Texas A&M Aggies: Jordan Mastrogiovanni

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Perhaps the second-most popular question about this season’s edition of Texas A&M -- after the obligatory “What’s life without Johnny Manziel going to be like?” -- centers around the Aggies’ defense.

Will they be better? And if so, by how much?

After a disastrous 2013, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is confident that improvement is on the horizon. He might not flatly state it, but witness the bounce in his step at practice, the energy in his voice and it’s easy to surmise that Snyder is looking forward to Year 3 in Aggieland.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMark Snyder's defense struggled last season, particularly against the run, ranking 110th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game.
“If Coach Snyder's in a good mood, I feel like everyone's in a good mood,” middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “He watches [the video], diagnoses it more than anyone else so if he's happy, I feel like we're doing something right.”

His unit’s first test, which comes against No. 9 South Carolina and a stout running game powered by one of the nation’s best running backs, Mike Davis, is first on the horizon. Stopping the run was one of the Aggies’ biggest challenges last year, as they ranked last in the SEC and 110th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (222.31).

Snyder isn’t interested in talking up expectations or why he might be confident No. 21 Texas A&M can improve in that area.

“Well, we’ll see when we get there,” Snyder said. “Talk is cheap. We’ll all know that night at the end of the game.”

Indeed they will.

No matter the measure, the Aggies were bad on defense last year. They were last in the SEC in yards allowed per game (475.8), yards per play (6.36), yards per carry (5.38), first downs allowed per game (23.4) and red zone efficiency (71.4 percent) in addition to the aforementioned run defense. In every one of those categories, they were worse than 100th nationally.

“We weren't playing Snyder defense,” senior cornerback Deshazor Everett said last month. “He sets us up to make plays. All we have to do is do what he tells us to, and we weren't doing that last year. So if we come back this year and we're doing what we did this spring, we're going to be a good defense.”

Youth and inexperience were the heart of the issues for the Aggies. Difficulties the defense had included simply getting lined up correctly, fitting the correct gaps and identifying their correct assignments. Earlier this month linebackers coach Mark Hagen called the difference “night and day” when it comes to the defense’s communication and ability to accomplish the basics.

Whether that will translate to the field when the Aggies take on a South Carolina team that averaged 198.4 rushing yards per game last season remains to be seen. The players seem optimistic, though.

“It’s been a completely different mentality,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “Last year was unacceptable. There’s just been so much growth in the last year and so much growth in leadership.”

Added speed and athleticism are among the sources of optimism for the Aggies. So is increased depth, particularly along the defensive line. The 2014 recruiting class included six defensive linemen, four of whom are on the initial two-deep and will see action early, including highly regarded defensive end recruit Myles Garrett, the No. 4 overall player in last year’s class.

Snyder is careful not to heap too much praise on Garrett, but the buzz surrounding training camp made it clear that the true freshman will be a factor. Teammates have been more effusive in their praise of Garrett.

"I have never really seen anything like him,” Mastrogiovanni said. “In the weight room he's already one of the top three strongest guys as a true freshman. He's fast, he's long, he gets to the quarterback just about every play. I think teams are going to have a very hard time blocking him this year.”

There will be plenty of youth on the field this season as well. Snyder estimated that seven true freshmen will see the field on Thursday. Last season the Aggies had a dozen freshman (redshirt or true) in their two deep. But unlike last season, the Aggies are able to be strategic with how and where they are placed.

“We'll try to do our best as we sub and get them in that they're in next to an older guy,” Snyder said. “These guys won't go in unless an older guy is beside them. We didn't have that luxury last year, we just had to play them all together.”

The questions linger and won’t stop until the Aggies take the field. And Snyder’s waiting for them to be answered with results instead of words.

Camp notes: QB battle continues

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
12:00
PM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M wrapped up its eighth day of training camp on Saturday with a 92-play scrimmage at the Coolidge practice fields, giving the Aggies coaches their first real chance to evaluate their personnel in live situations. The starting quarterback battle between sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen continues with head coach Kevin Sumlin calling it "dead even" on Saturday, minutes after the scrimmage.

