He’s been around here a long time and really was a good special teams player for us from game three, four, five, on. It’s about time for him to start showing up and he has. You’ve got three guys back there [Honeycutt, Matthews and Raven] who have played a lot, not always well, but have played and are experienced and need to step up. I think Devonta is right in the mix with the other three guys.”

The Aggies also have the services of 6-3, 213-pound sophomore Jonathan Wiggins, a 2013 signee who saw most of his time on special teams last season. Beyond him, the options consist of mostly walk-ons such as Sam Moeller (last year’s 12th Man) or perhaps even someone like Shane Huhn, a transfer from UTEP who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules.

Another potential option is using the secondary’s best player, senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, at safety. Everett has flip-flopped between cornerback and safety before, including on certain occasions last season when the Aggies needed the help. However, it appears that Everett is working exclusively at cornerback, and Sumlin said he doesn’t anticipate that changing, at least “Not right now.”

Everett said last week that he has seen improvement from the safety returnees, especially Matthews.

“He’s a different player now,” Everett said of Matthews. “He’s not lagging around or doing it his way. He’s playing hard, he’s going hard every play, he’s being vocal. That’s what we need at the back end from the safeties, because they have to communicate to everybody on the defense. He’s definitely changed.”

“Floyd is definitely understanding the defense more, and Clay has always been a smart player. With the new coaching change and the way we’re running it, it’s set up so that you can always make plays and always be in the right position, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”

The Aggies’ secondary also have new blood in the form of Joseph, the former Nebraska secondary coach. The reviews for Joseph have been positive thus far, including from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who called Joseph a “technician” and “fundamentalist.”

Everett also has noticed his new position coach’s impact thus far.

“He’s a real vocal coach and he wants you to do it exactly the way he wants you to do it, and there’s no other way about it,” Everett said. “If you’re not going to do it his way, you’re not going to play, so you have to adjust to that and you have to go out there and do it his way.”

If Joseph has it his way, there will be more answers than questions at safety come August. Fortunately for the Aggies, three weeks remain in spring practice to find some.

Video: Texas A&M offseason spotlight

February, 11, 2014
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Chris Low discusses players to watch this offseason at Texas A&M, including the quarterback battle with Johnny Manziel gone to the NFL.
Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph is weighing a move from Lincoln to Texas A&M, saying on Saturday that he had been offered a position to coach defensive backs for Kevin Sumlin.

Formerly the secondary coach and recruiting coordinator at Tennesssee, Joseph came to Nebraska before the 2012 season. He told the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star that he needed to speak with Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the visit this weekend to College Station.

“They offered me the job,” Joseph said to the newspaper. "It’s a lot of money, but I told Bo I would come back and talk to him before I took the job.

[+] Enlarge Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsSenior CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste was part of a dramatically improved secondary under assistant coach Terry Joseph.
“Now, if you say, ‘It’s a lot of money and Nebraska isn’t going to match it?’ Then, yeah, it’s a done deal, because that’s what it comes down to, getting my contract extended and me getting a lot of money.”

How's that for a money quote?

Joseph earned $245,000 at Nebraska this year as part of a group that ranks third in the Big Ten in coaching staff pay. Former A&M secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who left recently for Boise State, earned $308,200 on Sumlin’s staff.

Mitch Sherman, who covers Nebraska for ESPN.com, and A&M reporter Sam Khan discuss the situation:

How significant would the loss of Joseph rate for Nebraska?

Sherman: It’s a big deal. Under Joseph in two years, Nebraska ranked fourth nationally in opponent completion percentage. In 2012, it led the nation in that category. And in 2013, the Huskers ranked seventh in opponent third-down conversion rate in large part because of the work of his defensive backs. Cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste improved considerably under Joseph in addition to safety Corey Cooper, who developed into one of the Huskers’ top tacklers this year. In the Huskers’ TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl win over Georgia, cornerback Josh Mitchell intercepted a pass and recovered a fumbled punt return. And young players like LeRoy Alexander have shown signs of growth under Joseph’s watch. His secondary, over two years, easily rates as the most consistent area of a Nebraska defense that has undergone a transformation. Without him, the task to replace Evans and Jean-Baptiste turns much more complex.

Would the addition of Joseph rank as a big score for Sumlin and the Aggies?

Khan: Definitely. The secondary is an area that still needs improvement for the Aggies (all you had to do was watch the Chick-fil-A Bowl to figure that out), and the sooner the Aggies fill the void left by Yates, the better. But aside from on-field coaching, Sumlin puts a priority on guys who can recruit. Joseph clearly can. His background as a high school coach and a college assistant in the state of Louisiana is attractive to Sumlin and the Aggies because that's a state in which they're continuing to grow a presence. Several key defensive starters hail from "The Boot," and the Aggies are trying to go toe to toe with LSU and recently won a key battle in nabbing five-star athlete Speedy Noil. Joseph can likely help the Aggies efforts in recruiting that state.

How else has Joseph impacted Nebraska?

