Texas A&M Aggies: Isaiah Golden
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.
In a league often dominated by line-of-scrimmage play, the Aggies know they have to be up to par if they want to be long-term contenders in the conference. On the offensive line, that hasn't been an issue. They've stayed relatively healthy and had high-level players across the front five.
While the Aggies had the luxury of a mostly veteran line and a highly productive defensive end in Damontre Moore in 2012, their inaugural SEC season, the 2013 season brought something totally different. The Aggies were young, inexperienced and not particularly deep as they continued to recruit in an effort to get better numbers on the defensive line.
After the Aggies' 13th practice of the spring on Wednesday, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder indicated that they're making progress toward that effort.
"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] yesterday that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."
Snyder and Price could look at opponents such as Alabama, Auburn and LSU last season with envy. Those programs have enough talent on their defensive fronts to freely substitute and not worry about a drop-off in level of play. Texas A&M hasn't had that luxury the last two seasons, but with a heavy focus on defensive line recruiting in recent seasons and a highly regarded group coming in from the 2014 recruiting class, the Aggies are taking steps toward having that ability.
One benefit is that the Aggies return virtually their entire defensive line from 2013. Those same players who were rushed into duty as youngsters, such as defensive tackles Isaiah Golden and Hardreck Walker and defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold, will no longer be freshmen and have a year of SEC experience under their belts.
Add into the mix five-star prospect Myles Garrett, ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and four-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson as part of a five-man defensive line class, and suddenly the pieces begin to come in place.
Garrett, Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson are a trio of defensive ends due in Aggieland in the summer and it has pushed the incumbent defensive ends, such as junior Julien Obioha, to raise their level of play this spring.
"Obioha's fighting for his life because competition makes us all better and he knows what's coming," Snyder said.
Henderson is the only one of the five defensive line recruits to enroll in January and he'll be joined in the summer by Deshawn Washington. Henderson has already made waves in his short time on campus, but he still has progress to make this summer.
"(The new) guys, (they) don't know how to practice. (Henderson is) a little bit out of shape," Snyder said. "He does have a big rear end and he's a plugger in the middle. When he's fresh, he's not bad. ... Right now he's three plays and he's done. He's going to bring some beef up front for us."
Veterans such as Obioha, senior defensive end Gavin Stansbury and junior defensive tackle Alonzo Williams, who have two years of experience, are expected to have significant roles again this season. With those returnees, a redshirt freshman entering the mix [Justin Manning], the returning youngsters and incoming recruits on the way, the future on the defensive front looks a little bit better for the Aggies after a disastrous 2013 on defense.
"We're not there," Snyder said of the defensive depth. "We still need another recruiting class, but we're way, way, way closer."
Climbing out of the SEC cellar in major defensive statistical categories is critical if the Aggies wish to succeed in the SEC West. Central to that goal is the performance of the Aggies’ defensive line, a unit that is a work in progress this spring.
“Zaycoven [Henderson] has continued to impress,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said of the true freshman, who enrolled in January.
Henderson, at 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds, appears to be a possible instant-impact player. The four-star 2014 prospect, who was previously committed to TCU and Texas before eventually landing in Aggieland, brings the size and ability the Aggies need to improve their quality and depth at defensive tackle. That’s significant for a run defense that allowed 222 rushing yards per game and ranked 110th nationally (as well as last in the SEC) in that area.
Another defensive tackle making waves this month is one from the previous recruiting class: 2013 signee Justin Manning.
Ranked as the top defensive tackle in the state of Texas in his class, and the ninth-best nationally, Manning didn’t see a snap of game action last fall while he redshirted. But Golden’s absence has allowed Manning to get some time in the two-deep this spring and show the improvements he has made.
“[He] showed some twitch that he had in high school,” Sumlin said. “He lost a little weight; when he got here he was out of shape. He has come on.”
If Henderson and Manning can contribute, that helps bolster the Aggies up the middle, where they already have veteran Alonzo Williams and sophomore Hardreck Walker, who also contributed as a true freshman. With ESPN 300 defensive tackle DeShawn Washington arriving this summer and Golden expected to return, the Aggies could begin to show the kind of depth Sumlin has been pining for since taking over the program.
At defensive end, there’s a mix of veterans and youth. Julien Obioha, who has been a starter since his true freshman season, is now a junior. Senior Gavin Stansbury is coming off his best season in Aggieland, showing flashes of his potential last fall. Senior Tyrell Taylor is back also and has been getting turns this spring.