In reality, the coaches' video evaluation of that scrimmage and the first nine practices will be significant. This upcoming week will be a huge one in the battle for the starting job. Sumlin typically likes to name a starter roughly two weeks before the season opener and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said at the opening of training camp that Aug. 16-18 would be the dates targeted for naming a starter.

What are the coaches looking for? Several things, but consistency, taking care of the football and production are at the top of the list.

"I just want to see them make some plays, I want to see the offense start clicking," Spavital said. "I want to see the ones who are going to get those first downs that are going to lead into touchdowns. This offense is really heavy off of rhythm and we can't just go out there and three-and-out all the time. I want to see them get into the rhythm of things and make some plays and put us in the best position to succeed."

Special quarterback packages

Spavital noted that the team has practiced special personnel packages with a pair of the Aggies’ young talented receivers getting a turn at quarterback.

"We also have other packages with other guys playing quarterback," Spavital said. "We haven't gotten too detailed into it but Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil [are the guys]."

Both spent plenty of time playing quarterback for their respective high schools, Seals-Jones at Sealy (Texas) High and Noil at New Orleans Edna Karr.

Williams, Mastrogiovanni, stand out

Sumlin said two young players in particular stuck out to him in Saturday’s scrimmage: running back Brandon Williams and linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni.

"Brandon Williams, I thought he had a big day running the ball," Sumlin said. "He's been on a mission all camp. He came in great shape, was very physical, had some good runs and did some really good things.

"Jordan Mastrogiovanni made some plays today on the perimeter and some tackles for losses. I'd say off the top of my head those two guys kind of jumped out to me."

Recruits react to renovations

While Kyle Field continues its redevelopment, the Aggies unveiled new state-of-the-art locker rooms and several other renovations on the first floor of the Bright Football Complex earlier this month. The project, which generated national buzz for the Aggies, has been a hit with recruits as well, several of which visited Aggieland this weekend for the scrimmage.

"It's been great," Sumlin said. "Guys are coming up here and we're touring the facilities and just like when you guys saw it, their reaction is about like yours: 'Wow.'"

A few quick hits:
  • Senior left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi sat out Saturday’s scrimmage for precautionary reasons while dealing with a bruised heel, according to Kevin Sumlin. Ogbuehi missed one mid-week practice and returned the next day, but Sumlin said it started hurting so they decided to allow Ogbuehi to rest and get it healthy. Sumlin does not consider the injury to be serious.
  • Starting cornerback De'Vante Harris is out indefinitely with what Sumlin called a "urinary tract injury." Harris missed the scrimmages and several preceding practices because of the issue. "It was kind of a freak deal the other night and he was admitted to the hospital but got out. I don't know what the prognosis is and how long that's going to be."
  • Though Kyle Field is still undergoing renovation, the grass has been put in place and Sumlin said the team will have three chances to work out in the stadium prior to their home opener on Sept. 6. The team hasn’t been able to work out inside the stadium since last season ended when the Kyle Field redevelopment project began.

Second-year stars: Texas A&M

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
2:30
PM ET
Texas A&M is a young team, so there are plenty of freshmen and sophomores who will be counted on to play key roles in 2014. With three offensive standouts chosen in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, there are big shoes to fill.

So as we continue our second-year star installment, there is no shortage of candidates to choose from when looking for sophomores or redshirt freshmen poised for a breakout seasons.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayWideout Ricky Seals-Jones could have a big season for the Aggies in 2014.
Class recap: In Kevin Sumlin’s first full year of recruiting in Aggieland, Texas A&M turned in the nation’s eighth-ranked 2013 class. It was a group that was heavy on numbers (32 players signed) and the class has had a mix of contributors and attrition. Several players are expected to play prominent roles this season, such as linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni, receivers LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ricky Seals-Jones, defensive end Daeshon Hall and possibly quarterback Kenny Hill and transfer linebacker A.J. Hilliard. On the flip side, some potential stars from the class were recently dismissed from the team (linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden) and four others have either transferred or are no longer with the program.