Sherman: He’s one of the Huskers’ top recruiters, landing prospects such as tight end Cethan Carter, defensive back Boaz Joseph and receiver Tre'Vell Dixon a year ago. Joseph helped land athlete Jaevon Walton and defensive backs Joshua Kalu and Trai Mosley in the unsigned 2014 class. His connections run deep in fertile Louisiana, where Joseph played baseball at Northwestern State and coached football in the high school ranks before a stint as the secondary coach at Louisiana Tech.

What would Joseph have to work with in Aggieland?

Khan: There's some depth in the defensive backfield at cornerback with starters Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris set to return in 2014. Behind those two are several young corners that were part of a large 2013 recruiting class haul, including Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner and Alex Sezer, all of whom saw playing time on either defense or special teams as true freshmen this season. Safety is another story. The Aggies do have returnees back there in Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt, but all of them struggled last season. Freshman Kameron Miles, who injured his knee in training camp and redshirted and 6-foot-3 freshman Jonathan Wiggins, who played in nine games mostly on special teams, should be ready to contribute come next season.

What would his absence mean for Nebraska?

Sherman: While never good to lose a coach in a lateral move, Sumlin is offering money the Huskers just may not want to match. Pelini is well connected and should find a solid replacement. But Joseph’s departure, inevitably, would raise questions about the staffers’ confidence in the stability at Nebraska after Pelini received a stay from the school’s administration at the close of a rocky regular season.

What would his impact mean at Texas A&M?

Khan: He would be a quality addition to the coaching staff and fulfills the requirements Sumlin looks for in assistants: someone who can be both a good on-field coach and a presence in recruiting. He has worked in the SEC and has a solid overall resume, so he should be a solid fit in Aggieland.

A&M finds success in Louisiana

November, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When it comes to the presence schools have in their respective home states, few are stronger than LSU in the state of Louisiana.

The Tigers' success, conference affiliation and game day atmosphere are just a few of the unique advantages for natives of the Pelican State.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesTexas A&M freshman Darian Claiborne (48) took over the middle linebacker job before the fourth game of the season.
Port Allen (Louisiana) High School head coach Guy Blanchard vividly remembers the emotions of one of his players, Darian Claiborne, when LSU took a tough loss early in 2012.

"When Darian was in January of his junior year (of high school) and LSU lost the national championship game to Alabama, you would have thought his best friend died the next day at school," Blanchard said. "He was a big LSU fan. You can't grow up in Southeast Louisiana and not have some kind of attachment or an eye on the prize, however you want to say it, [to LSU]."

Claiborne, a true freshman, is now the starting middle linebacker for No. 12 Texas A&M, which heads to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 22 LSU. But Port Allen is fewer than seven miles from the LSU campus, so it's understandable how he could have envisioned a future with the Bayou Bengals.

But Texas A&M’s staff developed a strong relationship with Claiborne, a three-star prospect. Furthermore, the Aggies made a strong impression and made it clear they wanted him while LSU didn’t officially extend an offer. The Aggies’ diligence paid off because Claiborne has played a key part on the A&M defense.

In recent years, Texas A&M has had success recruiting the state of Louisiana. Texas is and will continue to be the home base for Texas A&M recruiting for good reason -- it's fertile recruiting ground that most colleges attempt to pick from, because of the vast number of players and caliber of talent the state produces. But Louisiana is also known for producing high-caliber recruits as well and head coach Kevin Sumlin has made sure to make "The Boot" part of his recruiting footprint.

Currently, the Aggies have nine players that are from Louisiana on the roster and all of them are on the Aggies' two deep. Some of them have been recruited by the current staff, others are holdovers from the previous staff, but all of them currently contribute on the field.

All nine are defensive players and five of them are regular starters: Claiborne, defensive back Deshazor Everett, defensive ends Julien Obioha, safety Floyd Raven and defensive end Gavin Stansbury. The others have played key roles: true freshman cornerback Noel Ellis has seen significant time in recent weeks and is the Aggies' future at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback Tramain Jacobs started six games this season while the Aggies' dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been a reliable rotation player among the cornerbacks. True freshman linebacker Shaan Washington has found his way onto the field in a special teams capacity but also saw time at linebacker early in the year and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson has been a part of the rotation at his position when healthy.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett, another Louisiana native, was recruited my Mike Sherman's staff but has been the Aggies' most reliable defensive back.
There's no doubt the Aggies have received bang for their buck with the "Louisianimals," the term former Texas A&M center Patrick Lewis coined for his fellow Louisiana products last season. Claiborne and Everett have been arguably the Aggies' best defensive players this season. Everett has done whatever the Texas A&M coaches have asked, whether it's playing safety while Raven was injured or going back to his traditional position of cornerback, while playing with a broken thumb early in the year. Claiborne got the starting job at middle linebacker -- which is not his traditional position -- before the fourth game of the season and hasn't let go of it.

Stansbury has emerged as a playmaker while Obioha and Raven have each been a steady presence at their respective positions.

