Texas A&M Aggies: Jeff Banks
Whether it was a position change, someone playing out of position or something as simple as inexperience keeping the Aggies from playing well, the group never quite found its footing in 2013.
The first week -- and even just the first day -- of training camp provided linebackers coach Mark Hagen with reason for optimism in 2014.
One area the Aggies' linebackers -- and the defense as a whole -- struggled with was communication. Sometimes when the ball was snapped, players were out of position or not certain of their assignments.
So far on the practice field there is much less of that, according to Hagen.
"Night and day,” Hagen said of the difference in communication. “The biggest thing we lacked last year were guys that had been there and done that ... I don't have to relive the 2014 season for you guys. It was constantly swimming uphill. And even though we got some pieces in the right place, the communication was never where it needed to be.
“We've got a different feel right now. It wasn't perfect. Going back to Friday, the first day of practice, even though it wasn't totally clean out there, there was never a time where you had guys looking left and looking right, [while the offense is] snapping the ball .... We got lined up and we played fast when the ball was snapped. That doesn't mean we played perfect in terms of the fits and the coverages, but we operated as 11 instead of 9 or 10 guys being on one page and a couple guys being on another page. That's a recipe for disaster."
Defensive line depth improving
One of the key tasks for Texas A&M’s defense since joining the SEC is building the type of depth needed to compete in the league. The defensive line is especially important in that area.
The Aggies have focused on the defensive line in recruiting and in 2014 were able to bring in five true freshman defensive linemen in the recruiting class plus a junior college transfer.
“It’s going to help everybody this season, not just me,” Julien Obioha said of the increased depth. “It’s going to help Alonzo Williams, Hardreck Walker, Daeshon Hall. There are two or three guys behind all those guys.”
Obioha was a true freshman who started in 2012 and is now entering his third season in Aggieland. The improvement in overall talent across the defensive line is evident to him.
“Depth is amazing compared to what it was [in 2012],” Obioha said. “Freshman year, we were playing maybe six guys [on the defensive line]. This year we’ll be able to play 12-14 guys.”
Defensive line coach Terry Price was able to secure top-flight talent in 2014, including the nation’s No. 1 defensive end, Myles Garrett, as well as ESPN 300 defensive end Qualen Cunningham and three-star defensive end Jarrett Johnson. Price seems pleased with what they’ve shown him thus far.
“Our biggest deficiency last year, to me, was speed on the edge of our defense at the defensive end spot,” Price said. “We went out and tried to find the best we could find, which have added speed and depth to our defense which is huge.”
Competition at kicker
Walk-on kicker and former FC Dallas goalkeeper Josh Lambo emerged as an unlikely hero last season for the Aggies, making a game-winning field goal as time expired at Ole Miss. Midway through the 2013 season, Lambo assumed place-kicking duties from Taylor Bertolet, but just because Lambo finished the year as the starter doesn’t automatically make him the go-to guy.
Bertolet, a junior, is having a strong training camp according to special-teams coach Jeff Banks, making this year’s battle at kicker a close one. Last season Bertolet was 2-for-3 on field goals and 23-of-26 on point-after attempts. Lambo was 8-for-10 on field goal tries and 50-of-51 PATs.
"I'm in a great position,” Banks said. “To have two Division I guys who can kick the ball 60 yards and have a little depth, length and distance .... I'm in a great position from that standpoint; I'm in a tough position in [deciding] who's going to be the best guy for the job. It's probably a lot like quarterback. If you name a guy right off the bat then the other guy might get discouraged.”
“So we're not going to do that. We're going to continue to compete during fall camp. We've still got at least 15-18 practices before we get ready for South Carolina and we have to do the best job we can to evaluate who is the best for the job.”
Lambo sat out the first week of training camp, recovering from a groin injury but said he should be 100 percent soon.
Early in the fourth quarter of the Aggies' 51-41 win over Mississippi State last Saturday, Williams returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. As he approached the goal line, he kept in the air, diving in the end zone, but officials ruled it "unsportsmanlike conduct" as part of a new rule established in recent seasons. The fact that Williams began the act before the end zone meant the penalty would be enforced from that spot. The Aggies scored a few plays later and head coach Kevin Sumlin discussed the matter on the sideline with Williams shortly thereafter, but on Monday, Banks credited his return man anyway.
"I felt bad for Trey but yesterday, I rewarded him with an award [Monday] for having a -yard return for a touchdown," Banks said. "I think he knows enough what happened. I'm sure he'll be on a 'Not Top 10,' or a 'C'mon Man!'"
Jokes and penalties aside, it was part of a solid special teams performance for Banks' group, something that turned out to be significant in Saturday's win. Throughout the season, the Aggies have had their ups and downs in the third phase of the game, but lately it appears they're steadily improving.
Banks noted in recent weeks that his kickoff return group was getting closer and closer to breaking free for a score. When it finally happened, it was the result of Williams' ability, blocking and coaching.
"This was a team that was pretty good at kickoff coverage, but at the same time they had done something different every week," Banks said. "And Trey Williams is phenomenal in improvisation and being able to make people miss in short space and get to the open field. So it was a combination of both of those things."
Because of the different looks Mississippi State showed every week in covering kickoffs, Banks chose to have his group block man-on-man rather than try to scheme something in particular to generate a return. It paid off.
Perhaps the most significant progress on special teams has come in the kicking game. After an inconsistent start to the season on field goals and point-after-touchdown kicks by placekicker Taylor Bertolet (which followed a rough freshman season), Banks made a change, going with walk-on Josh Lambo.
Since taking over, Lambo is 6-of-7 on field-goal attempts and 39-of-40 on PATs. Both misses were the result of miscues on holds. His success includes a game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired at Ole Miss on Oct. 12.
Bertolet still has a role in the kicking game, serving as the kickoff specialist. He's averaging 62.4 yards per kickoff and has 34 touchbacks to his credit.
"It's huge peace of mind, both on kickoff and the field-goal kicking situation, to know what we're getting every game and to know that they can do it at a high level," Banks said. "I think that's probably more of why I'm feeling so good now. Taylor Bertolet's kicking off really well, kicking to the corners when we need him to, kicking it out [of the end zone] when we need him to and then Lambo's kicking really well. He just hasn't had a lot of opportunities to kick field goals. ... I'm looking forward to him being a big factor in the next two weeks."
And in each of the past two weeks, the Aggies have also come up with a blocked punt. They started the UTEP game on Nov. 2 by blocking a punt on the Miners' first possession that turned into a safety. On Saturday against Mississippi State, they did it again ... and again ... got two points.
"They run several different protections, this last team, and we didn't know which one they would run, so we had to bring an overload type of a block that would block it versus every protection," Banks said. "We got lucky that they switched their protection completely and we wound up getting two guys free as opposed to one. There were some schematics involved with that."
The performance is certainly something that made Sumlin happy.
"I thought all in all, it was another really good performance by our special teams unit again," Sumlin said. "We blocked a punt and a field goal. We had a great kickoff return. All those things helped us win that football game. Across the board, we did some things that were really good, but I thought our special teams unit was exceptional.”
As his game-winning 33-yard field goal sailed between the uprights with triple zeroes on the clock and fell to the turf at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss., Lambo ran toward the Texas A&M sideline and performed a soccer-style celebratory slide, an homage to his pre-A&M background.
Even Johnny Manziel, the Aggies' all-everything player and Heisman Trophy winner, approached the walk-on kicker. With his hand clutching the back of Lambo's head to bring him in close, Manziel shared more than a few private words into Lambo's left ear mere feet away from the goal posts that Lambo successfully split moments before.
It was a scene Lambo would have never pictured a couple years ago while playing goalkeeper for Major League Soccer squad FC Dallas.
"I could say I've had better [nights] but I'd probably be lying to you," Lambo said.
The journey to that moment is an unlikely one for the walk-on kicker. Before arriving in Aggieland in 2012, Lambo never put on football pads. He was a soccer player from Wisconsin and found his way to Texas through the 2008 MLS Super Draft, when FC Dallas selected him eighth overall in the first round.
Lambo was with the club through 2011. Before his final season, he was having a meal in a diner with his mother when she suggested he return to his home state and give college football a try. Lambo dismissed the idea initially.
"My mom said 'Come kick for the Badgers. Come back up to Madison,'" Lambo recalls. "I said 'No mom, there's no way I can kick. It's too boring, they don't do anything.'"
But throughout his last season with FC Dallas, he said the thought nagged at him. After his time with the club was up and he didn't get a new contract, he passed on other contract offers from other clubs and decided to give it a shot. He got in touch with former Wisconsin kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and asked if Mehlhaff could teach him how to placekick. Mehlhaff obliged and Lambo began training.
He walked on with the Aggies in 2012 and didn't see any on-field action but competed for a job during preseason camp prior to this season and became the backup to returning starter Taylor Bertolet. When Bertolet struggled early in the season on point-after-touchdown kick attempts, the staff turned to Lambo for that duty.
His first career attempt against SMU on Sept. 21 was unsuccessful as the result of a bobbled hold, but his next attempt went smoothly and his first field goal attempt that night, from 40 yards away, was also good.
Lambo has held on to field goal and PAT duties ever since, while Bertolet continues to handle kickoffs. But the transition Lambo had to go through to transition from goalkeeper on the soccer pitch to placekicker on the gridiron was a significant one.
"The biggest difference was definitely the pads and the helmet and having a snap and a hold," Lambo said. "Going toward a target where there's not a ball and then there's suddenly a ball appears and then you have to kick it, that took a little bit of time. I think my first couple of kicks with a snap and a hold here were pretty ugly last fall in 2012. But I kept on working at it and it paid off."
On Saturday, with the game tied at 38 and time ticking down, coach Kevin Sumlin knew where his offense had to go in order to get within range for a game-winning kick by Lambo. Special teams coordinator Jeff Banks told Sumlin prior to the game that the 33-yard line would be the goal, which would give Lambo a 50-yard attempt.
"I was not quite comfortable with the 33-yard line," Sumlin said with a laugh. "So we kept running the ball."
The Aggies eventually reached the 15, setting Lambo up for a 33-yard attempt. He drilled it, said after the game it was his "best kick" of the night and carved himself out a small spot in Aggie lore.
"I'm just really appreciative of the coaching staff giving me a chance to prove my worth and show them what I can do," Lambo said. "Unfortunately the circumstances came to where I got to go in [earlier in the season], but you know, whenever I got my chance, I knew I was going to take it and I just praise God that I've been able to utilize my opportunities."
1. Arkansas running game vs. A&M run D: The Razorbacks have the nation's No. 5 and SEC's No. 1 rusher in freshman Alex Collins (481 yards), who became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. New Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is a believer in running the football and they'll look to run right at the Aggies, who rank 103rd nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (218.25). A&M, which allowed more than 200 rushing yards to its first three opponents, allowed just 93 last week, but the Razorbacks run the ball much more than SMU. Rutgers had some success last week against the Razorbacks' rushing attack, holding Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams to just a combined 3.6 yards per carry. Regardless, this will be the matchup to watch.
2. Razorbacks get their QB back: After missing the loss to Rutgers with a bruised throwing shoulder, Arkansas regains the services of starting quarterback Brandon Allen tonight. Head coach Bret Bielema tweeted the news on Friday night. Allen got hurt Sept. 14 in a 24-3 win over Southern Mississippi and backup A.J. Derby filled in during Allen's absence. Getting Allen back is certainly a positive for Arkansas.
3. A&M kicking game: After holding the starting placekicking job since the start of last season, Taylor Bertolet is now in a battle to keep kicking. He was removed from the Aggies' win over SMU last week for sophomore walk-on Josh Lambo. Bertolet missed back-to-back PAT attempts that prompted the change, and now both coach Kevin Sumlin and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks acknowledge that it's an "ongoing competition" between the two. Lambo came in and connected on a 40-yard field goal and was 1-for-2 on PATs, though his missed kick was the result of a botched snap. It will be interesting to see who takes which kick attempts tonight.
4. Status quo for the O?: The Aggies' high-powered offense has been productive throughout this season as quarterback Johnny Manziel has showed improvement as a passer, Mike Evans has emerged as perhaps one of the nation's best receivers, and the running backs and offensive line have both performed solidly. The Aggies have produced at least 400 offensive yards in 16 straight games dating back to last season and have only once failed to reach that number under Kevin Sumlin.
5. Road success: A Sumlin-coached team hasn't lost a game away from its home stadium since 2010, winning 13 straight. The Aggies were undefeated on the road and won their neutral site bowl game last season, but tonight will be the Aggies' first game on the road this season in what should be a raucous atmosphere at Razorback Stadium. Can the Aggies continue their road success?
The first Aggie to make contact was cornerback Tramain Jacobs. Defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. followed him by wrapping up Jones for a tackle. If Hurd would have been unable to wrap him up, cornerback Deshazor Everett was nearby, and so was linebacker Steven Jenkins.
The common thread among the above names? They're all either regular starters or players who have started before for the Aggies.
Special teams -- kickoff and punt coverage units in particular -- are a place where many non-starters find their homes, and Texas A&M is no different. But the Aggies' coaching staff is also liberal about using its best players when the need arises.
The Alabama game was a prime example. With the threat of a return man such as Jones, who returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the Crimson Tide's season-opening win against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M special teams coordinator Jeff Banks wanted to ensure he had the best players available to prevent Jones from making a game-breaking play. The Aggies got the desired result, as Jones finished with 83 yards on four kickoff returns and just 5 yards on his one punt return.