Second-year star: WR Ricky Seals-Jones (6-foot-5, 225 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Seals-Jones was the highest-ranked prospect the Aggies signed in the 2013 class. A four-star prospect, Seals-Jones was the nation’s No. 8 receiver, the sixth overall prospect in the state of Texas and the No. 61 player in the ESPN 300. He played myriad positions at Sealy (Texas) High, including quarterback, receiver, safety and return specialist. A former Texas commitment, the Aggies eventually won his signature over SEC foe LSU, which pursued Seals-Jones throughout the fall of 2012. Landing his verbal commitment in December 2012 was a significant coup for Texas A&M recruiting at that point, given Seals-Jones’ profile.

2013 in review: A knee injury suffered on his first college touchdown led to a premature ending to Seals-Jones’ 2013 season. He caught three passes for 84 yards, one of which was a 71-yard touchdown, in the season-opening win over Rice. He tried to give it a go two weeks later against Alabama, but had limited playing time and soon thereafter opted for season-ending surgery on his knee. The Aggies applied for a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility so he can be classified as a redshirt freshman this fall.

2014 potential: Barring injuries, Seals-Jones has star potential. It was clear to see last August what kind of ability he brings. After a season of rehabilitation and a good spring, he looks poised to start and play a major role in the Aggies offense. With three starting receivers from 2013 pursuing pro careers now, there will be plenty of catches to go around (Malcome Kennedy is the only returning starting receiver for Texas A&M). Seals-Jones is big, fast and is versatile enough to line up at inside receiver or outside receiver.

Also watch for: If Hill wins the competition for the starting job over freshman Kyle Allen, it stands to reason that Hill, a sophomore, will be poised for a breakout season in the Aggies’ up-tempo offense. Mastrogiovanni will step in as the starter at middle linebacker and coaches raved about him during the spring. Sumlin pointed out the kind of leader Mastrogiovanni is becoming and the Aggies’ defense sorely needs it. Keep an eye on defensive ends Hall and Jay Arnold. Both played as freshmen and received increased playing time late last season. Both sat out spring recovering from offseason surgeries, but should be good to go for the fall. Defensive tackle Hardreck Walker, a sophomore, is likely to have a prominent role on the defensive interior now that projected starter Golden is no longer around. Cornerback Noel Ellis received valuable experience late last season and will compete for a spot on the field, likely at nickel cornerback. And watch for another young receiver, Gonzalez, who is very quick and a good fit for the Aggies’ offense. He is likely to get more touches this fall.
There are still more than three months until Texas A&M plays its season opener at South Carolina, but it's never too soon to look at which players could be playing an increased role this season. Players who haven't seen much field time -- or newcomers who just arrived on campus -- received a chance to show how much progress they've made during spring football. Here are five players on the Aggies' defense who gained some momentum and could carve out roles for themselves this fall:

DB Devonta Burns: Depth in the secondary -- particularly at safety -- was among the most significant concerns for Texas A&M coming into the spring, but Burns' consistent play and versatility during spring football provided secondary coach Terry Joseph with another option. Burns, a junior, has been seldom used in his time in Aggieland but began to find a role on special teams last fall. Head coach Kevin Sumlin noted multiple times this spring how much Burns has progressed. He's probably not a candidate to earn a starting spot in the fall but after seeing practice time both at safety and as a nickel cornerback in the spring, he is a player who has begun to earn the trust of the coaching staff when needed to contribute and could see a regular role in the defensive backfield in 2014.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Hilliard
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAfter transferring from TCU, A.J. Hilliard should contribute to Texas A&M's linebackers unit this fall.
DT Zaycoven Henderson: It's interesting that Henderson -- someone the Aggies didn't initially offer in the recruiting process -- emerged as someone who could contribute quickly. After taking Texas' top defensive tackle in the 2014 class (DeShawn Washington), the Aggies held off on heavily pursuing Henderson until he decommitted from Texas in January and became available. The Aggies' quick courtship paid off, and Henderson enrolled early and quickly found himself excelling on the defensive line during spring football. The 6-foot-1, 310-pound true freshman will have to work on getting into better shape during the summer, but if he can, he has the kind of quickness and explosiveness to play a contributing role -- perhaps a significant one -- on the Aggies' defensive interior come August.