Even when he was at Houston, where the Cougars put their primary focus on their own city, Sumlin's staff would travel across the border to recruit talent out of Louisiana. But in the SEC it's a different story, because the caliber of player Texas A&M is searching for is often the same that LSU is trying to keep in state.

With the Tigers being the signature program in Louisiana, it makes it all the more difficult to pull a kid out of the state when LSU wants him.

The Aggies are experiencing that in their early SEC years. In this recruiting cycle, the Aggies are going after some of Louisiana's finest, like ESPN 300 athlete Speedy Noil and ESPN 300 defensive end Gerald Willis III. The Aggies are also trying to make inroads with the top 2015 prospects from the state, like receiver Tyron Johnson.

All have LSU offers and the battle for Noil and Willis III has been hotly contested and will be until signing day approaches.

But the Aggies have found success in recruiting prospects from the state that might have been overlooked or not as heavily pursued. If those players continue to play like Claiborne, the in-state powerhouse will start taking notice.

"Yeah, we've run across them at times," said LSU coach Les Miles of seeing A&M recruiting in Louisiana. "We recognize some of the [players] that they have there, and we wish them the very best. It's an opportunity to play in this league, and we're for that."

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.

Five things: Auburn-Texas A&M

October, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- What a difference a year makes.

The Auburn team coming into Kyle Field today is much different from the one that hosted Texas A&M a year ago. Both teams are 5-1 and ranked in the top 25 (A&M is seventh, Auburn is 24th), and each has a head coach known for his innovative offensive mind (Gus Malzahn for Auburn; Kevin Sumlin for A&M), so it should be an entertaining and compelling 60 minutes in this SEC West Division clash. Here are five things to watch:

1. Auburn run game vs. A&M run D: Auburn is one of the best rushing teams in the country (287 yards per game), and it's no fluke. The Tigers have three solid running backs (Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant), plus a starting quarterback who is a running threat, too (Nick Marshall). Texas A&M's run defense is 13th in the SEC (201.17 yards allowed per game) and struggled through much of the first half, though defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was encouraged by his unit's performance against Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to 133 yards on the ground. This battle will be key.

2. Defending Manziel: No defense has really had an answer for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The only team to defeat the Aggies, which was No. 1 Alabama, benefited from two interceptions but still conceded 562 yards to the redshirt sophomore quarterback. Manziel bounced back from two turnovers last week vs. Ole Miss to lead a come-from-behind effort in a 41-38 win. How Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson attacks Manziel will be interesting to watch. A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said Auburn has one of the more talented defenses that Texas A&M will see this year.

3. Will A&M generate a pass rush? Texas A&M has been one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to sacking opposing passers. The Aggies have just five sacks this season; Illinois is the only team in the nation that has fewer (four). Snyder stressed that his group has to be able to generate a pass rush sometimes without having to blitz. If they can't, Marshall and his Auburn teammates will have time to do what they want offensively.

4. Tempo: Both teams like to play at a fast pace. Expect Texas A&M to continue that, as usual. Will Auburn? Malzahn noted that the Tigers are at their best at a high pace, but earlier this week, he told reporters, "Sometimes you may need to try to keep it away from [Manziel]." Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who knows Malzahn well, tried to be methodical in the first half of the Rebels' game with A&M last week. Will Auburn employ a similar strategy in hopes of keeping the game close heading into the fourth quarter?

5. Wrinkles: Auburn played freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson last week in place of Marshall, who rested with a knee injury, and Johnson played well. Could he see action on Saturday? How will the Auburn defensive front attack Manziel? The Aggies have seen a variety of defensive fronts all season and at times have had to adjust pass-protection schemes on the fly. Will the Tigers mix it up? Will defensive back Deshazor Everett, A&M's best defensive player, play (he left Ole Miss game with an injury), and if so, will he line up at cornerback or safety (or both) now that safety Floyd Raven is healthy again? How much will Manziel run the ball on designed draw plays? Against Arkansas two weeks ago, there were no designed runs in the game plan. Last week against Ole Miss, he did it with some regularity. These two head coaches and their staffs are creative, so don't be surprised to see a few things you haven't yet this season.

Five things: Texas A&M-Ole Miss

October, 12, 2013
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After a week off, No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) returns to the field tonight, hitting the road to take on Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.

These two teams engaged in a dramatic affair last season, one that saw the Aggies' escape with a 30-27 comeback win. Here are five things to watch heading into the rematch:

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel and the Aggies have taken care of the ball thus far, only committing five turnovers in five games.
1. Turnovers: Last year's game between these two teams became so dramatic because the Aggies had their worst game of the season in the turnover department. Texas A&M gave the ball away six times, which allowed Ole Miss to build a 27-17 fourth-quarter lead. It took heroics from quarterback Johnny Manziel, receivers Mike Evans and Ryan Swope and much of the Aggies' defense, including then-senior linebacker Johnathan Stewart and current senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., to help pull out the improbable victory. This season, the Aggies have been good in the turnover department, with five giveaways compared to 10 takeaways. Their plus-5 margin ties them for No. 20 in the nation in the category. On the other hand Ole Miss is dead even, with eight giveaways and eight takeaways.

