Texas A&M Aggies: Laquvionte Gonzalez
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.
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.
With Mike Evans gone, the Aggies are looking for their next star at the position, one that has seen records broken several times in the last few years.
There is a lot of talent among the Texas A&M receivers, but it is mostly unproven and inexperienced talent. With spring football underway, the Aggies coaches have a chance to discuss and dissect the multitude of openings they have at wide receiver.
The most productive returning receiver is veteran Malcome Kennedy. He is the lone returning starter, having hauled in 60 passes for 658 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Beaty has praised Kennedy's work ethic and leadership before, and Kennedy emerged as a reliable target for Manziel last season.
Now it's about figuring out who the starters will be, which eight receivers will occupy the two-deep and who will separate themselves from the pack. One player most people seem excited to have back in the fold is redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones, who sat out most of last season with a knee injury he suffered in the season-opening win over Rice.
"Getting him back healthy is a blessing for us," Beaty said. "The guy’s got unlimited potential. We really needed him back. I look for him to make huge waves for us."
Through two practices so far, coaches say the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Seals-Jones doesn't appear to show any ill effects from knee surgery.
"He looks good to me out there," offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. "He's a big target and he's obviously going to bring a whole other element to what we're trying to do. He can stretch the field vertically, and he's very big and physical on the perimeter."
Perhaps the most exciting name to Aggies fans among the receiver group is one of the newest: five-star recruit Speedy Noil. Ranked as the nation's No. 1 athlete prospect in the 2014 ESPN 300, he is already drawing positive reviews from teammates and coaches in his short time on campus.
Beaty called Noil “the best receiver in the country” in the 2014 recruiting class.
“As explosive as anybody I've ever seen,” Beaty said. “Combination of strength, speed and explosiveness. Really smart guy.”
One player who could emerge as an option at outside receiver is redshirt freshman Kyrion Parker. At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Parker has several physical gifts.
"This guy is as talented as any receiver I've ever had," Beaty said. "He's got to grow up and mature, and I've watched him do that before my eyes. He's starting to grow into his own. I look for great things from him in the future. He does things that other people can't do. He's big, he's strong, he's fast, he's got great hand-eye coordination. He can go get the ball deep. He's a better route runner than Mike [Evans] probably was at this point in his career."
There is also an assortment of receivers who received modest playing time last season at varying levels: LaQuvionte Gonzalez (21 catches, 240 yards), Edward Pope (nine catches, 65 yards) and JaQuay Williams (four catches, 71 yards). Any of the three could be factors this fall.
“LaQuvionte Gonzalez grew up a ton this year,” Beaty said. “You'd like to redshirt a guy like that, but we weren't able to. He was a guy that benefited from it. ... I think you're going to see him do some great things.
“JaQuay Williams, another really good talent that can do a lot of great things and has come a long way from the time he got here at this time last year. Ed Pope, another guy that I'm looking for to step up and compete. He's got to do a better job of putting on weight and getting really serious about this because there are some real guys here now.”
With so many inexperienced receivers and only one real seasoned veteran in Kennedy, head coach Kevin Sumlin said getting all of these players as much work as possible is the most important part of spring for the receiver group.
“Reps, reps, reps,” Sumlin said. “Reps right now are as important as anything.”
When it comes to figuring out which of the above names are going to emerge as prominent players, Beaty said it’s simple to figure out.
“Here's what's going to happen: The serious, committed guys, those guys will rise to the top,” Beaty said. “The ones that are here just kind of messing around, those guys will drop to the bottom. There are just too many good players here now.”
In each of the last three seasons, one of Texas A&M's receivers exited after rewriting the record books.
In 2011, Jeff Fuller put his name atop the list several A&M receiving categories: single-season receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, and he established career records in all three.
In 2012, it was Ryan Swope. He left Aggieland as the school's career leader in catches and receiving yards and was its single-season leader in both categories.
After 2013, Mike Evans declared for early entry into the NFL draft and left the Aggies having broken Swope's single-season mark in both single-season receiving yards and single-game receiving yards, and he tied Fuller for the single-season record for touchdown receptions.
As 2014 approaches, the Aggies will be looking for their next great receiver. When spring practice begins later this month, competition begins for the right to be the go-to guy in the wide-open Aggies offense.