LB A.J. Hilliard: Someone who Sumlin long pursued (the head coach recruited Hilliard when he was at Houston and also immediately upon landing the Texas A&M job in late 2011 and early 2012, but Hilliard signed with TCU in 2012). He transferred to Aggieland in 2013, and after sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules, he showed signs this spring that he could be a contributor at linebacker. The Aggies used Hilliard in several linebacker spots in the spring, and he proved versatile enough to handle those responsibilities. At 6-2 and 225 pounds, Hilliard has good speed and showed consistent improvement. Look for him to find his way on the field this season.

LB Jordan Mastrogiovanni: After having a glassy-eyed freshman season, Mastrogiovanni showed significant progress in spring football. Both Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder praised the performance of the 6-3, 235-pound middle linebacker, and Sumlin went as far to say that Mastrogiovanni emerged as the leader of the defense. Considering how important the position is that he plays, that's meaningful for Texas A&M. He's the projected starter at middle linebacker after playing a part-time role last season, and the staff has high hopes for him in 2014.

LB Shaan Washington: Like Mastrogiovanni, Washington received some playing time as a true freshman last fall. He played at both linebacker and on special teams and brings versatility to the table. He was a safety at Alexandria (La.) High School and has the ability to drop into coverage or rush the passer off the edge. He'll be among several outside linebackers battling for a starting spot, and his role figures to increase on the field this season.
If Texas A&M plans to be a serious factor in the SEC West race this fall, the Aggies will have to see significant improvement from their defense.

After a season of struggles where they ranked last or near last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories, the Aggies hope that some of the young players who were thrown into the fire last season benefit from that experience and show marked improvement in 2014 and that the added depth from another top-10 recruiting class can continue to raise the talent level on that side of the football.

Last week during the SEC's post-spring football teleconference, coach Kevin Sumlin discussed the state of the Aggies' defense after spring practice.

When it comes to the defensive line, the coaching staff wasn't able to get a complete picture because of players that sat out with injuries, like defensive ends Jay Arnold, Daeshon Hall and Gavin Stansbury.

"The positives are it forced Alonzo Williams and Tyrell Taylor and Hardreck Walker and Julien [Obioha] and guys like that to really step in there and get a bunch of reps," Sumlin said. "The D-line was really kind of hard to evaluate, but because of the injuries, I thought our linebackers got better."

At linebacker, Sumlin noted that one young player showed significant progress and began stepping into a leadership role.

"I thought Jordan Mastrogiovanni solidified himself in the middle and has really taken charge and really made some steps," Sumlin said. "If anything happened there, I thought that Jordan has really kind of taken over as the leader of our defense, and that's a good thing when you're young and you've played some football."

As for the secondary, Sumlin acknowledged the need for improvement at safety and that the decision to keep senior Deshazor Everett -- who flip-flopped between cornerback and safety last season -- at corner has helped him improve.

"The decision to keep Deshazor at corner has helped him," Sumlin said. "No doubt, our safety play has got to improve and our D-line play has got to improve. We will have more depth up front, but we'll have more pieces. We just have to get the right pieces in place and get them ready to go."
When it comes to Texas A&M's spring, the first question surrounding the Aggies often relates to the quarterback battle and who is in the lead to succeed Johnny Manziel.

The next question is usually relates to the defense, and how much better -- if at all -- the unit will be after a disastrous 2013 season.

While neither can be definitively answered, when it comes to the defense, there is at least some reason for optimism coming out of spring football. The Aggies can't get much worse than they were a year ago, when the ranked last or near last in the SEC in virtually every major statistical category, but there were signs during spring practice that indicate that brighter days are ahead for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's group.

One reason the Aggies have to feel better about their defense is the experience they'll have. Last year the root of the struggles seemed to be the youth and inexperience up and down the depth chart, with the Aggies having as many as a dozen freshmen in the defensive two-deep.

Though the Aggies will still be relatively young in some areas (particularly linebacker), most of the players who are candidates to start or see significant time were thrown in the fire last season.

Middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni is a perfect example. Though he'll only be a sophomore this fall, he started against Alabama last Sept. 14 and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke. Mastrogiovanni called it "overwhelming," but as the guy getting first-team work at his position this spring, coaches have heaped praise upon the former ESPN 300 prospect.

Should defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne return from suspensions (both missed the spring after February arrests), they too will benefit. Both started a large portion of the season as true freshmen.

Other players who could be in position to contribute, such as linebacker Shaan Washington or cornerback Noel Ellis, weren't starters but saw enough field time to give them a taste of what life in the SEC is like.

Add to those young players a host of returning veterans, such as the starting secondary of Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris, Howard Matthews and Julien Obioha, Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams and the Aggies can begin piecing together a more experienced defense.

With so many players returning (nine starters return from last year's defense) and a top-five recruiting class on the way, the Aggies will continue to add to their talent level on defense. One defensive player is already on campus (defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson) and showed flashes of his potential during spring football.

With players like defensive end Myles Garrett, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect, ESPN 300 athlete Nick Harvey, who will be a defensive back at Texas A&M and other ESPN 300 prospects like Deshawn Washington, Otaro Alaka, Qualen Cunningham, Armani Watts and Josh Walker, competition will only increase when preseason training camp starts.


The increased depth on the defensive line could be the biggest factor in helping the defense improve. Snyder indicated how critical it was earlier this month.

"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] … that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."

For the Aggies, there really is nowhere to go but up defensively. They could be another year away from being the kind of defense they hope to be, but the developments this spring suggest at least some improvement is in order in 2014.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like many of Texas A&M's defensive players, Jordan Mastrogiovanni was thrown onto the field sooner than most anticipated.

He got his first career start in the Aggies' most anticipated game of 2013, the Sept. 14 clash against Alabama. He appeared in all 13 games last season and made another start in the Aggies' Chick-Fil-A Bowl game win over Duke.

[+] EnlargeMastrogiovanni
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Texas A&M coaches expect sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni to be a defensive leader in 2014.
Most incoming recruits relish the chance at early playing time, but for the ESPN 300 prospect out of Dallas Jesuit, the excitement was also met with a dose of reality.

"To be honest with you, it was overwhelming at times," Mastrogiovanni said. "To think that a year [before] I was playing in front of 2,000 people in a high school football game, that's just one of those things where you have to man up and take care of your responsibilities and do the best you can."

What was overwhelming about it? In a word, everything.

"Really, every aspect of the game," he said. "The players, the calls, just looking up in the stands and seeing 100,000 people, that's something not many people get to experience. As an 18-year-old kid looking up, it's something that not a lot of people get to experience."

In the bowl game against Duke, Mastrogiovanni started at middle linebacker in place of the suspended Darian Claiborne, who served as the starter for most of the season. Linebackers coach Mark Hagen recalls the difficult start the defense had across the board against the Blue Devils, as the Aggies surrendered 38 first-half points while a handful of glossy-eyed freshmen, Mastrogiovanni included, tried to figure things out.

"It was a disaster from the opening kickoff in the bowl game," Hagen said. "Nothing went right. I think like most of our guys they were questioning themselves in the locker room and it was just a matter of going out there and getting a stop and I think you saw the confidence start to come back a little bit. It was a playing time issue really as much as anything [for Mastrogiovanni], just not having a ton of [first-team] reps."

But as the Aggies regrouped in the locker room, Mastrogiovanni spoke up and the defense collected itself. The unit allowed only 10 points in the second half as the team completed its come-from-behind effort to steal a 52-48 win.

"At halftime I went in and was pretty frustrated with my performance and the rest of the defense's," Mastrogiovanni said. "I tried to take over as the leader at that point and I said 'Turn the page. Don't even think about it.' That's what Johnny [Manizel] was saying too. I really think we went out there and bought in on what the coaches and players were preaching in the locker room. I think you can see on tape that we were a lot more physical and we trusted each other so it paid off."

The Aggies are hoping the instinct the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker showed that night carries over into this season, because he figures to be Texas A&M's starting middle linebacker. Mastrogiovanni spent the spring working with the first team. The Aggies are looking for improved play -- and leadership.