"We're always going to use the best players," Banks said. "Coach Sumlin's an advocate of 'Jeff, you just tell me who you need and who you want and that's how we're going to do things.'"
Banks said offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder or any of the other A&M assistants also have no qualms about the policy. Since he has been at Texas A&M, Banks said not one coach has said a word about who he can use or not use on special teams, whether it's in the return game or punt or kick coverage.
That luxury is something Banks, who is in his first year in Aggieland, hasn't always had in his career as a special teams coach.
"Usually you get a deal where it's 'Hey, take that guy off of there,' or 'Hey, don't use that guy,'" Banks said. "And here's my deal with that: That's fine. Because I try to be as flexible as I can because we're dealing with 60-80 people and players that have to go in and out, seniors, veterans, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, true freshmen, you've got to coach what you can get and get the best on the field.
"But you also have to be careful because if you practice them in training camp for 30 days and then you get them in the first week and someone says 'Oh no, he can't play on that many special teams,' now you're playing a guy with no experience.'"
So the planning has to begin in August when preseason training camp starts. Banks tries to get a feel for which newcomers have the size, speed or physicality to contribute, and the first week of camp is largely spent trying out numerous players in different roles to get a feel for who he can rely on. The rest of training camp is about getting those that are going to make his two-deep on special teams as many repetitions as possible so that he's comfortable with who is out there come the start of the season.
Playing offensive and defensive starters is nothing new for a Sumlin-coached team. It was something done regularly at Houston when he was there. One of the Cougars' special teams aces in their 12-1 season in 2011 was running back Michael Hayes, who played a major role in the Cougars' backfield, but could regularly be seen making tackles in punt coverage.
That attitude has carried over to Texas A&M. McKinney, who also coaches running backs, made it clear to his position group in the spring of 2012 that they would be expected to contribute on special teams. Players accepted the challenge, and Ben Malena and Trey Williams became key players on special teams.
Malena eventually emerged as the starting running back for the Aggies last season and remains that this season but can be seen on the kickoff return team making blocks and last season spent time covering kicks and punts at times, too.
"You have to realize that special teams wins and loses games," Malena said. "You need the best players out there, whether you're a starter or just a special teams guy. If you're the best player at that position, we need you on the field to help us win. I just took that to heart and will do anything for my team to win."
The example set by players with that attitude has an effect on the younger players, many of whom have a role on special teams. Many true freshmen such as Darian Claiborne -- who started at linebacker last week -- linebacker Shaan Washington, safety Jonathan Wiggins and cornerbacks Alex Sezer and Tavares Garner are already playing key roles on coverage units, and the example set by their elders is important.
"It's huge," Banks said. "They see Ben in practice, they see Jenkins in practice, they see those guys doing special teams drills at a high level. Howard Matthews, De'Vante Harris, Floyd Raven when he was healthy. That's huge. That's bigger than anything I can say. When they go out there and they give us great effort as a staff, that sells it and now you get the buy-in of the younger guys."
Banks said it helps increase the desire for the younger players to contribute, particularly in high-profile games.
"You see the Alabama game and go 'Man, I want to be out there,'" Banks said. "Tavares Garner's a prime example. He gets substituted in for Deshazor Everett and he's like 'Man, I know Deshazor's a veteran guy and he's going to make the play, but I want to be in there.' Then he gets in there and makes a tackle."
There's a balance to be struck, however. Playing starters constantly on coverage teams can fatigue them, especially if they're playing a large amount of snaps on offense or defense. So Banks is conscious to employ the personnel wisely.
"You can't wear a guy out because a Deshazor Everett or a Toney Hurd is so good at everything, you can't overuse them and start them on four special teams and expect them to play 60-80 snaps on defense," Banks said. "There's kind of a responsibility on my end, because I've gotten the leeway from the head football coach and the coordinators to use whoever we want. I think it's really important that you don't take advantage of that deal either."
Complementing players such as Sam Moeller, who has been the Aggies' special teams player of the week twice already this season and doesn't have a major role on defense, with some of these starters are what help the Aggies find a mix that Banks and Sumlin hope lead to one them having one of the best special teams units in the SEC.
"With Coach Sumlin being as awesome as he is about letting us use whoever we need to in order to be the No. 1 team, special teams-wise, in the conference, I think we've got a good mix of him and I of making sure we have the right guys on there, but also give an opportunity to guys who maybe aren't starting on offense or defense," Banks said.
2. Communicate: The Aggies' early defensive struggles were in part because of missing personnel in the first two games due to suspensions. This will be the third week with the Aggies' having most of their first-teamers available, and communication continues to be key. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder have both said that the communication has improved significantly the last two weeks and Snyder specifically cited the secondary and its ability to adjust within drives last week against SMU to reduce errors and missed assignments. The more the Aggies play together, the better the communication will get.