There will be fierce competiton this spring at the outside receiver positions. Sophomores Edward Pope and JaQuay Williams each return after playing a backup role at outside receiver last season. There is also a redshirt freshman, Kyrion Parker, who could quickly become a factor.
Pope had nine catches for 65 yards last season -- including the memorable reception at the end of Johnny Manziel's Houdini act to escape a sack attempt by Alabama's Jeoffrey Pagan on Sept. 14 -- and appeared in nine games last season. Williams had four catches for 71 yards and a touchdown while playing in 10 games last season.
A key figure to watch will be Ricky Seals-Jones. The Aggies had high hopes for his freshman season, but those were derailed by a knee injury that cut his season short. He showed a brief glimpse of his ability with a 71-yard touchdown catch in the season-opening win against Rice and did enough in preseason training camp to earn practice time with the first team. If not for the injury, Seals-Jones appeared poised to be a contributor last season.
Much of his practice time was spent as an inside receiver last fall, though he did get some experience lining up outside, too. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he has size similar to that of Evans, so he would make sense as the potential option at Evans' old position should the Aggies choose to go that way. But he appears versatile enough to line up anywhere. If the Aggies like the matchup problems he gives defenses, he could be again seeing time as an inside receiver. Where he lines up and how often will be worth watching in the spring.
Most of the other Aggies' young receivers on campus, including LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Jeremy Tabuyo, freshman Speedy Noil and junior Sabian Holmes, all appear to be inside receiver types, so it's unlikely any of them will take Evans' place on the field.
When it comes to production, Malcome Kennedy, a veteran who spent his time as an inside receiver last season, is the returning statistical leader among the Aggies' receivers. After a 60-catch, 658-yard season in which he caught seven touchdowns, it stands to reason he could see an increase in production, but does that also mean he'll become the go-to guy in the offense next season while remaining an inside receiver?
In addition to Noil, an incoming freshman already on campus, junior college transfer Joshua Reynolds (also a mid-term enrollee), 6-foot-7 receiver Frank Iheanacho and 5-foot-8 prospect Jamal Jeffery will also join the fray in 2014. Iheanacho and Jeffery won't be on campus until the summer, but Reynolds will get a chance to prove if he's worthy of early playing time when the Aggies begin spring practice.
In this offense, it's sometimes difficult to know who will emerge. Nobody had Travis Labhart on their radar at this time last year -- especially after he broke his collarbone in spring practice -- yet the former walk-on wound up being a key member of the receiving corps with 51 receptions for 626 yards and eight touchdowns while filling in at all four receiver spots in the offense.
The position battles at all four receiver spots -- not just Evans' outside receiver spot -- will be among the intriguing things to watch when the Aggies begin spring drills at the end of the month.
You can’t leave the Big 12 and compete in the SEC.
You can’t win with Kevin Sumlin, a coach off a successful stint at Houston in mid-major conference play.
You can’t outrecruit your archrival Texas. You can’t win. Period.
For every negative critique, Texas A&M has managed to silence the doubters. With everything positive that’s happened with the Aggies the last two seasons, this year’s recruiting class may be the biggest accolade next to winning back-to-back bowl games under Sumlin. With 21 commits – including 10 ESPN 300 players -- Texas A&M has the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, just behind Alabama.
The freshmen continue to grow: Linebacker Darian Claiborne had another strong performance (team-high 12 tackles, forced fumble). Defensive tackle Isaiah Golden continued to make strides, as did defensive need Daeshon Hall. Receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez got in on the action with a 57-yard reception. The Aggies are finding that they can rely on some of these young players to come up big as the season wears on.
The defense is gaining confidence: Yes, the Aggies have faced two backup quarterbacks in as many weeks, but if there's anything this unit needed badly, it was confidence. After the struggles against Auburn, where the Aggies allowed 379 rushing yards and 615 total yards, it seemed like it might never get better for the much-maligned unit. But the Aggies, who had trouble stopping even an FCS team earlier this year, have definitely made strides on defense. On Saturday, they held UTEP to 198 yards and came up with four turnovers.
Johnny Manziel's feeling all right: He didn't scramble much last week against Vanderbilt because of an injured shoulder (and there weren't called runs in the game plan) but on Saturday he cut it loose and ran for 67 yards and two touchdowns. The first touchdown run appeared to be a called run play and the second was a 49-yarder that brought back memories of the 2012 version of Manziel, zigging and zagging through opposing defenses.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has a saying that is echoed by his players, especially at this time of the season.