"I think we lacked a lot of it last year," coach Kevin Sumlin said of the defensive leadership. "We need a guy who's going to step up and talk and make sure we know everything and that we play with some confidence. I think that whole year has given him some confidence and some credibility among his teammates. It's one thing for you to be confident, but what about the guys around you? Mastro has spoken up."

Spring football, which wrapped up for the Aggies on Saturday, was productive for Mastrogiovanni. He became much more comfortable in his role as the middle linebacker and showed the qualities the coaching staff seeks.

"I just think you see a totally different person out there," Hagen said. "Much more comfortable, he's taking charge, he's getting our guys lined up which is over half the battle on defense."

The coaches want him to continue to progress, but so far he has given them reason for optimism. The one thing Sumlin wants him to work on is, of all things, his voice, so his teammates can hear him.

"I give him a hard time because I tell him to put some bass in his voice," Sumlin said with a smile. "I keep forgetting he's a freshman. He has played a bunch of football here. 'Yell from the diaphragm, act like a middle linebacker, put some bass in your voice.'"

With Claiborne likely to move to the weakside linebacker position and the Aggies mulling over a number of options for strongside linebacker, Mastrogiovanni's play is key. Texas A&M is looking to improve a defense that was last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories and struggled mightily against the run. It also didn't deal with offensive wrinkles well, something that having an experienced middle linebacker with the leadership qualities coaches are looking for will help improve.

Mastrogiovanni doesn't want to see another season go by with the Aggies ranking in the bottom 30 nationally defensively, like they did in 2013.

"That's just unacceptable, especially for a program the caliber of Texas A&M," he said. "The fans deserve better and we need to push ourselves. That's not the product we want to put out on the field. We're driven, we're motivated, we just don't want to have another defensive season like that."

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:15
PM ET
It's not exactly like the fall, but at least we'll have some football (spring) games this weekend. Let's take a quick spin around the SEC and see what's happening as the final spring scrimmages approach at some of the league's schools.
Editor's note: This is the fourth part of a weeklong series looking at five players to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M

It’s no secret that Texas A&M’s defense left much to be desired in 2013.

[+] EnlargeMastrogiovanni
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni is expected to start at middle linebacker for Texas A&M in 2014.
The Aggies were downright bad throughout much of the season and the statistics illustrated as much. The reasons given for those struggles were plentiful, perhaps none more so than youth and inexperience. There were 11 freshmen, either redshirt or true, that occupied a spot on the two-deep depth chart for much of the season, and anybody who has been through the rugged SEC will tell you that can be a recipe for disaster.

While the Aggies went through growing pains en route to their 9-4 season, ranking in the bottom 15 nationally in rushing yards and total yards allowed per game, there is hope in College Station, Texas, for a brighter future, in large part because of all the young players that saw the field in 2013.

And perhaps no position is more important than middle linebacker, the spot that will be manned by sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni.

As a freshman, Mastrogiovanni saw action in all 13 games last season, starting twice: against Alabama on Sept. 14 and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder felt comfortable enough to give Mastrogiovanni the nod in the most high-profile game of the season, though the next week the Aggies shifted their focus at the position to Darian Claiborne, who turned in a strong freshman campaign even though he had to change positions midway through the season.

This season, Claiborne is expected to move back to his more natural position of weakside linebacker and Mastrogiovanni will be expected to step in at middle linebacker. The Dallas Jesuit product got a taste of it in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, having to start in place of Claiborne, who was suspended.

For the season, Mastrogiovanni turned in 26 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and a pass defensed. In the bowl game against Duke he was second on the team with eight tackles and logged a half tackle for loss.

During the latter part of the season, Mastrogiovanni saw increased practice repetitions at the position as Claiborne’s backup and gained some valuable experience in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl as well as the practices leading up to the bowl game where he saw first-team reps. As an ESPN 300 recruit who was part of the 2013 recruiting class, there are high hopes for his future in Aggieland.