2. Youth is served on D-line: True freshman defensive tackle Isaiah Golden will get his first start tonight in place of senior Kirby Ennis, who is out the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Golden has played in four games this season and showed signs of why the coaching staff feels like he'll be a good player in the SEC for years to come, but if the Aggies are to improve on a run defense that is last in the SEC and 108th nationally, the 6-foot-2, 310-pound Golden and his teammates will have to jell quickly. Three of the four starters on the defensive line are freshmen or sophomores: Golden, defensive end Julien Obioha (a sophomore who started 12 games as a freshman last season) and defensive tackle Alonzo Williams (a sophomore who started the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season and has started every game this season). That doesn't include true freshman Hardreck Walker, who will also be a part of the defensive tackle rotation moving forward.

3. Health: The Aggies were beat up after their last game against Arkansas. The aforementioned Ennis is out for the year, but Evans and linebacker Darian Claiborne also left that game with injuries. Both will play tonight, but it'll be interesting to see how effective they are -- certainly the off week helped both. Safety Floyd Raven Sr., who injured his collarbone on Sept. 7 against Sam Houston State, might be a slight possibility -- though not a certainty -- to play. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said earlier this week they would monitor the situation throughout the week; when Raven returned to practice last week it was of the non-contact variety. If Raven isn't back today, Sumlin said he'd be "probably probable" for the Auburn game next week.

4. Ole Miss weapons: The Rebels have a talented receiving corps led by junior Donte Moncrief and true freshmen Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell. They also have a speedy running back in senior Jeff Scott, who is averaging 8.7 yards per carry and is a big play threat whenever he touches the ball. The Aggies' defense has struggled overall this season, though they did show some positive signs in the second half against Arkansas, getting key stops at critical times. They'll have to do that again if they want to get a win in Oxford.

5. Road streak: The Aggies' play away from home continues to be solid. Since Sumlin took over, the Aggies haven't lost a game away from Kyle Field, going undefeated last season and winning their bowl game. If they can bring the same energy and focus that they have been accustomed to, it will bode well for their chances tonight.

Planning for success: Texas A&M

October, 10, 2013
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After an off week, Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) returns to the field on Saturday to take on Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. The No. 9 Aggies escaped with a win last season; can they do it again? Here are five keys to doing so:

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyWith injuries still affecting the Aggies secondary, Texas A&M will need another solid outing from Deshazor Everett.
1. Avoid the turnover bug: Last season when these two teams met, it was the Aggies' worst showing in the turnover department. They turned it over six times, which put them in a 10-point fourth quarter deficit. Thanks to an improbable catch by Mike Evans on third-and-19 and some heroics from Johnny Manziel, Ryan Swope and Toney Hurd Jr., among others, the Aggies were still able to pull out the win. But another such showing with turnovers is unlikely to yield the same result.

2. Grow up quickly: The Aggies will turn to a true freshman, Isaiah Golden, to fill in at one of the starting defensive tackle spots in place of Kirby Ennis, who will miss the rest of the season because of season-ending knee surgery. The run defense has struggled this season, and fortunately Golden has some playing experience, having appeared in four games this year. There are other players with experience across the defensive line (Julien Obioha, Alonzo Williams, Gavin Stansbury) so they'll help Golden along, but he'll have to grow up fast against the running of Jeff Scott and Bo Wallace.

3. Contain the receivers: Ole Miss has a solid quartet of pass catchers led by junior Donte Moncrief and true freshman Laquon Treadwell. The pair has combined for 47 catches and 605 yards in five games. The A&M secondary hopes to regain the services of safety Floyd Raven, who missed the last three games with a collarbone injury. If not, cornerback Deshazor Everett will remain at free safety, a spot where he has picked up defensive touchdowns in two consecutive games.

4. Road mentality: The Aggies haven't lost a game away from Kyle Field since Kevin Sumlin took over as head coach. SEC road games are almost never easy and with Ole Miss coming off back-to-back conference losses, the Rebels will be motivated to right the ship at home.

5. Spreading the wealth: The Aggies used all four scholarship running backs effectively in their win over Arkansas and Johnny Manziel was able to also distribute to six different receivers. The coaches consistently say that they'll take what the defensive gives them, but if they can continue to utilize a wide range of offensive options like they did last week, it makes the potent A&M offense that much more difficult to defend.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M's defense struggled through much of the Aggies' first five games, trying to find consistency as personnel has shifted as a result of suspensions (in the first two games), injuries or simply the youth and inexperience that permeates the two-deep depth chart.

But it hasn't been all bad, and there have been some bright spots through the early stages of the season -- perhaps none as bright as defensive back Deshazor Everett.

The junior cornerback/safety has been many things for the Aggies this season: steady, versatile, a source of leadership, a playmaker. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder called him "an eraser," which seems appropriate since Everett has made a touchdown-saving tackle or two this season.