"It's about us."
The message is clear and self-explanatory. And if the Aggies are going to do what they hope to -- win out the remainder of the season -- Sumlin wants them to take heed of those three words.
And while their own preseason goals -- an SEC championship and a run at a BCS national championship -- are out the window, there are still things left for Texas A&M to play for. If the Aggies win the remainder of their games, who knows? They might just sneak their way into their first BCS bowl since 1998.
The final three-game stretch is a challenging one. The Aggies host Mississippi State next weekend, then are off the following week before the difficulty level ramps up with trips to LSU and Missouri to close out the season. Both of those teams are still playing for a chance to go to Atlanta to play in the SEC title game, and in order to knock them off in their respective stadiums, the Aggies will have to put together a complete game, for four quarters -- something they really haven't done yet this season.
But in the past two weeks, in a 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt and on Saturday in the blowout win over UTEP, the Aggies have begun inching closer to playing that type of game. Throughout the first seven games, the defense was mostly poor while the offense carried the load. Special teams had issues, too, as the Aggies battled an inconsistent situation at place-kicker before moving Josh Lambo into the role, one that he has taken and run with.
The past two weeks, the Aggies defense has performed admirably. It had probably its best all-around performance against the Commodores, and on Saturday, against a much weaker opponent, the Aggies really only had one bad drive on defense, the nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that gave the Miners an early 7-2 lead.
UTEP, which came into the game without starting quarterback Jameill Showers (shoulder injury), couldn't move the ball with consistency against A&M when the Aggies began to rack up points. On top of that, A&M's defense was ball-hawking in the second stanza, coming up with three turnovers. The offense turned those into 21 points and blew the game open. UTEP finished with just 198 total yards, and life was understandably difficult with backup Blaire Sullivan running the offense. Still, this is an Aggies defense that had trouble stopping virtually everybody earlier this season.
"We've been having great practices the last few weeks," junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury said. "Also, I think it has to do with confidence. You have to have confidence in yourself and in your team to have a great game."
While the defense has stepped up its efforts the last two weeks, the offense has had its hiccups. Last week it was bitten by the turnover bug, giving the ball away four times. On Saturday against the Miners, the Aggies seemed out of sync in the first quarter. Quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans couldn't get on the same page, though opportunities were there. The Aggies punted twice in the first quarter -- a rarity for them in any single frame.
What began as a snoozer with Texas A&M's offense sputtering turned into a rout with an explosive second quarter by the Aggies, who outscored UTEP 27-0 in the second quarter to take a commanding 36-7 halftime lead. From there, no doubt remained of the outcome as Manziel led two more scoring drives in the third quarter before calling it a night, after throwing for four touchdowns and running for two, including an impressive 49-yarder that looked like the 2012 version of Manziel.
The A&M special teams started well, meanwhile, blocking a punt that led to a safety and giving the Aggies an early 2-0 lead. But the unit had its issues, too. Punter Drew Kaser, who serves as the holder on point-after-touchdown kicks and field goals, bobbled a snap, which left a point off the board. Freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez also muffed a punt in the second half, though the game was well in hand.
Those are issues that have to be rectified if the Aggies hope to close out the final three-game stretch with three wins. They still haven't put a good performance from all three phases together on one night, though they might be inching closer to doing so.
"It's hard to say, when you win 57-7, to say that you didn't play a complete game," Sumlin said. "As a coach, there's some positives there. Our guys understand that we can be better than we were tonight."
As the Texas A&M sophomore dominates defensive backs weekly, defensive coordinators shift their game plans to pay more attention to the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans. Rightfully so, because if proper attention isn't paid, he'll make opponents pay, as he did to Auburn (287 receiving yards, four touchdowns) or No. 1 Alabama (279 receiving yards). In eight games, Evans has nearly matched his 2012 season-long receiving yardage total with 1,101 yards (he had 1,105 in 2012) and has more than doubled his touchdown total from last year's 13-game campaign (11 this season after five in 2012).
Other than Evans, this year's crop of receivers was a mix of returnees who have received only modest or no playing time and a batch of newcomers, as the Aggies signed six receivers in their 2013 recruiting class.
So far, the Aggies seem to be finding contributors.