And if the Aggies are to improve on defense in 2014, they’ll have to see improvement from virtually all positions, including middle linebacker, one of the most important positions on the field. Mastrogiovanni’s role will be key and his progress during spring practice will be worth watching for Texas A&M.

A&M LB Jenkins managing ups, downs

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
2:30
PM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The linebacker position has been one of change for Texas A&M this season. With some early season struggles, an injection of youth and some growth needed, it has been an area where defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and linebackers coach Mark Hagen have tinkered to find the right combination of players. The group as a whole has had its fair share of ups and downs this season.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jenkins
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesSince returning from suspension, Steven Jenkins has been a key part of Texas A&M's defense, both on and off the field.
The same could be said for the elder statesman of the group, senior Steven Jenkins. Though Snyder feels like lately, that Jenkins, the most veteran presence in the group, is trending up.

"Up and down," Snyder said when asked to assess Jenkins' season. "I think he's coming on a little bit [lately]."

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jenkins has started the last eight games for the Aggies (he missed the first two, the result of a suspension for violations of Texas A&M athletic department rules and regulations) and is second on the team in tackles with 69, while also tied for second in tackles for loss (five). He has been productive, though not necessarily always consistent. When he's at his best, he might be the best defensive player the Aggies have.

Jenkins has kept a positive outlook and consistent approach throughout this season.

"You have to keep trying to get better every week," Jenkins said. "Everyone has their highs and lows, a good day and a bad day. You just have to keep a positive attitude moving forward and try to get better each week."

Knowing there were a lot of young players and newcomers among the A&M linebackers, Jenkins wanted to step into more of a leadership role. Teammates have noticed his effort in that area.

"He wasn’t a very vocal guy at the beginning of the year, but he’s really opened up and he’s been a great leader for us in the linebacker unit," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "On the backend, everybody talks and everybody communicates, and that’s the most important thing. We need to communicate."

Snyder said he has noticed Jenkins getting tired toward the ends of games recently and he might start working in true freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni into the lineup more at middle linebacker while sliding starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne back to his natural position of weakside linebacker, which is usually manned by Jenkins. That would enable Jenkins to get a breather and be fresher for the fourth quarter of games.

Now in his third year in Aggieland after transferring from Coffeyville Community College, Jenkins is continuing to work and trying to improve. He’s also making an impact. Jenkins had an interception return for a touchdown in Texas A&M's thrilling win at Ole Miss in 2012 and has had a plethora of big-time hits or tackles for loss accumulated over the last two seasons.

When it comes to his setback that kept him on the sideline to start the season, Jenkins said he "definitely took some life lessons and learned from it." If the Aggies are going to finish the way they hope to, winning their final two games later this month at LSU and at Missouri, Jenkins and the linebackers probably have to play a key role in that.

The senior simply wants to push forward, play well and have fun while doing so.

"I'm just trying to lead by example for the younger guys, trying to bring energy to the field so we can have some Aggie swag," Jenkins said with a smile. "Just have fun on the field. We do make mistakes but move on from it. ... Just have fun and go out there and try to win."

Improvement needed from A&M defense

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
1:00
PM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into the season, there were plenty of questions about Texas A&M's defense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snyder believes his unit has that opportunity.

"I told the kids, 'I know what it looks like and we've got a chance to be good,' " Snyder said. "I thought last year as the season went on, we learned [how to minimize big plays]. Our big-play numbers came down and we started playing better defense. So for us today, it was a matter of big plays on our side of the ball and allowed them to get into a groove running the ball once they got the lead."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Silence isn't a word typically synonymous with a stadium hosting more than 86,000 rabid fans, particularly at Kyle Field, where Texas A&M is known to hold a tremendous home-field advantage.

But silence is a key word in describing some of the growing pains the Aggies had to go through in their season-opening win against Rice on Saturday, as they played 16 true freshmen, 11 of which were defensive players.

A&M coach Kevin Sumlin illustrated that point thusly:

"We had a couple situations where a couple guys actually froze up out there and wouldn't even open their mouths and couldn't get lined up," Sumlin said after Saturday's 52-31 victory. "The D-line said they couldn't hear and then one of them admitted to me "Coach, I just didn't say anything. I was just standing there.'"

