Texas A&M Aggies: Jake Spavital

It would be easy to assume that 15 spring football practices would bring some clarity to the Texas A&M quarterback race.

Instead, there were seemingly as many questions coming out of spring as there were when it began.

The arrest and subsequent suspension of sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill, one of three Aggies who entered spring competing for the right to succeed Johnny Manziel, complicated matters in the final week of spring practice as senior Matt Joeckel and true freshman Kyle Allen spent the final week of spring drills splitting reps.

The announcement Wednesday of Joeckel's decision to transfer cleared things up somewhat, but it's still a marathon until the Aggies pick a starter.

Hill, who was suspended on March 28 following an arrest for public intoxication, has since been reinstated to the team and will have to stay out of trouble moving forward. He has experience on his side, having appeared in five games last season and having plenty of experience in a no-huddle, up-tempo spread-style offense like the Aggies run.

Allen, who went through customary true freshman growing pains in the early portions of spring practice while working to grasp the offense, came along nicely toward the end of spring drills, throwing a quality deep ball and handling the entire menu of plays that offensive coordinator Jake Spavital threw at him.

Joeckel's departure thins out the quarterback depth, leaving the Aggies with just two scholarship players at the position (look for walk-on Conner McQueen to be the third-string quarterback). Joeckel was still in the race when he made his decision, and the Aggies would have liked to have his veteran presence around, but he clearly felt his chance to start in 2014 was better somewhere else than Aggieland. And keep in mind, the Aggies continue to look for a quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, with the focus currently set on ESPN 300 prospect and two-time Texas Class 5A Division I state champion Kyler Murray, son of former Aggies quarterback Kevin Murray.

With Joeckel out, it's a two-man race between Allen and Hill until mid-August, but it's too early to call a winner just yet. That's not the way A&M coach Kevin Sumlin works. He prefers to wait until approximately two weeks before the season opener before calling the quarterback competition, something he stayed true to in 2008 (his first year at Houston) and in 2012 (his first year at Texas A&M).

So Hill and Allen will continue to battle it out this summer and when preseason training camp begins in late July or early August. Speculation will run rampant as it did in 2012 (when many observers felt Jameill Showers led Manziel coming out of spring ball, though Manziel ultimately won the job), but the bottom line is we won't truly know who's trotting out into the offensive huddle first on Aug. 28 against South Carolina until Sumlin says so in about four months.
Editor's note: With Texas A&M taking a brief hiatus from the football field concurrent to the school's spring break this week, we'll look back at notes and nuggets from the first five practices of spring football for the Aggies. Here's the fourth installment:

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M has only had a week's worth of spring practice. There are still many months to come until the Aggies are even close to naming a starting quarterback, but the battle to become the next signal-caller in Aggieland is in full swing.

How did it look after five practices?

"I've seen a bunch of guys that are pretty good," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There's a great competition."

Each of the three candidates -- senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen -- have been able to rotate turns working with the first team throughout the early practices and each have made progress, according to Sumlin.

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesSophomore Kenny Hill is one of three players vying to replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's starting quarterback.
"Matt's really competing at a high level and he should. He's been around here forever," Sumlin said. "He understands the offense and has played in games and has really, really, improved.

"Kenny is a lot more focused right now and is doing some good things. The young guy [Allen] has come in and is making strides every day. You don't expect him to be where those guys are at this point."

While each has their strengths, you won't find any with the scrambling ability that their predecessor, Johnny Manziel, had. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner's elusiveness separated him from other quarterbacks. Joeckel, Hill and Allen better resemble the prototype that fits the offense Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital have spent the last six years working in.

"These types of quarterbacks that we have here are similar to what I had at West Virginia and Oklahoma State, and you've just got to utilize their strengths and take advantage of what they do best," Spavital said. "They're obviously probably going to be more pocket-passer guys, but I think some of them are mobile enough to maybe get some things out there on the perimeter."

Each quarterback is at a different stage in terms of how much of the offense they've been given, Sumlin said. For Joeckel and Hill, that's an advantage. For Allen, who has been on campus since January as an early enrollee who signed with the 2014 recruiting class, inexperience is the primary hurdle right now.

"He's got to learn the offense," Sumlin said of Allen. "We have to put him in a position where he can be successful with not giving him the whole menu and letting him play in a style that benefits him and where he's comfortable. Realistically, Matt should have everything. Kenny should have a little less than everything and [Allen] should have a lot less than both those guys at this point. We're a third of the way through [spring]. He shouldn't have everything. He'll get more and more as we go and we'll be able to assess a little bit more. After five practices I think all of those guys are right where you thought they'd be."

SEC's lunch links

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
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Spring practice kicks off for four more teams in the SEC this week. Here’s a look at the latest news and notes around the league in today’s lunch links.

Breaking down Texas A&M's QB battle

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M enjoyed two years of one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and 2013 Heisman finalist Johnny Manziel. Today, as the Aggies open up spring football practice, life after Johnny Football officially begins.

Avid A&M fans know the main candidates for the starting quarterback job by now: senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and early enrollee freshman Kyle Allen. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital is charged with grooming Manziel's successor, and he has history working with talented quarterbacks.

The 28-year-old Spavital said all three will have a chance to win the starting job.

“Everybody's going to get a fair shot,” Spavital said. “I think competition brings out the best in everybody. I can tell you that the [quarterback meeting] room is not very comfortable right now, but that's what I want. They all want that starting job. Let's see who wants it the most."

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesFormer three-star recruit Kenny Hill, a sophomore, played in five games last season. Could he be the successor to Johnny Manziel?
The most experienced is Joeckel. He started the 2013 season opener against Rice when Manziel had to sit the first half while serving a suspension resulting from an NCAA investigation. Joeckel finished the day completing 14 of 19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown.

“[Joeckel] plays within the system and he understands what needs to be accomplished,” Spavital said. “That's the reason why he started vs. Rice, because the kid doesn't mess up very often."

The 6-foot-4, 234-pound Joeckel, the twin brother of current Jacksonville Jaguar offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, has been working in the Aggies’ offense longer than any quarterback on the roster. Last season, Matt Joeckel was 22-of-37 passing for 293 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in four appearances.

"Matt's the most experienced guy out of all of them in terms of running this offense,” Spavital said. “I was very pleased with how he handled himself. He plays to his strengths. He knows his limitations; he's not the most mobile quarterback, but he understands that. He's not going to try to make Johnny Manziel plays out there, he's going to go out there and try to make Matt Joeckel plays.”

Hill also received playing time last season and competed with Joeckel throughout training for the backup job. A product of high school football power Southlake Carroll, Hill is who some fans might handicap as the favorite based on the fact that he’s a dual-threat who has playing experience and plenty of potential.

During the Aggies' Chick-Fil-A Bowl preparation in December, the 6-1, 215-pound Hill earned some valuable practice time.

“The bowl prep was good for [Hill], it really was,” Spavital said. “Johnny was gone on those award shows and everything so it gave him the opportunity to rep the offense and run with the [first team] a couple times and try to get used to them.

“Kenny has come a long way. You can tell he was raised in a spread, no-huddle system. That comes pretty much second nature to him. He's starting to understand the offense, he's good at the communication and the operation part of it, which is a big deal. Going into Year 2 he can focus on the execution of it, where it is more situational stuff that he needs to keep getting better at it. He's smart enough and he has been around it enough that he can keep learning from his mistakes and moving on."

In five games Hill was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown. Even though his time was mostly mop-up duty, getting him on the field was important, Spavital said, in case he winds up being the starter this fall.

“If you walk out into Kyle Field, you understand how intimidating that can be,” Spavital said. “There's a lot of eyes on you. No matter who the opponent is, there are going to be some nerves. We did the same thing with [center] Mike Matthews, just to get him acclimated, get him trained, get him traveling, let him see venues and crowds and environments that he's going to be a part of. I thought that was very important to get [Hill] some playing time just so he we won't throw him out there and say 'Hey, go win a game' next year."

Allen is the wild card. Ranked as the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class, he has the physical tools required. As the No. 35 overall player in the ESPN 300, the four-star prospect comes to Aggieland with high expectations.

“Kyle was considered one of the top quarterbacks in the country because of his playmaking ability,” Spavital said. “He has a very strong arm, he has a quick release, he's a bigger kid, about 6-3, 200 pounds. He's big in stature and he has a hell of an arm. From a coaching standpoint and how we handle it, you can look at that and there's a lot of good quarterbacks out there that can throw a ball and they can make a highlight tape look good. But when you talk to the kid, he's a very intelligent kid and I liked his confidence and the way he carried himself. That was what separated him from everybody else.”

Allen enrolled at Texas A&M in January. Though his lack of experience is a disadvantage, enrolling early affords him a real chance to compete. He sat in meetings with the coaches and began learning the offense during the staff’s installation.

"That's huge,” Spavital said. “Just him being here now, he can compete. We're not going to announce a starter until fall, about two weeks or a week-and-a-half before the game. It's going to give him an opportunity to go through our installation four times and play some live scrimmages in the spring and get acclimated to the speed and then also have a good summer and go into fall camp.”

It should be a compelling race to watch unfold.

“You can sense the competition,” Spavital said. “We try to keep it as laid back as possible but you can sense that everybody's wanting that starting job. I like it.”

Opening spring camp: Texas A&M

February, 27, 2014
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Schedule: The Aggies begin spring practice on Friday and will go through the first week of April, while taking off spring break week in between. Because of the redevelopment project of Kyle Field, the Aggies will not have their annual maroon-and-white spring game.