One thing Everett hasn't been all year is two-handed. Well, sort of.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyCornerback/safety Deshazor Everett has been one of the bright spots on the Texas A&M defense.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Everett broke the thumb on his right hand during preseason training camp, but hasn't missed any game time as a result. He played with a cast throughout the first five games but Everett is happy to say that when the Aggies (4-1, 1-1 SEC) go to Oxford, Miss., on Saturday to meet the Rebels (3-2, 1-2), he plans to play cast-free for the first time this season.

"Oh yes, definitely," Everett said with a smile, "I'll have two hands in that game."

So far, it hasn't hindered his play much at all. In fact, Everett scored a defensive touchdown in each of the last two games. In the Aggies' 42-13 win over SMU on Sept. 21, Everett had a 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown. On Sept. 28 against Arkansas, he stepped in front of a Brandon Allen pass and returned an interception 34 yards for a score, which proved critical in the Aggies' 45-33 win that day.

"I can't wait until he gets that cast off, then maybe he'll score twice in a game," head coach Kevin Sumlin said.

On a defense that has seen players go in and out of the lineup for myriad reasons and is trying to find its footing after a horrendous start (the Aggies are 112th nationally in yards allowed per game), Everett is a bright light and someone the coaching staff can rely on in multiple roles.

Though he's the team's best cornerback, Snyder and secondary coach Marcel Yates elected to shift Everett back to free safety to alleviate some concerns they had with the back end of the defense. The results since the switch have been positive.

"He understands what we're trying to do," Sumlin said. "He's playing out of position really, because he's our best corner. We move him, you give up something, you think, he's also one of our better DBs and gives us speed back in the back and has saved some touchdowns this year, no doubt. And has given us the opportunity to line up and play defense again and I can't tell you how critical that's been."

Everett is second on the team with 31 tackles and also has two tackles for loss, two interceptions and a pass breakup in addition to his two defensive touchdowns. Against Arkansas, cornerback Tramain Jacobs -- who assumed Everett's cornerback position with Everett at safety -- performed admirably and will be a key player for the Aggies as they continue to buy time until starting free safety Floyd Raven returns from a collarbone injury.

"I'm the first one to take my hat off; I thought he played well," Snyder said of Jacobs. "They went after him and targeted him, they continued to target him and they're going to target him again next Saturday. And I thought he really rose to the occasion."

Everett had two pins put in his thumb after breaking it, and if it was up to him, he wouldn't have even come off the practice field when it occurred in August. He recalled asking a trainer if it could simply be taped up on the spot so he could continue practicing, but he was told no, he had to get X-rays on it.

"I couldn't move it and it was just hanging there," Everett said. "I just wanted to keep playing basically. I didn't want, just because of a little injury, [to not] continue practicing. I could practice without my thumb or play without my thumb. People have played with injuries before. It was just a small injury for me."

The DeRidder, La., product attributes his tough attitude to being undersized and hanging with bigger kids growing up, being "pushed around" so he could be toughened up. In addition to his toughness and solid play, he has been willing to do anything. Sumlin referenced Everett's willingness to play on special teams when the Aggies needed him, spending time on kickoff return units when asked.

"He just goes in there and does it and runs back off the field because he wants to win," Sumlin said.
Deshazor Everett Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's willingness to use starters such as safety Deshazor Everett (right) on special teams has allowed the Aggies to have one of the best units in the SEC.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Alabama receiver and return specialist Christion Jones carried the ball out of the end zone on the Crimson Tide's first kickoff return against Texas A&M on Sept. 14, he was quickly faced with a host of defenders.

The first Aggie to make contact was cornerback Tramain Jacobs. Defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. followed him by wrapping up Jones for a tackle. If Hurd would have been unable to wrap him up, cornerback Deshazor Everett was nearby, and so was linebacker Steven Jenkins.

The common thread among the above names? They're all either regular starters or players who have started before for the Aggies.

Special teams -- kickoff and punt coverage units in particular -- are a place where many non-starters find their homes, and Texas A&M is no different. But the Aggies' coaching staff is also liberal about using its best players when the need arises.

The Alabama game was a prime example. With the threat of a return man such as Jones, who returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the Crimson Tide's season-opening win against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M special teams coordinator Jeff Banks wanted to ensure he had the best players available to prevent Jones from making a game-breaking play. The Aggies got the desired result, as Jones finished with 83 yards on four kickoff returns and just 5 yards on his one punt return.

"We're always going to use the best players," Banks said. "Coach Sumlin's an advocate of 'Jeff, you just tell me who you need and who you want and that's how we're going to do things.'"

Banks said offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder or any of the other A&M assistants also have no qualms about the policy. Since he has been at Texas A&M, Banks said not one coach has said a word about who he can use or not use on special teams, whether it's in the return game or punt or kick coverage.

That luxury is something Banks, who is in his first year in Aggieland, hasn't always had in his career as a special teams coach.

