Texas A&M Aggies: Isaiah Golden
The freshmen continue to grow: Linebacker Darian Claiborne had another strong performance (team-high 12 tackles, forced fumble). Defensive tackle Isaiah Golden continued to make strides, as did defensive need Daeshon Hall. Receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez got in on the action with a 57-yard reception. The Aggies are finding that they can rely on some of these young players to come up big as the season wears on.
The defense is gaining confidence: Yes, the Aggies have faced two backup quarterbacks in as many weeks, but if there's anything this unit needed badly, it was confidence. After the struggles against Auburn, where the Aggies allowed 379 rushing yards and 615 total yards, it seemed like it might never get better for the much-maligned unit. But the Aggies, who had trouble stopping even an FCS team earlier this year, have definitely made strides on defense. On Saturday, they held UTEP to 198 yards and came up with four turnovers.
Johnny Manziel's feeling all right: He didn't scramble much last week against Vanderbilt because of an injured shoulder (and there weren't called runs in the game plan) but on Saturday he cut it loose and ran for 67 yards and two touchdowns. The first touchdown run appeared to be a called run play and the second was a 49-yarder that brought back memories of the 2012 version of Manziel, zigging and zagging through opposing defenses.
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.
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:
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.
So when the Aggies discovered that senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that would require season-ending surgery, it was a blow. Ennis started most of last season, was a starter this year and his absence mean more youth is injected into a lineup already full of it.
The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Golden has the kind of frame you look for in an SEC defensive tackle, he's just lean on playing experience with just four career games under his belt since signing with A&M in February.
"It doesn't matter how comfortable I am with it, it matters how comfortable he is," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It's not the NFL, I can't call Bob Stoops and trade a guy. We've got who we've got."
The coaches like what they've seen from Golden so far. An ESPN 300 recruit from Carthage (Texas) High School, Golden showed enough during preseason training camp to crack the two-deep depth chart along with another true freshman defensive tackle, Hardreck Walker.
But with Ennis out for the remainder of this season, that means the Aggies' young defensive tackles will have to grow up in a hurry. Golden will start next to Alonzo Williams, a sophomore who has been a key player for the Aggies' up front this year. Walker and junior Ivan Robinson will figure into defensive tackle rotation as well.
Another ESPN 300 signee from the 2013 class, defensive tackle Justin Manning, is getting an increase in repetitions at practice. While it doesn't appear he'll see playing time just yet, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies are an injury away from having no choice but to put Manning into the rotation.
Golden brings size and is "very athletic and a natural playmaker," according to sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha.
"He's a very physical kid," Snyder said of Golden. "He's very capable of playing in this league. He's going to be a really good player someday. I actually sat in [defensive line coach] Terry [Price's] meeting [on Monday] in the back of the room like a fly on the wall and he seems excited, which he should be. It's part of college football.
Sumlin said Tuesday that his ideal scenario with freshmen is to have them in a backup role for a season then allow them the chance to become starters for the remaining three years of their careers. But it doesn't always work like that, especially when injuries come into play.
Golden has had a lot to handle already this season. Last month, he had to deal with the unexpected death of his two-month old daughter and missed the Alabama game shortly thereafter. He has appeared in all four of the Aggies' other games, and now a new challenge awaits him.
"Isaiah has been through a lot this season," Sumlin said. "He missed a week with the death of his child. He came on early on and played some good football for us. He's settled back down and emotionally it's been a pretty up-and-down situation for him this year.
"Last week we talked a little bit about where he was. Kirby's situation came to light and now he knows he has to go as a regular guy. Sometimes, different guys react differently. I'd be surprised if Isaiah doesn't do very, very well from here on out."
Williams, who seems to be a cagey veteran compared to the others even though he's just a sophomore, sees time at nose tackle when the Aggies' go to personnel packages of three defensive linemen, and that will continue, Snyder said. But Williams and Golden will be the go-to guys in four down linemen sets moving forward.
Obioha, who started 12 games for the Aggies as a true freshman at defensive end last year, said he told Golden to come to him with any questions since he understands what it's like to be a teenager facing SEC offensive linemen.