The most consistent of the supporting cast has been junior Malcome Kennedy. Best known for catching the Aggies' final touchdown in their 29-24 upset win over Alabama in 2012, he is second to Evans with 43 receptions, 447 yards and four touchdowns. Kennedy has provided a consistent, middle-of-the-field target for Johnny Manziel this season, stepping into Swope's old 'Y' receiver position.
From week to week, the players who have emerged have varied. Senior Derel Walker (30 catches, 414 yards, two touchdowns) appears to have an increasing role in the offense as an outside receiver, with at least four catches in three of the last four games, including two touchdowns against Vanderbilt. Senior Travis Labhart has emerged lately, catching 20 passes in his last three games after only three receptions in the first five games of the season.
Early in the season, sophomore Sabian Holmes was targeted several times and a true freshman, Ricky Seals-Jones, had a smashing debut against Rice before a knee injury ended his season.
"That's what our philosophy is based on," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We need good players at all those positions instead of just one. Otherwise you get the double team and then, 'Now what?' We've got good running backs that can catch it out of the backfield and put pressure on you that way, but in order to be a complete offense we've got to get production from our other receivers."
The Aggies got that against Vanderbilt, with Kennedy hauling in a team-high eight passes, Evans catching five and Walker with four. As the season wears on, even more players are finding themselves in the mix, such as true freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez. Though most of the time he has seen has been on special teams as a kick returner or running fly sweeps, Gonzalez got into the mix on Saturday and caught four passes for 52 yards and his first career touchdown. With his speed and quickness, he has the look of someone who will fit nicely in the offense moving forward.
And, as Sumlin noted, running backs are a factor in the passing game as well.
"We've got a number of guys that we feel good about going in and out of the game and we need to have that this time of year," Sumlin said. "Because of what we do, all those guys have to be able to execute the offense, catch the ball, hang on to it, because you can't play one guy the way we go up and down the field. We had 78 snaps [Saturday]. We've got to be able to develop some depth, and I'm pleased with how those guys have come along."
Righting the ship on D: This is a real opportunity for the Aggies to have a strong defensive performance. Though they've struggled, the Aggies are deeper and have a more talented roster than SMU. Though the same could be said in the Aggies' first two games, they were hamstrung by not having all of their available personnel because of suspensions. They're in the bottom 20 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game and total yards allowed per game. If the Aggies don't start finding their footing this week at home against a non-conference foe that's not the caliber of most SEC teams, it's a huge concern to take into the rest of their SEC schedule, which begins next week at Arkansas.
Meeting of innovative minds: Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff are familiar with the faces on the opposite sideline, particularly SMU head coach June Jones and offensive coordinator Hal Mumme. Jones and Sumlin squared off annually when the two were coaching in Conference USA and Mumme is considered the godfather of the "Air Raid" scheme from which many of the offensive principles that A&M uses originate from. Jones is an old Run-and-Shoot coach, so bringing Jones and Mumme together is an intriguing mix.
Home sweet home: The Aggies have yet to leave Kyle Field this season. The SMU game will serve as their fourth consecutive home game. The Aggies have eight this year, but hit the road for two games after this weekend. Since Sumlin took over, the Aggies haven't lost on the road; all three losses have come at home. Still, you won't hear the coaches or players complaining; they prefer playing in front of the 12th Man. Plus, they're doing so in front of a team they beat 48-3 in Dallas last year, so there's no upset alert here, barring unforeseen circumstances.
Key injuries: Texas A&M will be without freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, who had knee surgery on Saturday, and safety Floyd Raven (collarbone), who was injured in Week 2 against Sam Houston State. Seals-Jones showed promise in the season opener, catching a 71-yard touchdown pass, but the Aggies have a lot of receiving options, so one of their other young freshmen such as LaQuvionte Gonzalez or Jeremy Tabuyo could see increased action in Seals-Jones' absence. Raven missed last week's game against Alabama and the Aggies are thin at free safety. Clay Honeycutt is the starter and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said this week that they are experimenting with shifting cornerback Deshazor Everett to safety. Everett spent time at both corner and safety last season when the Aggies were looking to solve depth issues in the secondary, so it's something he's familiar with.
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.
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."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M held its regularly scheduled weekly news conference on Tuesday in advance of its season opener against Rice on Saturday. While many wonder about the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel, there are other things to keep an eye on. Here are five storylines facing the Aggies as they await the Owls at Kyle Field:
1. Will Manziel play?
That's what Texas A&M fans and much of the college football wants to know: will Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel start on Saturday for Texas A&M? The question remains unanswered officially. Athletic director Eric Hyman released a statement on Monday evening indicated that he instructed the coaching staff and players to not comment on Manziel's status. When Kevin Sumlin was asked about it on Tuesday he said "We're not discussing that....I can't talk about how that decision is going to be made and what goes into that decision. I said from day one, the first day [of training camp], that there will be a lot of people involved in that decision. So what goes into how that decision's made, obviously I can't discuss." So for now, the wait continues.
2. What if Manziel doesn't play?
At this point, the Aggies turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill. Both received praise from coaches and teammates alike on Tuesday. Senior running back Ben Malena said he believes the team will be comfortable with whoever is taking snaps on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said offensively, the Aggies would still remain the same. Joeckel brings the presence of a pocket passer who has already spent a year learning the offense while Hill is a dual threat who can run and throw and has had to learn the offense quickly. But on Tuesday, the Aggies appeared confident in both of them should either be pressed into duty.
3. New faces
Sumlin advised fans attending Saturday's game to "buy a program or bring a flip card," because of how many newcomers will see time on the field. Of the 31 players who signed with the Aggies in February, Sumlin said he expects at least 10 to play a role this season, and perhaps as many as 15. Some of the notable newcomers to look for on Saturday include freshmen receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and LaQuvionte Gonzalez, tight end Cameron Clear, who was a juco transfer, linebacker Tommy Sanders -- also a juco transfer -- and true freshman linebacker Shaan Washington. Look for even more newcomers to get looks on special teams, including some of the aforementioned names.
4. Missing personnel
There are suspensions facing three defensive players: senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, junior cornerback Deshazor Everett and junior safety Floyd Raven, all three of whom had off-the-field legal trouble this offseason. Ennis and Raven will miss the entire game; Everett will miss a half. Ennis is a starter, so that means you could see a true freshman -- either Isaiah Golden or Hardreck Walker -- in his place when the Aggies go to four defensive linemen. In place of Everett, also a starter, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies will rotate cornerbacks. Expect to see a heavy dose of Tramain Jacobs but possibly some freshmen such as Alex Sezer, Victor Davis or Tavares Garner as possibilities.Raven isn't listed as the starter at free safety like he was coming out of spring football. Instead, it's junior Clay Honeycutt, who Snyder was complimentary of on Tuesday. Honeycutt, a former high school quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High, has come a long way according to Snyder and has earned himself the start against Rice.
Also of note, running back Brandon Williams [foot surgery] might be limited. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said "I wouldn't expect to see a lot from Brandon on Saturday."
5. Familiar foes
The Aggies and Owls haven't met on the field since the Southwest Conference folded in 1995, as both teams were part of the now-defunct league, but the coaching staffs do have recent history. David Bailiff is in his seventh season at Rice, a rival of Houston, where Sumlin was the head coach for four seasons (2008-2011). Snyder also stood on a sideline opposite Bailiff when Snyder was the head coach at Marshall from 2005-09. Sumlin's staff also recruited Rice starting quarterback Taylor McHargue when Sumlin was with the Cougars. So there is plenty of familiarity, at least in terms of coaching staffs, between the two squads.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Just like the quarterback for whom he became a favorite target, Mike Evans was a relative unknown outside of Aggieland at this time a year ago.
A redshirt freshman without much organized football under his belt -- he played just a year of varsity football at Ball High in Galveston, Texas -- Evans became much more well known to the college football world as Johnny Manziel's favorite target in 2012.
This spring, Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital used a unique term to describe what Evans -- who led the Aggies with 82 receptions and 1,105 receiving yards in 2012 -- became to the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
"I call him his 'Panic guy,' " Spavital said. "When you're in a panic, you turn and you find Mike Evans and throw it at him. And he did a lot of that last year."
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Evans won't surprise anybody this season, as opponents are now well aware of what he can do. Whether it was making a clutch catch to help the Aggies pull out a comeback win at Ole Miss, using his physicality to stiff-arm his way past smaller defensive backs or simply becoming a consistent option for Manziel, the sophomore receiver is looking to build off a strong first season.