The two young players at the position who are sitting out with injuries this spring -- Arnold and Hall -- both saw time as true freshmen last season, suggesting a promising future for each. And in the summer, the Aggies will welcome the services of five-star recruit Myles Garrett as well as ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and three-star prospect Jarrett Johnson.
Obioha said he is looking forward to the increased depth.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “My first couple of years here I had to play 60-70 plays [per game] and you don’t want to play that much. When you think about a two-deep or a three-deep, you want to play maybe 35 plays and having those 35 plays be where you can come 100 percent every play and you’re not tired.”
Defensive line coach Terry Price’s message to his group this spring has been clear.
“Last year, bottom of the SEC, bottom 25 in the nation, that’s not going to happen this year, that’s been the message,” Obioha said. “We’re going to be completely different this year from the bottom to the top and it all starts with the D-line.”
- If you haven't already heard (unlikely as it may be), South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds. For a defensive end who is 6-foot-5 and 266 pounds, that's darn impressive.
- Someone not so impressed with Clowney? Auburn's Dee Ford. He said he's better than Clowney, who plays "like a blind dog in a meat market." Ford later clarified his comments and expanded on them but stood behind them and stuck to his original assessment.
- Missouri's Michael Sam has been focus of much attention since announcing he is gay and on Monday got the chance to perform for scouts at the NFL combine. The on-field results Monday weren't quite what he hoped and are what one draft analyst called "concerning."
- Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson has had a strong showing at the combine, and also gives some insight into the 2014 Kentucky Wildcats here.
- Ole Miss receiver Donte Moncrief helped his draft stock by running a fast 40 time, 4.40 seconds.
- Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews also opened some eyes with his 40 time of 4.46.
- Looking for spring football? Here's a glance at what's ahead for Missouri's secondary.
- Texas A&M had two defensive starters -- defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne -- arrested over the weekend and it puts a cloud over spring football, which starts this week for the Aggies.
Editor's note: This is the first part of a weeklong series looking at five players to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M
One of the primary issues for Texas A&M's defense in 2013 was the sheer number of inexperienced players, particularly freshmen, that had to play significant roles, either as starters or as members of the two-deep. The tough part was lining up such young players against older, more-seasoned veterans across the SEC.
Among those having that benefit is defensive tackle Isaiah Golden. Though he was a part of the defensive tackle rotation from the very beginning of the season, his role increased significantly when the Aggies lost then-senior Kirby Ennis to a season-ending knee injury in their road game against Arkansas in late September.
Suddenly, Golden was thrust into the starting lineup, where he stayed for six of the final seven games. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder praised Golden's effort several times late in the season while noting that the coaching staff simply asked him to "do your job" and not worry about anything else.
By season's end, Golden finished with 32 tackles and three tackles for loss but gained a wealth of experience starting against SEC offensive linemen that should benefit him in 2014. Surely, he'll be asked to do more than simply hold his own and start becoming an impact player for the Aggies. Often times last season Snyder said Golden "is going to be a really good player in this league," meaning in the future.
The future can't come soon enough for Golden, an ESPN 300 prospect coming out of Carthage (Texas) High School in the 2013 class who has the kind of size you look for in an SEC defensive lineman (he played at 6-foot-2, 310 pounds last season). As long as he can improve at a steady pace, the Aggies' defensive line success should improve as well. And considering the results last season, when the Aggies were in the bottom 15 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (222.31) and total yards allowed per game (475.8), improvement is needed at every level of the defense.
Defensive line, and particularly, the defensive interior, is a good place to start. Golden will be a player worth keeping an eye on when the Aggies kick off spring practice later this month.
Well, Texas A&M is not in a reloading mode yet. The Aggies are in "building" mode right now on defense.
This was a program that relied heavily on two freshmen along the defensive front in 2013 with defensive end Daeshon Hall and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden. This was not the positon coach Kevin Sumlin would have preferred to be in with these guys. In the 2014 class the Aggies currently have five defensive lineman committed, including No. 1-ranked DE Myles Garrett (Arlington, Texas/James Martin), so depth and an upgrade in talent are being built in College Station. There is no magic wand to wave, however, to speed up the process. Sumlin knows that in the SEC high-powered offenses will only take teams so far. It’s similar to Bobby Petrino while at Arkansas. The good news is that Texas A&M has the ability to lure top-flight defensive personnel along the front and Arkansas couldn’t. The Aggies' defense is in development and they need to grow up fast as breaking in a new offense next fall will mean that the defense is going to have to be better. In order for Texas A&M to truly be a championship contender, it will have to improve greatly on defense which is why last year’s class and this year’s class have been heavy on that side of the ball.
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."
No. 2 CB Sheffield Talks Recruiting
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin