Texas A&M Aggies: Josh Lambo

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As part of Texas A&M's nightmarish 2013 season on defense, the Aggies linebackers endured more than their fair share of struggles.

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.
Every four years, we all have soccer fever. I have it 24/7, 365, but the World Cup helps bring out the inner futboler in all of us.

The United States is still trying to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game, but fans have come out in full force this year to support arguably our most talented World Cup team. And I've even seen it from SEC football players this summer.

Tweets from football players concerning the World Cup have littered my news feed the past couple of weeks. It might be because of the enormous popularity of the "FIFA" video game series, but it's still great to see.

You know what else would be great to see? Athletes like the ones that amaze us every Saturday in the SEC playing some footy. Now, I realize that a lot of these guys might not be the agile athletes that glide all over the pitch with their size, but let's put that aside for a second. Let's expand our minds and have a little fun here. Let's imagine some of the SEC's best current athletes suiting up to make a squad of 11 to play the original football.

We're going with a 4-3-2-1 look, meaning we have four fullbacks and a striker up top. And remember: Please, no biting.

Note: Only one kicker made the cut because most of them played soccer growing up. We wanted to use our imaginations a little more here.

STRIKER
  • Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: He looks like a cannonball when he shoots through the line of scrimmage. He's incredibly agile and elusive and would give a healthy Jozy Altidore a run for his money. He makes the most of his opportunities and would be a ball specialist up top.
WINGERS
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Yes, he's the SEC's best cornerback, but imagine that speed and athleticism up front. He played soccer growing up, and he's just too agile and quick to keep in the back. Plus, it's a major advantage to have a legitimate ballhawk at forward talk about takeaways at midfield!
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: He was my first choice for goalkeeper because of that wingspan and those hands. But the more I thought about it, I want that speed, strength and athleticism leading the charge up front. He also has tremendous control. Wherever Treadwell is, he's the best pure athlete around.
MIDFIELDERS
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Think Jermaine Jones: Big, fast and powerful. It's going to be tough to get past his intimidating frame, and he has the speed to track the long ball and create a lane for himself when he takes off. He'd be great on set pieces in both boxes with his size, and having him run up and down the field sounds frightening.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Just try to send the long ball over his head. He's the perfect player to have at center mid. He's your field general/ballhawk, who can take a lot of pressure off the defense. No one is getting behind him and he isn't afraid to challenge opponents. Just call him our enforcer.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another big body in the middle who has great explosion. I need my midfield well conditioned, but I also need guys who are going to be able to attack and defend. With Gurley's strength, he won't get out-muscled for balls, and once he gains possession, he's gone. He also has superb field vision to own midfield.
FULLBACKS
  • Corey Grant, RB, Auburn: Like fellow SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf told me, "Think Fabian Johnson." Grant has a ton of speed to carry the ball up and be a threat to score, but he's also incredibly strong, so sitting back and playing defense would be something he'd thrive in on the pitch.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: You want a captain and a brick wall heading up the middle of your defense? Well, just look at the thick, rock of a man that is McKinney. He definitely isn't afraid to get physical and with his drop back speed, getting behind him would be terribly tough. Challenge him!
  • Dalvin Tomlinson, DE, Alabama: Who? Yeah, you probably haven't heard of him, but we'll just call him the bowling ball in the back. Somehow, this big bruiser played varsity soccer in high school, so he'd bring good experience to the group. Plus, having an athletic 6-2, 287-pound presence in the middle is scary.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Like Grant, I love his speed on the back wing. He can carry the ball up and create plays for himself and his teammates, plus he can hustle back if a deep ball is sent. Oh, and that tank-like build will make him tough to beat outside the box.
GOALKEEPER
  • Josh Lambo, K, Texas A&M: As a keeper myself, this was the position I had to make sure was perfect. The only kicker on the team, Lambo started playing soccer at age four and eventually played for the U.S. men's under-20 team. He was also drafted eighth overall by the MLS' FC Dallas in 2008 before making it to A&M. No-brainer, really.