Not exactly what a coach is looking to hear from defensive players, particularly when facing a no-huddle offense. Communication, especially in those situations, is key for a defense.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayFreshman wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones made an impact in his college debut, hauling in a 71-yard touchdown pass.
But that was the position the Aggies were put in, missing eight players to start the game, six on defense -- including five defensive players who were listed as starters on the week's depth chart -- because of suspensions. There were true freshmen playing in every defensive position group, plus some at receiver. That doesn't include a handful of redshirt freshmen and junior college players who were making their debuts as well.

The Aggies coaches did what they could to prepare their newcomers, but some lessons are only learned the hard way.

"It's like anything else," Sumlin said. "As a coach, you try to prepare guys for all situations, but until the live bullets are flying, you don't know. It'll get better as it goes on, but I think the experience that we gained from today will help us down the road, a bunch. Particularly [in the front seven] because that's where most of the guys are gone."

The struggles were clear. As the defense tried to find its footing, Rice showed the ability to move the ball with ease. The Owls finished the game with 509 total offensive yards, including 306 rushing. The last time they gave up that many offensive yards was in their marathon battle against Louisiana Tech last October (615) and they haven't allowed that many rushing yards since a 66-28 drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma on Nov. 8, 2008.

True freshman played on the defensive line (Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall and Hardreck Walker), at linebacker (Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Shaan Washington) and defensive back (Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner, Alex Sezer Jr. and Jonathan Wiggins).

"There's no way to duplicate the tempo and the emotion [of a game]," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "You know what you're doing, but the pressure to perform in that environment can be very, very difficult on a young guy, and that's what experience is all about."

Offensively, the Aggies were much better off. Even though Matt Joeckel made his first career start at quarterback, he's a junior who has spent more than a year practicing in the offense and he had at least seen some game time. Center Mike Matthews, who received high praise from Sumlin on Tuesday, also played in games and traveled with the team last season.

The true freshmen who saw the field for the first time on offense were all receivers: Ricky Seals-Jones, Jeremy Tabuyo, LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ja'Quay Williams. But because there were more experienced players surrounding them on Saturday, not to mention Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel entered the game in the third quarter, the transition was smoother for the Aggies' offense.

In total, 21 newcomers saw the field for Texas A&M on Saturday, many in significant roles. Plenty will log significant time this Saturday against Sam Houston State, as four players received two-game suspensions and won't be back until Sept. 14 against Alabama. With a signing class of 31 players in February, there was no question the Aggies were going to need some of the newcomers to contribute. By being forced to play so many in the first game, Sumlin feels like it could be a positive later in the season.

"[It's] a real, real learning experience," Sumlin said. "I think for those guys, that's going to pay dividends for us down the road."

Aggie Snapshot: LB Shaun Ward 

July, 1, 2013
7/01/13
12:00
PM ET
During the summer, GigEmNation will take a closer look at returning starters and other key players on the two-deep for Texas A&M -- excluding the Aggies' 2013 recruiting class -- that could make notable impact this fall in our Aggie Snapshot series. Starting with No. 1 De'Vante Harris, the series will follow the roster numerically through our final analysis of No. 95 Julien Obioha.

No. 40 Shaun Ward
Junior linebacker


Position breakdown: Linebacker 

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
1:30
PM ET
The Texas A&M linebacker corps served as a backbone for the Aggies defense in 2012.

With a trio of upperclassmen as starters, including two senior leaders in Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, it was one area the Aggies defensive coaches didn't have to worry too much about.

Brett Wade
William Wilkerson/ESPN.comCould early enrollee linebacker Brett Wade play as a freshman in 2013?
With Porter and Stewart having graduated and looking toward NFL futures, the Aggies will have two new bodies to line up next to the lone remaining starter of the group, Steven Jenkins.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Texas K Wicker talks TAMU opportunity 

February, 11, 2013
2/11/13
8:00
AM ET
Cody Wicker missed his initial chance to impress Texas A&M.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Drive Through: Playoff Predictions
Heather Dinich gives her week 4 playoff predictions.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/18
Saturday, 9/20