"I went through this last year," Obioha said. "There wasn't an injury, I earned my spot, but I was out there 18, 19 years old. I was just telling him, 'Man if you have any questions, come talk to me. I know exactly what you're going through.'"
For a run defense that is last in the SEC and 108th in the country, allowing 214.8 rushing yards per game, it's not the ideal situation. But it's the hand the Aggies' have been dealt and it's an opportunity recruits dream of when they're being recruited by a program.
"We hope guys come to play," Snyder said. "They get their opportunity now. I was pleased with what I saw [in practice] ... I think Isaiah's excited, I really do."
3. Mizzou a legitimate contender? It’s safe to say nobody had Missouri as one of the two unbeaten teams in the SEC heading into Week 7. But after an impressive road win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers are 5-0 and finally starting to gain some respect around the league. The next three weeks will be telling, though, as they play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
4. LSU’s WRs versus Florida’s CBs: It’s a dream matchup for NFL scouts. LSU features what many consider to be the top wide receiver tandem in college football with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy is arguably the top cornerback in the SEC, and playing opposite of him is freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who already has three interceptions. The Gators are also expecting the return of corner Marcus Roberson, another one who could soon be playing on Sundays.
5. Tyler Murphy in Death Valley: Since replacing the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback, Murphy has exceeded expectations for the Gators. In three games, he has thrown for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, and he’s progressively gotten better. However, the junior signal-caller is in for his toughest assignment yet when Florida travels to LSU this weekend. How will he perform in a hostile atmosphere?
6. The return of Cooper: When will we see the real Amari Cooper, the one who had 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman for Alabama? The star wide receiver has been slowed by nagging injuries all season, but he expects to play Saturday against Kentucky. Will he be 100 percent? Quarterback AJ McCarron would love to have him back sooner rather than later.
7. Aggies without Ennis: As if Texas A&M’s rush defense wasn’t bad enough, the Aggies lost Kirby Ennis, one of their top interior linemen, for the season with a torn ACL. The injury comes at a bad time for the Aggies, who have to visit Ole Miss this weekend and deal with Rebels running back Jeff Scott, not to mention quarterback Bo Wallace. The staff will turn to freshman Isaiah Golden, who is expected to start alongside Alonzo Williams in the middle.
8. Shootout in Oxford: The SEC has featured its fair share of shootouts early in the college football season, and Saturday’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M could be right up there. Both teams feature an up-tempo offense, and neither one likes to waste much time between plays. It could be a long day for both defenses.
9. Big game for Bielema: After a 3-0 start, Arkansas has quickly fallen back to .500 with three consecutive losses. However, first-year coach Brett Bielema has a chance to notch his first signature victory with the Razorbacks this Saturday when they host No. 14 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled in recent weeks and could be prime for an upset. It’s likely a must-win scenario for Arkansas if the Hogs want to reach a bowl game.
10. Auburn’s quarterback: Who will start for the Tigers against Western Carolina? Starter Nick Marshall injured his knee last weekend against Ole Miss, and although he’s expected to play, coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t made a ruling one way or the other. If Marshall can’t go, Auburn will either turn to returning starter Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson.
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.
Ennis, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound senior, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Arkansas on Sept. 28 and will have season-ending surgery, head coach Kevin Sumlin said on Tuesday.
The Aggies' run defense is last in the SEC, allowing 214.8 yards per game. The unit has struggled as a result of the combination of shifting personnel, as well as youth and inexperience on the depth chart. Now the Aggies must turn to a true freshman to take Ennis' place: Carthage (Texas) High School product Isaiah Golden.
Golden, who has appeared in four of the Aggies' five games this season, will make his first career start Saturday at Ole Miss. The ESPN 300 recruit, who signed with the Aggies in February, has 11 tackles and two tackles for loss to his credit so far this season.
He'll start next to sophomore Alonzo Williams, who has started all five games at the other defensive tackle position. True freshman Hardreck Walker and junior Ivan Robinson will also be a part of the defensive tackle rotation moving forward.
Ennis is a four-year letterman who started in 11 games in 2012. He appeared in four games this season, recording six tackles, a half tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.