Season report card: Texas A&M

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Final 2013 grades are in for the Texas A&M Aggies:

OFFENSE: A-

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel led the Texas A&M offense to high marks in 2013, but the defense let the Aggies down.
The Aggies have been in the SEC for two seasons now and have led the league in scoring offense and total offense both seasons. It's fair to say Kevin Sumlin and his staff know a little something about offensive football. Johnny Manziel, in his collegiate farewell, was once again brilliant. He did throw 13 interceptions, but he also threw 37 touchdown passes and led the SEC in total offense with an average of 374.8 yards per game. Manziel also showed his toughness and played through some serious pain the latter part of the season. Receiver Mike Evans had 12 touchdown catches and led the league by averaging 20.2 yards per catch. The Aggies didn't have what you would call a bruising running game, but they really didn't need one with Johnny Football running around and slinging it all over the field. The grade is an A- because the Aggies didn't have much pop on offense in their final two regular-season games, a 34-10 loss to LSU and a 28-21 loss to Missouri.

DEFENSE: F

Aggie fans everywhere still shudder in horror when they think about having to watch that defense (or lack of one) in 2013. There's no other way to say it: Texas A&M was awful on defense. The Aggies gave up 30 or more points in eight of their 13 games, and because they were so bad there was tremendous pressure on the offense in every game. The Aggies finished 95th nationally in scoring defense (32.2 points per game) and were 109th in the country in total defense (475.8 yards per game). With those kind of defensive numbers, it's amazing they won nine games. To their credit, they did make a couple of plays on defense late in the bowl game to secure the win over Duke. But it wasn't enough to avoid a resounding "F" for the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

While there might not have been anything spectacular on special teams, the Aggies were solid across the board. Drew Kaser led the SEC in punting with a 47.4-yard average, which included a long of 76 yards. Texas A&M finished third in the league in net punting with a 39.4-yard average, and one of the big stories of the year in College Station was sophomore Josh Lambo, a former MLS draft pick, coming on and solidifying the place-kicking position. He was 8-of-10 on field goals and booted the game-winner on the road at Ole Miss. The Aggies didn't return any kickoffs or punts for touchdowns, but they also didn't give up any. They were second in the league in kickoff coverage.

OVERALL: B-

Expectations were sky high entering the season after the Aggies won 11 games in their first season in the SEC, so losing four league games was a downer. The comeback 52-48 win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl was exciting and helps the final grade a little, but Texas A&M didn't play well down the stretch in the regular season. Even on offense, the Aggies were held to a total of 31 points in SEC losses to LSU and Missouri. Nine wins is never anything to sneeze at in the SEC, but the Aggies also started the season in the top 10 nationally. Their only win over a team that finished the season ranked in the Top 25 was against Duke. But their four losses were all to top 15 teams in the final polls. In the end, this was a season that was wasted because the defense couldn't stop anybody.

Helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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Not many bright spots for Texas A&M in its 34-10 loss to LSU on Saturday at Tiger Stadium, but as we do each week, we'll hand out a trio of helmet stickers to players who had nice days:

Derel Walker: He was the best of the receiving bunch for the Aggies on Saturday. Walker scored the Aggies' only touchdown on a 51-yard catch late in the second quarter and finished with six receptions for 130 yards, a nice 21.7 yards per catch average. Even with that, Walker could have had an even better day if he had held on to a pass from Manziel in the end zone on third-and-goal from the LSU 3 in the second quarter. But on a rough day for the A&M offense, Walker was a bright spot.

Drew Kaser: Kaser has been one of the better punters in the league and in the country this year, even though he hasn't had a ton of opportunities. On Saturday he had plenty, punting five times for 224 yards, an average of 44.8 yards per punt. He had only one punt returned, and he placed one inside the 20 and finished with a net punting average of 38 yards.

Josh Lambo: Lambo was called upon for a 41-yard field goal in the second quarter and hit it, and he also made a PAT kick. He continues to be solid in the kicking game and gives the Aggies some stability and consistency at placekicker.

A&M special teams steadily improving

November, 14, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Even though Texas A&M sophomore running back and kickoff return specialist Trey Williams had a touchdown return nullified for a penalty, special teams coordinator Jeff Banks didn't rant to Williams about the miscue. He didn't have to.

[+] EnlargeSam Moeller
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsThe Aggies special teams unit, seen here blocking a punt against Mississippi State, has come up big in recent weeks.
"I told him 'I hate it for you because you took away what a great play you made. That's punishment enough. I don't need to yell at you,'" Banks recalled telling Williams.

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 [100]-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.”

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It was a wild one at Kyle Field on Saturday when Texas A&M defeated Mississippi State 51-41. Here are three things we learned from the Aggies' third straight victory:

Still things to work on for the defense: The Aggies had their ups and downs on defense after two strong weeks leading up to the Mississippi State game. The level of competition was better, and the challenge was unique with two quarterbacks (Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott), both of whom are big guys. The Aggies gave up 299 rushing yards, 154 of which belonged to Prescott, who was effective with the read option attack. The pass rush wasn't quite what it was recently (one sack), and the Aggies lost the turnover battle, but they did have success on third down, holding the Bulldogs to just four conversions on 13 tries.

Manziel still has maturing to do as a passer: He knows it, and he admitted after the game that he can get greedy at times throwing the football. Manziel threw three interception, perhaps the most ill-advised one being the last, when he tried to force a ball to Mike Evans which was picked off by Mississippi State safety Nickoe Whitley. Manziel likes to take chances, and that's part of what makes him great, but he also can get better when it comes to learning the value of getting to the next play, instead of trying to create a big play every time.

Special teams is getting better: The Aggies got a great effort from the third phase of the game on Saturday night. They blocked a punt for the second straight week, which led to two points, and they had a kickoff return for a touchdown that was nullified when Trey Williams dove for the end zone (the dive was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct) but it led to a touchdown nonetheless. No field goal attempts for the Aggies, but Josh Lambo was perfect on PATs.

Helmet stickers: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M suffered a narrow 45-41 defeat to Auburn on Saturday at Kyle Field, and while it was a tough loss for the Aggies, there were several good performances. Let's hand out some helmet stickers:

Mike Evans: The redshirt sophomore continues to wow the college football world. He said in the spring that the winning the Biletnikoff Award was one of his goals this season, and he certainly is putting himself in position for that. It's not inconceivable for someone to make the argument that he deserves some Heisman Trophy consideration, considering how dominant he has been. On Saturday, he caught 11 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns, beating his previous school record total of 279 set against Alabama on Sept. 14.

Johnny Manziel: The Heisman Trophy winner was once again huge for the Aggies. He was 28-of-38 passing for 454 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 48 and a score (he lost 30 of those yards on two sacks on the final drive). He came back from what appeared to be a throwing shoulder injury suffered early in the fourth quarter to finish the game. He did have two first-half interceptions, but still had a tremendous overall performance.

Josh Lambo: He was perfect on point-after-touchdown kicks (5-for-5) and hit both of his field goal attempts, which were from 37 and 20 yards. It looks like the walk-on could be on his way to providing the Aggies some consistency in the kicking game, which they haven't had since Kevin Sumlin took over last year.

Lambo an unlikely hero for Texas A&M

October, 15, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The scene was one Josh Lambo might never forget.

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.

[+] EnlargeJosh Lambo
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisWalk-on kicker Josh Lambo was the Aggies' hero as he hit a 33-yard field goal to win the game vs. Ole Miss.
Aggies mauled him, screaming, yelling and jumping in joy as they reveled in the satisfaction of again escaping with a hard-fought 41-38 win over Ole Miss. They lifted Lambo into the air and as the seconds passed, coaches and players came to Lambo to hug him, congratulate him, thank him.

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."

Aggies show poise late in games

October, 14, 2013
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When Texas A&M's defense got the stop it needed to give the offense a chance to win against Ole Miss late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, players and coaches on the sideline elicited a knowing reaction.

"Everybody on the offensive side of the ball had a smile on their face," Malena said. "Especially all the coaches. They were so fiery."

They knew what was about to happen. With a tie game and the ball in the hands of one of college football's best offenses and arguably college football's best player, the coaches, players and plenty who were watching could guess what was coming: The Aggies would drive downfield and score.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel, Mike Hilton
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisJohnny Manziel added to his legend with a game-winning drive at Ole Miss.
They did, pulling out a thrilling, 41-38 road victory over the Rebels.

It was the second consecutive season that Texas A&M had to go into Oxford, Miss., and fight tooth-and-nail for a victory. In 2012, the Aggies had to crawl out of a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to escape with a 30-27 win.

What both instances showed is that the Aggies have tremendous poise when it comes to playing from behind and making plays with the game on the line.

"Championship teams know how to handle adversity," Malena said. "Just because we were down 31-24, with them having the momentum, as a championship team, you can't let that get you. Who said it was going to be easy every game? They have a great team over there, too. Hat's off to them."

There were plenty of ups and downs Saturday. From some brief uncertainty regarding the health of Johnny Manziel, to a couple of key turnovers in the second half, to a defense that struggled to get stops as Ole Miss made a charge and even a missed field goal, there were several situations that could have thrown the Aggies off course and given them their first road loss under Kevin Sumlin.

Instead, when crunch time came, the Aggies made the key plays in all three phases. The defense got a three-and-out on Ole Miss' final possession to force a punt. The offense drove downfield to put themselves in position for the winning points and, after missing an first-quarter field goal, kicker Josh Lambo drilled a 33-yarder to win it.

"I feel like our seniors and our captains, we lead by example," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Starting with Ben and Johnny, they made big plays running behind Jake Matthews and our offensive line. On defense we just stepped up. In the fourth quarter we knew we had faced a lot of adversity, but we had to step up and make plays on offense, defense and special teams to win this game."

Sumlin noted earlier in the week that last year's battle in Oxford was significant because the Aggies needed a strong effort in the second half to escape. It gave the team confidence after 2011, when Texas A&M lost five games in which they held double-digit leads.

"The year before, I wasn't here, but I heard all the stories about what had happened and the mindset that those types of football games, we wouldn't win," Sumlin said. "There was a lot of emotion after the game [in 2012] and rightfully so and there's no doubt that it helped us gain confidence as the season went on and it helped us gain confidence at a time certainly at a time when we needed it."

Now you have an A&M team that finishes strong, even when behind. Even in losses, the Aggies have stayed in games until the final minute. When the Aggies trailed No. 1 Alabama by three touchdowns on Sept. 14, they kept rallying to keep it close but lost 49-42.

That type of effort is a big reason why the Aggies are 16-3 since Sumlin took over.

"One thing I'll say about our guys: They don't quit," Sumlin said. "It's been kind of a trademark here in the last year and a half. They're going to play until the end and then we'll see what happens."

Week 7 helmet stickers

October, 13, 2013
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For the second straight season, Texas A&M had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to pull out a thrilling win in Oxford, this time escaping Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with a 41-38 win over Ole Miss on Saturday. Let's take a look at some of the standouts for the No. 9 Aggies in the win:

Johnny Manziel: What else is there to say at this point about Manziel? He was beat up, tweaking his left knee and playing the rest of the game with a brace and taking some hits from the Ole Miss defense in the fourth quarter, but he still managed 470 total offensive yards. He threw for 346 and ran for 124 and two touchdowns and led A&M on the game-winning scoring drive.

Josh Lambo: Last year, the college football world had no idea who this walk-on kicker was and now he's responsible for field goals for the Aggies. On Saturday, he delivered the biggest field goal of his career to date, putting a 33-yard attempt through the uprights as time expired to give A&M the win. The fact that Kevin Sumlin and the coaching staff was confident enough to let time tick off the clock and leave the game in the hands of Lambo speaks volumes, especially after the struggles A&M had in the kicking game with Lambo's predecessor, Taylor Bertolet.

Travis Labhart: The former walk-on did enough to earn himself a scholarship prior to this season and he has been proving his worth, contributing earlier this season on punt returns and in the passing game. On Saturday, he had career highs in catches (eight) and receiving yards (97) and led the team in both categories. His emergence was key on a night that was relatively quiet for sophomore Mike Evans (four catches, 46 yards), who was banged up against Arkansas and is still working his way toward being full strength.

Johnny Football shines bright again

October, 13, 2013
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OXFORD, Miss. -- History certainly has a funny way of repeating itself, especially when Johnny Manziel is involved.

A little more than a year ago inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Manziel did the work of a magician in the fourth quarter to erase a 10-point Ole Miss lead. Months later, he went down in the first quarter of the Missouri game with a freak injury to his left knee, only to return and roll up 439 yards of offense and five touchdowns.

Saturday, Manziel orchestrated another come-from-behind, game-winning drive in the fourth quarter against the Rebels and missed one play in the first quarter with another scary-looking injury to his left knee.

Again Manziel flashed a fashionable knee brace, and again it didn't hamper his play. All Johnny Football did was dazzle with his legs -- juking players left and right, making it seem like the brace actually made him more agile -- and arm, as he registered 346 passing yards and 124 rushing yards with two touchdowns in the Aggies' thrilling 41-38 win over Ole Miss.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisJohnny Manziel added another chapter to his legend, donning a knee brace, then dazzling at Ole Miss.
"The thing that makes him different is that he's one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.

You'd be hard-pressed to argue with Sumlin on that one. The same kid who was loathed for his off-field fun/controversy heading into the season showed once again why he's still the best player in the country. He was cool and collected when Ole Miss' rabid crowd rained boos down upon his head when he trotted out onto the field. He converted a third-and-14 with a 24-yard gain. He converted a fourth-and-7 at midfield with a 13-yard run that helped set up a fancy looking 6-yard touchdown run of his that made it 38-38 with 3:07 remaining.

In the fourth quarter, Manziel registered 177 yards of offense and a touchdown.

Neither the crowd nor his knee or even a fourth-quarter fumble could stop Manziel from playing hero/villain in the Grove on Saturday night.

"He's a funny player. He's outstanding, because I've never seen somebody who's such a gamer," said wide receiver Travis Labhart, who had eight catches for a game-high 97 yards.

"He's unreal. He's one of the best players in the country, if not the best."

There were a few anxious minutes in which the future of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner was thought to be in question. With a little more than five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Manziel fell awkwardly when his left knee buckled at the end of a pass attempt to Mike Evans. Manziel had to be helped off the field but was up and jogging on the sideline when Ole Miss' offense took the field.

Before Manziel stepped back onto the playing field, Sumlin asked if he could go back in and if he was 100 percent. Manziel had quite the answer.

"He's only got one way to do things," Sumlin said.

"If you know him, if he couldn't go 100 percent, he wasn't going to go."

On his first play back a drive later, Manziel completed a 2-yard pass to Sabian Holmes. Next, he threw a 21-yard pass to Holmes. Then, a 17-yard pass to Malcome Kennedy. His next run of the night came in the second quarter, and it went for 24 yards on third-and-14.

When the Rebels kept pace and scored, Manziel's teammates didn't flinch. They knew Manziel would get them into the end zone.

"I just never doubted. I'm always comfortable," Labhart said.

Manziel might rub people the wrong way with his lifestyle, but there's no doubting his on-field talents. He's a lightning rod for attention and controversy, but he's great for college football, and Saturday night he showed everyone why. Nothing gets to him when he's on the field. He turns on a switch and becomes Johnny Football. He makes defenders look silly with his feet and can deliver NFL throws standing tall in the pocket or on the run.

Manziel now has 2,273 yards of offense and 19 touchdowns on the season. There's a reason he won the Heisman last year, and a reason he probably should be at the top of everyone's list right now.

"Johnny's a beast, man," said Josh Lambo, who kicked the game-winning 33-yard field goal. "Week in and week out, we can expect greatness from him. It's so awesome to be a part of the team that he gets to lead out there on the field."

Assessing the Aggies after five games

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
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Texas A&M is 4-1 after its first five games of the season. The Aggies split their first two SEC games and get a brief break with an open date this weekend. With the bulk of their league schedule coming up after the off week, let's analyze where the Aggies are and what's ahead:

The good

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Mike Evans might be the best receiver in the nation and a Heisman candidate.
Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans: These two had high expectations coming into the season based on their 2012 performances, and you could argue that they have exceeded them thus far in 2013, especially Evans. The sophomore receiver is making his case to be considered among the best receivers in the country, if not the best. Only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks has more receiving yards than Evans' 691, but Evans's schedule includes Alabama, which he torched for a school-record 279 yards. Manziel ranks in the top 10 nationally in several categories, including total offense, passing efficiency, QBR, touchdowns responsible for and passing yards. He has made a concerted effort to become a better pocket passer, showing more patience when dropping back, but it hasn't taken away from his signature scrambling ability that makes him such an offensive force. If the Aggies continue to win and these two continue to play as they have, one could make the argument that both deserve to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

The offensive line and running game: There were some questions coming into the season about how the Aggies' offensive line would fare after losing Luke Joeckel to the NFL draft and center Patrick Lewis to graduation. So far, the Aggies have continued to shine in this area. The protection provided to Manziel when he passes has been stellar, and the Aggies have not had much trouble running the football, averaging 221.4 yards per game. On Saturday against Arkansas, the Aggies actually had more rushing yards than passing. And the last two weeks, we've seen the coaching staff use all four scholarship running backs (Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams) effectively. Malena continues to be a steady force, Carson has provided a hammer who can break tackles and get short yardage but is explosive enough to get chunks as well, and the Williamses are both explosive talents with a lot of speed.

Deshazor Everett: The junior defensive back has been the Aggies' best defensive player this year. Though cornerback is his usual home, he moved to safety for the last two weeks to help alleviate some issues in the secondary. He performed well in both positions, is second on the team with 31 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions, including a pick-six against Arkansas. If the Aggies had more Everetts, their defense would be better off.

Play-calling: The offensive staff, led by offensive coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney has done a solid job of ensuring the offense utilizes its many weapons. There has been plenty of balance in the play calls (Texas A&M has run the ball 202 times and attempted 179 passes), the pace of the offense remains high, and it appears the Aggies have had an answer for almost anything opposing defenses have thrown at them. The one game in which the Aggies came up short was due to two turnovers against No. 1 Alabama.

The bad

The defense: To say the Aggies have struggled defensively is an understatement. Texas A&M is 112th nationally in yards allowed per game (476.8), 109th in yards allowed per play (6.59), 107th in rushing yards allowed per game (214.8) and 94th in passing yards allowed per game (262). Some of those struggles were the result of missing personnel in the first two games because of suspensions, but that's not an excuse anymore. Alabama and Arkansas both moved the ball with relative ease against the unit. In the second half against Arkansas on Saturday, the A&M defense did show the ability to get some key stops and make a few plays, so that might be encouraging, but it will have to build on that when it faces Ole Miss on Oct. 12.

The kicking game: The Aggies had to make a change at place-kicker, removing Taylor Bertolet from PAT and field-goal duty and replacing him with walk-on Josh Lambo. The issues haven't just been with the actual kickers, but there were also a couple of botched holds in the first four games. Leaving points on the board might not cost Texas A&M against nonconference foes like Sam Houston State or SMU, but it will cost them in SEC play if it continues to happen. Is Lambo the answer? He had a solid day on Saturday against Arkansas, going 6-for-6 on PATs and hitting a 39-yard field goal. So far he's 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-8 on PATs with his only miss coming as the result of a fumbled hold.

What's ahead

Texas A&M has a chance to heal up some injuries this week, which is critical after three starters -- defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, linebacker Darian Claiborne and Evans -- got banged up. Safety Floyd Raven, who has been out with a collarbone injury, continues to make progress in hopes of a return before long.