"Usually you get a deal where it's 'Hey, take that guy off of there,' or 'Hey, don't use that guy,'" Banks said. "And here's my deal with that: That's fine. Because I try to be as flexible as I can because we're dealing with 60-80 people and players that have to go in and out, seniors, veterans, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, true freshmen, you've got to coach what you can get and get the best on the field.

"But you also have to be careful because if you practice them in training camp for 30 days and then you get them in the first week and someone says 'Oh no, he can't play on that many special teams,' now you're playing a guy with no experience.'"

So the planning has to begin in August when preseason training camp starts. Banks tries to get a feel for which newcomers have the size, speed or physicality to contribute, and the first week of camp is largely spent trying out numerous players in different roles to get a feel for who he can rely on. The rest of training camp is about getting those that are going to make his two-deep on special teams as many repetitions as possible so that he's comfortable with who is out there come the start of the season.

Playing offensive and defensive starters is nothing new for a Sumlin-coached team. It was something done regularly at Houston when he was there. One of the Cougars' special teams aces in their 12-1 season in 2011 was running back Michael Hayes, who played a major role in the Cougars' backfield, but could regularly be seen making tackles in punt coverage.

That attitude has carried over to Texas A&M. McKinney, who also coaches running backs, made it clear to his position group in the spring of 2012 that they would be expected to contribute on special teams. Players accepted the challenge, and Ben Malena and Trey Williams became key players on special teams.

Malena eventually emerged as the starting running back for the Aggies last season and remains that this season but can be seen on the kickoff return team making blocks and last season spent time covering kicks and punts at times, too.

"You have to realize that special teams wins and loses games," Malena said. "You need the best players out there, whether you're a starter or just a special teams guy. If you're the best player at that position, we need you on the field to help us win. I just took that to heart and will do anything for my team to win."

The example set by players with that attitude has an effect on the younger players, many of whom have a role on special teams. Many true freshmen such as Darian Claiborne -- who started at linebacker last week -- linebacker Shaan Washington, safety Jonathan Wiggins and cornerbacks Alex Sezer and Tavares Garner are already playing key roles on coverage units, and the example set by their elders is important.

"It's huge," Banks said. "They see Ben in practice, they see Jenkins in practice, they see those guys doing special teams drills at a high level. Howard Matthews, De'Vante Harris, Floyd Raven when he was healthy. That's huge. That's bigger than anything I can say. When they go out there and they give us great effort as a staff, that sells it and now you get the buy-in of the younger guys."

Banks said it helps increase the desire for the younger players to contribute, particularly in high-profile games.

"You see the Alabama game and go 'Man, I want to be out there,'" Banks said. "Tavares Garner's a prime example. He gets substituted in for Deshazor Everett and he's like 'Man, I know Deshazor's a veteran guy and he's going to make the play, but I want to be in there.' Then he gets in there and makes a tackle."

There's a balance to be struck, however. Playing starters constantly on coverage teams can fatigue them, especially if they're playing a large amount of snaps on offense or defense. So Banks is conscious to employ the personnel wisely.

"You can't wear a guy out because a Deshazor Everett or a Toney Hurd is so good at everything, you can't overuse them and start them on four special teams and expect them to play 60-80 snaps on defense," Banks said. "There's kind of a responsibility on my end, because I've gotten the leeway from the head football coach and the coordinators to use whoever we want. I think it's really important that you don't take advantage of that deal either."

Complementing players such as Sam Moeller, who has been the Aggies' special teams player of the week twice already this season and doesn't have a major role on defense, with some of these starters are what help the Aggies find a mix that Banks and Sumlin hope lead to one them having one of the best special teams units in the SEC.

"With Coach Sumlin being as awesome as he is about letting us use whoever we need to in order to be the No. 1 team, special teams-wise, in the conference, I think we've got a good mix of him and I of making sure we have the right guys on there, but also give an opportunity to guys who maybe aren't starting on offense or defense," Banks said.

Five things: Texas A&M-SMU

September, 21, 2013
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Texas A&M suffered its first loss of the season last week to No. 1 Alabama, but the No. 10 Aggies are moving forward, shifting their focus to what's ahead. Next up is a battle with non-conference foe SMU at 6 p.m. Saturday at Kyle Field. Here are five things to keep an eye on:

[+] EnlargeBen Malena
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDon't expect a post-Alabama hangover from Ben Malena and the Texas A&M offense on Saturday.
Bama hangover?: The Aggies maintained that they will have the same approach and same emotion this Saturday as they did last Saturday, when there was tremendous buildup for their rematch with Alabama. Running back Ben Malena said it might be difficult to replicate the "enthusiasm," but that championship teams keep a consistent approach and that's what the Aggies are striving to be. Don't expect to see a slow start from the Aggies, at least not offensively.