What’s new: The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator (Jake Spavital, previously A&M's quarterbacks coach) and a new secondary coach (Terry Joseph, previously at Nebraska and replacing departed secondary coach Marcel Yates, who is now at Boise State). Aside from that, the coaching staff stayed stable and most of the newness will come on the field, as the Aggies face life post-Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherWhoever Texas A&M names at quarterback will have Cedric Ogbuehi protecting him at left tackle.
On the move: Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi moves from right tackle to left tackle to fill the void left by Jake Matthews. On defense, linebacker Darian Claiborne -- who started nine games at middle linebacker -- moves to his natural position of weakside linebacker.

New faces: Texas A&M had seven recruits who enrolled in January and who will be available for spring football: quarterback Kyle Allen, junior college offensive linemen Jermaine Eluemunor and Avery Gennesy, offensive lineman J.J. Gustafson, defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, receiver Speedy Noil and junior college receiver Joshua Reynolds.

Also, outside linebacker A.J. Hilliard -- a transfer from TCU -- will go through his second spring in Aggieland, but 2014 will be the first year he is eligible to play for A&M after sitting out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Question marks: Some of the biggest question marks going into spring practice are related to off-the-field issues. Head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn't publicly commented on defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and Claiborne, both of whom were arrested over the weekend on separate charges. Athletics department policy calls for them to be suspended immediately and indefinitely while things are sorted out, but how much time will they miss this spring? As for on the field, most of the questions exist on a defense that was last in the SEC in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing and red zone efficiency last season. Will the young defensive line show improvement? Will the secondary play, specifically from the safeties, get better? Can two new faces at linebacker help the cause?

Key battle: The main one everyone will watch is at quarterback, where senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and Allen will square off. At right tackle, expect the junior college transfers, Eluemunor and Gennesy, to compete for the starting job initially. There are receiver positions up for grabs and a host of candidates. There's a spot at strongside linebacker up for grabs as well.

Breaking out: With Mike Evans gone, there are a lot of catches and yards to be had. Only one starter returns at receiver (Malcome Kennedy), but look for one of the young up-and-comers to break out. That guy could be Ricky Seals-Jones, who missed most of last season with a knee injury that he suffered in the season opener against Rice. Seals-Jones is big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), fast and can be a matchup problem wherever the Aggies put him. Also keep an eye at running back for potential breakout players. The team's two leading rushers the last two seasons -- Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- are gone, so someone has to get those carries. Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams will get the chance to prove their worth, and someone will emerge as the No. 1 back on the depth chart.

Don’t forget about: Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris. For much of last season, you could say Everett was the Aggies' best and most versatile defensive player, flip-flopping from cornerback to safety and vice versa. His versatility gives the Aggies options in the secondary. Harris showed significant improvement last season as a sophomore over his true freshman season in 2012, when he started right out of the gate. If those two remain at corner, their veteran presence will provide some stability in the defensive backfield, and both have shown the ability to be playmakers.

All eyes on: The coordinators. Mark Snyder had a strong first season as the Aggies' defensive coordinator in 2012, but last season's defensive performance had Aggies frustrated. Everyone, including Snyder and his staff, is looking for significant improvement from a group that will be a year older after having a dozen freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart at times last season. On offense, Spavital takes over as the play-caller, a duty he assumed before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He'll call the plays straight from the sideline and, as the quarterbacks coach, should have a symbiotic relationship with Manziel's successor. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles are added to the offense and what it transforms to under the 28-year-old's watch.
While the head coaching carousel turns frequently each offseason, the movement is even more active among assistant coaches. Guys come and go and that includes coordinators, even at the big-time programs.

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were among the SEC schools that saw changes in coordinators on at least one side of the ball this offseason, and there's no doubt those changes will have an effect on their new programs. But which new coordinators will make the biggest impact? Here's four that catch our eye:

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreIt will be Jeremy Pruitt's task to bring the bite back to Georgia's defense.
Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia: It doesn't get much better than hiring a coordinator fresh off a national championship, but that's what Georgia pulled off. Head coach Mark Richt added Pruitt, who guided the Florida State defense to a No. 1 national ranking in scoring defense (12.1 points allowed per game) and No. 3 ranking in yards allowed per game (281.4). His specialty is the secondary, as he spent three seasons as Alabama's defensive backs coach before moving to Florida State last season. Georgia's young defense was 45th nationally in yards allowed per game (375.5) and 78th in scoring defense (29 ppg). Pruitt has a strong reputation as a recruiter, as well, and should be able to make an instant and significant impact on the Bulldogs this fall.

Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Much maligned as a head coach, Kiffin has taken his fair share of criticism, which was often justified, during his head coaching stops at Tennessee and USC. But he's not being hired to run the program, just the offense, so most of the pressures that come with being "the man" won't exist for Kiffin as the offensive coordinator. At Alabama, coordinators rarely meet with the media, so there won't be a lot of Kiffin soundbites or quotes out there, allowing him to focus on the task at hand. Nick Saban thinks highly of Kiffin's play-calling ability and offensive mind, and that's an area Kiffin has a strong reputation. The Crimson Tide ranked sixth in the SEC in yards per game (454.1), sixth in red zone efficiency (66 percent) and fourth in points scored per game (38.2). Those are all areas Kiffin can help improve, though he'll have to develop a new quarterback, the successor to Heisman Trophy finalist AJ McCarron. Kiffin was offensive coordinator of a national championship team at USC, which certainly doesn't hurt as he returns to the coordinator role.

Kurt Roper, Florida: Florida's offense has nowhere to go but up after finishing last in the league in points scored per game (18.8), yards per game (316.7), red zone efficiency (44.2 percent) and goal-to-go efficiency (43.5 percent). That's where Roper comes in. He helped Duke set a school-record for touchdowns as its offensive coordinator. He has worked with three quarterbacks who have thrown for 3,000 or more yards in a season, including Eli Manning. He has SEC experience, making stops at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky, and this league is where he has spent the bulk of his assistant coaching career. The Gators will spread it out, and Roper will be charged with developing Jeff Driskel, who hasn't yet lived up to the potential some hoped he would when he signed in the 2011 recruiting class. Expect Roper to have an impact on Driskel and the offense as a whole, and the Gators should be much strong on that side of the ball this fall.

Jake Spavital, Texas A&M: Texas A&M's offense was pretty good, which is understandable with Johnny Manziel at quarterback. But Spavital has the challenging task of steering the Aggies' offense post-Johnny Football, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. That's three probable first-round picks leaving the offense, not to mention losing three starting receivers and the team's top running back from last season, Ben Malena. Spavital, who was the Aggies' quarterbacks coach last season, was given the play-calling and offensive coordinator reigns for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and oversaw a unit that produced 52 points in a victory, but this will be his first fall as a full-time college playcaller. Just 28 years old, the up-and-coming Spavital must choose and develop Manziel's successor (either sophomore Kenny Hill, senior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kyle Allen) and figure out who the go-to receiver will be in 2014. The young assistant does have a history of working with or being around great college quarterbacks though, having been at Houston when Case Keenum was there, at Oklahoma State with Brandon Weeden, and at West Virginia with Geno Smith.
Editor's note: This is the first part in a weeklong series of predictions for Texas A&M spring football practice, which begins on Friday.

Those who have paid close attention to Kevin Sumlin's history with quarterbacks know one thing is certain when it comes to picking a new starter: Patience is required.

Since Sumlin's head coaching career began in 2008, he has overseen two preseason starting quarterback competitions. One constant existed in both: The starter wasn't picked until midway through fall training camp.

[+] EnlargeMatt Joeckel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsIf history is any indication, don't expect Matt Joeckel or any of the other Texas A&M quarterback candidates to be awarded the starting job in spring practice.
So while Texas A&M fans will discuss and dissect ad nauseam the three primary candidates to become the Aggies' starting quarterback, a spot now vacant with Johnny Manziel pursuing NFL dreams, Sumlin, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and the rest of the A&M coaching brass will likely preach patience.

We can attempt to glean clues from spring football practice, which the Aggies begin on Friday, but if you think the heir apparent to Manziel will lay claim to the quarterback throne in April once Texas A&M wraps up spring drills, you'll be disappointed.

This quarterback race will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen will take the field in the coming weeks, battling it out for the right to succeed A&M's second Heisman Trophy winner.

As they rotate repetitions with the first-team offense and showcase their skills during practices and scrimmages, it will be easy to make assumptions based on their performances. Player X leads, Player Y needs to improve in these areas, etc.

But if the last battle Sumlin and his staff oversaw was any indication, it's unwise to base entire opinions on spring football. Many believed that Jameill Showers led Manziel in the race to become the starting quarterback in 2012 based on their respective spring performances. While that might have even been true, it didn't mean it was Showers' job. As we all know now, Manziel made enough improvement over the summer that when training camp arrived in August, he earned the confidence of the offensive coaching staff and was ultimately tabbed the starter roughly two weeks before the Aggies opened the season. Showers became the backup, and Manziel went on to make history.

Sumlin even seemed to take pleasure in letting the media know that "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

Spavital has even said, flatly, that the timeline for announcing a starter will be the same as it has been in Sumlin's recent history.

"We're not going to announce until the fall, a week and a half, two weeks before the game," Spavital told ESPN.com earlier this month.