And yes, he can get better, according to his coaches. That's not an ideal thought for opposing secondaries.
"Probably the biggest thing for himself [that he can improve] is route running," receivers coach David Beaty said. "Just the art of route running and understanding how to control that big ole body and play with bent knees, his posture being a little bit lower, really being able to use that tool, playing lower and creating more explosiveness."
Beaty would like to see Evans improve near the goal line as well.
"With his 6-5 frame, we need more production from him down by the red zone," Beaty said. "He should be a human red-zone highlight film himself. We need him to step up and do that, along with the rest of the guys -- it's not just going to be Mike. But we've got to be able to throw it up to that big sucker and have him come down with it."
Aside from Evans, there are openings for three starters at receiver because of graduation.
The heir apparent to Ryan Swope, who was the team's second-leading receiver last year and leader in touchdown receptions, is junior Malcome Kennedy.
Perhaps best known for making the touchdown catch that gave the Aggies their final points in a 29-21 upset win at No. 1 Alabama, Kennedy is the new starter at Swope's old 'Y' receiver position, which is essentially the slot receiver to the right side of the offensive formation. Kennedy's goals are clear.
"Being a playmaker," he said. "I made a few plays last year, but people only saw a few of them: the Alabama play and a few plays against Missouri. I'm ready to be a go-to guy. The position that I play, the 'Y' for Texas A&M, that's the go-to man."
Senior Derel Walker, who had an impressive spring game, has been working as the first-team outside receiver opposite Evans during preseason training camp and could be the starter there. Beaty called Walker the "brightest surprise" of his group since spring. At the other slot position opposite Kennedy, sophomore Sabian Holmes has received much of the first-team work in camp after playing part time last season as a true freshman.
And the six freshmen who were part of the Aggies' top-10 recruiting class that signed in February are making their presence felt as well. One in particular that has caught the eye of almost everyone during camp is former Sealy (Texas) High School standout Ricky Seals-Jones.
If there's anyone on the Aggies roster that could compare to Evans in body type it's Seals-Jones, whom Evans called "bigger" than him earlier this month. At 6-5 and now 240 pounds, Seals-Jones was an ESPN 300 selection who was ranked as the No. 8 receiver in the country coming out of high school.
"The guy's all muscle," strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson said. "This guy is 18 years old and he looks like a grown man. Chest, abs, everywhere there are muscles. I just have to make sure for 70, 80, 90 snaps that he can keep rolling."
Head coach Kevin Sumlin said that Seals-Jones, who has practiced a lot as the 'Y' with the second team, will get plenty of playing time.
"He's got real ability," Sumlin said. "He's very athletic, but he's got to learn the nuances of the position. He's seeing a lot of different blitzes; we're throwing things at him. I think with Malcome in there right now, it's giving us some flexibility that he doesn't have to start right away. We can kind of bring him along, which is good with him. But he's definitely going to have a role in our three and four-wide and maybe even some two-wide package, but he's got real talent and he's working on it.
"He's big and he's fast and he's got real good hands."
LaQuvionte Gonzalez, a quick, versatile weapon out of Cedar Hill, Texas, who was also an ESPN 300 recruit, figures to have a role. So does four-star signee Ja'Quay Williams out of Georgia. And the Aggies figure to use more tight ends in their attack this season with the return of senior Nehemiah Hicks and the addition of 6-foot-7, 270-pound Cameron Clear out of Arizona Western College.
If training camp is any indication, Manziel will have plenty of quality targets in addition to Evans this fall.
1. Clarity in the quarterback situation?
If we're to make a judgment based on how repetitions played out in Saturday's scrimmage, Hill looks to have a real shot at the job. He was the only one of the three to play a series with the first-team offense, something he did twice on Saturday, which is notable. Earlier in the week, quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said that Hill was getting extra reps because he wasn't as experienced in the offense as Joeckel and Davis, thus he needs them. So keep that in mind.
Joeckel led two lengthy scoring drives, while Davis' two series were brief three-and-outs. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel got plenty of time with the first team, but his playing status is still unclear amid an NCAA investigation. When asked if the school was any closer to a decision on whether Manziel will play Aug. 31, Sumlin said it's "probably no different than it was the first time we talked about it."
2. Key injury
Starting cornerback Deshazor Everett was on the sideline in street clothes with a wrap around his right hand. The injury? A broken thumb, according to Sumlin. The head coach wouldn't comment on whether Everett is expected to miss any game time because of the injury. A decision on his status (as well as that of safety Floyd Raven's) is still pending after both had offseason arrests. Sumlin said on Thursday that he still needs to visit with athletic director Eric Hyman regarding a decision on what, if any, further disciplinary action will be taken with Everett and Raven.
3. Defense progressing
With a lot of newcomers or players playing in new, more prominent roles, there are a lot of questions on defense. If Saturday's scrimmage is any indication, there's progress being made on that side of the football. The defense was able to generate pressure on the quarterback and even come up with two turnovers when Manziel was running the show. Steven Jenkins made an interception, newcomer at linebacker Tommy Sanders recovered a fumble and returned it for what would have been a score if not blown dead and defensive end Tyrone Taylor came up with a pair of sacks.
4. Receivers emerging
Sumlin said, "He has come light years since last summer. ... He continued to build confidence down the stretch and became a real leader for us this summer. I think you can see the confidence that he has playing and the confidence that the quarterbacks have in him."
Also, true freshman LaQuvionte Gonzalez wowed the fans on hand by making some nice moves and showing off some speed on a 40-yard reception.
5. Mixed bag on special teams
Placekicker Taylor Bertolet is still recovering from offseason surgery (special teams coach Jeff Banks said earlier in the week that he has no concerns whether Bertolet will be ready for the season opener on Aug. 31), so Josh Lambo and Kyle Serres have been competing at that spot. Lambo got the lion's share of the work on Saturday, and Sumlin called the kicking game "spotty." Point-after-touchdown kicks were fine, but Lambo was 2-for-5 on field goals.
On the flip side, the punting by Drew Kaser drew rave reviews, as he boomed about four punts. "We're working on coverage, because of how far he's punting the ball," Sumlin said. "I'm not complaining."
In the punt return game, cornerback De'Vante Harris showed off some nice moves. He's one of several competing for that job.
No matter how good you are -- or how good you’re expected to be -- it’s tough as a sophomore to get top billing over two SEC signees and a Big 12 signee. Add in Nevada signee Travis Wilson, and Lodge knew he’d be lucky to get touches early. Collectively, the four signees caught 191 of Cedar Hill's 210 completed passes and helped it advance to the Texas Class 5A Division II championship game in 2012.
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After moving to the Houston-area with his family after a memorable run to the Class 4A Divison II state championship game last fall with Lancaster (Texas) High School, the spring semester has been about adjustments -- to new surroundings, new teammates, new friends, a new life.
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Going back to his time at Houston, Sumlin has long been a "best players play" coach, regardless of age or experience. If a player can help his team win and does the right things, that player will see the field.
So it stands to reason that more than one freshman will have an impact this fall. But who will have the greatest impact?
Several true freshmen who have a chance to impact the Aggies are already on campus -- linebackers Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade, defensive tackle Jordan Points, cornerback Alex Sezer and receiver Ja'Quay Williams -- but for this exercise we'll look at only those who aren't yet on campus.
The candidates are still plentiful. At defensive tackle, the Aggies could use more depth. ESPN 150 defensive tackle Justin Manning and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Isaiah Golden are prime candidates to make an impact. ESPN 300 cornerback Noel Ellis is a tremendous playmaker in the return game and in the secondary, though the Aggies do have more returning starters in the defensive backfield than any position group on defense. At defensive end, the Aggies are searching for someone to help replace the production of Damontre Moore. Could Jay Arnold or Daeshon Hall help in that role next season? Perhaps.
But the one place where it stands to reason that there will be spots up for grabs and several incoming freshmen to battle for them is receiver. The Aggies only return one starter from last season's quartet (Mike Evans), so there are other spots up for grabs for takers.
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Saturday's top plays in the SEC
12:00 PM ET Eastern Kentucky Florida 12:00 PM ET Charleston Southern 10 Georgia 12:00 PM ET South Alabama South Carolina 3:30 PM ET 8 Ole Miss Arkansas 4:00 PM ET Western Carolina 1 Alabama 7:00 PM ET Samford 14 Auburn 7:30 PM ET 20 Missouri Tennessee 7:30 PM ET Vanderbilt 4 Mississippi State