Righting the ship on D: This is a real opportunity for the Aggies to have a strong defensive performance. Though they've struggled, the Aggies are deeper and have a more talented roster than SMU. Though the same could be said in the Aggies' first two games, they were hamstrung by not having all of their available personnel because of suspensions. They're in the bottom 20 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game and total yards allowed per game. If the Aggies don't start finding their footing this week at home against a non-conference foe that's not the caliber of most SEC teams, it's a huge concern to take into the rest of their SEC schedule, which begins next week at Arkansas.

Meeting of innovative minds: Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff are familiar with the faces on the opposite sideline, particularly SMU head coach June Jones and offensive coordinator Hal Mumme. Jones and Sumlin squared off annually when the two were coaching in Conference USA and Mumme is considered the godfather of the "Air Raid" scheme from which many of the offensive principles that A&M uses originate from. Jones is an old Run-and-Shoot coach, so bringing Jones and Mumme together is an intriguing mix.

Home sweet home: The Aggies have yet to leave Kyle Field this season. The SMU game will serve as their fourth consecutive home game. The Aggies have eight this year, but hit the road for two games after this weekend. Since Sumlin took over, the Aggies haven't lost on the road; all three losses have come at home. Still, you won't hear the coaches or players complaining; they prefer playing in front of the 12th Man. Plus, they're doing so in front of a team they beat 48-3 in Dallas last year, so there's no upset alert here, barring unforeseen circumstances.

Key injuries: Texas A&M will be without freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, who had knee surgery on Saturday, and safety Floyd Raven (collarbone), who was injured in Week 2 against Sam Houston State. Seals-Jones showed promise in the season opener, catching a 71-yard touchdown pass, but the Aggies have a lot of receiving options, so one of their other young freshmen such as LaQuvionte Gonzalez or Jeremy Tabuyo could see increased action in Seals-Jones' absence. Raven missed last week's game against Alabama and the Aggies are thin at free safety. Clay Honeycutt is the starter and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said this week that they are experimenting with shifting cornerback Deshazor Everett to safety. Everett spent time at both corner and safety last season when the Aggies were looking to solve depth issues in the secondary, so it's something he's familiar with.

Improvement needed from A&M defense

September, 16, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into the season, there were plenty of questions about Texas A&M's defense.

It didn't seem much different from the circumstances a year ago. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder even said, on the first day of preseason training camp, that the challenges were "exactly the same."

By the end of 2012 the results were positive, with the Aggies performing much better on defense than many expected. If they're to do the same in 2013, they still have a long way to go. The Aggies statistically are among the worst defenses in the nation after a 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field.

"We're going to learn a lot of lessons come Monday when we watch this film," Snyder said. "Lots of lessons."

They had better, because on Saturday, once Alabama got its footing, it seemed able to do whatever it pleased. The Crimson Tide finished with 568 offensive yards -- 334 passing and 234 rushing. After forcing a punt on Alabama's first drive of the game, the Aggies allowed four consecutive touchdown drives, all of which covered 75 yards or more. In the second half, the Tide had three drives of 65 yards or longer, two that turned into touchdowns and another where the Aggies forced a turnover near the goal line.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Sam Khan/ESPN.comMark Snyder's Texas A&M defense yielded 568 yards to Alabama on Saturday and gave up too many big plays.
One thing that stuck out to Snyder was how many big plays the Tide hit on. More than half of Alabama's yards (280) came on plays that gained 15 yards or more. Alabama had 11 such plays in the game.

"We knew it was going to be a day of big plays," Snyder said. "And I'm sure when I go back and look at the film, if you count up the number of big plays and subtract that yardage, you have a pretty good day. That's something we're going to have to learn from."

The Aggies generated virtually no pressure against Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. He was never sacked and the Aggies only recorded one quarterback hurry as a team, by defensive tackle Kirby Ennis. Pressure was one of the Aggies' strong suits last year behind the efforts of defensive end Damontre Moore, who now plays for the New York Giants.

"You can't let a great quarterback like AJ McCarron not even get hit or pressured at all," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "They ran a lot of play action, which doesn't help the defensive line get any pressure, but we've got to come up with a way to get pressure on the quarterback. He can't sit there all day. He's too good."

Senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. detailed the struggles of the secondary, which allowed a 44-yard touchdown pass on a fleaflicker and a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the first half to Kenny Bell.

"First and foremost, hat's off to AJ McCarron and their offensive coordinator [Doug Nussmeier]," Hurd said. "They dialed up some great plays. In the back end, I feel like sometimes we had bad eyes. Sometimes we just didn't trust our keys and techniques and they got us on a few big plays. But I'm sure on Monday we'll get back to work and get those things figured out."

Defending the run wasn't much better for the Aggies and that's been a consistent problem through three games. A&M yielded 6.3 yards per rush attempt on Saturday and it marked the third consecutive game that the Aggies have allowed at least 200 rushing yards.

In their first two games, the Aggies were missing starters at defensive end (Gavin Stansbury), linebacker (Steven Jenkins) and cornerback (De'Vante Harris) because of suspensions. All three returned to the lineup against Alabama, but it didn't stem A&M's struggles.