All three quarterbacks will get a fair shot. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, which have been documented well. Joeckel brings size and experience, Hill brings a dual-threat ability and history of competing in an up-tempo, spread-style attack, and Allen brings the physical tools coaches look for in a quarterback as well as leadership qualities, even though he's the youngest and greenest of the group.

It will be a long spring and summer as Aggies wait for the competition to play out. The result, no matter what it is, will be full of intrigue.
Editor's note: This is the fifth and final part of a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M.

Texas A&M has several areas where it needs improvement or will have to replace an outgoing veteran who was productive and reliable. Spring practice is a place where those things can be accomplished.

But for all the new faces and position battles that will ensue, there's one that Aggies will watch the closest: quarterback.

[+] EnlargeMatt Joeckel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsMatt Joeckel will be among the Texas A&M QBs battling to replace Johnny Manziel.
The last two seasons the Aggies were fortunate to have one of college football's best to ever play the position at this level, Johnny Manziel. Spring will be about a lot of things, but what will garner the most attention is who will be the successor to the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and how will all the candidates perform throughout the competition.

The battle will include three primary candidates: senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen.

Joeckel and Hill battled for the backup quarterback job -- and the right to start a game -- last fall while Manziel was under investigation by the NCAA for allegations that he profited from signing autographs. When Manziel was suspended for the first half of the season opener against Rice, Joeckel got the starting nod. He was solid, completing 14-of-19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown in two quarters of play. For the season, Joeckel, the twin brother of former A&M left tackle and current Jacksonville Jaguar Luke Joeckel, was 22-of-37 for 293 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in four games of action.

At 6-foot-4 and 234 pounds, Joeckel doesn't feature the mobility of a dual-threat quarterback, but he's an accurate passer. He has also been in Texas A&M's offense longer than any other quarterback on the roster.

"He's the most experienced out of all of them in terms of running this offense," offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "I was pleased with how he handled himself."

Hill, a Southlake (Texas) Carroll product, also received playing time during the 2013 season, even though he didn't get to appear against Rice. In five games, he was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown and showed well in his college debut, which came in the second half of a blowout win over Sam Houston State.

Hill, a 6-1, 215-pound dual-threat quarterback, has a lot of experience in spread, uptempo offenses and has made positive strides in practices throughout last fall.

"Bowl preparation was good for him," Spavital said. "When Johnny was gone at awards shows it gave him a chance to run with the [first team] and get used to them. He has come a long way."

Allen comes in with plenty of credentials for a high school prospect. He was the No. 1 pocket passer in the country and has good size at 6-3 and 200 pounds. Spavital said he was impressed with how Allen handled himself publicly, his intelligence and his physical gifts.

"His playmaking ability, he has a very strong arm, a quick release," Spavital said. "He has a hell of an arm."

All eyes are on the quarterback anyways, but when these three begin competing, Aggies everywhere will be paying attention.

TAMU to-do list: Pick a QB

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
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Editor's note: This is the fourth part of a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Texas A&M faces this offseason.

Texas A&M has had good fortune at the quarterback position in recent years but perhaps more so than ever in the last two, with Johnny Manziel.

After two fast, furious seasons, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has a long list of accomplishments and left a lasting imprint on the program. Needless to say, the shoes he's leaving to fill are enormous.

[+] EnlargeMatt Joeckel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsMatt Joeckel started the 2013 season opener against Rice and passed for 190 yards and a touchdown.
But the Aggies aren't hurting for quarterback talent in the pipeline. The task now is simply figuring out who the best choice is to lead Texas A&M into the post-Manziel era, the next item on our Texas A&M offseason to-do list.

Earlier this month, we took a look at the primary candidates who will compete for the starting quarterback job. They are as follows: senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen.

If Kevin Sumlin's history is any indicator, don't expect to have a starting quarterback named after spring football. It's likely that the Aggies enter fall camp without officially naming the starting quarterback. The last two times that Sumlin has overseen a preseason quarterback competition, he has waited until about two weeks before the first game before naming his guy. In 2008 at Houston, it was Case Keenum who won a battle over Blake Joseph.

In 2012, Sumlin's first season in Aggieland, it was Manziel, a redshirt freshman, who beat out a sophomore in Jameill Showers, even though many observers speculated that Showers did enough in the spring to be the starter. Sumlin's patience paid off as Manziel went on to become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

Joeckel has the most experience of the group since he has already participated in two springs and seen at least some playing time in each of the last two seasons. Hill, who arrived last fall from Texas high school power Southlake Carroll, made a push for the chance to start the season opener against Rice, which Manziel missed because of a suspension, and though Joeckel got the start, Hill did enough to warrant playing time as a backup during the season.

Both have the advantage of having spent plenty of time working with the coaching staff and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who will be the offensive coordinator in 2014.