The Aggies' first SEC campaign saw them play 12 games in 12 consecutive weeks, thanks to a schedule change that moved their season opener against Louisiana Tech to their off week because of the threat of Hurricane Isaac.
"We've got five games in, we get a week off, which we need," Sumlin said. "There are some guys limping around after that [Arkansas] game. We've got to get healthy for this next stretch run."
Sumlin gave the team complete days off -- no practice, no lifting in the weight room -- on Tuesday and Friday. The Aggies practiced Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and will also practice on Saturday. But giving his team a couple of days to gather itself is important.
"There are some teams where you don't want a week off," Sumlin said. "Like last year, you have some momentum, you feel like you're a hot team, you just want to keep playing. We need some time. We've got some guys that left Arkansas limping around. Anybody who saw everybody getting off that plane, there was some slow walking coming down that ramp, and it wasn't just because it was wet."
The time gives the Aggies a chance to see some injuries to key players heal up. Sophomore receiver Mike Evans left the Arkansas game briefly with an injury but returned to finish the game. Sumlin said he was fine with giving Evans the week off of practice since "I know what he can do." On the field and Evans has played injured before [last season he played much of the year with a nagging hamstring].
Neither he nor starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne, who left the Arkansas game with a thigh bruise in the second half and didn't return, is likely to miss next Saturday's game at Ole Miss. The area where Sumlin is concerned is defensive tackle, where senior Kirby Ennis hurt his left knee against Arkansas.
"Kirby Ennis is a lot more serious than that, and we'll continue to evaluate that and figure out where he is by the end of the week," Sumlin said.
If Ennis is out for any extended period of time, it will likely mean more playing time for true freshmen defensive tackles Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker, both of whom have seen time on the field this year. Golden filled in for Ennis when he left the game last Saturday.
Sumlin also feels this team can benefit from a mental break, especially considering the fact he has more than 15 true freshmen who have seen the field this year.
"Everybody thinks about the physical strain of playing, but the hard part for the young players now is the mental strain, because it's stressful," Sumlin said. "You're in school and you've got the first barrage of exams, quizzes, those types of deals, and those guys are having to handle all that. For our team, the bye week comes at a great time. Not only physically, but mentally we needed this week."
The weekend without a game also offers a chance for the entire coaching staff to hit the recruiting trail. Sumlin and his nine assistants will watch prospects this weekend, including a group of four coaches (Sumlin, special teams coordinator Jeff Banks, defensive line coach Terry Price and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital) that will head to Arizona to see some out-of-state talent, including a highly-touted quartet of Aggie targets: ESPN 300 quarterback and Texas A&M commit Kyle Allen, ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton), ESPN 300 offensive tackle Casey Tucker (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton) and ESPN Junior 300 receiver Christian Kirk (Scottsdale, Ariz./Saguaro).
In fact, win or lose, Texas A&M officials made it clear before the game that the Heisman Trophy winner would not be available for postgame interviews. Earlier this week, coach Kevin Sumlin noted that Manziel's family and attorneys advised him not to speak publicly this week.
The No. 6 Aggies showed no quit in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field in one of the most highly anticipated games in school history. What they did show is that they're a good team with a lot of flaws that still need ironing out.
The message from Manziel, who played brilliantly for much of the day but had a couple of throws he'd like to have back, was that the Aggies had to keep playing -- both on Saturday and moving forward.
"My initial reaction is that I'm just proud of these guys," said Manziel, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 98 yards. "I kept telling them that no matter what point in the game it was, we were never out of it. Didn't matter what [Alabama] did. I told the offense that going into it, that no matter what happened on the defensive side of the ball, no matter what happened on special teams, we felt like we could come out and score points. So I was proud initially more than anything else, proud of the way they kept fighting until the very end. I mean, we're a young team. That's impressive to me."
The Aggies (2-1) were down by as many as 21 points in the third quarter after taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Alabama roared back with 35 unanswered points and used its power running game and efficient passing attack behind AJ McCarron to eat up yardage and extend drives to score points while keeping the Aggies' offense on the sideline.
The biggest flaw seen on Saturday was on defense. The Aggies' front seven was hammered by the Alabama offensive line -- a unit that struggled in its season opener against Virginia Tech -- to the tune of 234 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry, led by T.J. Yeldon's 149-yard effort. McCarron was rarely pressured in the passing game and wasn't sacked a single time; only one player on the Aggies defense, Kirby Ennis, recorded a quarterback hurry. There were big plays given up in the passing game as well, as the Tide threw for 334 yards.
"We've got to get some things shored up in our front defensively," Sumlin said. "We're playing a lot of young guys in there. [Gavin] Stansbury was back and [Steven] Jenkins was back [from suspensions], so they were a little rusty. We didn't have Isaiah Golden today because of the tragedy [involving the death of a family member] earlier this week. That put a lot of pressure on Hardreck [Walker] to handle that type of stuff with Kirby. We just have to get those guys in a routine, a steady routine and a rotation and shore some things up up front."
Mike Evans, who already was considered one of the country's better receivers, made his case to be considered among the best after catching seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and a touchdown. He beat man-to-man coverage consistently, ran good routes and was an asset for Manziel when scrambling.
"I couldn't be prouder of him," Manziel said. "Last night in the hotel, me and him, we're roommates, and we were just talking about how the game was going to play out. I knew he was going to come out and play really well."
Manziel wasn't perfect. A fade pass to Ja'Quay Williams in the end zone was intercepted by Cyrus Jones in the second quarter ("We probably could have run a better route," Sumlin said). He tried to squeeze a pass in to Travis Labhart early in the third quarter but it was tipped by Alabama defensive back Jarrick Williams and intercepted by Vinnie Sunseri, who returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.
But he was, like the Aggies, still very good. He set the single-game school record for passing yards and put up the second-most total offensive yards in a game (562), second only to his own total (576) against Louisiana Tech last year.
He made what many would call an ill-advised throw in the second quarter after magically evading a sack while in the grasp of Alabama defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, heaving a jump ball 40 yards downfield while falling backward. The ball wound up in the hands of a leaping Edward Pope for a first down that sent the crowd into a frenzy. The gain was only 12 yards; Manziel retreated back far to evade pressure.
At some point, it seems it might just be worth chalking it up to a little Manziel magic, since he has seemingly found an uncanny ability to make jaw-dropping plays of the sort each week. It's part of what captivated the college football world en route to his Heisman Trophy last year.
For those who said Manziel's eventful and sometimes tumultuous offseason would come back to haunt him when the games started this year, none of that seemed to be a factor. Though there were some mistakes made on the field, Manziel's play is hard to criticize, especially against the team that was No. 1 in the country last season in total defense. Manziel said afterward that it wasn't a factor.
But for all the flash, the bottom line was that Manziel and the Aggies fell short of their goal on Saturday. They were beaten by a better team.
The disappointment could be heard in the voices of the players afterward; they wanted Saturday's win badly. But with nine games to go in their season, they feel that what they want -- an SEC West title, SEC title and BCS title game berth -- is still within reach; it's just more difficult to obtain now that they're 0-1 in SEC play.
But if the Aggies are still serious about pursuing those goals, there's still much work to do.
"Just got to go game by game," Manziel said. "Just like last year, continue to get better, week by week, and the result was what happened in the Cotton Bowl. For us this wasn't the end of our season. This wasn't the Super Bowl. This wasn't the last game of the season.
"Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win a national championship. They lost to LSU the year before and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn't over. Anything can happen. This is college football. Some of the craziest things happen every week. So you never know. All we can do is take care of ourselves, take care of what's in this locker room and continue to get better as a team."
But silence is a key word in describing some of the growing pains the Aggies had to go through in their season-opening win against Rice on Saturday, as they played 16 true freshmen, 11 of which were defensive players.
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin illustrated that point thusly:
"We had a couple situations where a couple guys actually froze up out there and wouldn't even open their mouths and couldn't get lined up," Sumlin said after Saturday's 52-31 victory. "The D-line said they couldn't hear and then one of them admitted to me "Coach, I just didn't say anything. I was just standing there.'"
Not exactly what a coach is looking to hear from defensive players, particularly when facing a no-huddle offense. Communication, especially in those situations, is key for a defense.