"Give Alabama credit," Snyder said. "They did a nice job; they had some nice wrinkles. It's hard if you haven't been playing and you haven't seen them to kind of adjust to them. But that's no excuse. We have our guys back and we just have to play better, period."

As it stands currently, the Aggies rank 112th nationally in total defense (489 yards allowed per game), 111th in yards allowed per play (6.92), 115th in run defense (260 yards per game) and 81st on allowing third-down conversions (44 percent).

It's worth noting that the Aggies have a lot of youth and inexperience on the field after graduating key players and suffering a key injury (safety Floyd Raven). True freshman linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni made his first start Saturday; junior safety Clay Honeycutt was making only his second career start. There are 11 true freshmen on A&M's defensive two-deep roster. Growing pains are a part of the deal.

But they'll have to grow up quickly. A&M players and coaches spoke on Saturday of their lofty goals still being intact despite one loss. But the defense must improve significantly for them to have a chance at fulfilling those goals.

Snyder believes his unit has that opportunity.

"I told the kids, 'I know what it looks like and we've got a chance to be good,' " Snyder said. "I thought last year as the season went on, we learned [how to minimize big plays]. Our big-play numbers came down and we started playing better defense. So for us today, it was a matter of big plays on our side of the ball and allowed them to get into a groove running the ball once they got the lead."

What we learned: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The Aggies suffered their first loss on Saturday as No. 1 Alabama claimed a 49-42 victory over Texas A&M at Kyle Field. Here are three things we learned about the Aggies:
  • 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.

Gameday has arrived: A&M meets Bama

September, 14, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 6 Texas A&M. What more is there to say that hasn't already been said?

This game has been analyzed, dissected, debated for months. It has been the most anticipated regular season game since 2011's "Game of the Century" between Alabama and LSU.

Here are a few things that I think are important to remember about the big showdown between the Aggies and Crimson Tide, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday:
    [+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
    John David Mercer/US PresswireCan Johnny Manziel and the Aggies get the best of Alabama again?
  • No matter what happens, there's a lot of season still left: This is not an elimination game for the SEC West or SEC title. The winner does get a significant leg up in the SEC West race by defeating one of the top teams in the division and the loser is at a disadvantage because it will have to hope the winner gets knocked off a couple of times down the road. But it's important to remember that Alabama has 10 games left after Saturday and the Aggies have nine. Even the winner is assured nothing except being 1-0 in SEC play and having a tiebreaker over the team they just defeated should they wind up with the same conference record at the end of the season.
  • It should be great theater: To me, the buildup has been so monumental that this is no longer a game. It's an event, a television show or a film. The main characters are Johnny Manziel, Kevin Sumlin, Nick Saban and AJ McCarron. There's one heck of a supporting cast. I'll let you all decide who the protagonists are and who the antagonists are. Chances are whatever happens will be analyzed endlessly That's part of the fun, because it creates drama. Expect the broadcast to break some ratings records and Kyle Field to be packed to the gills.
  • This is a huge day for A&M recruiting: No matter the result of the game, this is already a win for Texas A&M on the recruiting front. The Aggies are expecting roughly 75 recruits in attendance, many of them among the top players in the country. The fact that they've gotten some of those big names to Aggieland is already a win, because it means A&M is a serious player for those elite prospects. A win would boost their chances with some of those players, but don't kid yourselves, prospects don't put a ton of stock into one game result. A win would prove to many onlookers that A&M is here to stay when it comes to contending for SEC titles, but even with a loss, recruits will experience a gameday atmosphere and buzz unlike any seen before because of the unprecedented buildup to the game.

Now for a few keys to watch:
  • Alabama's running game vs. Texas A&M's defense: Both of these units come into the game with question marks. The Crimson Tide averaged just 2.5 yards per carry in their season-opening win over Virginia Tech; the Aggies have allowed an average of 273 rushing yards per contest to Rice and Sam Houston State. The Aggies get back almost their full complement of defensive starters with the exception of Floyd Raven (collarbone injury), so the defense should be improved, but it's no certainty yet since this will be their first game action together this season. Will the O-line, running back T.J. Yeldon and the Tide be better running the football?
  • Watch the 'Y' Last season, Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope had a huge game against the Crimson Tide, catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown while playing the 'Y' receiver, which is the slot receiver to the right of the formation. Can the Aggies get similar production out of junior Malcome Kennedy and true freshman Ricky Seals-Jones in that role, or will the Crimson Tide keep them quiet and force Manziel to go elsewhere? We know Mike Evans will be Manziel's top target but you can't throw to him every down.
  • Big plays for Amari Cooper? Like Swope for A&M, Cooper had a huge day for the Crimson Tide. He caught six passes for 136 yards and a touchdown, including two catches of 50-plus yards in the fourth quarter. Can he produce a similar effort, or will the Aggies do a better job of defending the explosive sophomore? There are some concerns with the play and depth at safety currently. Look for junior cornerback Deshazor Everett -- the Aggies' best corner -- to line up against him early and often. The two were matched up several times in last year's contest.

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