Allen is the wild card of the group. A freshman who is ranked as the No. 1 pocket-passing quarterback in the country and the No. 35 player overall in the ESPN 300, he has already enrolled in classes and will participate in spring football. He'll have time to try to make up ground on Hill and Joeckel.

Sumlin has always been a coach who believes the "best players play" regardless of classification, even if the best player is a true freshman. So while Allen has a lot to learn, he will by no means be eliminated by default.

Whoever it winds up being, it is a critical decision for the Aggies. The success of the next starting quarterback will go a long way in dictating how the Aggies fare in 2014 and beyond, should the starter this year be the "long-term" answer at the position. Nobody is expecting Manziel's successor to match his feats, but there is plenty of optimism with the talent on the roster.

So the Johnny Manziel era is over at Texas A&M.

The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner officially announced on Wednesday that he is declaring for early entry into the 2014 NFL draft and will forgo his final two seasons of eligibility. That means no more No. 2 in Aggieland.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsKenny Hill saw action in five games as a true freshman and is the most mobile of Texas A&M's 2014 quarterback options.
As Aggies reminisce about Johnny Football's greatest hits over the last two years and all the historic accomplishments -- both individual and team -- that occurred during Manziel's 26-game tenure, many are asking "Who's next?"

The Aggies must turn the page to find their next signal-caller. Who will be the quarterback tabbed to succeed Manziel? Virtually nobody is going to expect Manziel's successor to match his well-documented accomplishments, which included him finishing with the two best single-season SEC total yardage marks and come 11 yards shy of 10,000 total in two seasons.

But the Aggies aren't hurting for quarterback talent. There are options in the pipeline that head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital feel good about. Let's look at the potential options:

Kenny Hill: Hill appeared in five games as a true freshman this season, all of which were blowout victories. He was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown in his limited action. He competed with Matt Joeckel back in August for the right to be the backup quarterback, though Joeckel wound up getting the more meaningful playing time of the two, starting the season opener against Rice when Manziel missing the first half due to a suspension.

At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Hill is a dual-threat who has plenty of experience in the no-huddle, spread-style offenses. The soon-to-be sophomore played in one in high school at Texas power Southlake Carroll, where he won a state championship, and Spavital said earlier this year that he could tell Hill is a quick study.

"He's very calm, cool and collected," Spavital said. "He communicates discretely and that's something that I don't have to emphasize as much. When a true freshman comes in, you [usually] have to try to calm him down to execute. That's what he's pretty good with. He's got the communication and operation part down, we just have to keep working on his execution."

Matt Joeckel: Joeckel will be a senior next season and has the most experience among the possible candidates. He was usually the first one the Aggies turned to when Manziel was out of the game this season, including in the season opener when Manziel was suspended. Joeckel made his first start that day and performed admirably, completing 14-of-19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown in two quarters of play. For the season, Joeckel was 22-of-37 for 293 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in four games of action.

Like it did during the season, you can bet the coaching staff will give Joeckel a chance to compete during the upcoming spring. Spavital said that he felt Joeckel "earned the right to get in there and compete" and start the Rice game on Aug. 31, so it's likely Joeckel will be given a chance to compete for the starting job in spring football and in the fall.

Joeckel is more of a pocket passer of bigger stature (6-4, 234) and doesn't feature the mobility of Manziel or Hill, but he's an accurate passer and has been in Texas A&M's offense longer than any other quarterback on the roster.

Kyle Allen: Allen will be a true freshman this fall and is a member of Texas A&M's 2014 recruiting class. He's an early enrollee who has already signed his financial aid paperwork. He'll be attending classes in January and will participate in spring football.

Allen is the highest-ranked quarterback recruit that Sumlin has hauled in since he has become a head coach. The 6-3, 200-pound Allen (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain) is the 55th-ranked player in the ESPN 300 and the third-best pocket passer in the country according to ESPN's RecruitingNation. A U.S. Army All-American, Allen has the skills that should fit the offense well. He threw for 8,201 yards and 86 touchdowns with 32 interceptions while completing 66.6 percent of his passes in his high school career.

Since he'll be a true freshman and doesn't have the experience that Hill and Joeckel do, it might be an uphill battle for him to start right away, but being around for spring football will increase his chances as opposed to if he were to come in the summer. He'll be on campus to do offseason work from January all the way to the fall. Don't count Allen out of this race, as Sumlin has always been a "best players play" coach, regardless of classification.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 27, 2013
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The weekend is fast approaching and bowl game action is beginning to heat up. Here are some headlines from around the league today to sink your teeth into:

SEC lunchtime links

December, 19, 2013
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Bowl season is just two days away. The SEC teams won’t play until after Christmas, but there is still plenty to talk about around the conference this time of year. Read the latest in Thursday’s news and notes.
  • When Alabama returned to practice this week, the Iron Bowl loss was still fresh on the players’ minds, but the Crimson Tide are moving forward.
  • Running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson already have been tabbed as Auburn players who could leave early for the NFL, but center Reese Dismukes also requested his evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
  • With Zach Mettenberger out, LSU’s focus for the Outback Bowl has turned to freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings.
  • Jake Spavital might only be 28 years old, but he earned a promotion as Texas A&M's new offensive coordinator Wednesday and will take over play-calling duties, beginning with the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
  • Coming off what many considered his worst game in an Ole Miss uniform, quarterback Bo Wallace is seeking redemption when the Rebels face Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
  • Wisconsin is still mad after a bitter loss to Penn State in the season finale. That’s bad news for South Carolina, who will face the Badgers in the Capital One Bowl.
  • The Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl rematch with Nebraska didn’t sound too exciting for Georgia fans, but wide receiver Chris Conley is looking forward to playing the Cornhuskers. He had a career-high 136 yards receiving and two touchdowns in last year’s game.

Planning for success: Texas A&M

October, 24, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M has been down this road before.

The question of whether quarterback Johnny Manziel will play on Saturday is one that remains unanswered, but the Aggies have been through this type of uncertainty once already this season.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIf Johnny Manziel can't go on Saturday, the Aggies say they are comfortable with his backups getting the job done.
They're preparing accordingly.

Manziel, who suffered an apparent right shoulder injury in last week's game against Auburn, is receiving treatment and rehabilitating daily in hopes of starting this Saturday when the Aggies host Vanderbilt. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin called Manziel's status "hopeful" a couple times this week but has offered little more than that.

The Aggies had uncertainty before their season opener against Rice as the school, the team and Manziel awaited the results of an NCAA investigation into an autograph-signing controversy surrounding the Heisman Trophy winner. The team allowed both junior Matt Joeckel and freshman Kenny Hill to compete for the backup job. The announcement of a half-game suspension was delivered three days before the game. Later that week, the Aggies tabbed Joeckel as the starter for the game, and he played a solid first half against Rice.

Both have seen action this season and when Manziel exited the game at the 14:36 mark in the fourth quarter of the Aggies' 45-41 loss to the Tigers, it was Joeckel who entered in his place. Joeckel was 1-of-3 passing for 12 yards in his brief appearance before Manziel returned with 9:06 remaining.

"Matt was called and has been in the fire before," Sumlin said. "We put him in on a third down situation [Auburn] territory. Kenny was chomping at the bit to go, and our practice rotation will change a little bit depending on what Johnny can or can't do as far as practice goes [this week]."

When asked earlier this week whether he would consider playing Manziel on Saturday even if he didn't practice throughout the week, Sumlin said "We'll see."

No matter what Manziel's status turns out to be, the Aggies will have a solid plan. Should Joeckel get the nod, he's started a game before, and the Aggies are in the friendly confines of Kyle Field on Saturday so that helps. He has appeared in three games this season, completed 19-of-31 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown.

Should Hill happen to be pressed into action, he too has played in some live action. He made his debut in Week 2 against Sam Houston State, led a touchdown drive on his first possession and is 6-of-11 passing for 83 yards in his two appearances this season.

"I was very pleased with them," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said earlier this month when asked about his two backup quarterbacks. "I thought Joeckel earned the right to get in there and compete, and he started the Rice game. I thought he did a great job moving the ball. And then Kenny coming in during the Sam Houston State game and throwing a touchdown and moving the ball, they both still have a long ways to go ... but I've got to be pleased with how they performed."

Neither necessarily brings the unique skill set to the table that Manziel does, but teammates and coaches alike say they're confident in whomever calls the signals come Saturday.

"We have great backups in Matt and Kenny," senior receiver Travis Labhart said. "I am comfortable with those other guys, and I know the other receivers are. But obviously you want Johnny back there because of who he is."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Before the season, and even in the first week or two, little of the national conversation surrounding Johnny Manziel had to do with his on-field exploits.

The talk centered on his offseason. Or the NCAA investigation into an autograph controversy in which he was involved. Or hand gestures he made to opponents and a flag he drew for unsportsmanlike conduct against Rice.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsImproved pocket presence has helped Johnny Manziel improve his passing efficiency.
In recent weeks, Manziel hasn't done much talking publicly with the media, but instead mostly allowed his play to do the talking. And it has spoken well for him.

Through five games, Manziel is No. 1 in the SEC in completions (140), passing yards (1,489), passing touchdowns (14) and completion percentage (71.4 percent). His touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-to-4) is excellent, as is his yards per attempt (10.6). And yes, he can still run the football.

In leading the Aggies to a 4-1 record, it'd be hard to ask for much more from Manziel.

"[I've seen] more confidence, more excitement," Texas A&M right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "He's gotten a lot better since last year. He trusts his arm more, so that's good. You can tell he's a great overall player."