The Aggies coaches did what they could to prepare their newcomers, but some lessons are only learned the hard way.
"It's like anything else," Sumlin said. "As a coach, you try to prepare guys for all situations, but until the live bullets are flying, you don't know. It'll get better as it goes on, but I think the experience that we gained from today will help us down the road, a bunch. Particularly [in the front seven] because that's where most of the guys are gone."
The struggles were clear. As the defense tried to find its footing, Rice showed the ability to move the ball with ease. The Owls finished the game with 509 total offensive yards, including 306 rushing. The last time they gave up that many offensive yards was in their marathon battle against Louisiana Tech last October (615) and they haven't allowed that many rushing yards since a 66-28 drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma on Nov. 8, 2008.
True freshman played on the defensive line (Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall and Hardreck Walker), at linebacker (Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Shaan Washington) and defensive back (Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner, Alex Sezer Jr. and Jonathan Wiggins).
"There's no way to duplicate the tempo and the emotion [of a game]," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "You know what you're doing, but the pressure to perform in that environment can be very, very difficult on a young guy, and that's what experience is all about."
Offensively, the Aggies were much better off. Even though Matt Joeckel made his first career start at quarterback, he's a junior who has spent more than a year practicing in the offense and he had at least seen some game time. Center Mike Matthews, who received high praise from Sumlin on Tuesday, also played in games and traveled with the team last season.
The true freshmen who saw the field for the first time on offense were all receivers: Ricky Seals-Jones, Jeremy Tabuyo, LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ja'Quay Williams. But because there were more experienced players surrounding them on Saturday, not to mention Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel entered the game in the third quarter, the transition was smoother for the Aggies' offense.
In total, 21 newcomers saw the field for Texas A&M on Saturday, many in significant roles. Plenty will log significant time this Saturday against Sam Houston State, as four players received two-game suspensions and won't be back until Sept. 14 against Alabama. With a signing class of 31 players in February, there was no question the Aggies were going to need some of the newcomers to contribute. By being forced to play so many in the first game, Sumlin feels like it could be a positive later in the season.
"[It's] a real, real learning experience," Sumlin said. "I think for those guys, that's going to pay dividends for us down the road."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M held its regularly scheduled weekly news conference on Tuesday in advance of its season opener against Rice on Saturday. While many wonder about the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel, there are other things to keep an eye on. Here are five storylines facing the Aggies as they await the Owls at Kyle Field:
1. Will Manziel play?
That's what Texas A&M fans and much of the college football wants to know: will Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel start on Saturday for Texas A&M? The question remains unanswered officially. Athletic director Eric Hyman released a statement on Monday evening indicated that he instructed the coaching staff and players to not comment on Manziel's status. When Kevin Sumlin was asked about it on Tuesday he said "We're not discussing that....I can't talk about how that decision is going to be made and what goes into that decision. I said from day one, the first day [of training camp], that there will be a lot of people involved in that decision. So what goes into how that decision's made, obviously I can't discuss." So for now, the wait continues.
2. What if Manziel doesn't play?
At this point, the Aggies turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill. Both received praise from coaches and teammates alike on Tuesday. Senior running back Ben Malena said he believes the team will be comfortable with whoever is taking snaps on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said offensively, the Aggies would still remain the same. Joeckel brings the presence of a pocket passer who has already spent a year learning the offense while Hill is a dual threat who can run and throw and has had to learn the offense quickly. But on Tuesday, the Aggies appeared confident in both of them should either be pressed into duty.
3. New faces
Sumlin advised fans attending Saturday's game to "buy a program or bring a flip card," because of how many newcomers will see time on the field. Of the 31 players who signed with the Aggies in February, Sumlin said he expects at least 10 to play a role this season, and perhaps as many as 15. Some of the notable newcomers to look for on Saturday include freshmen receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and LaQuvionte Gonzalez, tight end Cameron Clear, who was a juco transfer, linebacker Tommy Sanders -- also a juco transfer -- and true freshman linebacker Shaan Washington. Look for even more newcomers to get looks on special teams, including some of the aforementioned names.