With the meat of the SEC schedule coming up, the Aggies have to get better on defense if they hope to realize some of their season goals. The offense continues to put up 40 points per game, but if for some reason it has an off night, A&M has to be able to rely on the D to help it pull through. Aside from the kicking game, special teams has been solid overall, and if Lambo is the answer at place-kicker, that's a positive for A&M moving forward.

Perhaps most notably, the drama is behind the Aggies. The constant headlines and media circus that followed the team, specifically Manziel, is in the rearview mirror. Led by Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies handled it well and didn't allow it to distract them from the task at hand.

Five things: Texas A&M-Arkansas

September, 28, 2013
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — No. 10 Texas A&M (3-1, 0-1 SEC) comes to Razorback Stadium to face Arkansas (3-1, 0-0) at 6 p.m. tonight. Both teams are trying to claim their first SEC wins this season, so let's look at five things to watch tonight:

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?

Planning for success: Texas A&M

September, 26, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M resumes SEC play this week when it travels to Fayetteville, Ark., for a matchup with Arkansas. The No. 10 Aggies (3-1, 0-1 SEC) bounced back from their Alabama loss with a 42-13 win over SMU last week. Here are some keys for the Aggies heading into the weekend:

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's run defense will face a huge test in Arkansas and freshman running back Alex Collins.
1. Be ready for the running game: Arkansas, under new coach Bret Bielema, will look to run it right at the Aggies' defense. Most of this season, that has been a recipe for success for A&M opponents, as the Aggies rank 105th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (218.25). The good news for the Aggies is that the totals allowed have come down from week to week. After 306 rushing yards allowed to Rice, it was 240 to Sam Houston State, 234 to Alabama and a season-low 93 to SMU. If the Aggies can keep that trend going, it will be extremely helpful.

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.

'Ongoing competition' at kicker for A&M

September, 24, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The applause at Kyle Field were loud and boisterous.

After three consecutive point-after-touchdown kick attempts failed in Texas A&M's 42-13 win over SMU on Saturday, the volume level of the exuberant Aggies when Josh Lambo put one through the uprights with 11:34 remaining in the third quarter were nearly as high as it was when running back Ben Malena put six points on the board right before it.

Such is the life of the Texas A&M kicking game right now, where every point is appreciated.

Lambo, a sophomore walk-on, is now in what coach Kevin Sumlin called Tuesday an "ongoing competition," for placekicking duties with former starter Taylor Bertolet.

The transition took place on Saturday when the Aggies struggled on extra points. Bertolet missed consecutive attempts in the first half, reminiscent of his struggles in 2012 when he was 67-of-74 on PATs and 13-of-22 on field goal attempts. He is 23-of-26 this season on PATs and 2-of-3 on field goal attempts, with his lone miss being a 31-yarder against Sam Houston State.

After an inconsistent season in 2012 and some early struggles in the Aggies' first four games, the coaching staff decided to try someone new in Lambo, who competed with Kyle Serres during training camp.

"What we're doing is based on competition," Sumlin said Tuesday. "The ability to play in games and based on how you compete during practice and your success rate during practice, so that's where we are.

"That will continue to be the case. It won't change this week or next week. That's a work in progress. I think there's some things that both guys do that are positive, but in this business, life pays off on results, so that's where it is."

Lambo's first PAT attempt Saturday failed because of a fumbled snap by holder/punter Drew Kaser, but he connected on his next attempt as well as a 40-yard field goal late in the third quarter against SMU. Struggles with the hold is also something seen earlier this season.

"Drew's had a couple of those. ... The whole operation has to work," Sumlin said of the kicking game. "Those are things people take for granted. It's like any other position, where you have dropped balls -- concentration is part of that. We'll get that fixed and get that addressed. Like I said, competition is good for everybody."

Bertolet continued to handle kickoffs, as he has since last season. But at least for now, it looks like he has company in the kicking game in Lambo, a Middleton, Wis., product who transferred to A&M from Collin College.

"We're going to keep the competition up just like we do at every position," Sumlin said after Saturday's game. "The guys who compete earn the spot. Lambo came in and did a good job [Saturday]."

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