Manziel's on-field play has been good enough to keep him in the thick of the Heisman Trophy discussion, despite the fact that Texas A&M lost to Alabama on Sept. 14. Manziel threw for 464 yards and ran for 98 against the Crimson Tide. It also didn't hurt that wiedout Mike Evans had a career day and has been one of the nation's best receivers all season.

But this is not a carbon copy of the 2012 edition of Manziel. He has shown more patience in the pocket, leading to fewer scrambles, without taking away his effectiveness as a runner.

Through the first five games last season, Manziel carried the ball 72 times and had double-digit carries in four of the contests. This year through five games, he has just 48 carries and has 10 or more carries in a game just twice so far.

His yards-per-carry average is similar (6.88 through five games last season, 6.54 so far this season), but he has been perhaps just as effective or more so carrying the football. Manziel has significantly improved on third-down rushes, with 70 percent of his third-down carries resulting in first downs. Last season through five games, only 45.5 percent of his third-down carries wound up as conversions.

He has also reduced the number of rushes that result in zero or negative yardage. Only seven carries (14.6 percent) have netted that type of result this year, compared to 21 carries (29.2 percent) that went for zero or negative yards in his first five games last year.

"I think he’s done a better job of seeing the field and not bailing right away as he did a year ago," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "And when he ran, he’s used pretty good judgment in getting out of bounds and sliding, which he didn't do last year, which we begged him to slide. He’s probably slid more in the first five games than he slid all of last year, which is another sign of growing up. He’s protecting the football and not being reckless."

Manziel's progress is a result of his work, improved maturity and a better understanding in his second year operating the Aggies offense.

"He's more comfortable with what's going on. He's repped it so many times, he knows where the players are going to be," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "We put an emphasis on him throughout the spring to stay more in the pocket and get to his third and fourth progressions. ... He made some great scrambles (this season). You never want to handcuff him with that, but we can help him out and be more of a threat if he can sit in that pocket longer and throw some balls downfield for completions instead of always reverting to run."

His teammates have noticed his improved patience as well.

"We watched film and this past game he was sitting back there waiting and he could have easily ran, but he was trying to find somebody to get open downfield," receiver Derel Walker said. "I would say he's trying to become more of a pocket quarterback to show everyone that he can do that job and still be able to scramble. That's very important."

Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney noted that there were no designed run plays for Manziel in the game plan against Arkansas last week. But that doesn't mean he's going to refrain from running at all -- Manziel still carried the ball nine times for 59 yards.

Sumlin said Manziel has also been given more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage and has handled that part of it well, too.

"He’s got some parameters, [but] he’s been able to get us into some good plays," Sumlin said. "What it is, is keeping us out of horrendous plays, negative yardage plays. And I know he understands that a lot more this year in year two than in year one, and he should.”

And even as he endured the scrutiny earlier in the year, Manziel's play remained at a high level. That's something that has impressed Spavital and just about everyone else in Aggieland.

"You've got to commend him for it," Spavital said. "I don't think anybody that has ever played the college football game has been through that much scrutiny and pressure. I think he's lived up to the expectations and he just enjoys going out there and playing."

Revisiting Texas A&M-Alabama, part I

September, 10, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M shocked the college football world when it went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide last November. It was a game for the ages, with the Aggies jumping out to a 20-0 lead, Alabama charging back to make it close and a nailbiter finish that included a turnover near the goal line.

With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.

1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense

When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.

A.J. McCarron
John David Mercer/US PresswireAJ McCarron threw his first interceptions of the season in Alabama's loss to Texas A&M last season.
The first play from scrimmage helped the Aggies set the tone as Alabama handed off to running back Eddie Lacy on an off-tackle play to the left side. Tight end Michael Williams motioned to that side of the formation to help open a hole for Lacy, but Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter eluded Williams and sliced into the gap between Williams and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and made a strong tackle to stop Lacy for no gain. Alabama went three-and-out on that drive and punted.

The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.

One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.

On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.

And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.

The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.

Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.

2. Finding the "Y"

Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.

Ryan Swope
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRyan Swope, a senior last season, made 11 catches against Alabama.
As the game wore on, Manziel went downfield to Swope, who made some of the biggest catches of the season. One was in the middle of the field for 28 yards as he was nailed by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the third quarter. In the fourth, Manziel found Swope down the right sideline for 42 yards.

Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?

And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.

3. McCarron can scramble, too

While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.

McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.

In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.

4. Defending Manziel on the ground

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave MartinJohnny Manziel had great success running in the first half against Alabama, but the running lanes closed a bit in the second half.
In the first half last year, Manziel was electric with his feet. Then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was comfortable in calling designed quarterback draws. They were successful as Manziel piled up 82 yards on nine first-half carries.

But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.

This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.

5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game

Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.

He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.

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