4. Missing personnel
There are suspensions facing three defensive players: senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, junior cornerback Deshazor Everett and junior safety Floyd Raven, all three of whom had off-the-field legal trouble this offseason. Ennis and Raven will miss the entire game; Everett will miss a half. Ennis is a starter, so that means you could see a true freshman -- either Isaiah Golden or Hardreck Walker -- in his place when the Aggies go to four defensive linemen. In place of Everett, also a starter, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies will rotate cornerbacks. Expect to see a heavy dose of Tramain Jacobs but possibly some freshmen such as Alex Sezer, Victor Davis or Tavares Garner as possibilities.Raven isn't listed as the starter at free safety like he was coming out of spring football. Instead, it's junior Clay Honeycutt, who Snyder was complimentary of on Tuesday. Honeycutt, a former high school quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High, has come a long way according to Snyder and has earned himself the start against Rice.
Also of note, running back Brandon Williams [foot surgery] might be limited. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said "I wouldn't expect to see a lot from Brandon on Saturday."
5. Familiar foes
The Aggies and Owls haven't met on the field since the Southwest Conference folded in 1995, as both teams were part of the now-defunct league, but the coaching staffs do have recent history. David Bailiff is in his seventh season at Rice, a rival of Houston, where Sumlin was the head coach for four seasons (2008-2011). Snyder also stood on a sideline opposite Bailiff when Snyder was the head coach at Marshall from 2005-09. Sumlin's staff also recruited Rice starting quarterback Taylor McHargue when Sumlin was with the Cougars. So there is plenty of familiarity, at least in terms of coaching staffs, between the two squads.
Tony (Richmond, CA): Can [Johnny] Manziel simply turn the switch on after a tumultuos offseason? Or will his erratic behavior trickle into the regular season, resulting in disappointment for himself and Aggie fans?
Sam Khan Jr.: That's what we'll find out. I think there is evidence to suggest he can flip the switch (see: Cotton Bowl vs. Oklahoma). The good thing for him is that it's not like he didn't get any work done in the offseason. Whenever he was in College Station in the summer, he was at workouts and 7-on-7s and he spent some of his own time working with his private quarterbacks coach, George Whitfield. I think he'll be ready when Aug. 31 arrives.
DerekAggie06 (ATX): You can only pick one on each side (no pressure), so which incoming freshman makes the most immediate impact on offense and defense in fall camp?
Sam Khan Jr.: One on each side: I'll pick Ricky Seals-Jones on offense and Isaiah Golden on defense. The reason? Both have bodies that almost nobody else on the roster does. Golden is a legit-size SEC defensive lineman, and Seals-Jones' only possible body comparison (height, weight) at receiver is Mike Evans.
Bobby (Dallas): Which one of the four running backs do you think will be the biggest difference maker?
Sam Khan Jr.: Brandon Williams. I think he's the best combination of running, catching and game-breaking speed of the group. Plus he has good size.
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Going back to his time at Houston, Sumlin has long been a "best players play" coach, regardless of age or experience. If a player can help his team win and does the right things, that player will see the field.
So it stands to reason that more than one freshman will have an impact this fall. But who will have the greatest impact?
Several true freshmen who have a chance to impact the Aggies are already on campus -- linebackers Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade, defensive tackle Jordan Points, cornerback Alex Sezer and receiver Ja'Quay Williams -- but for this exercise we'll look at only those who aren't yet on campus.
The candidates are still plentiful. At defensive tackle, the Aggies could use more depth. ESPN 150 defensive tackle Justin Manning and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Isaiah Golden are prime candidates to make an impact. ESPN 300 cornerback Noel Ellis is a tremendous playmaker in the return game and in the secondary, though the Aggies do have more returning starters in the defensive backfield than any position group on defense. At defensive end, the Aggies are searching for someone to help replace the production of Damontre Moore. Could Jay Arnold or Daeshon Hall help in that role next season? Perhaps.
But the one place where it stands to reason that there will be spots up for grabs and several incoming freshmen to battle for them is receiver. The Aggies only return one starter from last season's quartet (Mike Evans), so there are other spots up for grabs for takers.
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