3. Solidify the kicking game: Texas A&M sophomore Taylor Bertolet was removed from placekicking duties after missing two extra-point attempts against SMU and replaced with Josh Lambo. Sumlin and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks call placekicker an "ongoing competition" between the two as a result. Lambo showed some ability in his Aggies debut, but it will be interesting to see who takes the first PAT or field goal attempt on Saturday.
4. Clean up O-line mistakes: The offensive line played well against Alabama but had a few self-inflicted errors, namely penalties, against SMU last week. It'll need to clean that up this week and continue to protect well and open holes in the running game, which it's done well for the most part this season. Arkansas has shown an ability to get to the quarterback early this season, so playing at a high level in that area is important.
5. Max effort from the defensive line: Snyder said he has challenged his starting defensive linemen to play every snap this week. There might not be as much rotation on the defensive line because said Snyder wants to see defensive tackles Kirby Ennis and Alonzo Williams and defensive ends Julien Obioha and Gavin Stansbury out there against Arkansas' offensive line as much as possible.
No. 24 Taylor Bertolet
Impact thus far: As a redshirt freshman, Bertolet was 13-of-22 on field goals (59.1 percent). On point-after-touchdown kick attempts, Bertolet was 67-of-74. He handled all 103 kickoffs, averaging 63.1 yards per kick and recording 65 touchbacks. Consistency was perhaps his biggest issue. Though he showed an accurate deep leg (he was 3-for-4 from 50 yards or further out), he had significant trouble from 30-49 yards, where he was 2-for-9 on field goals.
The Aggies landed their fifth commitment of the month on Saturday when La Grange (Texas) High School 2014 offensive tackle Zachary Ledwik gave the coaches his pledge.
The 6-foot-5, 273-pound Ledwik had double-digit offers and picked up ones from both Texas and Texas A&M this month. After those two schools jumped into the picture, he acknowledged that he might speed up his timetable after originally planning to wait until the end of the summer.
After attending camps at both schools this month, Ledwik took unofficial visits to both schools this week. He visited Aggieland on Wednesday and said that after the trip, he believed that Texas A&M was where he wanted to be.
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Even so, the once but no longer under-the-radar prospect was happy that the Aggies officially jumped in the race.
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So much for losing momentum on the recruiting trail.
Any thoughts Texas A&M fans might have had about the Aggies losing their swagger when it comes to prospects likely had their faith restored on Monday afternoon as ESPN 150 quarterback Kyle Allen (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain) committed to the Aggies on Monday, A&M's second commitment in as many days.
Allen's commitment comes fewer than 24 hours after the Aggies landed Katy (Texas) Seven Lakes defensive end Jarrett Johnson, making for a big-time start to the summer camp season and putting the Aggies at a dozen commitments in the 2014 class.
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The wait ended on Sunday night. Johnson is commit No. 11 for the Aggies.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound prospect ended his recruitment on Sunday, calling the coaching staff to deliver news of his commitment, according to Seven Lakes coach Lydell Wilson.
On Friday, Johnson spoke of plans of attending both Texas and Texas A&M camps to get one final look at both schools, even though he stated the Aggies were his clear leader and he felt the gap might be too large for the Longhorns to pick up ground.
He didn't attend either camp, but decided to make his choice official on Sunday. Johnson's primary recruiter was special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jeff Banks and defensive line coach Terry Price.
When asked earlier this week why the Aggies had such a lead in the race for his services, Johnson pointed to a few factors.
"Their coaching staff," Johnson said. "I feel real good around them. I feel real good about UT, but A&M, it's just a little bit better. More like family, closer to home and they've had more recent success."
Aside from his top two of Texas A&M and Texas, Johnson had offers from Baylor, Missouri, Northwestern, Oklahoma and most recently, TCU. He maintained that he wanted to stay in-state and though he considered others, his top two have been the Longhorns and Aggies since they both offered in February.
Johnson is the 11th commit of the Aggies' 2014 class and the second defensive line commitment. He is the first defensive end commit of the class.
He'll attend Longhorns camp on June 9 in Austin, but first is a stop this weekend in College Station, Texas, at Texas A&M's first camp of the year. The 6-foot, 178-pound prospect feels good about where he stands with the Aggies after assistant coaches Clarence McKinney and Jeff Banks stopped by Cypress Ridge last week to evaluate him.
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Every Wednesday, Sam Khan Jr. will take a quick-hit look at some of the top recruits and storylines facing Texas A&M recruiting for the week.
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